Saturday, December 30, 2006

S'novum Godom - Happy New Year!

While Communism robbed the Jews of Russia of many of their religious practices, it had a similar impact on the local Christian population. As a result, Christmas here was re-configured: some aspects were maintained, others ditched, and some simply changed for the sake of convenience. For starters, all celebrations were moved to January 1 and the holiday became New Years. Santa was replaced with Dyod Moroz , Grandfather Frost, who gives out gifts with his granddaughter escort, Snegurochka (Snow Maiden). Christmas trees are renamed "yolka" and are decorated with non-religious symbols.

Judging by the traffic, the crowds in the malls and the ridiculous mob scenes in most public places today, EVERYONE celebrates the holiday. Even though it may seem strange to us for Jews to buy fir trees and take pictures of their children with old men in red suits with white fur trim, it is completely normal around here. Thus, it was no surprise to us that the theme of the week-long Adain Lo children's camp we attended this past week was "New Years." Each day celebrated a different type of new year on the Jewish calendar: Rosh Hashanah, Tu B'Shvat, the new year for animals and Passover. And in honor of the Russian new year, the last night of camp concluded with a small fireworks display.

Our camp experience this time around was far more enjoyable, especially since we knew what to expect. We did a better job of bringing kosher food with us, so that we could actually enjoy mealtimes; likewise, we did a better job of bringing books and DVDs to help us enjoy the unstructured free time. We interacted with the children far more, especially since we posted daily trivia questions to our door (yes, in Russian, thanks to the help of our fellow counselors). The kids knocked on our door all hours of the day and night (even when we had a "we're closed" sign up), excited to answer the questions and win candy in exchange. Hopefully, they learned a thing or two in the process.
We don't have any real plans for the holiday weekend. We are enjoying the quiet time mostly -- watching movies at home with a glass of wine in hand, visiting the local Yusopov Palace this afternoon (where Rasputin was killed), and gearing up for the EVA family camp next week. Tomorrow night, we'll wander around downtown, hoping to catch a glimpse of real Russians celebrating New Years, Russian style.

If you're interested in learning more about the Russian/Jewish dimension of the Russian New Year, here is an interesting article by a Russian Jewish woman who moved to America and struggles with her identity around the holidays:
December Dilemma, Russian Style
Caught between the fir tree of the old Soviet days and the menorah
Yuliya Chernova December 22, 2006 The Jewish Week

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Eight Crazy Nights!

You might think that Chanukah and the start of winter would slow down life in St. Petersburg, but you'd be wrong. Chanukah this year has been crazy. During the day, we are preparing for being away from the city for the next 5 weeks--that's right, a week teaching at the Adain Lo winter camp, a week at EVA's camp, and three weeks in Israel. In the evenings, we attend many of the various community events that celebrate the Festival of Lights. Bill Bryson once commented that English has plenty of words for "vacation"(see them here) but it really needs a word for all the work that happens before you leave for vacation (not to mention, a word for sifting through your 500 emails after vacation!). This Chanukah, the only light around here is busy burning the midnight oil!

