I am one of these smudges! This is the mains street in Kiev, only two blocks from my apartment!
I am one of these smudges! This is the mains street in Kiev, only two blocks from my apartment!
Well, one thing is certain: Ukrainians know how to celebrate the Holidays. Really, from the amazing lights which trim the already very charming city streets in central Kiev and the Large ‘tree’ in Independence Square, to the lingering holiday meals punctuated with endless vodka toasts, they throw the full Ruach of the community behind these dark winter celebrations. I am a big big fan. It felt like my entire month of December revolved around celebration. As someone who enjoys event planning, I enjoyed this quiet a bit, and I would not hesitate to say that it was the best Hannukah I have had.
Sushi and Chinese lantern party– This was a party put on by several organizations in the community for young adults. I had been in on the planning process of this party from the beginning, and though it was wildly interesting to see the planning process, I can’t say that I fully understood how it worked. In the end my role was making decorations, which wasn’t as large a role as I would have liked, but it was great to be part of the process anyway. With about 150+ attendants at a stylish sushi resturant in the city center, the party was a great success.
wordpress photo softwear+me= bad news, can anyone help??
The highlight of the evening was certainly when the majority of the 150 guests made their way from the restaurant to the street to light off Chinese lanterns. I was reminded starkly of the American cultural biases, in particular an extreme regard for saftey and liability awareness, I bring, as I squirmed and cringed as the guests set fire to their tissue paper lanterns and lit them into the air. Some didn’t make it all the way to the sky, getting caught in trees and the nearby construction site full of flammable things near by. It was great fun, and something I can be sure would not fly in an American situation.
Various other Hannukah Celebrations- In addition to the celebrations I was part of planning, I attended many community celebrations including: the Brodsky Synagogue where they lit candle simultaneously with four other cities via skype. The Israeli Cultural center’s celebration at the local very posh nightclub, D*Lux where they hosted the band the Shuk and about 800 guests came to dance, and the office Hannukah celebration where we participated in a city wide scavenger hunt and a celebration at a local restaurant they had rented out.
Beiteynu Teen celebration– This celebration really marked a turning point in my work with the teen club. Thanks to a fair amount of promotion and planning we had about 30 teens from Kiev and the surrounding area come for the Shabbat/ Hannukah festivities. The evening included a short Kabbalat shabbat, Hannukah trivia games, a large amount of ponchikies (Russian Sufganiot), and a really nice dinner.
Then came the New Year-
Something I didn’t know until I came to Ukraine: Because all religion was illegal during the Soviet Union Christmas was not as widely celebrated, so instead New Years became their big winter staple. Insted of the western Christmas tree and Santa Claus, in the former Soviet countries they have Uncle frost and a New years tree, both of which are completely secular symbols of the season.
They had a very large New years close to my apartment in Independence Square, Nearly every person I spoke to in the city had an opinion about this tree. Personally I liked it, it was over-the top in the fashion I have become accustomed to things in Ukraine being. They love flair.
I welcomed the New Year with my New roomate Naomi, and my friend’s at the Mosihe House who hosted one great party. It was complete with a gift exchange, glitter and silly string, and enough indoor sparklers to make anyone uptight as me more than nervous.
Luckily for me, because of something to do with the old Julian calendar, the fun didn’t stop with regular old ‘New New year’, but kept on rolling to Ukrainian Christmas, which is celebrated January 7. I was fortunate to get to be invited by my Peace Corps Volunteer friend, Jeremy Borovitz, to his village to celebrate the real way. Only a short 3 hour Marshrutkah (small bus/vans straight out of the Soviet Union) ride out of Kiev we found ourselves welcomed by a very delicious meal cooked by Jeremy. This was all the more impressive because he has no running water and a questionable gas/stove situation.
From Jeremy’s we made his way to his neighbor’s home where they were seated to the traditional meal of 12 dishes (and many others). Though I managed to aquired food poisoning somewhere before arriving to the village, and spent the majority of the evening rather ill, it was a great time and a great snapshot of the ‘real Ukraine’. I also milked a goat and fed some chicken.
