After entertaining the idea for many months, my husband, daughter, and I traveled to the kever of Rav Yeshaya Steiner, the legendary Reb Shaya’le of Kerestir, located in northeastern Hungary, near the border with Slovakia and Ukraine. I have to admit that the war in Ukraine did give us pause, but we thought about Israelis who hear that we are from New York and ask if we know their relatives in LA because both are located in the US. Hungary borders Ukraine but we figured that it is still quite a distance from the fighting. We overcame our reservations and kept our reservations.
Reb Shaya’le was the Rebbe in Kerestir from the end of the nineteenth century until he died in 1925. He was renowned for his extraordinary hospitality and unusual devotion to helping the needy. He was also known to be a tzadik and a miracle worker. As such, thousands of chassidim came to his court. Over the last few years, it has become quite popular for people to go to daven at his kever, particularly on his yahrtzeit, which is on the 3rd of Iyar. I’m proud to say that we also have a family connection to Reb Shaya’le. My mother-in-law’s first cousin was married to Reb Shayale’s daughter.
We flew to Budapest and then drove for two-and-a-half hours to Kerestir, passing through miles of nature and then the vineyards near Kerestir. The town of Kerestir seems quite old and isolated, with few inhabitants. We drove along the windy local roads until we reached the small Jewish cemetery situated on a hill above the town. When we got out of our car, the sudden flurry of snow caught us by surprise. We walked past the guard’s booth and entered the site of the grave where we found a handful of people davening. There were many kvitlach (written requests) behind his headstone. We davened there along with the others for a good long time. When we walked out of the structure, we found a bowl of water with a few washing cups. As there is no running water in the cemetery, my daughter was wondering if she should wash with the water that had already accumulated in the bowl. Before we had a chance to contemplate the situation, the non-Jewish female guard came running out with a bottle of unused water and told my daughter in no uncertain terms not to use the water in the bowl. She was well-versed in the minhagim related to impurity at a Jewish cemetery.
There are currently two guest houses and shuls operating in Kerestir in memory of Reb Shaya’le - just a five-minute drive from the kever. We went to the guest house that is located in what was once Reb Shayale’s house. We were greeted by the man in charge of the house. He comes from Belgium and is part of a rotation that comes for ten days at a time to oversee the hospitality. He offered us a choice of a milchig (dairy) or fleishig (meat) meal. No charge. We went into the milchig dining area and found a lovely spread of rolls, tuna salad, egg salad, vegetables, cake, cookies, and surprisingly, even Taster’s Choice coffee. The food was delicious and plentiful. While we ate, we noticed the kitchen staff bringing a lovely meal of soup, hamburgers, kugel, and potatoes out to the meat dining room. It looked quite appetizing as well.
We met a few other visitors and, of course, we struck up conversations with them. We spoke with Chaim*, who lives in Israel and was in the area for business. He seemed to be very familiar with the guest house and shul, as it’s the closest shul to Debrecen, where he travels for business. He said that people of all types and stripes pass through the guest house. When they meet, the barriers that normally stand between them disappear. They all connect and help each other. Chaim demonstrated this himself when we mentioned that the phone charging cable we brought from home did not fit in our car rental. He went to his car and came back with an “extra” adapter that he had in his car, which he happily gave to us. So heartwarming from a total stranger, even if he was a landsman. Chaim also shared with us his theory as to why so many people from Israel flock to kivrei tzadikim in Europe. After all, there is no shortage of kivrei tzadikim to visit in Israel. He believes that Israelis prefer to visit kivrei tzadikim that require passing through duty-free on the way. Hmm. He may have a point there.
Then we met Boris*, a young man from Ukraine who happened to be out of the country when the war began. Now his parents are telling him not to return. His father and brother are legally forbidden from leaving the country due to their age, so the rest of his family is stuck there. He is currently looking for work and an apartment. If he doesn’t find something soon, he will move on to another destination. His future is very uncertain. He mentioned that he has family living in Muncacs. We are acquainted with two people who live in Muncacs from a roots trip that we took eleven years ago. We had met a man named Yankel*, who had agreed to accompany us to a far-out Ukrainian village and serve as our interpreter. We were pleasantly surprised to hear that Boris was Yankel’s nephew. He immediately called his uncle on the phone and we were able to reconnect with him. We were very happy to hear that Yankel’s daughter moved to Israel three years ago.
We also met nineteen-year-old Eliav*, another refugee from Ukraine. Eliav, too, is originally from Israel but had been living in Uman for the last year or so. Eliav is a real Breslover and he was very unhappy to leave Uman, where he had been so happy. But he felt he had no choice due to the war. There are many explosions in the area. Eliav’s car was bombed in Kiev. He is grateful that it was just his car that was destroyed and that he is safe, baruch Hashem. Eliav told us about the fifty to sixty families from Israel living in Uman who thankfully already left Ukraine. But Eliav has some single friends who are not willing to leave despite the danger. He tries to convince them to join him, but they remain resolute. Eliav’s plans are also up in the air. His parents would like to see him back in Israel, but he is exploring other options. We took him back to Budapest with us, where his mother secured a place at the local Chabad for him.
On our way out, we stopped off at the kitchen to see the inner workings of the hospitality. There were large quantities of vegetables and basic cooking staples. A tantalizing aroma wafted from the kitchen as several people were preparing what promised to be a delicious dinner, which included meat and wings. Reb Shayale’s original oven is not in use but still stands in the kitchen.
As we drove back, Eliav spoke longingly about life in Uman. He enjoyed the quiet and freedom he experienced there. He davened three times a day at the kever of Rabi Nachman and he worked in kashrus, which seems to pay quite well. All his needs were met there. One Friday, he didn’t have fish for Shabbos, so he went ice fishing and immediately caught a six-kilo fish. Eliav explained that one does not need to take driving lessons in order to get a driver’s license in Ukraine. One just needs to pay the fee for the license. As a result, very young boys can be seen driving cars. While he does acknowledge that there may be more car accidents due to this system, he explains that this is how it is.
When we reached Budapest, we parted ways with Eliav and wished him hatzlachah in finding his way, both literally and figuratively. We wish the same for all of the Ukrainian refugees who now must make major changes in their lives.