Discovering Jewish Spaces in the Old Country
Updated: Mar 3
My walk home last Sunday started like any other, but it's amazing what happens when you keep yourself open to being surprised. The Scientist, greyhound, and I were walking past a former Jewish cemetery that the city of Vilnius has kindly signified as such, amidst quite a lot of controversy. I didn't expect to see other Jewish people at the site, although I often wonder how many others walking by understand its historical significance.
This day, though, I was blessed to see other Jewish people praying and singing, at what I could only assume was a prayer service to honor the lives of those buried. Upon hearing the sacred words of the Mourner's Kaddish, a prayer recited in memory of those passed, my hunch was confirmed. I tried to walk over as quietly and respectfully as I could (my outfit betrayed me!), but the truth is that I was noticeably touched by this act of kindness and remembrance. The Mourner's Kaddish is universal to Jews; we understand its importance and utter it during our darkest moments of grief. This gives it a symbolic quality of unity and hope - to my eyes. Suffice to say: I was touched.
This encounter gave me the momentum to finally do something I've been curious to do: visit the grave of the Vilna Gaon, a Vilnius rabbi with a legacy so large it extends all the way to my coastal Georgia hometown. (If you recall from a previous post, I have extended family members related to him.) At this impromptu Sunday prayer service, I met a few friendly Jewish faces, one of whom tipped me off to the local tradition of leaving prayer notes at his grave, much as is done at the holy Kotel, Jerusalem's Western Wall.
Armed with this new information, I schlepped my tuchus through wind and rain over to this holy site, my family's prayer notes in hand. Perhaps because it was the Sabbath, the site was closed to the public, but that didn't stop me from peering through the gates and murmuring our prayers. Jewish Stars decorated the cemetery grounds and tombstones, tangibly reminding me how Life has guided me back to my motherland. It's clear that others also value this space - stones were placed on graves, a Jewish marker of respect; the silent murmurs of other visitors' heartfelt prayers; my own prayers to accompany them. Kabbalist and feminist Judaism highlights the Shechinah, the Divine Feminine presence, and I can honestly say I felt it there - the same as I experience in these lush and mossy Lithuanian forests.
Taking pictures of my grandparents' and Eastern European great-grandparents' graves at one of the most beautiful States-side cemeteries back in May, I knew there was a strong possibility I'd be moving to Lithuania in the coming months. To be able to stand here now, in front of someone so important to my people, acting as messenger for my mishpacha's deepest prayers: now this is something worth writing home about.