The sun was already at a zenith when a bus full Jewish tourists rolled into the small Belarusian town of Glubokoe.
The drab building style and visible poverty of this ex-Soviet town failed to excite the passengers – journalists and VIP participants of the Belarus conference organized earlier this month by the Jewish learning group Limmud FSU.
We had come because of Glubokoe’s relevance to the life of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the man widely regarded as the father of modern Hebrew. He studied in Glubokoe, and his wife was born here.
Those of us with experience working in the former Soviet Union expected a city hall reception with stale biscuits and staler speeches by low-level local government officials, followed, perhaps, by some tour of a decaying municipal museum.
But as the bus neared Glubokoe’s main square, the sound of gasps of astonishment filled our bus.
Standing in the sun on the asphalt of Glubokoe’s main street was an all-female marching band made up of 20-odd beautiful young women who were carrying musical instruments and wearing a white-and-red uniform featuring short miniskirts and tall boots.
Fumbling to extract our cameras and lens caps, we disembarked to meet a smaller welcoming party comprising the governor and three local women. They were holding a 25-inch loaf of bread whose black crust was decorated with lighter dough in the shape of a sunflower.
The bread was presented to the delegation’s guest of honor, Gil Hovav – an Israeli celebrity chef and food critic who is Ben Yehuda’s great-grandson.
The marching band performed songs for us before leading the delegation to a square with nine columns, each of them carrying the bust of a famous personality from Glubokoe. Among them was a statue unveiled in 2010 depicting the young Eliezer Ben Yehuda wearing an austere, almost quarrelsome, expression that people who knew of him confirmed was typical of this iron-willed redhead.
Hugging a bottle of water, I hid from the beating sun under a yellowing chestnut tree and from some distance watched as the marching band took up positions around the speaker’s floor.
Hovav delivered a touching yet honest speech about his great-grandfather, whom he said lived in pre-state Israel with a constant feeling of being under-appreciated– leading to clashes and fights with real and imagined adversaries. Ben Yehuda, Hovav assured the good people of Glubokoe, would really get a kick out of seeing his statue there.
But as he was speaking, one of the women who performed for us earlier began to stir in her place before advancing on tiptoe with a dramatic expression on her face.
I assumed she was about to give an interpretive ballet recital on Ben Yehuda’s life. However, the band’s male conductor correctly understood that, after standing in the sun for the better part of an hour, the poor woman was about to faint and was staggering forward in an attempt to avert collapse.Lunging in her direction, the conductor caught her just before she hit the ground and carried her away for treatment.
She was not the only Glubokan to lose consciousness that day. Minutes after her collapse, a second performer fell — this time without warning – before the ceremony was concluded.
Later that day, a similar ceremony — minus the fainting — repeated itself in Luzhki, Ben Yehuda’s hometown, where Hovav unveiled a special monument for the late linguist. Hundreds of locals came to watch the unveiling.
I asked Boris Gersten, the chairman of the Union of Belarusian Jewish Public Organizations and Communities, why locals seem to find Ben Yehuda’s legacy so important.
“We don’t get a lot of international interaction,” he said of his country, which is sometimes called Europe’s last dictatorship and is subject to sanctions by the European Union for alleged human rights abuses by its all powerful president, Alexander Lukashenko. “So whenever there is some point of interaction with people from abroad, it is interesting, attractive,” he said.
While this may be true, the presence of regional “cultural officers” at every stop of the way made some of us believe the displays of affection toward Ben Yehuda may have been born out of an edict from the top rather than grassroots admiration for his oeuvre.
Either way, the women who waited for us for god-knows-how-long in the sun in Glubokoe that day succeeded in leaving an unforgettable first impression.
And though he made a point of appearing utterly impervious to Europe’s charms, I think Ben Yehuda would have appreciated it, too.