When I heard that my cousin, the current Talner rebbe of Jerusalem and grandson of my late first cousin, a former Talner rebbe there, was traveling by charter with more than 150 of his chasidim from Israel to the ancestral town of Talner in Ukraine, I was excited to join them. This visit was to be part of a two-day trip to Ukraine on the occasion of the yahrtzeit of David of Talner. David of Talner was my great-great-grandfather. He was one of the most adored and popular chasidic rabbis in the 1800s, lived regally, and attracted thousands of followers. My grandfather, for whom I am named, had sent his oldest son to America before the Russian revolution in 1917. This son, my uncle, was probably one of the first chasidic rabbis in America and settled in New York on the Lower East Side. He was able to bring some of his siblings to America in the 19’0s. He brought my father, who became a Jewish educator, and his brother Yitzhak, a shochet, to New York. Two other brothers came to America as Talner rabbeim, one to Boston, and one to Philadelphia. He also brought his mother and two sisters and their spouses. It is this uncle’s great-great-grandson (my second cousin) who led us back to our roots in Ukraine.
Neal Twersky is the one in the baseball cap at the gravesite in Anapole.
We spent an afternoon in Talner at the gravesite, first in prayer, reciting psalms and then in a festive meal (hilulah) in song, celebration, and words of Torah. At the celebration, the rebbe warmly welcomed me in English as his cousin from the United States. We then traveled to the gravesites of other sainted chasidic masters: to Mesbesh, to the home of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of chasidut; to Anapole, home of the Tzadik, Reb Zushia of Anapole (also a relative); and finally, to Anatovka to the Magid of Chernobyl, from whom all eight dynastic parts of the Twersky family evolved including David of Talner. It is the Magid’s father, Menahem Nahum, the youngest disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, who was founder of the Twersky dynasty around 1750.
I wondered why I was so interested in going to these sites with my cousins and his chasidim from Israel. I am fairly traditional and lead a modern life, having gone to the Maimonides School in Boston, Yeshiva University, completed an MBA at NYU and now run a marketing company. I asked myself why I wanted to participate with this group. Was it to pray by the gravesites of sainted individuals? Did I really think their souls would protect me or the others for whom I prayed? Did I want to see the ancient town of my family? Did I want to escape from a hectic, mostly secular life, and retreat to the insular world of chasidim? I pondered these motives while thinking of the challenge of a cousin of mine by marriage and descendant of a major family of mitnagdim (opponents to Hasidim) who said it might be more beneficial to spend my time visiting the living than visiting the sites of the departed.
All the above notwithstanding, I booked the trip and traveled through London to visit my children and grandchildren on Shabbat and then traveled back in time to rendezvous with my relatives from Israel in Talner on Sunday. They arrived by charter to Odessa and I by commercial plane to Kiev. Talner, a simple village, is roughly the midpoint between these two big cities.
Before returning to New York, I stopped at Babi Yar.With the emotional crush of seeing the valley of death at Babi Yar outside the beautiful city of Kiev, I reflected on my trip and on my family who came to America just after the Russian revolution. I think of the 3′,000 Jews who were killed at Babi Yar in 194′. I think of my relatives who came here before the Holocaust. I think of my Hasidic family who came to these shores and maintained their chasidic identity and observance and I think of other relatives who took different paths, some academic, some rabbinic, and some who just assimilated into the ways of American life. I think of myself and what I have done for my Jewish soul. I asked myself what I asked my cousin, the current Talner rebbe, at the gravesite of the Baal Shem Tov: Is it better to blaze a more innovative lifestyle like the Baal Shem Tov when he started chasidut, or lead the more sheltered life of today’s chasid who is almost conventional and protected by the warmth of his community?
I am who I am. It does not mean I cannot do better nor do I pass judgment on others. But I am the son of a learned yet religiously enlightened father who led a modern life alongside brothers who were chasidic rabbis. I sometimes envy the insular lives of my cousins from Israel but I cannot lead that life. Yet, perhaps if only for a few days, I wanted to connect with that life and that world. As I gazed down at the valley of Talner, where I tried to imagine the palace of my great-great-grandfather as he rejoiced with his chasidim on holidays, I tried to imagine a man who was known for his practical wisdom in solving disputes among his followers and even the non-Jewish noblemen of the area.
As I reached out to God from the graves of my departed righteous relatives, I felt more connected and spiritually aware of my thoughts of loved ones, family, and friends. I don’t know if my prayers were heard. Yet I felt there was a power and inner resilience as I responded to and joined with the psalms being chanted by my cousins and the chasidim. I felt a connection to my great-great-grandfather, David of Talner, who lived there about 150 years ago.
Three things have become clear to me from this trip. One is a sense of the majesty of family, of our interconnectedness as family and as fellow Jews. I felt an interdependence and emotional bond with past, present, and future emanating from the knowledge and rediscovery of not only our roots but our responsibility to one another.
Two, there is no sure answer to any religious quest other than the advice of my great, great, great, great grandfather Menahen Nahum (1730-1797) in his classic book, the "Meor Enayim," that one should attempt to discover God in multifold ways. For some that will mean living in a more protective society. Each individual must know him/herself and find a balance. To paraphrase the current Talner rebbe in response to my question at the gravesite of the Baal Shem Tov, we should innovate, but we each must also find the appropriate level of comfort and shelter that we need. While my question addressed the intersection of secular and religious feelings in the context of both social and intellectual issues, his brief response he promised that a longer one would come dealt with protecting ourselves from the negative spirit of today’s society.
Third, that an occasional escape to one’s chasidic family or to a religious retreat or to a study institute to find oneself, is not incompatible with one’s modern life. The essence of discovery comes with the knowledge of family, history, and the study of text, both ancient and modern. It is knowledge of all sorts that empowers all Jewish people from all walks of life.
I travelled back in time with relatives dressed in the garb of the 1800s, and although I came in different clothes from a different world (maybe not; don’t judge a chasid by his attire), I was welcomed warmly and openly. My link to the past is both energizing and comforting and spiritually redemptive. It is fitting that we ended at Anapole at Rav Zushia’s gravesite, who reflected on himself as I reflect on myself: Am I living up to my potential to be the best I can be?
Neal (Nahum) Twersky writes that he is "of Teaneck and Talner."