Ahavah traced her finger along a line on a map of Ukraine. “On the coast here, along the Black Sea, is where my family is from,” she said. “Yours came from the north, in what’s now Belarus.” My wife had been poring over our family records, and now we were comparing the results of our DNA tests. Our collage of birth records and obituaries now had connective tissue, a tenuous claim to genetic ancestry. Her history goes back to the Black Sea Germans; mine to upper Ukraine. We both come from a people-inside-a-people, an identifiable group living amid shifting political boundaries.
This is why we’d shelled out for genetic testing: to firm up our connection to Jewishness. Most families’ Jewish history exists in fits and starts, with long stretches of rabbinic certification punctuated by sharp breaks in continuity, the unspoken result of pogroms and compulsive assimilation. The Jewish legacy was attractive because I had recently experienced my own crushing break with the past. Just a few years earlier, I had moved across the country to care for my mom, who was dying of late-stage cancer. My father had been her caregiver until he collapsed one day at five in the morning, unable to control the left side of his body, which eventually gave out completely from a hemorrhagic stroke. My mother’s death led to probate and debt collectors, a stack of past-due bills that felt like the only connection I had to family. But now I had Jewishness, too.
Jewish history can be more of a binding principle for Jews than Judaism itself, since many families, mine included, had no religious practice. My wife also wanted to excavate her Jewish biography. So here we were, learning the holidays, wrestling with halakha, and tracing our path down the central Ukrainian valley, along the Black Sea, and into a bed in Portland, where we sat with a tablet and a DNA profile.
Ukrainian-Jewish author Vladislav Davidzon argues that there were three essential Jewish “civilizations” of Ukraine. The first is the well-known Ashkenazim, who inhabited lands like Moldova and Germany as well as Ukraine. But there were also Jews from Turkey living in Crimea, and the infamous Khazars, a Turkic empire that allegedly converted to Judaism in the eighth century. These civilizations spanned hundreds of years into the Modern Period in the form of Jewish settlements called shtetls and, of course, Hasidim.
Hasidism was a revival of enthusiastic piety founded by Israel Ben Eliezer, renamed the Baal Shem Tov (shortened to Besht). A baal shem was a folk healer who would have supported average Jews rather than elite scholars crammed into yeshivas. Deep involvement with Jewish text and law requires not only profound access to education and long stretches of unoccupied time, but also a functional knowledge of Hebrew, which at that time was only an antiquated liturgical language. What Besht demanded instead was to personally digest the cosmic ideas of Torah, plucking them from the stars and delivering them to the commoners, igniting a holy flame inside them that could spread among the Jewish people.
Besht preached his ideas around the Pale of Settlement—the area, which included much of modern-day Ukraine, that was set aside for Jews by the Russian Empire. He preferred dance and spirit over the traditional hierarchies. His disciple Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezeritch, expanded upon his ideas. It is his students, the third in line from Besht, who created many of the “master” works that codify Hasidism’s philosophies. Many of them sparked their own movements, including dynasties with initiatory lines that continue today. If you have ever walked through Crown Heights in New York and passed men with black hats and tzitzit hanging from their shirts, these are modern Hasidim active in a particular tradition begun by one of these earlier disciples or their initiates.
While established figures of Lithuanian Jewry, the Misnagdim, were dedicated to crushing the new movement, Ukraine proved friendlier. Rabbi Menahem Nahum, who eventually settled in Chernobyl, started the Chernobyl Hasidic dynasty. (Dynasties are often named after their cities of origin.) Among the first dozen books of Chassidus written was Me’or Einayim, The Light of the Eyes, a volume studied intensely by Hasidim but rarely accessible to those without knowledge of arcane Hebrew. The definitive translation was produced in 2021 when rabbi and scholar Arthur Green translated and annotated an imposing English edition, nearly nine hundred pages long. Green’s biography should be slotted into the same lineage as that of the Hasidic masters he chronicles: he was an early adopter of what became known as neo-Hasidism, the adaptation of Hasidic philosophy to non-Orthodox, and often quite radical, interpretations. Green founded an early Jewish commune called Havurah Shalom, mixed Jewish mysticism with psychedelics in the 1960s, and brought a type of panentheistic Jewish reverence to new generations of seekers.