Just to give you a sense of what's going on on this side of the world, here's a rundown of what we've been doing each evening:
First night of Chanukah - Chanukah started with a bang, with three celebrations in one day! First, we participated in a ceremony here at YESOD, with about forty people coming to see the menorah lit. What makes this menorah so special is that it's 15-feet high! The rabbi joked that he felt like a cosmonaut going up on the machine to light the candles. Then, in the afternoon we went to the Jewish War Veterans' building for their festive banquest, celebrating Chanukah, Shabbat, and the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Moscow commemoration. It was a beautiful, moving ceremony, with a contingent from Moscow arriving to tell their stories of this famous battle. It was fantastic to meet Jewish heroes who risked their lives to fight the Nazis, though I was saddened to think how many of these people's friends, colleagues, and fellow soldiers were not able to join us. To our surprise, we were suddenly "enlisted" (like the pun?) to help with the ceremony, as we were the only ones in the room that knew the Hebrew blessings! We wrapped up the celebrations with a quiet Shabbat dinner and a little dreidl-spinning at home.
Second night - Although Alyson might disagree with me, this was the night where I had the most fun, because I didn't have to do any work! Our Chabad friends, Bentzi and Leah, invited us over for Shabbat lunch (so far, we have yet to be invited over by a Russian family; Israelis here, like Bentzi and Leah and Menachem and Lilach, have shown us tremendous kindness and hospitality). There was such an interesting crowd of people at their house: Russians who live in Israel, Israelis who live in Russia, and we met a few representatives of a small but growing group of Russians who made aliyah but have returned to Russia for a host of reasons. Anyway, the conversation was lively and we ended up staying there till 5:30 for candle-lighting and singing. Bentzi is awesome: as soon as we were done with Shabbat zmirot, we started Chanukah singing; when that was over, he turned on Matisyahu and started singing that!
Third night - This was our big night, and our contribution to the SPB Jewish spirit. We hosted our own Chanukah party, with twenty-five adults and five children coming for Alyson's home-made latkes and kugel, store-bought sufganiot, songs, laughter, and more. Unfortunately, though we invited dozens of our Russian friends, only five actually showed up. This is just another bizarre cultural barrier that we've come up against: we aren't invited to Russian people's homes and, in general, it seems that they are uncomfortable coming to ours. Or maybe they're just too busy: we've definitely noticed that Russians work longer hours, including Sundays. Regardless, opening our home is our favorite activity: Alyson makes the food, I do the shopping and cleaning, and we both have fun as we get to know the people who live on this side of the world.
Fourth night - Anglisky Club rocks! Alyson organized a party for her Anglisky Club, inviting some of our native English-speaking friends and setting up a nice festive meal. We talked about Chanukah, and the students got to know two of our friends. From left to right: Misha, Autumn (American), Alyson, Lera, Alina, Olga, Genia, Alisa, Yura, and Tamara (British). What was crazy was that, for many of the attendees, it was their first time spinning a dreidl or lighting a menorah. So we were excited to lead them in saying the blessings and enjoying the festive Chanukah spirit.
Fifth night - We went to the synagogue for a fun celebration of Chanukah with SPB's Israeli community. As I mentioned above, Bentzi is Israeli, and loves Israeli rock (he and I have been known to belt out some of our favorite songs). So, he organized a community-bulding dinner for SPB's Israeli expats at the kosher restaurant. Alyson and I went, not knowing that a famous Israeli rock star, Micki Gavrielov (the original composer of the well-known song "Oof Gozal"), would be there! We enjoyed the music, kosher chicken, humus, and getting to practice our Hebrew. Unfortunately, my Hebrew lives in the exact same part of my brain where my Russian lives, so they get mixed up all the time. It was frustrating, but comical at the same time.
Sixth night - This was a huge night for the St. Petersburg Jewish community. Every year, one of the Jewish oligarchs rents out the largest venue in SPB, Ledovy Dvoryets (the Ice Palace - think of an arena the size of the MCI Center or Orlando Arena), and hosts a gigantic Chanukah extravaganza. I was expecting something like a mainstream concert with some Jewish bands, but the groups that played were just strange. You'll think so, too. In the picture is a women's singing group from Belarus; the words say "Chanukah - 5767. "Check out the videos of the Accordion Rock singer who looks like Elvis (Video #1 - Video #2). And then there's the Jewish rock American-Idol-wannabee (Video) who sang in Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish, and had a bunch of gyrating backup dancers. We actually found the concert to be kinda boring, as most of the songs were in Yiddish (only in Russia!) and we didn't get any of the jokes.
Seventh night - Alyson has a conference call to prepare for the Pesach Project. I'm finishing up the work I needed to do to get ready for the Adain Lo camp. Compared to the other nights, this one is extremely low-key and a lot less fun!
Eighth night - Late Thursday night, we were invited to Elazar and Leah's - another Chabad couple who heard about us from their friend, Rabbi Kot (who had us at his house in Tallinn!). It's definitely a small world! So we enjoyed Shabbat dinner at their house, where they have three very cute kids all under the age of 9. The conversation was very nice, although they speak very little English and my Hebrew is constantly getting mixed up with my Russian in a frustrating, but also quite comical, language tzimmes. Because the kids go to bed early, we were home by 9 pm or so, which was really nice.

As a quick aside, you can subscribe to our videos on YouTube, so you'll get an email every time I post a video there. I'm not quite sure how to do it, but start by registering your own username, and then try it by clicking here.

Hope you have a great end of your Chanukah!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

From the JDC Website

Thought you'd all be interested in reading this snippet from the JDC website:
Roslyn Z. Wolf Cleveland - JDC Fellows Begin to Make Their Mark at YESOD in St. Petersburg

Friday, December 15, 2006

Modern Miracles - Happy Chanukah!

