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10 Nov

Yonatan Kunda (Israel)
Haokets, 1.2.2014

The Karlin Cry: Thoughts on Trees, Roots and Metaphors Between Belarus and Jerusalem


It is strange the way we are taught to think about our roots: we are taught to return to them, to discover and examine them, console in them, grasp on to them like a weapon or a flag, remember them. And at the same time, very simple common sense makes us ask: a root that can be dug up and waved about in the air – isn’t it undermining its purpose?

Our roots nourish us, this we know for certain. Not being able to see or show them, we must trust they are present. For our roots do not ask of us to know they are there: they ask of us only to continue growing. And it is not possible to grow downward, into our roots. That is against our nature.

And so, the metaphor of roots misleads us.
And it is a very commonly used metaphor: there wasn’t a grade in school in which I was not required to write a paper about my family’s
roots, nor a school memorial ceremony in which I was not asked to recite excerpts and testimonies concerning our roots, or encouraged to undertake trips and journeys searching and retracing roots. Growing up as a child in Israel, it seemed that any activity that had to do with "our roots" – whether endorsed by school, state or the military – immediately became a excruciatingly awkward capsule far-removed from anything remotely relevant my actual life.

I have always wondered why we are not taught that a journey to our roots may also take form simply in a long, honest look in the mirror? Or that we might retrace them not only in old decrepit photos but first and foremost in the eyes and faces of our loved ones, still alive? And that ceremonies commemorating our "roots" may take place in a simple split second of a song suddenly overheard, in the a splinter of a forgotten tune, or a smell suddenly drifting to us; and maybe such journeys and ceremonies take place every time we open our mouths to ask, or answer, or yell, or cry out? And maybe a journey to our roots does not mean talking about them, sorting them and naming them – but rather letting them speak from within us in their anonymous splendor? And maybe we are not in need of journeys to lead us to our roots, but rather roots who will lead us on a journey, a struggle for the right to say what is truly ours, what was ours, and what no longer is – what has been unrightfully taken from us, and what it is we choose to leave behind.

"For man is a tree, planted in this earth"
Deuteronomy 20, 19

The Bible is filled with trees: from the Tree of Knowledge in Genesis until the Prophet’s imagery and the Psalms’ metaphors, from the meticulous details of Seeds tractate in the Talmud (Me’asrot 3, 10: a tree is evaluated as belonging to Jerusalem by the tilt of its peak and not the place its roots lie) until the Kabalaic systems of symbols (where our roots are hidden from us deep in the earth of the divine). In our holy scriptures, trees are one of the most fundamental sources of images and symbols explaining to us the mysteries of humans and their existence.

In all the countless images, metaphors, fables and symbols of trees in the scriptures – the concept of roots never appears separately but retains value only as part of a complete system of growth where they fulfill their silent role deep in the ground, far from sight or touch or speech.

But alas, the present finds us – citizens, artists, educators, activists – at the mercy of audacious and merciless root-traffickers who are our leaders and their regimes, who’s rhetoric and consecutive actions all revolve around manipulation of the roots metaphor: not a day goes by without a minister or clerk, state-funded Rabbi or military general audaciously voicing what they call "our roots", wrapping with them their rhetoric proudly like a uniform or armor, tirelessly digging and ripping and tearing at our roots only to wave them blatantly in the city square or over any Bima Zara and foreign platform they can lay their feet on. In such a reality, which is continuously worsening, silence is not enough to protect our roots from the hatchets of stateliness, of shallowness and blunt nationalism: we must learn, again, to cry-out from our roots.

I step on the ground under which the waters talk
the roots talk… the uproar of their multitudes deafening my ear
from "Island" (אי) by poetess Zelda (b. 1914 Ukraine, d. 1984, Israel)

The myth has it that when the first Jews arrived in the forests of Polesia – then part of the kingdom of Poland, today in the country of Belarus – they found themselves in a thick woods where every tree carried a page of the Talmud, the trees reciting the holy words with the great clutter of their leaves in the wind. Immediately they put down their luggage and said: Po-lan-ya (in Hebrew meaning both Poland, and "here G-d is present"). The decision was made: it was here they would seek refuge for the time being – until the time comes to ascend to Zion.

