First light of Hanukkah in Poland



By Hazzan Michael Stein

The train from Krakow to Gdansk / Sopot lasted almost six hours, but it was the most comfortable ride ever. The US infrastructure bill has only just been passed, which would provide an opportunity to modernize our rail system. With food, drink, internet, and electrical outlets, the bullet train surpasses anything we have in the United States. I spent much of my trip wondering why our values ​​in America don’t include making life easier and more mobile, not just for the rich. The people have been so nice, taking care of me at all times. Adam Koren, a friend of Marcin’s, drove me from Warsaw to Krakow and then, on the last day, to the train station. And like Marcin, he parked his car and made sure I got on the right train. Marcin and Iza were the best hosts I have had. They went above and beyond all expectations. I felt like royalty during my trip. People in other countries express their love and appreciation for music and musicians. I now know why so many musician friends settled or toured Europe.

When I arrived in Sopot, I checked into the Sheraton Hotel. I needed to reward myself for the demanding schedule I kept. I had a room with a balcony directly overlooking the Baltic Sea. I had an indoor pool and spa. Quite exquisite. I had heard that my daughter-in-law’s mother was very sick, and I put on my tefillin and davened out the window looking at the beautiful scenery. Suddenly the omnipresent cloudy sky turned blue and a rainbow appeared over the sea. The “sign of the covenant” was a sign for our day because her mother miraculously recovered and was sent away. at home the next day. A lot of things like this happen when I travel. In Africa, there was a hole in my mosquito net. I carried a Torah to bring to the Abayudaya community in Uganda. The tape used to glue the scroll to the Atzei Chayim (the handles of the Torah) was a perfect patch for the net. Also, the first time I was in Poland, in 2009, I davened Shaharit in Auschwitz with the Assembly of Cantors. I made my way to Block 15, where my teacher Lipman Radzik z’l was imprisoned and tortured, wearing my tefillin. I prayed there with him in my head, and it was a deeply moving moment. I realized my tefillin was not on the bus on the return trip. I searched and searched, but had to leave them there. The next day, I was on another bus coming back from Auschwitz and I found my tefillin there. I don’t know how this was possible, but I thought that maybe a soul needed my tefillin in order to be able to pray the next day. Rabbi Radzik used to watch me put on the tefillin and comment on how I did it with so much love and kindness. After a two night stay in Heaven, I rented a small apartment in town. It was clean, warm and had a balcony. I liked it! Thanks to Iza for finding it for me! Friday night service was in Gdansk in a small room / apartment in town. We decided to sit down and not be so formal, as only about 15 people were there. By the evening the number grew to over 20. There were only seven Jews, but several more were in the process of conversion, and others were deeply interested in Judaism. We had a delicious Shabbat dinner and stayed many extra hours to discuss Jewish matters. I loved teaching the meaning of prayers and the connection to the Torah part. Iza (Rivka) and Alina, my students and my prayer guides, did a fantastic job. People chanted the prayers aloud, confidently, and in Hebrew throughout the service. What more ?

On Shabbat morning we had a service at the same location, and it was, again, well attended with fantastic attendance. We talked for hours after the kiddush lunch, mostly about conversion and Jewish life in Poland. Consistently, my love of Judaism in song and conversation seemed to inspire many to research and learn more about their Jewish roots. This in itself makes my mission a success. The Havdalah in Gdansk has been one of the most unusual experiences in my many years of working with Jewish communities around the world. Due to the short time to book venues, we organized a Havdalah concert in a church. Not a single platform, but when we got there there was no heat, incense was burning and the images around us were very awe-inspiring. I never tried to play the violin with a warm coat and a scarf wrapped around where my violin usually sat. Nor with icy fingers, colder than a Sunday morning Gospel in early spring. We did it and the audience of over 60 enjoyed it so much. We decided not to put Havdalah on the bench as part of the show, and so after that we went to the back of the church, and about ten Jews stood around and sang Havdalah in a place that has never seen anything like it – the priest also appreciated. The basis of interfaith work is this: If you educate people about our customs, if you sing with them, if you sit with them and interact in a meaningful way, you create a peaceful existence. As my beautiful friend Peter Yarrow says, create pools of peace and eventually they will turn into an ocean of change. Sunday night was the first night of Chanukah. Still the month of November but the 25 Kislev anyway. I did a concert with Iza in a beautiful “black box” theater in Sopot. The place was packed and the venue was professional, with great sound and lighting. Even the mayor of Sopot came after because she heard that the program was so sensational. One comment about the evening was very revealing: I was wearing my fun Hanukkah tie, complete with dreidels and a menorah. I pointed it out to the public, but most didn’t know the symbolism. I had to explain “dreidel” and the menorah to the listeners. There were only a handful of Jews, but many were interested and some very curious. Many will say that they feel something in their soul to be Jewish, which explains their curiosity.

Special thanks to some lovely people who made my trip to the Gdansk region special. Maciej Kostecki has taken us everywhere, and whose Jewish neshama is an inspiration. Miroslaw Patalon, whose journey as a Jew by Choice is a fantastic story. Miroslaw is a teacher with a formidable intelligence, an understanding of Judaism and Hebrew, and a love of Yiddishkeit. Kasia Mazurkiewicz was the interpreter during my lessons in Poland and on Skype with my Polish students. She is one of the founders of the Jewish community in Gdansk, and her presence at all events in Gdansk made her very special – it was she who insisted that we do havdalah in church – a soul deeply inspiring Jewish woman. My next stop is Warsaw in the middle of a covid wave. Glad to have planned a return on Wednesday instead of the following week.

Note from Niver: I met Hazzan Stein and his sons in Nashuva: Watch them sing here:

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