My life in Ukraine has become a life lived without apologies. When things go wrong, I find myself saying only ‘thank you’, never stepping backward with apologies. I mean this literally. I can NEVER remember the word in Russian for “I’m sorry”, so on the daily basis when I find myself doing the many things I do for which I want to profusely apologize, the only word that exists in my small (but growing) and not often mighty arsenal of Russian is ‘Spaseebah’, ‘Thank you’.
While I’m sure the people to whom I should be apologizing find this very irritating, its provides to me a daily meditation on gratitude. It has been interesting to notice how oddly appropriate ‘thank you’ is in many instances. Success or failure I give a big ‘Spaseebah’ and have no choice but to move on. No option exists to linger in repentance. In addition to the daily reminder to be grateful afforded me by this frequent occurrence, it reminds me daily that I should spend more time studying Russian. Really, I am here now well over three months, I should know such basic phrases as ‘i’m sorry’ by now. Alas.
With the spirit of gratitude I am grateful to report this week I moved to a new and I think better apartment. Not on the East side, but moving on up indeed. Perhaps it was the omnipresent odor lingering in my other apartment (a special shout out to my Peace Corps friend Avitol Muth for having a very frank conversation with me about just how awful the smell was), perhaps it was the wall paper which glittered in the background of all of my Skype conversations, perhaps it was the lack of feng shui, but for whatever reason I never bonded with my old place, and when I learned I would need to move apartments I did not mind at all (Though, to be clear it was a perfectly nice place, too fancy for me in fact). Additionally, the reason for moving is also exciting. At the end of this month I am fortunate to be joined by another JSC fellow, Naomi (who is now doing very cool work in St. Petersberg). It has been fun to live alone for the first time in my life, but it will be exciting to have some new and interesting blood around.
This move has been a nice physical transformation to reflect a transformation I feel internally and in my time and work here. My old apartment was the same apartment the previous JSC volunteers (who were very very well regarded and left big shoes to fill), and was in everyone’s mind, including my own, ‘Stephanie and Aryeh’s apartment’. It was the place I played eye of the tiger in the morning before going to my very challenging intensive Russian classes, it was the place I spent those early weekend days stumbling upon and not knowing what exactly to do with myself. My new apartment feels like a new skin for my time here. It is brighter, the kitchen is larger, and it is a great way to move into a new phase of my year. In it I feel comfortable. This may be strange, but in the old apartment I felt like a guest, and in this apartment, as I am beginning to feel like in Ukraine, I feel like I reside.
Perhaps getting my sea legs here has been helped by the pace of my work quickly picking up speed. I have continued teaching my American Coffee class in the Hillel, and my Jewish food class at my apartment, both of which are a pleasure. Last week we made Latkes and applesauce, and (to my surprise) none of the participants had ever deep fried anything before, or (not to my surprise) made or had applesauce. It was very fun to teach something new, and to share some American Jewish culture. (Though I did cringe a little at reinforcing the idea that Americans eat such unhealthy food and deep fry everything, ha, oh well…).
I have also continued regular “Warm Home” Shabbat visits to the homes of some of the elderly and home bound Hesed clinets on Friday afternoons. Along with one of the staff members of Hesed I bring some Challah, juice and some candles we make a short and informal Shabbat. I will devote a whole post to this soon, but all of the Babushkas I have visited have been amazing. Kind and grateful, each one has an interesting story and perspective. By far my favorite was my visit to a woman named Svetlana, who was a 71 year old lifelong Kievian and an avid reader, photographer, and toy collector. She insisted I take home with me a book of Russian stories in English (because “what is an old Ukrainian lady going to do with a book in English?”) from her floor to ceiling overflowing library. When I asked her to sign it, she wrote in the cover, in Russian and English, “Don’t worry, be happy!”. I think it is my most prized possession I have acquired in Ukraine and it will be very very hard to top.
In addition to these things and some other odds and ends, my main labor of love has been helping to form a teen club in the Beiteynu family center. This has been hot and cold, but I am looking forward to a Hannukah Shabbat celebration and a winter camp that I am currently helping to plan. If anyone has great insight into engaging Ukrainian teens, please do share with me.
The next few weeks are going to be a deep fried flurry of Hannukah events put on by many many community organizations. I am really looking forward to see how they celebrate here, and look forward to sharing about it here.