“Arkady was the only Jew I ever shared a cell with in the gulag. We celebrated Hanukah together in Chistopol prison in 1980, lighting pieces of wax paper we had stashed away for months and hoping they would last long enough for us to say the prayers over them.” -- Natan Sharansky

This quote (thank you, Erica Brown) illustrates poignantly that miracles of Jewish existence aren't a matter of biblical history here in Russia. The fact that there is a vibrant and active Jewish community here in St. Petersburg today, after over seven decades of atheistic and deicidal Communism, is truly a modern-day miracle. This afternoon, a giant menorah was erected and lit outside of YESOD--a triumphant display and testament to the vibrancy of Jewish life in the face of the ultimate adversity.

As today's bright blue sky fades to darkness and we light the first candle of the menorah, Matt and I wish you and your loved ones a warm, bright, happy and healthy Chanukah from around the world. May the light of this year's Chanukah candles remind us to appreciate our freedoms as American Jews and give us the courage and strength to be a "light unto the nations."

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Russian is Really Hard...

Last night, Alyson and I had a really fun group of guests over to our house. First, we were SO excited to be able to have a nice apartment with lots of chairs, so we can accomodate a large group of people (we're expecting 30 on Sunday for our Chanukah party!). This group was really special: there are 12 Russian teenagers going to Palm Beach, Florida, for 10 days of cultural exchange, Jewish learning, and making new friends (sponsored by the Palm Beach Jewish Federation). So, we decided to have them over for a night of speaking English, talking about America, eating good ol' mac-and-cheese, and preparing them mentally for their upcoming trip. All the pictures are available here.

It got me thinking, "Wow, I wish I could speak Russian as well as these 15-year-olds can speak English!" But then I started wondering if maybe English is a little easier to learn (disregarding, of course, the fact that I've only been learning Russian for 5 months and some of these students have been learning for 10 years!), because Russian is so difficult. What makes Russian difficult, you ask? I mean, of course there is the Cyrillic alphabet, but you can learn to read it in about 15 minutes. And then, in class today, Alyson and I received this on one of our worksheets:

Mind you, this is Russian class, not physics or geometry! Our eyes nearly popped out of our heads! So what makes Russian so darn difficult? Why am I obsessed with talking about it constantly on this blog?

Well, let's start our little Russian lesson - I think you'll find it interesting. First, let's talk about the six cases. What the heck is a case, you might ask? Since English doesn't have cases, this is a totally foreign concept to us Anglos. Basically, a case means that words change based on the context in which they are used. Here is an example: we'll take a very simple word, like "home," and use it in simple contexts. Take a look...
  • Nominative Case - the most simple, when the noun is the subject of the sentence - My home is great (dom - pronounced "dome").
  • Prepositional Case - remember your prepositions from grade school? - I am in my home (domye).
  • Accusative Case - remember your direct objects from school? - I am going home (domoy).
  • Instrumental - used with certain prepositions, especially "with" - The plane flew over the house (domom).
  • Dative - used with certain prepositions and when talking about an indirect object - I walked around the house (domoo).
  • Genitive - totally impossible to explain outside of a classroom - I own five homes (domov) in Florida, and three homes (doma) in Russia.

As you can see, even though there are supposedly only six cases, there are at least seven ways that a noun can change. It's important to note that there are masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns, so you need to know the specific endings for all three genders; you wouldn't want to use a masculine ending for a feminine noun--that would be incorrect grammar! Oh, and did I mention that the adjectives change also? Let's use our example again and you can see what I'm talking about when we add the word "big" (bolshoy) to describe our house, and you can see how that word changes also in a totally irregular and unpredictable way:

  • Nominative Case - My big home is great (bolshoy dom - pronounced "dome").
  • Prepositional Case - I am in my big home (bolshom domye).
  • Accusative Case -- I am going to my big home (bolshoy dom). (Don't be fooled...this would change under different circumstances, I just chose a particular example and had to stick with it...)
  • Instrumental - The plane flew over the big house (bolsheem domom).
  • Dative - I walked around the big house (bolshomoo domoo).
  • Genative - I own five big homes (bolshax domov) in Florida, and three big homes (bolshovo doma) in Russia.

So now you've got a tip-of-the-iceberg understanding of the six cases in Russian, when to use them, and how they influence grammar and speaking. Now let's talk about that bizarre diagram above. I mean, why would you use a diagram to explain language concepts?

