Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Thanksgiving in Russia

Outside of the US, Thanksgiving is a relative non-entity. Fortunately, we were able to find two different ways to celebrate last week.

On Thursday evening, we joined a group of American expats, most of whom work together at the American Consulate, for a progressive dinner through three apartments that are conveniently located in the same building. It was so comforting to be among Americans, eating all of the traditional foods -- stuffing, butternut squash, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and yes, turkey (ok, so maybe just smelling the turkey). To know that we share the same values about diversity, freedom and democracy was more than just comforting. We made a few new friends and despite losing my voice during the course of the evening, I couldn't have been happier, considering that we were away from family and friends on Thanksgiving.

The following afternoon, we were invited to join the Thanksgiving celebration at the American Corner, which is a special cultural initiative of one of the local libraries. (Matt tutors two Russian students there, which is how we found out about the event.) A fellow American gave a PowerPoint presentation on what Thanksgiving is, replete with references to Native Americans and Pilgrims, to about 50 Russian young adults in the room. Afterwards, we played games in Russian-style English and enjoyed some definitely non-American snacks. This celebration was far less authentic, and yet, still rather enjoyable and heartwarming. It's fascinating that Russians equate learning about America and English with success in the business world -- if only it were that easy! We even met one Russian guy at the event who is raising his 3-year-old son bilingually so that he is better prepared to enter the business world. Talk about forward-thinking!

One more highlight from the past week was the International Women's Club (IWC) Winter Bazaar on Sunday. Basically, it was a huge fair run by expat women from around the world to raise funds for local charities, including many of St. Petersburg's orphanages. Each country or vendor had a table -- I helped bake and staff the USA table, of course! We sold American favorites like chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter cookies, snickerdoodles, rice krispy treats, pumpkin scones, banana bread, plus I Heart NY t-shirts, American candy, stickers and pencils for the kids. I'm still waiting to hear about how much money was raised from the event, but it was great to see people from all different backgrounds and cultures come together to create a festive atmosphere and do good in a community that needs more examples of how to do good for others.

Being in St. Petersburg has given us fresh eyes and it's amazing how much we have to be thankful for...Here are a few things that we've learned to genuinely appreciate in America:
  • Having drinking water come out of the taps {or water at all, as witnessed by last week's momentary "draught"}
  • Communicating without language barriers
  • Voicemail
  • Discount airlines
  • True democracy and a police force that looks out for you
  • Toilets in the same room as the sink
  • Large, brightly lit grocery stores with lots of choices
  • Non-meat protein sources (like tofu)
  • Airplanes that stay in the sky
  • Warm, sunny weather

And of course...the number one thing we appreciate about America...
Being close (or at least closer) to family and friends

I hope you'll realize by reading this list just how privileged most of us are. We have so many things -- both physically and spiritually -- we should give thanks more than once a year! Lest you think that we're homesick, though, here are a few things we DON'T miss about being in America this time of year: George Bush, Christmas music in shopping malls, the overworked American lifestyle, commercialism, etc. {Thanks to our friend Erin in India for inspiring this list!}

Since last weekend, things have gone decidedly downhill for me. While recovering from last week's cold, I managed to get an eye infection. Then, without warning, I started suffering from severe lower back pain. To make a long story short, it turns out that I may have a herniated disk. I went to the American Clinic here and was surprised to get American-quality medical care! One more thing to be thankful for...I should have been more thankful for my health, I guess! As of today, my eye infection seems to be gone, but the back still hurts like hell. Hopefully the medication will begin to work its magic. We are far too busy to allow something like pain interfere with our work. After all, it's the end of the year, which means proposals for budget allocations must be submitted in the next week or two!

Monday, November 20, 2006

A Few of our Favorite Things

As of today, it's been exactly three months since we arrived. We've definitely adapted. For instance, we now remember not to swallow the tap water after we brush our teeth, we can navigate rolling suitcases over snow, and we think that anything over 0ÂșC is warm. There are plenty of things that we dislike about living in Russia -- smoking, pollution, high-fat everything, the weather, few to no social services -- but for the sake of staying optimistic, here's a list of some of our favorite things:

Blini and Sirki: The high-fat Russian diet does have a few perks. Alyson loves the ubiquitous blini that you can find on every corner. Basically, they are paper-thin pancakes stuffed with whatever you'd like: cheese and mushrooms or chocolate and banana or even sweetened condensed milk (yum). Matt prefers sirki (singular: sirok), which are miniature rolled cheesecakes, sometimes stuffed with caramel or some other treat, then covered in chocolate. Vendors sell them on the street for a ridiculously cheap 5 rubles (about 20 cents).

