Mogilev and Shklov, A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Today’s tale of two cities began with a walking tour of Mogilev. The city hall overlooks the Dnepr River and marks the site where Tsar Nicholas II was arrested by the Provisional Government in March 1917. Therefore, as a way of marking the moment, on the spot of his arrest, we sang the Yiddish anarchist song Daloi politsei (Down with the police, down with autocracy in Russia). But the song includes the line “er zol geyn in der erd,” which our beloved leader Rob Adler Peckerar translated as “Fuck the tsar.” From there, we walked to central Mogilev to visit the newly opened “Ark” Jewish community center, which gets 80 people for Passover and 100 for Yom Kippur. Mogilev has about 2000-5000 Jews. I’ll let you decide the significance of that statistic. I collected another yarmulke there, as I had done at Bobruisk and would continue to do whenever I entered an active Jewish community.  I did so, because they are all religious institutions, which insist that men cover their heads, which means that they all have boxes of yarmulkes (kippot) by the door with a snazzy logo.  So kippah collecting was a way of marking my passage through contemporary Jewish Belarus.  

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Mogilev State Theater opposite our hotel.
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Reading the Yiddish play, Yankl der shmid or Jacob the Metalsmith by Dovid Pinsky, who was born and raised in Mogilev..
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Mogilev central square and a monument marking the 12 signs of the zodiac.
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Mogilev’s historic “kalte shul,” or “cold synagogue.”
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Kalte shul
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Kalte shul
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Searching amidst the ruins

We also ended up at the kalte shul, the “cold synagogue,” by the banks of the Dnepr River.  What once was a grand synagogue of the town of Mogilev today is an official city ruin, in which many in our group found shards of pottery, tilework, and other artifacts of the synagogue’s heyday.

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From there, a group of us had lunch in a Soviet style stolovaya or cafeteria at the city building and then we headed off to Shklov. Not much to report on what we found there, but we went searching for the Jewish cemetery there.  Picture it, a 50-seat tourist bus driving down dirt roads with ramshackled houses looking for Jewish cemeteries.  I was impressed (surprised?) by the fact that our driver would pull up to a local townsperson in the area, usually an old woman in a head cover; he would open the door, disembark and ask with no euphemism whatsoever, “hey, where is the Jewish cemetery?”  True, it’s what we were looking for, but somehow I imagined some pleasantry introducing who we were or why a 10-ton bus had just blocked the entrance to her house.  Despite four conversations with locals, lots of pointing to…nowhere, we ran out of time, but think we finally found that we think was the right place but it was time to return to Mogilev for the premiere of a staged reading by members of the Helix group on the stage of the Mogilev State Theater.

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The theater is across the street from our hotel. We had started our city tour there in the morning where we read excerpts from Yankev the Blacksmith, a play by Dovid Pinsky, who was himself from Mogilev. This was, after all, how Helix was organized–bringing to life characters from the past in the places they produced some of the most important examples of Yiddish literature and culture.  We did so when reading a play on the steps of this theater; when singing a song on the town square of Slutsk; when reading a poem in a haunted cemetery.  That morning, as we were reading Pinsky, we noticed that the theater’s regularly scheduled performance that evening had been cancelled.  So Lucy inquired within, and we set a date to meet the theater’s artistic director and then have an impromptu staged reading of the Yiddish play by our three actors traveling with Helix–Adam, Chance, and Jenny. This would be, to the best of my knowledge, the first time a Yiddish play was staged in the Mogilev State Theater.

At 5pm we entered the theater, went to the small theater, listened to the artistic director tell us about his vision of theater. Note: he was dressed in a white coat and pants and regaled us with stories about his Sufi and transcendentalist inspirations. Then…our actors prepped for 15 minutes and did what was easily the most compelling staged reading of a play I have seen, a racy love story about marriage, affairs, and relationships. To be fair I haven’t seen that many but they decided to cast a man in the role of a woman, which led to a deeply homoerotic reading of what was already a risqué play about sex and romance. We wrapped up the evening with dinner at a Turkish restaurant, a dip in the pool, and a reflection of what it means to engage spontaneously with people and places.

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