Me’or Einayim contains homilies, commentaries, on parsha, the Torah portions allotted to each week on the Jewish calendar. In classic Hasidic fashion, the commentary often bears little resemblance to what appears on the Torah scroll: by using word associations, numerology, and grand metaphor, the Torah letters are transmuted into a road map to understanding the most esoteric manifestations of God’s light and fire, the lessons for human liberation printed under the calligraphy we read. The book provokes a reconsideration of our everyday lives: How can the most mundane and profane of behaviors, even our failures, become a direct line to God?
Since the home is the center of Jewish life, and marriage is a primary mitzvot, my relationship with Ahavah is inseparable from Jewish culture itself, which has rapidly overtaken our lives. Our calendar marks the Hebrew months. We address each other in casual Yiddish. We talk about love using the legal jargon usually relegated to ketubah (the marriage contract). This puts our lives into a kind of Jewish continuity, where the language of centuries of rabbinic debates and dissents announces itself in even the most desperate moments. Judaism is the language of community, and marriages can be its heart, a spark that can be coaxed into a fire.
“Why are you being defensive?” Ahavah asks, after a full beat.
“I’m not being defensive,” I say. “I just don’t agree with you.”
Like many fights, maybe all fights, this argument was less about an “inciting incident” than the emotional lineage my wife and I carry into every conflict. Things had been tense. For her, this tension came from my apparent unwillingness to address what she saw as basic household chores, like cleaning behind the stove and vacuuming the entryway. But I wasn’t entirely sure what was raising my temperature. Certainly, I didn’t like a running commentary on my failures, but why was I so unnerved? Did I even agree that these were, in fact, failures? Was this simply a debate over what a well-kept house looks like, a clash of civilizations playing out over dishes and dust?
“I never asked you to clean. I would have been perfectly happy with it remaining a mess,” I lie. Is it a lie?
“You seem pretty happy when you come downstairs and, like magic, it’s clean,” she says.
“You just hover, waiting for me to fail to meet some impossible standard that you never told me about,” I say. “You linger inches from my ear to remind me of what I missed.”
Ahavah always stops at this point, either assessing why I’m doubling down or reconsidering whether all this was worth it—hopefully just this conversation, but maybe everything it’s built on as well.
“I’m not buying this,” she says. “You pretend this is just shallow selfishness, but you seem more than willing to turn every small request into an explosive fight simply so that you don’t have to listen to someone critique you.”
Why would anyone ever be voluntarily critiqued? I’m still asking myself why a person would let themself be backed into a corner when she pushes past me, uninterested in whatever clever retort I was working on.
“I don’t even think you’re just mad about what I’m asking for,” she says. “Within a matter of seconds, you seem to dart between topics, looking for some indiscretion I allegedly did that would undermine any authority I had to ask something of you. It’s like you’re mad about something from weeks ago. Or months. Even years. Like this is something exploding, half-remembered, from your past. Something you don’t even seem interested in figuring out, and yet you let it run almost every single moment of friction in your life.”
No one acts only on their own volition. A common belief found in Hasidic commentary is that “the shekhinah spoke from within his throat,” meaning that the spirit of hashem (God) was actually speaking through someone. A core message of Judaism is that hashem created humans to act in this world, ultimately to heal it. For Menahem Nahum, the sanctity of the corporeal was essential: the world is where we are, and God is present in all things at all times. This is the essential reality of God’s oneness: there is nothing outside of God. Hasidic philosophy is built on the incredibly complex structures of Jewish mysticism known as kabbalah, in particular the ten sefirot, God’s emanations. For Hasids, this is framed psychologically: how the emanations relate to thoughts, emotions, relationships, marriages.