The Metro: We used to think that the metro in Washington was awesome. But then we rode the metro here and we've come to love the fact that we never have to wait more than 3 minutes for the next train. More often than not, a train arrives in under a minute and a half! It's simply astonishing.

Snow Removal Devices: Even though the snow season is just getting underway, we've already seen a handful of snow removal devices. And the best part is that they actually work! We've been incredibly impressed by these machines -- we find ourselves staring like small children at the big monsters that gobble up piles and piles of snow!

Opera, Ballet and Performances of All Kinds: We were told that this is the best part of living in St. Petersburg, but it wasn't until we actually saw an opera at the Mariinsky (for about $15 a ticket, mind you) that we really understood what all the hype was about. These productions are amazing -- from the costumes to the choreography to the music. And they never last less than 3 hours! Matt's "entertainment cost/benefit" equation (he hates paying for anything that costs more than $10 per hour) is never, ever called into question. For example, when we went to the classical guitar concert this past weekend, our tickets were $2 each!

The Hermitage: This list would be glaringly incomplete without mentioning the Hermitage, which is a comfortable one-hour walk from our apartment. The art is among the most famous in the world and the palace itself is among the most beautiful in the world. (Think: Versailles with all the treasures of the Louvre inside!) We hope to visit many, many times while we're here, especially since it's free for students, like us. Yes, that's right, we don't have to pay even one cent to spend countless Saturday afternoons roaming around the galleries, taking in all of the Monets, Rembrandts and Picassos that we can stand!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

"I saw my grandmother do this..."

Of all the programs we've launched so far, I think the most rewarding has been Malachei Shabbat (Angels of Shabbat). It only takes trekking up 7 consecutive flights of stairs--most Soviet-era buildings don't have elevators--to understand why. These elderly Chesed clients, who look to the local Chesed for life-sustaining support such as social worker visits, home-cooked meals, and food packages, are in desperate need of support from their Jewish community. And, when your breath is coming in gasps after schlepping up those seven flights of stairs, it's no wonder that many of these people haven't left their apartment since the fall of Communism--they would never be able to get back!

We made two different home visits this week, one on Wednesday and one on Friday. For the sake of simplicity, I've lumped the photos into one Snapfish photo album. Here is a pretty cool picture from our Wednesday visit to Esther Israelovich, who has lived in the same single room in communal apartment since 1963, sharing a kitchen and bathroom with as many as 15 other people. While we were there, she brought out pictures of her family members, all of whom passed away a long time ago, leaving her alone in the world. She also brought out her medal from the Leningrad Blockade, which was really a special memento for us to share.

On Friday, I brought two Russian students, Masha and Toma, to visit Elena Evgenievna. We expected her to be alone, but when she heard that young people were coming and bringing Shabbat to her, she invited over two of her friends! We had a wonderful discussion, but the video of her lighting Shabbat candles is maybe the best I've taken so far. Here is a lady who grew up in Vitebsk, with her parents and grandparents speaking Yiddish, but under the Soviets she was forbidden from having any Jewish education or practicing her religion. So she had never lit the Shabbat candles before in her life. As she says in the video, "I saw my grandmother do this." It was amazing to have such a window into the past, and to be able to help this Jewish lady connect to her deceased relatives.

In our free time, we have launched a new program, call the "Let's Have More Fun" initiative. You see, in our free time we used to sit at home and relax. I watch tv, Alyson cooks or was a pretty boring state of affairs. But we've decided to have more fun, including getting out of the house and experiencing the sites and sounds of Petersburg. Over the past couple of weeks, we've gone to the Hermitage, which is everything that everyone says it is; Alyson went to a cake tasting through the International Women's Club; this past weekend we went to the art studio of artist Aron Zinshtein; and last night we caught a guitar concert at a local concert hall. Although these activities cost money, we've been able to make ends meet and had a lot more fun in the process. By the way, I still haven't found a word in Russian for fun...go figure.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

"Getting It"

As you can tell from my previous posts, the work here can be pretty tough and draining sometimes. We struggle to make sure the people we are working with, be they professionals or children, "get it." What does that mean, you ask? Well, I can't define it exactly, but it happens when an individual suddenly understands that the Jewish people, wherever they live, are linked and responsible for one another (said beautifully in Hebrew, kol yisrael arevim zeh l'zeh). Moreover, "getting it" involves more than just arriving at this realization--it involves a commitment to take action and make a difference in the world. In order to "get it," one has to open their mind and heart, which is difficult in these tumultuous times. Helping this community "get it" has been a real challenge and can really leave us mentally and physically exhausted. But occasionally, we have powerful experiences that re-charge our batteries and give us the energy to get from one day to the next. After the antics and hijinks of Thursday night's run-in with the St. Petersburg police, we had two moving moments over the past two days.