For over 600 years hundreds of thousands of Jews found refuge throughout this land. Amongst them were the families of both my grandfathers. From my father’s side, the family became pioneers in the region’s wood-industry, turning the forests along the
Pripyat river into profitable factories for plywood, matches and firewood.

And so, the fate of my family had always intertwined with trees – trees which welcomed them in to the Land, trees which would be their livelihood for many years, trees that were silent witnesses to their massacre together with tens of thousands of Pinsk and Karlin Jews, trees that would hide time and time again my grandfather as he fled the Germans and their local collaborators.

A tree is a man, in the heart of his village at night Standing pondering in fury himself
from "All Night a Forest was Upon Me" ("
כל הלילה עמד עלי יער" ) by Poet Uri Tzvi Greenberg (b. 1896 Galicia, d. 1981 Israel)

And Pinsk and Karlin – what are they today?

Karlin is a suburb of Pinsk, founded 1690, situated today in the Brest County in the western border of modern-day Belarus. Karlin is home to one of the most ancient Hasidic Courtyards (in the beginning of the Hasidic era the word "Karliner" was actually synonymous to "Hassid"), founded by Rebbe Aaaron the Great in the mid 18th century, disciple of the great Maggid of Mezritch. Karlin is the tens of thousands of her residents in the past alongside those of the present – many still working the old logging boats down the Pripyat river; Karlin is the tens of thousands of her residents massacred in her streets, hospitals, synagogues and in the forests around her, and the tens of thousands exiled from her – only to established new communities carrying the name Karlin in Jerusalem, Tiberias, New York, Beit Shemesh, Bnei-Brak, London and Mexico City; Karlin is also the thousands of her daughters and sons who shed her clothing, her language and her memory, dispersed throughout the world forever forgetting her sights and sounds, no longer knowing her name; Karlin is the place forever slipping between the long fingernails of her conquerors, kings and dictators, throughout the centuries: Belarussians, Lituanians, Swedes, Russians, Poles, Germans – up to current-day Belarussian dictator Lukashenko, deemed "the last Dictator of Europe". Karlin is a town forever torn, time and time again, between her refugees and her rulers, between those who remember her and those who forget, between her living and her dead. Karlin is the place where both by grandfathers were born; a place one grandfather kept silent his whole life – whilst the other would repeat to us grandchildren, "I rather cut off my legs and not step in her again" (and yet, not a day went by his entire life that that he did not talk, remember, dream, pray and mourn her).

But up to the present, nothing has managed to maintain the legacy of Karlin more than one miraculous and undying phenomenon: the Karlin Cry – or in the Hebrew –Zaakat Karlin.

The Karlin Cry is a unique liturgical Minhag (tradition) carried out by the Karliner Hassids in their prayer – a tradition ingrained since the days of Rebbe Aaaron the Great, more than two hundred and fifty years ago. It is a deep moan of sorrow and at the same time – a calling of immense joy. The Karliner Cry has traveled far and wide, crossing generations and continents: a cry – a Zeaaka – which voices both the ecstasy of prayer alongside the poignant wakefulness we find ourselves when in its midst: a cry that when heard, seems summoned from a depths that echoes all cries, and all criers, whoever and wherever they may be, or have ceased to be, in all languages, under all circumstances.

It is hard to describe the Karliner Cry in words. Cry
– Zaaka, or Tze’aka in Hebrew is referred to as the most highly regarded of the ten different vocal manners of Jewish prayer: the Zaaka is a cry emitted from the gap or break between a word’s meaning and the limitations of its form, between the unharnessed emotion which stirs in us and the strict boundaries of language structures, grammar, semantics and correctness. A cry is our voice in its relentless struggle to contain intangible thoughts in the limitations of our physical body; a cry is "when the heart stirs in its storm from the terrible and tremendous power of that which we ask in prayer, until we cannot form any more words in our mouth, and only cry out in our voice" (Rabbi Shimshon Pinhasov,"Gates of Prayer").