If we understand that all actions, from the lowliest crimes to the highest peaks of piety, contain God, we have some troubling realities to confront. Our misdeeds are the starting point for most of Nahum’s commentaries, which are supposed to lead the reader to cleave to God. Nahum notes that evil is the origin of even the most sacred triumphs. He repeatedly turns to a sexual metaphor in which we are meant to look at an incestuous relationship between a brother and sister. Is it simply an abomination, or is it the collapse of something sacred? In this case, sex emerges from an impulse toward love, or the need to find someone to love, but our own failure to ultimately wrest our passions and cleave to the true sources of light leads to unspeakable hurtfulness. This is a crime, as clearly dictated in Torah, but it should also be a reminder: You could not sin if you were not capable of love. Eros is the motivating energy of the universe, and Nahum explains that these energies will “have flowed downward, emanating into the lowliest rungs.” This could be called “fallen love,” transforming the sacred into profanity, and severing the opportunity to construct something greater.
Jewish law is built on binaries: between Israel and the “other peoples of the world,” the kosher and the treif, the sacred and profane. But the realization of God’s presence in the material world is an opportunity to make the profane sacred in every moment. The energies we have in life do, ultimately, come from God, and so, even when being catastrophically misused, they maintain a spark. It’s up to you to find it. To raise it up.
Sparks have been spread across the earth, like trace minerals cast by wind, waiting to be unearthed, to start a fire that will consume everything—our homes, our communities, and even our marriages. Whether it illuminates or destroys depends on our vantage point. And the ubiquity of the sparks depends on the original catastrophe, a shattering violence beyond all measure, the explosion that created the universe.
Ahavah would like to assume I’m reacting this way because of generational trauma instead of her nagging.
Our marriage itself emerged from a type of nuclear fallout. My wife, then my acquaintance, came over to mediate a conflict between my ex-fiancée and myself. In the months after my mom’s death, my fiancée had alternated between drinking and sleeping with a patient she provided in-home care for. Ahavah had her own meltdown to deal with—a seven-year polyamorous partnership that had run its course, at least for one of them. The first year of our life together was built on top of trembling ground. We were funded by life insurance and inhabiting a house owned by an estate. For months I was exhausted, strung out on a combination of caffeine and opioids, which were prescribed for back pain and then seemed to work for most other things as well.
So, even years later, it’s an easy reference point. There were a lot of fires to put out; it makes sense that some might still smolder.
Nahum’s legacy began when the Chernobyl Hasidic movement passed to his son after Nahum’s death in the late 1700s. His grave became a pilgrimage site, eventually made untenable by Ukraine’s escalating turmoil. First, the Russian Revolution extended to Ukraine as the Bolsheviks fought the czar’s forces. Then came waves of pogroms extending into the Holocaust, further spurring Jews to flee. This continued crisis seemed mirrored by the underlying cosmos Nahum saw at the heart of Israel itself.
Me’or Einayim’s metaphysics comes from sixteenth-century rabbi Isaac Luria. What has been termed the “Lurianic Kabbalah” tells the story of the universe’s origin: before time, God inhabited perfect unity. But in the making of life God was shattered, broken vessels scattered across the vastness. Humans, then, have been tasked with the healing of God in tandem with the healing of the world. By performing mitzvot with holy kavanah (intentions), we piece God back together and restore harmony.
God’s totality forces us to live with certain contradictions. Since God is beyond knowing, God had to place themself into a type of exile to allow human individualism to exist. This separation is called tzimtzum, the retreat God allows so that separateness can be performed. The purpose of our life, then, is to realize two things: we are all actually one, and we must work toward a more perfect unity—of God, community, and ourselves.
So we hunt for the pieces, reassembling them, building something that existed once and could again. The primal explosion scattered God’s light around the world, now found hiding behind the eyes of Israel, so brokenness was the founding condition of humanity. That brokenness is the retreat that allows life to be possible; otherwise, there would simply be endless God. This brokenness is reflected throughout Jewish history, in expulsions and reprisals, and is best visualized in the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, which radically reshaped Jewish life and scattered Jews across the diaspora.
