My friend Dina played the word kvass the other day in Scrabble. I sent her an IM, "where the heck do you get these words?" to which she replied, "Someone played it against me and I remembered it." Unbelievable - I can't remember the details of what I studied this morning and she remembers k-v-a-s-s for 43 points.
Later that day I was immersed in reading Aleksander Hemon extraordinary novel "The Lazurus Project", and was floored when I read about the Cossack who "stank of garlic and kvass." Kvass! What were the odds? So now I had to look it up. Turns out it is fermented beverage made from rye or black bread, with a relatively low alchohol content. I guess it gave the Cossacks enough of a jolt to propel them while they raped, pillaged, and killed Jews in the Kishinev progrom of 1903. JJ Goldberg writes in The Forward: "Provoked by a medieval blood libel, flashed around the globe by modern communications, Kishinev was the last pogrom of the Middle Ages and the first atrocity of the 20th century. The event, and the worldwide wave of Jewish outrage that it evoked, laid the foundations of modern Israel, gave birth to contemporary American-Jewish activism and helped bring about the downfall of the czarist regime." I'd call that a pivotal event, and one that I was not very familiar with.
I spent the next few hours reading about the massacre, which led me to a poem written about it by the young Hebrew poet Chayyim Nachman Bialek:
Descend then, to the cellars of the town,
There where the virginal daughters of thy folk were fouled,
Where seven heathen flung a woman down,
The daughter in the presence of her mother,
The mother in the presence of her daughter,
Before slaughter, during slaughter, and after slaughter!
Touch with thy hand the cushion stained; touch
The pillow incarnadined:
This is the place the wild ones of the wood, the beasts of the field
With bloody axes in their paws compelled thy daughters yield:
Beasted and swined!
Note also, do not fail to note,
In that dark corner, and behind that cask
Crouched husbands, bridegrooms, brothers, peering from the cracks,
Watching the sacred bodies struggling underneath
The bestial breath,
Stifled in filth, and swallowing their blood!
Watching from the darkness and its mesh
The lecherous rabble portioning for booty
Their kindred and their flesh!
Crushed in their shame, they saw it all;
They did not stir nor move;
They did not pluck their eyes out; they
Beat not their brains against the wall!
Perhaps, perhaps each watcher had it in his heart to pray:
A miracle, O Lord, and spare my skin this day!
Between the scene in the book, and this poem, two heart wrenching desriptions of Jewish victimization. The only problem is that Bialek got it all wrong about Jewish passivity (read more about that here)
Whew, from k-v-a-s-s to Kishinev to Bialek. I'll remember that. I do admit that I play a lot of, perhaps too much at times, online Scrabble, when I could be doing far more useful things with my time. Like drinking kvass.
Mark Novak is a "free-range" rabbi who lives in Washington DC and works, well, just about everywhere. In 2012 he founded Minyan Oneg Shabbat, home to MOSH (Minyan Oneg Shabbat), MindfulMOSH (Jewish mindfulness gathering), and