Thus, the Za’aka – the cry formulated in Karlin over generations of prayers – can be described as the result of the ongoing and inevitable collision between the locomotive of our body – fleeing its enslavements to the kingdoms of flesh and blood – and the locomotive of our words, which flee their enslavement to memory, to narratives, to rules and to the mechanisms of silencing and denial; In prayer, our body and words move towards each other in full throttle on that single train-track which is our voice, and from their collision is sparked this cry.

I bought a shop on Dizengof Street in downtown Tel Aviv
so that I could sell roots so that I could buy me roots…
from "Buying on Dizengof" (לקנות בדיזנגוף)by poet Erez Biton (b.1942 Oran, Algeria)

And so, having said all this, do I still – or have I ever in fact had – roots in Karlin, Belarus?

Lately, researching Belarus and the origins of both sides of my family, I have come to learn that Belarus, too, is to a degree flooded by the very same frenzy of
roots seeking, too which I have been exposed to growing up in Israel: the utilization of the metaphor of "roots" for political and nationalistic rhetoric and propaganda, to wave around like flags of dispossession and belonging.

The manipulations of the concept of "roots" always starts with names. And I discovered quickly that the same furious medley of etymological narratives and disputes attached to the names of places, which is such a major part of Israeli political and historic discourse, is to be found, in slight variations, in Belarus as well: is the name Belarus (meaning, in simple translation, "White Russia") merely a historic fraction of "Mother-Russia", or rather a direct descendant of the ancient land of Rus, mother modern-day Russia? Did it receive its name from the early Christians who sought to differentiate her from pagan "Black Russia"? Or were it the Lithuanian kings who named "White" any land unconquered by the Mongols? Or perhaps it was the Russian Tsars who in turn named thus all lands conquered from Lithuania? Does the name Belarus still hint to the "White" opposition forces resisting the "Red" Soviets? Is it more correct to say Belorussia (linking it etymologically to the Russian) or Belarus (adopted officially since the country’s independence)?

And yet, it is interesting to find that in Belarus too trees play a crucial role: even the most bitter rivals in the historic-semantic dispute over Belraus’ roots might agree that it just might be possible, after all is said and done, the killings and conquests and exiles and hatred, that the name originates, very simply, in the land’s trees: The dazzling Brioza trees, spanning the vast country with long, white, dazzling trunks and branches reaching to the sky.

Once again it is clear: whenever roots are pulled out of the ground, inspected and waved about, it becomes very difficult not to lose one’s self in the endless intertwining layers they leave behind – and, as a result, in us, sons and daughters of these lands.

Thus we learn time and time again, but forget so easily: the attempt to reveal our
roots may be the surest way to uproot ourselves. What was it then that had brought me, by myself, exactly one year ago, to the doorstep of the Pinsk-Karlin courtyard on Hasidey Karlin street in the Me’a Shearim neighborhood in the heart of Jerusalem?

The place where the tree falls – there they shall be.
Ecclesiastes 11, 3

My grandfather passed away seven years ago. When he still had his strength, I recalled, he would visit here, in a white skullcap and a black lawyer’s suit – the dead Yiddish he spoke suddenly set ablaze on his tongue, standing once again in the Pinsk-Karlin Minyan (the crowd of prayers), his body heavy with memories, clumsily but proudly swaying with them – a long-lost son found, I would imagine listening to his stories, lost again in his own recovery.

The memory of my grandfather, may he rest in peace, accompanied me as I found myself under large and colorful banner stretched across the narrow Jerusalem alleyway, reading in black and gold Hebrew letters:

"To all our guest, peace be on you, welcome to Pinsk-Karlin".

