A Day Full of Presence: Smilovichi, Bobruisk, Bychov

We left Minsk and headed to Bobruisk, but on the way, we made a side trip to Smilovichi.  You would be forgive for asking why one would stop in Smilovichi.  In case you were wondering, this small town in the middle of Belarus is one of the few remaining places that still has a street named after Bund (Jewish socialist party) revolutionary and one-time attempted assassin of a tsarist official, Hirsh Lekert. While widespread in the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic before World War II, most post Soviet Belarussian cities, while still hanging onto Lenin, Marx, and Proletariat Streets, have since changed the Lekert street names. But not in Smilovichi (which we knew thanks to google maps, which led us to four towns with Lekert streets). That said, the folks in town who lived on Lekert Street had no idea who he was.

Lekert Street, Smilovichi, Belarus
Helix on Lekert Street

Arriving in Bobruisk, we were joined by a local town guide, who took us to a ruined fort. Local town guides generally like to take tourists to a city’s main attractions–forts, churches, etc.  Helix, however, had its own highly scripted itinerary, which was communicated to everyone we encountered, but on occasion, the local guides went rogue.  Then, after our fort visit in the driving rain, we went to meet living Jews at a Chabad synagogue.  Although Chabad is ubiquitous in post-Communist Europe, in these parts, on occasion, contemporary Chabad is reanimating historic Chabad, in the case of Bobruisk by claiming the historic Chabad synagogue and yeshiva, the latter of which is the contemporary Jewish center.  What was troubling, however, was the fact that across the street from the active Chabad yeshiva-turned-synagogue, the first we had been to in Belarus, were ruins of the Litvak synagogue and yeshiva of Bobruisk.  The historic debates between Hasidim and their opponents, Mitnagdim, seems to live on in today’s Belarus. Upon departure, representatives of Chabad gave us three boxes of matzah. We said thank you.

Our next stop was the girls’ gimnazie (high school) where many well-known Jewish cultural activists studied including Rachel Katsnelson, whose “Language Wanderings נדודי לשון,” a classic essay for those who studied Jewish literature and culture, we read in the courtyard.  As we sat in the courtyard of a contemporary high school in Bobruisk, I was amazed to be reading her words of wrestling with languages sitting at the school where she likely sat right where we were studying and wrestling with languages.

Chabad Yeshiva and contemporary Jewish community center, Bobruisk
Rub the cow for good luck.

Lunch, then pouring rain (this was a theme of Helix’s first week in country) and then onto Bychov, our tour guide Lucy’s hometown. She got us into a 17th century synagogue, known as the “fortress synagogue” for its 6ft thick walls and high windows for the community’s and the town’s protection in case of war. The roof was half collapsed and pigeons had taken over. But two locals let us into the ruined, majestic building. We stared at the soaring walls and then we sang Khuliet, listened to the sounds of pigeons flapping their wings and cooing overhead. I contemplated the fact that an “abandoned building,” what in the U.S. would become an object of desire for developers, has become such a natural part of the landscape that it was now an integral part of town known as a “ruin,” a formal designation on tourist maps.

17th century “Fortress Synagogue,” largest in Belarus. Now an official ruin in Bychov.
Bychov synagogue
Today’s residents of the synagogue…pigeons!
Lucy and her mom, who lives up the street from the synagogue in Bychov.
Our voices fill the synagogue with the words of “khuliet,” a song, which implores the powers that be to drive the birds from here.
Guess who? Lenin in Bychov, and the Radical Jewish Traveler taking up Putin’s challenge of taking selfies at Lenin statues.

More rain, oh and many migrating storks all over the place. There was something magical about spotting such odd birds in the Belarussian countryside. More rain, then onto Mogilev, Mahilau or Molev, what I presumed would be an ugly Soviet provincial town but which proved to be the most picturesque of cities we had visited today, perched high on the banks of the Dnepr rRver with central European style and a lovely hotel with stable wifi and an amazing spa. Kudos to the hotel.

We had dinner at a turn-of-the-century fire house with live music that got us all dancing, evening debrief with the group, and a welcome dip in the swimming pool.

Of note for the day, we met our tour guide’s mother who is very proud of her daughter; we read the poetry of Celia Dropkin, who was also from Bobriusk, on the bus, and engaged each other in laughter, music, and even some tears.

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