First, on Friday night, we partnered with St. Petersburg Hillel--conveniently located down the hall from our office--on "Amerikansky Shabbat." The idea was simple: to bring American tunes, spirit, and even cuisine to Hillel for one special Friday night. We were excited as services began and our little gathering kept expanding, and expanding, and expanding--in the end, nearly 40 people attended!

I lead the services, teaching a Carlebach tune that I love and generally leading a typical Conservative Friday night service. After many years of Hebrew Day School, Camp Ramah, and Hillel, it was great to share my traditions with the young people here. But more importantly, I shared some important concepts that I thought would maybe impact the crowd. For example, we started with an icebreaker designed to get the Russians meeting each other and creating new relationships (see my post about introductions, below). We also talked about the amazing amount of choice in America where, in the city of Washington alone, one can choose from over 60 synagogues and a dozen Hillels (in stark contrast to St. Petersburg's three options of Reform, Chabad, and Hillel). I spoke in my bumbling Russian, with regular help from a student who volunteered to be my translator, and I think the students appreciated my attempt to speak their language.

Alyson's contribution, as always, outshined mine. She baked both oatmeal and chocolate-chip cookies, cut vegetables and made dip, and generally created a smorgasbord of food. We were even able to have bagels and cream cheese delivered to YESOD for the students; the bagels were donated by a local baker that we contacted. As we sang "Shalom Aleichem," "Hineih Ma-tov," and "V'shamru"--to the same tunes that Jews all over the world sing--we realized that these students were starting to get it.

The next night, we were invited to another unique event that reinforced why being posted in St. Petersburg is so special. We had a group of influential donors in from Norfolk, Virginia, as well as JDC's head of fundraising. Everyone around the table "got it"--these people were willing to sacrifice their time and energy, talk to complete strangers, and give generously of their financial resources, for the sake of helping the global Jewish community. We had a fantastic conversation, and there was a very interesting dynamic going on throughout the meal. As we were recharging our batteries from seeing just how committed and dedicated these lay leaders were, I think they were also gaining strength and rejuvenation from seeing the passion that we brought with us to the table and this foreign city. It was a meaningful evening that we won't soon forget.

Of course, we also have to have some fun, and this weekend we finally made it to the Hermitage! This is a picture of us in the tsarina's dressing room, one of thousands of rooms in the Winter Palaces.

To see the video we took, Click here.

For pictures, click here.

Go Hippos!

We were mentioned in the newest GW alumni newsletter. It's mostly accurate...a few inconsistencies here and there, but it's nice that GW mentioned us :-)

Friday, November 10, 2006

Culture, Craziness and Corruption

If Russia was a fraternity, we were initiated last night. It was a night we won't soon forget.

The evening started off innocently enough -- we went to see the opera Madama Butterfly at the famous Mariinsky Theater with a large group of friends. The theater and the production were fabulous, easily living up to the hype, although Matt wished that the three acts could have performed in less time than the 3 hours and 45 minutes that it took last night. It was the first time we had been there; we are now going to try to find ways to go as many times as possible for the theater closes mid-winter for rennovations. To see the Kirov ballet perform in its home theater would be spectacular and certainly a highlight of our year here.

After the opera, on our way to a well-known local bar, we went in search of blinis or some other late-night snack, since many of us had not had a real dinner beforehand. Matt and I had agreed to stay out past midnight, when the metro shuts down, so we were not in any rush, especially once we had learned that our tour of YESOD scheduled for the next morning had been postponed. We stopped for pizza on Nevsky and, after a quick nosh, went on our way to the bar. The bar we chose was Dacha, which is supposed to be a kitschy Soviet-era relic of a bar. Turns out it's more of a tiny, run-down Russian hole-in-the-wall. Quite literally, there was a hole in the wall. After a few rounds of vodka shots, we were dancing like lunatics to retro 80s tunes.

Eventually, the six of us decided to leave and hail cabs back home. We got as far as one of the city's main drawbridges to realize that it was open, meaning we were stuck on that side of the city and wouldn't be able to get home to our island. We had heard stories of the bridges opening in the middle of the night to allow for the boat traffic to get through, but since we rarely stay out past midnight (thanks to the metro), we aren't familiar with the bridge schedule! It's a rite of passage to get stuck with the bridges up. Fortunately, we didn't have to wait outside in the cold for more than 20 minutes before the bridge went down and we were able to safely walk across and hail another cab home.

