The Beginning of Fall and a Visit to the Countryside

4 Sep

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.

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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.

My home away from home where I take Russian classes

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!

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