All at once, the alleyway seemed flooded, all at once, with a deep, resounding heart-break in me, like a dam breaking and issuing forth the rapid rushing of suppressed remembrance: one long current of that which I had come to realize was a silent cry of agony, my grandfather hid, his whole life, in the small cracks of his voice when he prayed, in the sudden silences of gleaming eyes, distancing and narrowing, when he described the Pinsk and Karlin of his childhood, and then the undying spark of rage that flickered when he moved on to describe the pillaging and wreckage and rubble he found later, of seeing Poles in the home of his murdered sister and her family. And this memory of the smoking ruins of the life he knew would mix, unconsciously, into other stories, into other memories – of Israel, of the stripped and plundered Palestinian city of Jaffa, where he would be given a deserted house, with white linen sheets of exiled strangers still folded in the closet – only several months later after fleeing the plundered Europe.

This heartbreak, this crack in the voice, this silence that gnaws at our words, is something no house can ever relinquish, or shelter, no flag or anthem could ever heal, cover-up or mend – the unfathomable pain and twists of fate and faith folded deep into each other and into the clefts and crevices and contradictions and paradoxes of memory, which no history book, passport or army could ever write, or rewrite, or erase – or explain.

And the question hovered over me in the darkening alleyway, the sun setting over the stones and rooftops of Jerusalem, as Arabic and Hebrew and Yiddish all melded together in the busy nearby street "Shivtey Israel" (the Tribes of Israel): what has brought me here, to Karlin, now?

Where are all those "We"?
How much of them remain?
Oh, grandfather, we have been tricked
Asking for a kingdom but tasting only the pain of its whip
from "Argument with my Grandfather" by poet Shimshon Meltzer (b. 1909 Galicia, d.2000 Israel)

In the reality of the state of "Israel", which claims and wears the name of the people of Israel proudly, but which tears at our ancient roots in order to justify, to whitewash and to dispossess others who fight for that which it once fought for– there has not and will not be room for the dreams, doubts, fears and courage, love and rage, resolutions, contradictions, and pains and pride which are the real stories of our families, of our roots, those which are breathing and ever-evolving within us.

For the act of uprooting has many faces: be it the Israeli establishment’s violent and relentless adoption of the Ashkenazi (Jews of European descent) historic, cultural and religious narrative whilst emptying it of any content and meaning in order to have it rewritten into textbooks and shallow speeches; or be it the Mizrahi (Jews of Arab, Turkish and Persian descent) narrative, which for decades has been relentlessly erased, silenced and trampled. These are two sides of the same coin, of the same currency and mechanism of oppression, leading to the same fate, and the same heartbreaking agony. We, the Jews and Arabs in the land of Israel and Palestine, stand-by and watch our stories, our past and our roots being told by others, melted into masks of lies and twisted into falsehoods for the golden calves of the propaganda, the corruption and the violence of nationalism – In the ever-growing and hungry pretense of sanctity, of holiness, of victimhood.

And at this point we come to realize that in light of the endless attempt to seize them from us, it is precisely then that we must learn, again, to cry out from our roots; refuse to cooperate with the recruitment of our roots by the state and its authorities, but at the same time be careful not to find comfort in a populist collective "returns" and journeys and ceremonies to roots. We must cry them out – and let their outcry be heard from deep within us. Our ancestors have taught us, in their scriptures and in their deeds, that our roots are to be found only in our actions – and not in abstract and empty theory and rhetoric. And so, not to seek refuge in the comfort of nostalgia and false root-seeking, but rather in order to find again the possibility to cry – the possibility of Za’aka – is what brought me to Karlin again – or perhaps, for the very first time.