However, those 20 minutes were some of the most memorable of my life. This story has been removed from our blog at the request of our supervisors. It is deemed to be inappropriate. If you want to know what happened, please email either of us and we'll happy share the story with you via email.

The most important thing is that we got home safely...with some great Russian stories to share!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

It's Always Precipitating in Sennaya Ploschad

OK, so this inside joke requires a LOT of explanation. First, Sennaya Ploschad is a major Metro stop in the center of the city--it is where we get off to go to the synagogue, teach at EVA (here's a recent picture from my English class), and go out at night. In the summer, it was ALWAYS raining there--even on beautiful days, like Rosh Hashanah this year, there would be a sunshower when we got off the Metro. And now that the snow is coming down basically every day, the rule holds true: it's always prescipitating in Sennaya Ploschad.

Let me get the little things out of the way. First, weird sports alert: on television over the past few weeks, I have seen the men's world championship of ping pong, which featured two North Koreans, so I didn't know who to root against more; women's handball; bocce ball, which I didn't understand at all; more sumo wrestling; and competitive darts. Also, remember that you can see the fully-captioned slideshow of the camp, which will tell you what we did on a day-to-day basis, by clicking here.

Let's start with the first day, where we ran smack into a tremendous cultural barrier. We didn't realize this going in, but Russians aren't big on introductions; they basically assume that if you're in the same place at the same time, it's not necessary to share your name or other biographical'll get to know each other soon enough. So here we are, expecting to shake hands and learn about all these dynamic young counselors at camp, and only ONE person came up to introduce themselves. As you would expect, all of the orientation, staff meetings, and activities were held in Russian, so we were only able to pick up snippets here and there. The feeling we felt on that first day--surrounded by 70-some campers and a dozen counselors--was one of crushing loneliness.

Eventually, the kids and counselors did warm up to us. I played soccer and ping pong with the boys, and Alyson played cards and hung out with the counselors and some of the girls. At night, when the kids were having their discotech, we would relax in our room and read or play cards. By the end, the kids really did enjoy saying "Hello" to us in the hallways. In fact, the last night of camp (when the kids stayed up all night!) our door was knocked on late into the night/early morning as kids invited us to play cards, ping pong, etc. Now, we know that these kids aren't going to be our best friends for life; in fact, if they remember our names or a single English word we taught them come the January Adain Lo Winter camp, I'd be surprised. But that's not important; the part of our mission we really care about is the long-term impact. Have we been able to communicate that the American Jewish community cares about them? Have we been able to instill these kids with a sense of pride and excitement about their Jewishness? And, most of all, do they understand that there are people in this world who are willing to drop everything--successful careers, a caring community, their comfortable lifestyle--because there are Jews in need thousands of miles away?

Monday, November 06, 2006

We're Back from Camp!

We have a boatload of work to catch up on--I came back to 160 emails! We'll share all our insights and opinions very soon. In the meantime, check out the pictures. Once again, I've fully captioned them so you'll get the full story, and even a handful of fun videos, by clicking this link.

Unity Day: Jewish or Russian?

Today is a Russian national holiday, dubbed the National Day of Reconciliation and Unity. It is only two years old; before 2005, the holiday was celebrated a day later, on November 7, in tribute to the Bolshevik Revoluntion of 1917. Ironically, the holiday seems to bring out ultranationalist sentiments, which only widen the gap between Russians and other nationalities living in Russia. An article from the Los Angeles Times captures the situation from this past weekend: In Russia, schisms are evident on unity day.

This brings me to a point that continues to beguile us: Judaism as a nationality. We are so comfortable in the US with being both Jewish and American. There is no inherent contraditiction to us. One is a religious identity, the other a nationality. Here, apparently, you are either Russian or Jewish, certainly not both. Judaism does not really exist here as a religious entity; it is far more a cultural entity. And, since the Jews of Russia are not "ethnic Russians" (whatever that means), they identify ethnically as Jews. The locals seem to be ok with this idea. After all, many of them are proud to be Jewish, despite undertones of anti-Semitism. They want to be able to openly place greater value on their connection to other Jews (in Russia, Israel or abroad) than to other Russians. Frankly, one of our Jewish Service Corps colleagues who is posted to Kiev has tackled this issue much better than I can on her blog. I urge you to read her posting to understand the confusion that exists on this topic.