Being that it has been so long, I want to backtrack a bit and make sure not to leave out any of the yummy filling. Over Halloween, (which, a piece of Amy trivia: Halloween is my FAVORITE holiday. really. Love all things October 31…) I made my way to Limmud FSU in Odessa.
If you are like me an have never heard of Limmud, you can learn more here, or even better, here, but basically Limmud conferences are Jewish cultural conventions that are held in over 50 countries around the world.”Limmud is a dynamic, pluralistic gathering of Jewish learning. For 30 years, Limmud seminars and conferences around the globe, from Canada to Australia, Switzerland and Turkey, as well as Israel, have been attracting Jews of all ages and backgrounds, including those who have studied Jewish topics intensively and others who have very little practical knowledge. Seminars, lectures, workshops, and discussions focus on an enormous range of topics, from social and political trends within Jewish communities”
And in the spirit of not recreating the wheel-
“A Limmud FSU Conference took place for young Russian-speaking Jews in Odessa, Ukraine, from October 31 to November 2, 2011. It was attended by more than 600 young people from 14 countries, including Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Moldova, USA and Israel. Due to successful collaboration with the European Jewish Union, youths from Germany, France, Belgium, Britain and even from Gibraltar, also took an active part. Limmud FSU for Russian-speaking Jews was established some six years ago and tens of thousands of young people have participated. This was the second Limmud FSU conference to take place in Odessa, a major center of pre-war Jewish culture, and the fifth in Ukraine.”
To be honest I pretty much had no idea what I was going to, but I was really excited to travel to Odessa, which I had heard was a very breathtaking Port city, and there had been a buzz about the conference in the weeks leading up. After a short but rather shaky flight I arrived to the hotel Sunday morning. I was excited to quickly find many of my friends from Kiev had made the Journey also, including the girls who live in the Moishe House, some of my colleagues from the Joint Office, and Beiteynu, as well as various other movers and shakers from the Kiev community.
The first day of the conference was packed with sessions on a variety of topics including assimilation, Hassidism, Jews in fashion and many others (though they were mostly in Russian and mostly lost on me, though I did try to sit in on a couple. The language made the decision to choose all of the musical sessions an easy choice). Things really kicked off though with everyone from the conference boarding several large buses and making our way to a convention center near the seaside for the official opening ceremony. After introducing the many important people in attendance, and some speeches, the fun began. A famous Russian singer and tv personality, Andrey Makarevich a famous Ukrainian Klesmer band, and a band from Israel, The Shuk, brought the house down, and had everyone up and dancing. Ukrainians know how to approach a dance party to with wild abandon and this was no exception.
Another huge part of getting the evening started was the arrival of the delegation of students and young people from all over Europe and Israel, about 30 in total. It was very exciting to have so many other foreigners around, and definitely brought energy to the conference.
Earlier in the day someone had told me that two of the members of The Shuk were American and had made Aliyah, so after the performance I had to play some Jewish geography. Sure enough we knew people in common, people whom I had worked at Eden Village with. I liked this because many of the songs they played through the weekend have a soft place in my heart from my time at Eden Village, it was a really nice slice of home. I thought this was very cool, and a reminder of just how small the world is. (A good friend’s mother shed some insight on this fact for me, ‘it’s not a small world, it’s a small religion’. cool regardless)
The next day was another day of lectures and workshops. I spent much of the day meeting the many other English speakers on who the lectures in Russian were also lost. It was very interesting for me to hear their impression and opinions about Ukraine, and I must say very validating to hear their struggles including: a vegan for whom the meat and potatoes was tough, and those who wished to buy water without gas but were unable to because the labels are in Russian. I was happy to get to share with them things I had learned about Ukraine, and to see others get to experience what a special place this is. A real turning point in my time in Ukraine came as I was speaking with somebody and another person came up and began asking them a question in Russian, and without thinking I turned to them and repeated the question in English and proceeded to repeat the answer in Russian. A beat after I realized what had happened I was on cloud nine. I am actually learning this language! I realized that without realizing it, I had become nearly functional here! (Just to be clear- I by no stretch of the imagination speak Russian yet.. but I’m learning).