"It is not enough to collect the materials, to talk about them or even play them. We are demanded to serve a much greater role: to give these songs refuge within us – to sing them!" Cellist and composer Stuchevski, upon being asked what will become of the Hasidic Niggun after the holocaust, "Davar" newspaper, 15.11.1944

When the evening prayer-service in Karlin started I was not prepared at all for the sweeping erosion that seized me, my voice and body: a deep and sweeping undercurrent, unrecognized yet familiar – something you know has been pulling secretly at the tides of my life, of my words, and prayers. The Karliner Cries – a forest of voices and men shaking like trees in wild winds – erupted all at once around me, and within me, digging tunnels through me, through my thicket of unraveled memories, of my family’s fate, the inner exile of our hearts, and souls, from these courtyards of faith suddenly unlocked all at once with this mysterious, ancient key of the Karliner’s Cry.

I held my breath in prayer, in the sudden bewildered grammar of past and future, connected only by a thin string of a wordless voices crying out in prayer. For a brief moment it seemed, that this Cry must be the sound of that tree which falls deep in the forest of our lives, even when no ears or eyes are there to witness them.


After the service, sweaty and tired from hours of dancing and singing, one Hasid came to me and offered me to stay the night at his home, "Tonight you sleep in Karlin" he said with a small smile. The next day he offered to take me to the community’s archive, but could not find the time. "I must pack tonight", he said "I leave tomorrow to Belarus".

"Belarus?" I asked.

"Yes. To Karlin"

"You mean the real Karlin?"

"what do you mean the real Karlin?" he said.

"I mean, isn’t it dangerous, especially like this, I mean – how you are, Shtreimmel (traditional orthodox Jewish headwear) and all?"

"There are places in the land of Israel where it is far more dangerous to walk around dressed in a Shtreimmel…"

I quickly recalled the little I had heard of Belarus, "but isn’t it a police state?"

"Yes" he said very sharply, "but our community there is flourishing, thank the Lord… it is a somewhat a tyrannical regime. You can smell fear everywhere… but sometimes, you know, the surest way to destruct something is to try and preserve it."

"What do you mean?"

"Say the ’democracy’ we have here – when everyone is free to keep busy preserving and preserving themselves, forgetting why or where they come from – is it really any better for a community like ours than a dictatorship – which is busy preserving itself and doesn’t have time to worry about us…?


Twenty four hours I prayed and danced and sung in Karlin in Jerusalem. At such times, in prayer, I always find crystalized the reason trees are such a central symbols for humans: wrapped in Tallitot (Jewish prayer-shall), lips quivering like leaves, eyes shut like heavy ripe fruit on the edges of the branches of our thoughts, and intentions, the trunk of the body swaying slowly with outreached limbs – and only the rustling of our voice from the depths of the body, from roots well hidden inside us – a forest of praying bodies, row after row, growing into the invisible and sharp blade of time’s axe, carrying the realization that our body, like the tree, will eventually shed and wither too, as the Torah brings it "as the days of the tree – the days of my people" (Isaiah, 65, 22). And yet this realization only deepens our recognition that prayer is indeed endless and unfathomable element, a well of waters which know no border, not of land, nor tongue, nor time.

A full day I prayed and danced between the opening and closing gates of past and present Karlin. I cried out. As the Holiday was over I stood again in the shade of the Karlin Sukkah (the festive tent on the holiday of Sukkot commemorating Israel’s salvation from Egypt) – that symbol of home and exile eternally turning within us – and I knew: I did not come here to climb my family tree, nor dig at its roots – but rather to find my
cry. To cry out in order to remind myself that my roots are not a flag, and not a memorial monument or an anthem, they cannot be found in a history matriculation test or a school textbook, not in a state-funded trip to concentration camps in Poland and not in the hypocrisy of speeches by presidents and prime-ministers who whitewash bloodshed with reminiscence; to affirm that my roots are not amongst the countless distortions and inflictions of the machine of nationalism harnessing us and our past to its ill-doings and injustices; to cry out to confirm that our roots are not "beyond the sea or in the sky", as the scripture says (Deuteronomy 30, 14), but always have and always will be "in your mouths, and in your hearts".

