Return to Zion, by Ben Benjamin
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The remarkable story of a Jewish family's journey through several generations from Czarist Russia to Israel via New Zealand.
From: Return to Zion, by Ben Benjamin
Odessa, Ukraine 1890
Joseph Budinsky woke early, as was his habit, and being an Orthodox Jew prepared himself for his morning prayers, making sure he washed his hands and face before he had taken five steps across the room. He put on his yamulke (skullcap), placed his prayer shawl around his shoulders, removed his tefillin (small cowhide boxes with leather straps containing Holy Scripture) from their storage box and unravelled the leather straps. He placed one of the prayer phylacteries on his forehead and slid the second up onto his upper left arm, slowly winding the leather strap around his left forearm and finishing on his hand. He shut his eyes to concentrate and started to intone the words that were so much a part of his life. Shema Yisrael Adanoi Elohenu Adanoi Ehod (Hear Oh Israel the Lord Our God the Lord is One). As he finished his prayers he could hear the sounds of his two uncles preparing the breakfast. It would be bread and warm milk as usual, which he hoped would counteract the freezing temperatures and provide him sustenance for the day. The air was cold and his breath froze as he exhaled. Outside, a white carpet of snow stretched from the town streets out to the farmers’ fields and further as far as the steppes.
After removing the tefillin and replacing them in their box, Joseph dressed to prepare for the day which was to be like no other, for today he was to join the Russian army. For the next five years he would be a conscript. The papers had been delivered the previous day, while he was away studying at the yeshiva (Jewish college), and he had returned home to find the envelope on the kitchen table. He knew before he opened it what was inside, because he was expecting it. Every sixteen-year-old boy had to serve five years for the Czar, and for Jews it could be even longer. So now he would be a soldier for the Czar, and why? What had the Czar ever done for the Jews except cause them trouble and yet they were required to give five years of their life in the military for the glory of Russia?
His mind went back to the day when the Cossacks had come to his town and butchered every Jew they could find. His own mother was bayoneted as he watched from his hiding place in a cupboard. He was eight years old. His father several years before had left to go east and had never returned, leaving his mother to bring up three children on her own. Luckily, with the help of the Jewish Benevolent Society, she was saved from being destitute. After that murderous day his brother and sister had been taken into the care of other Jewish families in the town, but he had gone to live on the streets of Odessa in the company of other street urchins, surviving on his wits and scrounging food wherever he could. In the summer and spring it was easier but life became more difficult as the autumn temperatures dropped and the chilly winds of winter blew across the frozen plains, and he was sometimes forced to eat at the Jewish charity soup kitchen in the company of homeless older men and women. At least the Jews looked after their own, unlike the Russian peasants, who did not lift a finger to help the needy and homeless.
When he was twelve, his two uncles, Saul and David, had found him and taken him into their house, treating him like a son. Mindful that every Jew no matter how poor should receive an education, the uncles had sent him to the yeshiva, where he immersed himself in the learning of the Torah (the five books of Moses) and the Talmud ( the religious-legal code based on the Torah). He had proved himself an able student. He had a sharp, inquisitive mind and the study came easily to him, even the more complex parts of the Talmud. His teachers, the rabbis of the yeshiva, wanted him to study to become a rabbi, so impressed were they with his academic skill, but he was not sure that this was where he wanted to direct his life, and for now it did not matter, because for the next five years he would be a soldier.
His thoughts were suddenly broken by his uncle Saul calling to him. “Joseph, come now, your breakfast is ready.”
Joseph entered the small room that was their lounge, dining room and kitchen, revelling in the warmth from the stove.
“Will you have bread and milk as usual?” asked Saul. Joseph nodded. His uncle David was already sitting at the table, tearing off chunks of warm bread and dipping it into his bowl of milk. Joseph quickly said the appropriate blessing for the meal, sat down at the table and started to eat.
“What time are you due at the military barracks?” asked David. “You don’t want to be late on your first day in the army.”
“Eight o’clock, uncle,” replied Joseph, taking a large bite from his piece of bread. “They want us at eight so they can process us into companies and we can also choose what we want to do.”
“And what is that going to be then?” inquired Saul.
“I don’t know uncle, because I am not sure what my choices will be.” Joseph shrugged his shoulders as he spoke. “I’m sure the Czar allows us Jews something to do, even if it is only to peel potatoes.”
David spoke. “Well then, you should be going, because the army doesn’t like its soldiers to be late and you have a mile or two to walk.”
Joseph collected his meagre belongings in a small suitcase and donned his greatcoat. He then had a thought. “Uncles,” he asked, “what am I to do about my morning prayers and putting on the tefillin?”
Saul answered without hesitation. “Joseph, it is bad enough for a Jew in the Czar’s army already without drawing attention to yourself and the fact that you are a Jew. I’m sure God will understand if you do not put them on to say your morning prayers, and those prayers you should say silently to yourself. The Russians, particularly the soldiers, hate us anyway, so keep a low profile. Do not draw attention to yourself, serve your time, obey orders and all will go well for you. We shall see you again when you have a leave pass. Go in God’s name and shalom.”