The festive mood of the conference came to a crescendo with the second evening “Israeli Club night”. Full of more music and dancing and no shortage of sing alongs everyone danced well into the night. When the club closed the party migrated back to the hotel where about 40 people were gathered singing traditional Ukrainian folk songs and doing traditional dances. It was really an amazing sight of many generations of culture and I felt very blessed they let me dance into the morning hours with them. In the morning my big toe was literally black and blue from dancing.
With sleepy eyes and sore legs the next day we bid farewell to the hotel, to spend the day in Odessa. Luckily for me they had arranged a tour of Jewish Odessa in English for the foreigners and I was able to tag along. Established by Catherine the Great as an international city, Odessa had a distinct flavor from Kiev and the presence of more foriegn influence was evident. I don’t know if I just love seaside cities or it really was that great, but I was very taken with Odessa and I really hope to go back in the summer and see it in all of it’s glory. We saw the famous Opera house as well as a very large and famous staircase, which much to my amusement used to be called, “the big stairs”. Interesting fact about the Opera house: at one point the ground beneath the building began to cave from the weight, so to remedy this the city of Odessa injected liquid glass beneath it to support it. This quickly gave out and they put in steel pylons. Why liquid glass and not concrete? They needed something that would be light enough not to make the ground cave even further. interesting stuff.
It seemed like it had only been a blink and I was back at the airport headed back to Kiev. It turned out that I had the same flight as the Shuk, as well as several other Limmudniks, who were flying home via Kiev, so the few days ended on a very high note with an impromptu show in the airport terminal.I returned home exhausted and overflowing with inspiration and excitement. I met so many people who are doing really amazing things in their communities, it was a surge of energy I had been desperately needing. I also met many people with many interesting project ideas I hope to pursue; in particular a training seminar for Israeli Dance teachers in Ukraine. More on this to come soon. The conference was a real turning point in my time here, and I can certainly say that the Limmud bug bit me and I can’t wait until the next time I have the pleasure.
How about that, it seems my last post was September 19th… and today is November 25th. Well, in my own defense at least it’s not November 26th or worse yet November 27th… right.
What to say what to say? Ukraine is amazing. My Russian is steadily improving and I am continuing my lessons 3 days a week. I have been working to get to know some ins and outs of the Kiev Jewish community and have met some very encouraging successes. I have been fortunate to travel a bit in the country including (pictures coming shortly):
-Shetyl tour with a Jewish educators conference. It was interesting both for the sight and to meet so many interesting educators from all over Ukraine. most notably we visited Mezubush, where the very famous Rabbi, the Baal Shem Tov is buried. His grave is a very spiritual and very famous site.
-a weekend in (what felt like a haunted) old Soviet sanatorium helping with a teen shabbaton weekend in a village about 5 hours outside Kiev.
-Spending Rosh Hashana in Dneiperpetrosk, one of Ukraine’s largest cities home to a very impressive and warm Jewish community. I was fortunate to stay with a Peace Corp volunteer who has been in Ukraine just over a year now, Avitol. She and another Peace Corp volunteer hosted a very inspirational Rosh Hashana Celebration. It was interesting to see the contrast between the very soviet city of Dneiperpetrosk compared with Kiev.
and the best for last..
-I went to a Limmud conference in Odessa. I will devote a whole post to this soon. It was a turning point for me in my life in Ukraine and I can’t say enough about what a cool city Odessa is. I really hope to go back in the summer when the famed nightlife and beaches are in full swing. more soon.
Beside these excursions I have been busy in Kiev doing many different things. I am teaching an American Coffee class in the Hillel. This week I taught about Thanksgiving and don’t think I did justice in explaining just how lovely a holiday it is. I have also recently begun teaching a Jewish cooking class at my apartment. In the first class we made Mandle bread. It was good, next week we will make Latkes!
more soon, love!
Life has a way of feeling slow, but before you know what’s hit you, nearly a month has passed and your days are full and sailing by. I decided last week that bi-weekly posts might be a better pace, but as I feel like I now have too much to report, I am returning to weekly updates. My apologies for the length of this post.