But when we find these shards and acknowledge their divinity, what next? What can possibly be done with a pile of broken pieces?
The centerpiece of Hasidic philosophy is the concept of the tzaddik, a righteous person who initiates this healing. There are two types of tzaddikim. The first is someone who seeks to perfectly cleave with God by turning the profane sacred, locating sparks of holiness and raising them up.
The second type, the one Nahum clearly envisions himself to be, is higher: the tzaddik who shows others how to do the same.
“You do realize I’m not actually trying to hurt you?” Ahavah asks, the veneer of patience slipping from her face.
I live in a constant cycle of criticism: I go to work and hear the exhausted sighs of those who feel like I’ve let them down, and then I come home and receive some combination of eye-rolling, “feedback” on how I can improve, or outright finger-pointing.
“It doesn’t matter what you’re trying to do, what matters is what you’re actually doing,” I say. “I felt reasonably confident with the work I had done on our house, and then you show up and demolish it in five minutes. This place was great—then you came in and took it away.”
For reasons I can’t verbalize, I remember an unrelated conversation from years earlier, when I was attempting to manage my mom’s estate.
“You do realize that you’re putting the bank in an incredibly vulnerable position,” a nameless woman said into the phone. This was one of a dozen calls I had received looking for money I couldn’t find. I was sitting in the room where my mom had died weeks earlier, and bills were long past due. This time it was about my father’s pickup truck: an expensive custom job he bought impulsively in the months after his first stroke. My mom had wondered why he needed a cobalt-blue Toyota, but it seemed to make him happy. At least he still remembered the word truck when he drove it home.
“Once the life insurance comes, I can pay,” I said, knowing full well there was no timeline. If there was life insurance—and I had been assured by my mother that there was—then I certainly wasn’t finding evidence of it in the stacks of paper that threatened to topple over all around the house.
“Well, if that doesn’t happen in the next couple of weeks, we will need the truck,” she responded, tensely.
“Need the truck?” I asked.
“We will come and take it away.”
“There is nothing to take away here,” my wife snaps. “And any feeling of satisfaction you invented is not tangible reality,” she says. No, shouts.
“Then what do you expect of me?”
“Improve!” she screams, a kind of fire passing over her pupils. “Take what you pretended to do and raise it up.”
It occurs to me what will happen if I don’t. My father shuffled through his life in a state of confusion, unable to offer even meager support for the workings of the home he depended on. His final years of cognitive decline were medically novel, but also familiar, simply a louder (or quieter) form of his perpetual deterioration. He never even attempted emotional presence or vulnerability. So as deafness took his hearing and his memory faded, he never opened himself up enough for us to truly be there with him. If you never tell someone who you are, are you ever truly together?
“That’s not possible! There is nothing you would accept,” I respond, trying to match her volume, yet clearly exceeding it. Loneliness is often represented by silence and darkness, but I feel most isolated mid-scream. A meltdown will only further quarantine me, completely eliminating any possibility of connection. Conversations are a type of partnership, but explosions are manifestations of true individualism.
The last great migration of Jews out of Ukraine emerged from the most profound catastrophe to hit Nahum’s adopted home. Resulting from a combination of mismanagement and compulsive secrecy, the Chernobyl disaster, in 1986, was its own kind of otherworldly detonation: 350,000 refugees were scattered, and hundreds of thousands of cancer diagnoses were pinned to the accident. Gorbachev later said it led to the USSR’s collapse, the dissolution that spread across the former satellite states and launched decades of civil war, genocide, and generational instability for the region. A familiar history to Ukrainians—and certainly to Jews. Even today, Jews are yet another people within a dispossessed nation fighting through centuries of foreign rule for some degree of autonomy on the fertile black earth of the land.
Arthur Green arranged a trip to Chernobyl to walk through Hasidism’s past in 2019, a matter of months before another disaster, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, began. He found that no Jews had returned since the nuclear meltdown. The cemetery and synagogue that served as the Hasidic center were intact, if dilapidated, but hundreds of years of community had been extinguished.