With that, both uncles gathered Joseph in their arms and pressed a small amount of money into his hands. “This is for you for something special, maybe a little vodka on a cold night or an extra helping of soup at a restaurant when you go to town.”
Joseph buttoned up his coat, pulled his hat tightly onto his head, fitted his hands into his gloves and, gathering up his suitcase, opened the door and stepped into the street. The wind was icy, a really Siberian chill. He turned his collar up around his ears and starting to walk down the snow-covered street towards the town square. He passed the yeshiva where he had spent many years in study, then the synagogue where he had prayed on the Sabbath. Its windows were still broken from the last pogrom, when the Cossacks had invaded the Jewish quarter and burned some of the Torah scrolls.
“One day,” he thought to himself, “Jews will fight back. Maybe by going into the army I shall learn to fight and then one day it will be my turn to avenge my mother. After all, does it not say in Ecclesiastes that there is a time to kill?” It had been one of their discussions at the yeshiva. How to reconcile that passage with the commandment, Thou shalt not kill. They had discussed it at length and decided that under certain circumstances it was appropriate to kill, but it was difficult to say what those circumstances were. Moses had killed an Egyptian overseer and that had ultimately resulted in his leading the Hebrews to freedom from captivity in Egypt. That in turn had led to the Revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah in the Ten Commandments. Joseph mused to himself, “Perhaps they won’t teach me to shoot and kill. Perhaps the army has other uses for the Jews. We shall see.”
Joseph continued on, past the bathhouse where he went with his uncles to be clean for the Sabbath, and past the bakery where they used to buy the challah (bread for the Sabbath meal). He loved the smell of the bakery. “Perhaps I could be a baker in the army.”
Joseph lowered his head against the freezing wind that was blowing the snow up into his eyes. He thanked his uncles for providing him with a warm and substantial breakfast. He wondered how he was going to get on with the army food. After all, he only ate kosher food and followed the Jewish dietary laws and the Czar in his wisdom did not cater for that. All these uncertainties, questions, but no immediate answers. “Such was the lot of the Jew,” he thought.
Joseph quickened his pace, hoping to warm himself with the exercise. As he passed a familiar house, the door opened and out stepped Simon Shepolovitch, also dressed for the cold and carrying a suitcase.
“Shalom Simon,” said Joseph. “Where are you going on a morning like this?”
“Shalom Joseph. I am off to the army, as it looks like you are.”
Simon was another student from the yeshiva and they had sat next to each other in the class. They spoke in Hebrew, preferring that to their native Russian. It emphasised their Jewishness and they felt more complete than if they were just speaking Russian. It was also almost a way of damning the Czar and the Russians by ignoring their language and customs. They had both learnt Hebrew at the yeshiva, becoming fluent enough to read the Holy Books in their original language.
“Simon, what do you think you will do in the army?” enquired Joseph.
“I’m going to join the medical corp to become a nurse and then, when my time is up, I’m going to go to Palestine and become a doctor,” replied Simon firmly.
“Palestine! You are going to Palestine! Simon that is a fantastic plan, but why Palestine?”
“Because Palestine is the home of the Jews, that’s why. Don’t we always say at Passover, ‘next year in Jerusalem…’ and isn’t it the Promised Land for us Jews? After all, Moses didn’t lead the Children of Israel out of Egypt to Russia, but to Israel? Only there can we have a Jewish State where we can be Jews without the hatred of those around us. How many more pogroms do you want and how many more innocent Jews do the Cossacks have to kill? No, the Russians don’t want us in Russia. We can be the best Russians possible but it only takes one fanatic and then it’s ‘kill the Jews’ once again. Anyway I don’t have to tell you about the Russians. Look what happened to your own mother.”
Joseph winced when Simon mentioned his mother, and the image of the Cossack’s bayonet slicing her stomach open came flooding back to his mind. Perhaps Simon was right. No matter how loyal the Jews were to Mother Russia they would always be Jews living at the boot heel of their oppressors.
“Anyway, Joseph, enough of this. What are you going to do in the army?”
“Oh me, I’m not sure and I’m not sure what they have on offer. Perhaps I shall learn a trade, because I think it will be more useful in years to come to be able to do something. Studying in the yeshiva may be all right to sharpen the intellect but it doesn’t really equip us for earning a living. Perhaps something to do with wood. I like the idea of making things out of timber.”
Simon laughed. “Joseph Budinsky the carpenter, yes that has a good ring to it.”
As they walked, they passed other people from the village, some of whom they knew. To these people they waved and gave the customary greeting of shalom. The town square was getting nearer and they were able to see it in the distance. The military barracks were right in the middle in the northern area of the square and they could see soldiers coming and going from the building. They could also see other boys carrying suitcases like them entering the building. “More conscripts,” Joseph thought. He wondered whether there would be any other Jews or whether it would just be him and Simon.
“Simon, why don’t we see if we can stick together. If we are in the same company then at least we shall have each other for support.” Joseph thought back to his days of living on the streets and remembered how by sticking together, the street urchins were able to survive much better than if they were on their own.
“That’s a good idea,” replied Simon. “Why don’t we say we are cousins and hopefully they won’t split us up.”
“Excellent Simon. I can see that the study of the Talmud was not wasted on you!” Joseph gave a wry smile as he spoke.