Firstly last week I celebrated the beginning of my 23rdyear of life. Being at the beginning of September my birthday always falls sometime around the new beginnings in my life, but this was the first birthday in 17 years that was not the beginning of a new school year (Though I think I spend more time studying and working here then I did in college. Russian is unrelenting), which was certainly a milestone for me. The occasion was marked with a really sweet celebration thrown for me at the JDC office. Complete with a cake, flowers and gift of some very cool Ukrainian pottery, it was a very heartwarming gesture.
I continued my celebration by visiting a very yummy Ukrainian restaurant near to my apartment. I like this restaurant because 1) Ukrainian food is delicious, think carbs in every shape and butter, mmm and 2) its buffet style, so my extremely poor Russian skills can be augmented with a heavy dose of pointing and grunting. Not very graceful but it gets the job done. Overall it was a very nice day that came and went without a big a bang, which was okay by me. I am however anxiously awaiting the birthday care package of peanut butter and various health food ingredients my parents sent to me for which I am very grateful.
These last two weeks I have begun to cut into the meat of the work I will be doing here. In that vein last Sunday as the big opening day for the Jewish family center Beiteynu, where I will be working with kids from age 5 to 18 doing a variety of programs. More than 100 children and their parents were there to celebrate the first day of activities for the year. Everyone was in high spirits participating in the activities of the day that ranged from a short Jewish history lesson, to arts and crafts, to the activity I participated in, Israeli Dancing.
Jews everywhere love Israeli dancing and with a great teacher, Andre, who actually works at the Joint office, this was a very fun session. It didn’t hurt that it was a nice Indian summer day so we were able to dance in the sunshine. The day culminated with the release of a GIANT balloon adorned with the wishes of all in attendance being released into the atmosphere. Despite my environmental reservations about releasing things into the atmosphere, they certainly kicked things off on a high note.
The folks at Beiteynu already have a robust calendar of events, so this Friday I was able to go along with several staffers and about a dozen high school volunteers on an excursion to spend a day at a boarding school for orphans about 3 hours outside of Kiev. The day began bright and early, and I spent much of the bus ride there listening to two of the high school girls on the bus singing along to many familiar songs in English, Hebrew and Russian. Aha, I thought, English speakers! So I was surprised when I asked them in English about the songs they were singing perfectly along to, they told me, in Russian, they don’t speak English. Funny global world we live in.
“The Ukrainian countryside is oozing with charm; I just can’t get over it. From the robust gardens alongside each home, to the gold capped churches that come from nowhere, to the effortlessly bursting flower gardens lining fences and buildings, every view is really a movie scene. The boarding school was also simple and oozing old world charm. The several white brick buildings connected with grassy courtyards and bright colorful flower lined paths are home to the nearly 150 students at the boarding school.
The students rotated in groups throughout the day through the stations set up by the Beiteynu staff and high school students. The stations included photos with costumes, singing, paper bird making (ha, ‘put a bird on it’, this joke did not translate in the least) and sports. Only adding to the character of the campus was the goat staked in the middle of the grass covered basketball court. I was really blown away by the teenage volunteers; they were just great with the kids and by the time were leaving the children were very sad to see them go. It was a really great day.
I also began my work at the Kiev Hillel last week. I had the first “English coffee hour” which I will be doing each week. I had been looking forward to this a lot, so I had thought long and hard about a short video clip I could share with the group that would be a little something from Portland. ‘What is more Portland than Voo-doo Doughnuts?’ I thought. So I selected a clip from the very popular show ‘Man vs. Food’ where he travels to Portland. The clip opened with a segment about the stepping stone café where they serve 13 inch pancakes in stacks. I looked out at the 20+ young adults in attendance and did not see the usual laughter and amusement at these monstrosities, but rather looks of horror and discomfort. The room filled with audible gasps of shock and discomfort. Around minute 8 in the clip of people stuffing their faces, somewhere around the segment about the jelly blood coming from the doughnut man, it occurred to me this is one of those cultural differences that does not translate… Note to self: Ukrainians DO NOT find gluttony nearly as amusing as their American counter parts. Whoops.
Despite my cultural insensitivity, people were excited participants in my activity about idioms and it was overall a great start to the program. I am really hoping to improve my skills as a language teacher. I also visited the Hillel for their lively Kabbalat Shabbat service, which I will certainly make a habit of attending; they have a very vibrant and warm group of students and young adults and really have a good thing going. In my last two news bits to report, two very fun things: Saturday evening I went for my first time to the Kiev Moishe House. This was very exciting for me because I lived in the Moishe House in Portland before I left to come here and it’s very near to my heart. I will write more about their wonderful home at a future date when I can devote a whole post to their great work.