Ukraine’s future remains unwritten. The question of whether or not Ukrainians can maintain their sovereignty depends on how much of their memory they can rediscover. This requires the vulnerability to decide what kind of country they are.
But what does vulnerability mean for a country? For a person? For a life?
Hashem speaks through us, a force that Rabbi Green sees as animating our universe. We can tap into God in moments of divine inspiration, meditation, and ritual. Jewish prayer is unlike the prayer many Christians are familiar with; it’s more like sacred liturgies. Individuality is expressed in kavanah, what we bring to the prayer. But while some kabbalists argued that we could, in fact, alter God, the more verifiable effect, which seems clear throughout the mystical musings of Me’or Einayim, is on ourselves. “Prayer does not change God, but changes him who prays,” Søren Kierkegaard wrote.
To speak the language of Jewish prayer is to mine a centuries-long process of wrestling with human frailty (the name Israel literally means “to wrestle with God”) and, ultimately, healing. This has always been a choice—whether or not to prepare the kind of openness that accepts revelation, to become a vessel that hashem can be poured into.
“The true saddiq must always build himself to all the rungs, even the lowest … which are in that place of choice,” Nahum writes, acknowledging that the point of life “is to look around at the world and see nothing but God, discovering the One within the many, then realizing that the One alone exists.”
The premise seems obvious, but it takes struggle to be truly immersed in it. To see God everywhere is to accept holiness in those around you, and, even more catastrophically, in yourself. This means, more than anything, building a vessel that can contain love, that shows a pathway rather than simply a barrier to entry.
“You’re still building a wall,” Ahavah says. “Clearly, something is bothering you, to the point that you’d rather start a fight than just talk to me about what’s so difficult.”
“I don’t owe you that. I don’t have to share every tiny piece of myself,” I retort. “Why does everyone demand that I give them these little pieces of myself? I keep passing them out—at work, at home—there’s nothing left to build any kind of person out of.”
“You’re not giving me anything,” she says. “The vulnerability you give isn’t for me, it’s for you. There’s nothing for you to defend here. I’m not some kind of invading army. I’m your wife.”
The courageous thing about marriage is that it recognizes the unity possible between two people. This rests on the idea of oneness and depends on commitment to togetherness. Life directs us in pursuit of the realization that we are bound to one another.
“You say that like it’s easy. Like trust hasn’t been broken, as if it should come naturally. Like the past never happened and I’m here fresh and new,” I stammer.
The sefirot show that Jewish history, all of existence, and hashem are bound together—that when disaster is experienced by one, it is felt by all in perpetuity. The destruction of the Israelite Temple, the catastrophe that scattered Jews to the wind, seemed to end its centrality to Judaism, but it didn’t. “This was God’s chief intent in commanding both the tabernacle and the Temple: to cause His presence to dwell in that individual temple which is the person,” says Nahum, which is the meaning of: “This was the true dwelling of the shekhinah between the two staves of the ark: the two chambers of the heart.”
We connect with each other by locating feelings, encoding them as well as possible into language, and hoping the person on the receiving end understands so we can build a temple between us. Perhaps even an entire world. We ignite the words with the ability to transform another, to rebuild the kind of bonds that seem almost irreparable. This is the meaning of “By the word of [Adonai] were the heavens made” (Ps. 33:6).
“So I’m supposed to stand here and tell you what I’m thinking, why I feel this way?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says. “That’s all.”
“And what happens then?”
“Honestly, there’s no way to know. You just have to try.”
Sometimes I’m surrounded by sparks, either the lit remains of cigarettes or the smoldering remnants of campfires. They can ignite the trees around me, engulf forests, consume entire communities, eradicate histories as flames cover the black earth. But I have to trust that this is an opportunity as much as a threat. There are fires that give light, and fires that just burn, and beneath that we have the choice to build something in the smoldering ruins.
“I can do that,” I tell her. “I mean, I can try.”
TagsReligion, Faith and Spirituality, Marriage
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