World Traveler: A weekend in Berdychiv. The Hassidic experience

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April 19, 2012, 10:21 p.m. | Travel — by Vlad Lavrov

Berdychiv Synagogue

BERDYCHIV, Zhytomyr Oblast – The first impression is difficult to forget. In the case of Berdychiv, a mid-sized city in Zhytomyr Oblast some 150 kilometers southwest of Kyiv, the first impression was about booking a local hotel. Berdychiv, as it appeared, was all about perseverance.

As my friends and I planned a weekend trip to Berdychiv, our top choice was a hotel called Deja Vu in the very downtown, located in a nicely renovated 19th century building.

The problem was that the hotel administrator also knew that this hotel is the primary choice for visitors, and she intended to use this knowledge well. As the result, the hotel felt obliged to make the process of reservation as tough as it gets.

Despite our willingness to take a Hr 700 suite and resolve the accommodation problem as quickly as possible, the hotel wasn’t willing to give in so easily. Instead, the manager demanded an Hr 50 deposit.
This, in itself, wouldn’t be a problem, had the hotel, which advertises itself as a “four-star European level” establishment, had an online booking system on their website. They did not. Instead, we were told by the administrator to wire the deposit through a bank to a cumbersome 20-digit account number dictated over the phone.

When we finally got to the hotel, it was around midnight. The administrator, a tense woman in her late 20, greeted us with a rather unconventional: “We were really worried about you.” Her strict tone made it clear that our deposit wasn’t enough to persuade the hotel we were trustworthy enough clients for them.

Yet, the mystery of the hotel employee’s nervousness dissipated as soon as she realized the proficiency of our skill in using the credit card terminal.

It turned out that the entire hotel, except for our suite, was booked by a group of Hassidic Jews, who were in town to pay honors to Rabbi Eliezer Lieber and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdychiv, prominent preachers and theologians buried there.

The Jewish cemetery gives visitors a glipmse at the life of the once vibrant Jewish community, only shreds of which remain. (Oleksiy Shevchenko)

The Hassids’ occupation of Deja Vu was also the reason why the hotel restaurant wasn’t working as usual, and why breakfast had to be ordered in advance.

Our room actually turned out to be very cozy. It overlooked the famous Berdychiv Synagogue, which is no longer used. In the morning, we could see a group of men dressed in black hurrying inside a nearby regular one-story house used for religious purposes.

What used to be a 19th century-built choral synagogue, in the mid-60s was turned into a glove factory, and is now standing completely abandoned.

It’s not that the city wasn’t willing to give it back to the Jewish community. World War II and the ensuing decades of immigration have diminished the local Jewish community vastly, so it no longer has use for a grand 1,000-seat building, the first one in the Russian Empire specifically designed to accommodate a choir.

As we came out of our room in the morning and headed for breakfast, we almost stumbled upon one of the pilgrims who stood in front of the window next to our room, looking at the abandoned synagogue in what seemed to be a silent prayer.

He was in his early 30s, wearing a heavy black silk coat, with such square shoulders that it seemed greatly oversized. In addition, the Hassid wore a fur hat and long white socks, and his sudden appearance was rather startling.

Obviously aware of the effect his appearance had on strangers, the pilgrim smiled and waved at us. We waved back. Even though our smiles may have looked a little strained, reflecting of lingering feeling of unease, somehow, it felt as if for a moment we understood each other.

The breakfast, especially the smooth and creamy homemade cottage cheese with honey, turned out to be great and almost worth the trouble of ordering it last night.

Still ahead of us were two days in town, no less famous for its Catholic sights than for its Jewish heritage, not to mention the fact that the great English-language writer Joseph Conrad was born here.

To add to the town’s list of attractions, the equally prominent French author Honore de Balzac married a local rich lady, Evelina Hanska, in Berdychiv’s St. Barbara Church.

Yet, it felt like the main discovery that Berdychiv was going to offer, had already happened. It was to do with the experience just minutes ago, when we were glued to the windows of our suite, looking at the old abandoned synagogue and the seemingly endless chain of revelers, coming in and going out of the building which serves as its replacement. We were amazed at their perseverance and feeling sorry for their local kin, gone long ago.

Kyiv Post staff writer Vlad Lavrov can be reached at

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