The Cycle of Life: A Reflection on the Meaning of Rosh Hashanah
Mira Krapivskaya, a JDC client and lifelong resident of Mozyr, Belarus, reflects on what Rosh Hashanah means to her.
By Mira Krapivskaya - JDC Client | September 1, 2021
Mira Krapivskaya, 80, has endured war and poverty. Born in Mozyr, Belarus at the outset of war, she witnessed the near-extinction and vibrant rebirth of Jewish life across the former Soviet Union. As a former volunteer and now client of her city’s JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center, she is a living testament to Jewish resilience. In this reflection, Krapivskaya talks about what Rosh Hashanah means to her.
If I were to write a book about my life, I’d call it “The Thorny Path.” That’s because, when I was younger, I survived war, buried my husband, and was left alone with two kids. When I was older, when happiness came to me finally, that also didn’t last — my second husband died, and again, I was alone.
Happiness, sadness — they come and they go. Life is a cycle. And that’s exactly what Rosh Hashanah is all about — a return to new beginnings.
I was born in 1941 in Mozyr, Belarus. The war had just started and the Germans occupied Mozyr. My mother evacuated us on a barge. In agony, she gave birth to me on that ship, with nothing to wrap me in. She held me in her arms and prayed to G-d that I would die so that I wouldn’t suffer. I am a mother myself, and I can only imagine what sort of anguish she was in to make a prayer like that.
But G-d had a different plan: I survived. And in 1944, we returned to Mozyr without my father. He’d gone missing during the war. Apparently, he was helping to build a bridge across the Berezina River when German planes attacked. Everyone shouted, “Run for cover!” But my father didn’t make it.
I can’t remember what he looks like. I have only one photograph, which I still look at from time to time.
When we came back to Mozyr after the war, we lived in a 9-square-meter room. My mother was a cleaning lady in Lenin Square. Each day, she and the other cleaning ladies wiped every millimeter of Lenin Square and chopped ice. At age 6, in those morning hours before class, I went with my mother and chopped ice with her. I owned only one dress, which I wore each day to school and cleaned each night.
My mother supported the three of us children, all of whom she had to feed. If she brought home three or four potatoes, then she had to divide those three or four potatoes among us.
We shared the house with a rabbi. On Fridays and Saturdays, people came there to pray. The rabbi served Mozyr and nearby Kalinkovichi, and gave us kids money so that we’d come and learn Yiddish. With the rabbi there, and my mother being so religious, we celebrated all the major Jewish holidays. We also baked matzah in Kalinkovichi — at the time, it was forbidden, so we had to bake it secretly.
We also observed Rosh Hashanah, and on Yom Kippur, my mother fasted. We’d always wait until evening, then she’d let us eat. Forbidden or not, those were the traditions. And we followed them.
When I got married, the rabbi arranged a homemade chuppah (wedding canopy), right there in that room. My husband Boris and I then moved to a town near Kyiv to build an irrigation system. I worked in the laboratory and led a choir of about 100 people. My choir ranked first in the Kyiv region.
Rosh Hashanah is about the cycle of life. Thanks to JDC, I passed on a torch that would otherwise have been ashes and embers.
The town was bleak. In our apartment, rats skittered across the earthen floor. And when Boris died, I was left alone with two small children. My boy was 2 years old, and my girl almost 5.
At the time, I worked at the concrete plant and was also a university student. One day, the plant director came to me and said, “You must finish your studies.”
“But I can’t take the exams,” I said. “I have no time.”
“You need to raise your children,” he said, “and complete your education.” So I went. I earned my diploma and for 37 years I worked as a senior engineer at the plant.
In total, I worked three jobs to support my children. I worked at the plant till 5 p.m., then as a secretary-typist in the evening. On weekends, holidays, and vacations, I completed a course to become a tour guide.
Then I got married for a second time. By accident.
I went away to a local resort and didn’t plan on meeting my future husband. But I did. Semyon and I were penpals for five years. He asked me to move to Minsk, but I told him my mother was bedridden, and that I couldn’t leave her. On my 50th birthday, he moved to Mozyr and we got married.
Each day, Semyon came over and fed my mother lunch. He kept her alive for another year. He took care of her.
I retired at 55 and went to arts school. Then I led a dance club and had 40 children in my studio. I taught Belarusian folk dances, and we performed everywhere.
Then one day, I met a Jewish woman who urged me to teach at the local JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center. So in 1998, I organized what I called the Mishpocha (Family) ensemble. I didn’t really know any Jewish songs, but the elderly clients did. They’d write them down in Russian, and I’d memorize the melodies. At night, I learned the words. The ensemble had 25 people, a real chorus. We sang in Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish. Even in Gomel, the closest big city, they told us that no one sings better than us.
After that, I organized all kinds of clubs and classes. I organized a club for lonely hearts, a culinary club, a Warm Homes group to connect the lonely, and a Jewish educational program for children.
I loved my job very much. I couldn’t live one day without thinking about how to do it better. In fact, it wasn’t my job — it was my passion and hobby.
Now that I’m retired, I don’t just sit at home. I am still very much involved in programs like Warm Homes.
COVID-19 hasn’t kept us apart. We still have online holidays and Shabbat celebrations, and I wish people happy birthday online. The Hesed day center continues to work with us online. Jewish life continues.
A person who’s trapped within their own four walls might begin to grow depressed and anxious. I want the elderly to know that someone cares about them. It is very good that JDC is here to care for us.
My homecare worker helps me so much, too. I love the way she works — calmly, and with great attention. If I want a walk, we walk. If I want to go somewhere, we go. These JDC homecare workers always think about what’s best for us. They want to help us, so that we do not feel alone.
Right now, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, we want this pandemic to end once and for all. We want everyone to be recorded in the Book of Life. We know that G-d exists and thinks of us, that same G-d my mother prayed to on that barge those years back, that same G-d who guided us here to Mozyr so that I could pass on what my family had given me — pass it on and live.
That’s what Rosh Hashanah is about, that cycle. And when I see children with Jewish knowledge, children I taught, I feel nothing but pride. Thanks to JDC, I passed on a torch that would otherwise have been ashes and embers.
When you are remembered — by your Jewish community and by G-d, in the Book of Life — you want to live, to create. I’m 80, and I still want to live and create. In that spirit, I wrote this this poem for you, for Rosh Hashanah:
Rosh Hashanah is the New Year,
When the Chosen People need to report to G-d,
And ask for forgiveness from everyone whom they offended,
And forgive everyone else who has offended them.
G-d sees everything from above.
Three books lie before G-d.
And if G-d forgives you, you will be in the Book of Life.
We wish each other happiness on this day.
Let troubles pass, grief and misfortune.
And may the sweet new year be celebrated by
all our people.
Mira Krapivskaya, 80, lives in Mozyr, Belarus. She is one of more than 80,000 elderly Jews across the former Soviet Union who receive food, medicine, homecare, and more from JDC.