Around the Jewish World: Steinsaltz-led Wedding Breathes New Life into Sleepy Ukraine Town
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Around the Jewish World: Steinsaltz-led Wedding Breathes New Life into Sleepy Ukraine Town

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Even when the celebration was over, Natan Kitaykisher couldn’t believe that Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz had just conducted his wedding.

“I still cannot believe in what I’ve just seen,” said the 26-year-old leader of the town’s Jewish congregation. “I could never dream of it.”

Slavuta was not on the original itinerary of Steinsaltz, an Israeli rabbi known for translations of the Talmud into modern Hebrew, English and Russian, who was leading a group of Jewish memorial sites in southwestern Ukraine.

But Kitaykisher, who studied a few years ago at a yeshiva run by Steinsaltz in Moscow, heard of the rabbi’s plan to come to the area and asked if it was possible to arrange a stop in Slavuta.

Because the synagogue in town was so rundown, the ceremony was conducted outside the town’s only modern public facility — a concert hall.

Most of the town’s Jews showed up — many of them just out of curiosity.

The heroes of the occasion — Kitaykisher and Eleonora Rabina, an engineer from a neighboring town — looked tense during the affair.

The wedding was done in full accordance with Jewish ritual. A red-velvet canopy with silk yellow fringes was brought from Kiev as was a ketubah, or marriage contract, kosher wine and food for the few dozen guests.

The only substitute allowed was a light bulb wrapped in plastic, which the groom used instead of a glass to crush at the end of the ceremony.

The wedding, which featured a local band playing Jewish melodies, was the first Jewish religious wedding in the town in at least 15 years.

In the 19th century, the town’s name became famous with Jews throughout the Russia Empire for its printing house — one of the few Jewish printing houses that functioned in Russia at the time. The Slavuta Brothers printing house, as it was known, issued the bulk of Chasidic literature and even had a copyright on the Babylonian Talmud in Russia.

The local Jewish community was destroyed during the Holocaust. Among those Jews who returned to town after World War II was Rabbi Yitzhak Liberzon, who was one of a handful of rabbinical authorities to stay active in postwar Soviet Union.

The community was rebuilt due to the rabbi’s efforts. Since Liberzon’s death 15 years ago, however, the community has gradually declined. According to Yakov Baram, chairman of the community, the town of 35,000 individuals is now home to 240 Jews.

At least one Jewish activist here said the present will be the final chapter in the region’s Jewish history.

“There is no chance for revival here,” said Mikhail Lerman, the leader of the region’s Jewish population. “Our future is in Israel.”

Kitaykisher disagreed. After the wedding, he said, a young couple came up to him and asked if he could help arrange a “real Jewish wedding” for them.

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