Finally, yesterday I participated in a global Rosh HaShana flash mob. Read all about it here, but basically these two minute Shofar blows took place in many cities including Jerusalem, Budapest, NYC, Chicago, and Tbilisi, Georgia. Each of the mobs filmed themselves doing a short dance that will be edited into one worldwide video. SO cool and big props to all who put it together here, it was a great time!
Okay, lots of fun stuff coming up, and I promise no more posts this long. Not that you would have gotten this far in reading this if you are of a short attention span, as a close friend said to me when I directed him to my blog, ‘Are their cliff’s notes?’ Takes a true friend to tell you they don’t read your blog :)
Nearly overnight here in Kiev the crisp bite of fall is in the air and the seasons are a-changing. The changing seasons seem appropriate for my period of change and adjustment as I settle into my life here, and has me thinking this week about renewal of all kinds; communal, Jewish, and personal. Also this seems appropriate as we enter the Jewish Month of Elul, the month leading up to the New Year and Yom Kippur, the month traditionally reserved for a period of reflection, evaluation, and transition.
In this spirit, this week children all over Ukraine celebrated 1st September, the Day of Knowledge, which is the first day of school and transition back into regular student life for all Ukrainian students. While I remember the excitement of my first day of school, it is something of a more formal occasion here marked with flowers, balloons and ceremonies with many community officials and the kids singing very cute songs. Students could be seen dressed in their finest, boys in suits and girls with hair bling that would make the Spice Girls jealous. I had the opportunity to visit a local Jewish school and check out the festivities. I think Ukrainian kids are much better sports about putting on public performances and shows then their America counterparts. One of my co-workers remembered when he was a child their teachers preferred they lip synced for their 1st September performances so they wouldn’t mess up. I thought that was pretty funny.
This week I also had the opportunity to get out of the city and go along with some of the office staff on one of their home visits to the homebound elderly clients which are served by The Joint. Most of these clients are classified as “Nazi Victims”, which an official label given to Jews is born in Europe before 1945 (though a person is still a Nazi Victim if they had fled during the war and subsequently returned). After an hour and a half car ride, we visited the homes of two such elderly women. Both homes were tucked far in the countryside, simple and without frills but certainly charming.
One of the women told of her experience as a teenager in the war. After seeing her family and village community lined up to be killed by the Nazis, she managed to flee and hide in the surrounding forest. Eventually she came to a village and was taken in and cared for by a Christian family who took her and made her part of their family. She told us how grateful she was to the family and how they supported her as she grew older, married and had children. When my co worker asked her if she is connected to any Jewish community, or celebrates any Jewish holidays, she told us that she would like to but is the only Jew in the Village. Her disconnect from her Jewish roots was highlighted by the many crosses and other Christian relics decorating the walls along with family photos and memorabilia. The home had been passed down to her by the family. I felt very blessed to hear her story first hand (well, translated first hand…) and felt it reaffirmed to me why I think this idea of Jewish renewal is an important one. She saw and experienced horrible things, and lost her family for a religion and people that were estranged to her. I think we owe her. I’d like to elaborate more about this, but I will the subject for another time, when I can arrange my thoughts and ideas more eloquently.
Finally this week, on the note of personal renewal, my daily Russian lessons are fully under way, and are kicking my butt.
This is one challenging language, and as anyone who has travelled to Ukraine will tell you, there is just no getting around the language barrier here. While I am becoming a bit more functional in day to day life, settling in is also making evident to me how far I have to go. This Shabbos I was invited for lunch into the home of a local family, the husband of which is British, and the Wife American. When they asked about my Russian studies, the Wife asked me without a hint of kidding, “Have the migraines started yet?”I think this about sums up what I have to say. Though challenges abound, I am still enjoying myself and feel blessed every day I wake up and remember where I am. I am looking forward to the coming week, as I will be celebrating my birthday, visiting with more community members, and will hopefully successfully order my juice in Russian for the first time (small, manageable goals right?). Dos veedanya!