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Transcending the Language Barrier in Khust, Ukraine

Transcending the Language Barrier in Khust, Ukraine

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We were assigned to Khust, a small city in Western Ukraine. Khust is close to the burial site of Rabbi Baruch, the father of the first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, so we felt privileged to spend Passover there. Since there are no working commercial airports in that part of Ukraine, we flew in and out of Budapest. We had some free time before the driver who would take us to Khust was scheduled to arrive, so we headed out to see the sights. Almost immediately, we met a friendly student named Endre, who gives daily guided walking tours of the Jewish quarter. His tour was about to begin, and he graciously invited us to join. We were impressed by his extensive knowledge of Jewish history, and he expressed his interest in learning more about the Talmud and Jewish law. At frequent intervals during the tour, Endre asked that we explain some of the Torah laws to the interested crowd. As the tour was winding down, we discovered that Endre’s mother was Jewish, rendering him Jewish too, which he had always suspected but never confirmed. With his permission, we helped him put on tefillin for the first time in his life, to the hearty applause of the assembled tourists. Before parting ways, we took his contact information and forwarded it to the local Chabad rabbi, who Endre could connect with to further discover his heritage.

That encounter helped put us in a positive state of mind. We were delighted when more than thirty people joined us for the Seder. The fact that not a soul spoke English, Hebrew, or Yiddish didn’t faze us. We had the services of an interpreter, who had helped our colleagues in previous years, but we quickly came to the realization that he only knew five words in English, his favorite phrase being, “Yes, of course!” When we requested that he kindly let the crowd know that it was time to eat more matzah, he replied, “Yes, of course”, and then announced something in Ukrainian. Everyone responded by filling their glasses to the brim and shouting, “L’chaim!” This scene repeated itself quite a few times during the Seder, so it was no surprise that all the wine we had brought was long finished when we were ready to drink the third cup. Luckily, we unearthed some more kosher wine in one of the closets for the slightly tipsy and happy crowd.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi taught that if words are the pen of the heart, song is the pen of the soul. The people of Khust were familiar with a remarkable amount of Jewish songs, including many Chabad melodies. After the conclusion of the seder, most of the crowd lingered to soak in the camaraderie and the holiday atmosphere.

At one point, two young men turned to us and said in a rather commanding voice, “Sing song!”

We responded, “Yes, of course! But which song?”

They thought for a moment. “Benny Friedman. Ivri Anochi!”

When we asked them how they knew that popular new song by the contemporary Chassidic singer, they chuckled and said, “YouTube. Two million views!”

We spent the rest of the evening singing familiar songs together. The language barrier, cultural differences, and age gap had all melted away. It was a celebration of all that unites us: G‑d, our souls, the Torah and mitzvot.


Isser Weisberg & Laibel Vogel
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