In there a thin root sprouts
Like a flower in a young boy’s eye
Who’s spirit awakens
To plant in the world
from "Slowly Soaks the Light" by poet Yaakov Biton (b.1974 Israel)

It is our right (and some will say duty) to question, investigate and search our past in order to better understand our present story, and our ability to write it. More so for those whose story, tongue and heritage have been continuously silenced, dispossessed and erased from the public sphere, the political agenda, the educational system and cultural hegemony; for those refusing to obey the attempts of the rampant state and its authorities to appropriate their story, their heritage and roots.

May the writing and crying and telling of our stories and roots never happen under the patronage of any establishment, regime or authority: the military recruitment, the ceremonies, the textbooks, the museums, the saluting and flag marching, the seminars and guided tours, well subsidized and honed – all are just well disguised Wagons of Pharoh which carry Jacob time and time again back into crueler and more more dangerous forms of enslavement: modern day Pharos who draw us in with riches and state-budgets and grandiose splendor and luxury – camouflaging the golden calves of nationalism and the disaster of exile it brings upon its victims and, subsequently, its victimizers. May we not be misled, for it is spoken written time and time again in our chronicles, from their very beginning: they who are tempted to be carried luxuriously into Egypt on the wagons of Pharoh – are bound to leave harnessed to them.

The root of exile is forgetfulness. The root of Salvation is memory
Baal Shem Tov

There are two Karlins. One in Jerusalem, One in Belarus. An abyss of time, and space, and blood still lies between them. And across it, like acrobats walk the Karliners on the tightrope of the Karlin Cry stretched over the chasm.

For tyranny always has more than one face. It can take form in flesh and (much) blood, or in memory, or in the words. And maybe there is more in common to Belarus and Israel than meets the eye, or we would like to think: forests of flesh pressed every day to the loyal hatchets of brutal force, drawn closer and closer to the reign of fear, and incitement, of the expropriation of our stories and roots and past in order to build a prison for our present, and future: trampling human life in the name of land, destroying land to fit the narrow frameworks of ideology, shoving roots down throats.

Maybe, then, whether in "the last dictatorship in Europe" or in Israel, our subjugation and enslavement first and foremost is not to kingdoms and regimes, and not to memory, but rather first and foremost, to our own metaphors: in our silent collaboration with the idea that our roots – and with them our ability to cry out from them – are buried elsewhere, not within us. Poland, Jaffa, Pinsk, Russia, Jerusalem, Karlin – these places are uprooted, displaced, wither, resurrect, and wither again, uprooted from one land and planted again in another, planted in one man’s heart and uprooted from another’s – ceaselessly changing names, and borders, rulers and regimes.

The Karlin cry is for me, at its core, the possibility to forever find in our roots a voice, a cry, a calling, a reawakening, pain and hope coiled in the ever-lasting possibility to choose, and to resist – to refuse to accept the limitations and restrictions of our body, the enthrallment of our language, the dispossession of our story.

In any place where the possibility to
cry out is taken from us, whether in Belarus or Jerusalem or any place from which we came or to where we are heading – we must know: the space left by any suppressed outcry and out-crier is always effectively replaced by a choir of bulldozers, tanks, ceremonies, and textbooks.

The Karlin Cry – the Zaaka – can be found in many forms. "Quarrying bolders, pathing roads, planting gardens, building houses – all can be done as prayers – In the form of actions… The attempt to overcome helplessness and oppression comes to remind us there are actions which can be prayers, in which the Divine is manifested in the world", wrote Rabbi Avraham Heshel. Our roots are concealed deep in these unfathomable, long cries of our prayers, formulating into the actions of our lives; This is the Karlin cry, which in face of all subjugation and tyranny will forever remain free of border, or regime.

Originally published: http://www.haokets.org/2014/02/01/%D7%95%D7%94%D7%A8%D7%92%D7%A9%D7%AA%D7%99-%D7%A2%D7%A5-%D7%A9%D7%9C%D7%9D-%D7%A0%D7%95%D7%A4%D7%9C-%D7%91%D7%A7%D7%A8%D7%91%D7%99/