Here's why: Russian is infamous for the complexity of its verbs of motion, and only through those arrows can you tell what each verb variant is referring to. To put it simply, it doesn't just matter that you are walking, but the direction and timing of your walking is critical to the verb. Am I just starting to walk (poyedoo)? Am I walking out of the building (ooyedoo)? Am I walking close to the building but not quite reaching it (doyedoo)? Am I walking for just a short time (zayedoo)? I might be in the process of walking towards the building (priyedoo) - but I better not be entering, because that is a different version (voyedoo) and I better not have arrived, because that would be different also (podyedoo)! It gets even more complicated, with more prefixes to denote other actions, and there are tons of other verbs (like driving, swimming, leading someone by the hand, driving them in a car, etc.), but you get the picture.

Why do I dwell on this subject so much? Because I think that unlocking the mysteries of the Russian language helps me understand the paradoxes of Russian culture. How can a people that pride themselves on their hospitality treat Alyson and I so distantly at times? When the culture prizes intellectual activities like dance, music, singing, etc. above all else, why are there so much brutal violence and ignorance present here? Maybe, if I can understand the way they speak, I can understand the way they think. And by unlocking the door to the Russian mentality, perhaps we can be more effective and make a lasting impact in our work here.

Monday, December 11, 2006

From the Headlines

Our vacation is officially over and now it's back to the realities of Russia. I've noticed two articles recently that stuck out as being particularly relevant to our work here that I wanted to share with you. (The first has been removed.)

The second article is less directly connected to our local community, although I imagine that the sentiments playing out in Ukranian public opinion aren't so far removed from those here in Russia.

Ukrainians don’t want Jews, but hate others more — survey
Vladimir Matveyev December 10, 2006 JTA

Back from the Baltics

It was a wonderful vacation, that's for sure. Our run-in with Yo Yo Ma (left) was just the beginning to the adventures we had. For example, I faked having family roots in Vilnius in order to get into the archives of a special medieval building; it was worth the little white lie. But the best story happened this morning: at 4 am, as we were crossing the Russian border on the overnight bus and going through immigration, our bag is scanned. You don't mess around with Russian security--as Alyson mentioned, they scan and frisk relentlessly, not to mention requiring every foreigner to be registered with the local government within three days of arriving in the country. Anyway, everything seems normal, until the security officer summons me over to question me about what has found in our bag. On his x-ray screen is a six-pointed star that clearly looks like a weapon. Tired and worried, I don't even bother with Russian--I just tell him "it's for cookies!" and gesture wildly. He looked amused and let us go on our way. And so ends the story of how Alyson's Magen David cookie cutter almost landed us in Siberian prison.

Tallinn was a fitting culmination of our Baltics trip. First, we spent three days in a beautiful but tiny city that really only requires about 24 hours to explore completely. The result of that imbalance was that we had plenty of time to nap, watch American television in our hotel, and wander the streets aimlessly as we sipped on our hot wine drinks. We also got a little bit off the beaten path, seeing the Estonian National Art Museum (called KUMU) and one of Peter the Great's palaces outside Tallinn (called Kadriorg). Like Riga, Tallinn is this fantastic mix of old and new, and the juxtaposition of high-end shops next to medieval dwellings never ceases to amaze you. You'll walk out of a trendy Indian restaurant, and right next door there is a plaque talking about how a building next door was built in 1302, and here is a long list of the history of this modest little house. We enjoyed bumming around the Christmas village that was set up, although our search to find that special souvenir to remember our year abroad continues to come up with nothing.

Without further ado, here are some of our multimedia capturings from our trip:

A Restaurant in Riga - As you can see, medieval is big in this part of the world. Check out this restaurant we went to in Latvia.

Downtown Vilnius - A little difficult to hear, but you can enjoy the sites of the Lithuanian capital.

Scenic Vilnius - From the castle overlooking the city, here is the landscape and medieval city.

Overlooking Tallinn - Alyson narrates our first morning in Estonia.

And, if you're dying for more, here are lots of pictures. Once again, I've taken the time to only select the best, and to caption them. Please let me know if you like the captions...they take quite a bit of time, but I want you to know what you're seeing!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Chasing Ghosts in Vilnius

On Wednesday morning, we woke up at the crack of dawn and caught a bus to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. We arrived by 11am, checked into our hotel and wandered through the streets of Old Town. It's not quite as charming at Riga, although we had been warned. We enjoyed a traditional Lithuania lunch before climbing to the top of the Upper Castle on the hill to see amazing views of the new city and the old city. We searched in vain for the Vilna Gaon memorial but only got lost in the process. Likewise, we found the old synagogue (the only one of hundreds still standing today) but the gates were locked up tight, despites signs that indicated a daily minyan every after at 4:30. In light of the fact that Vilnius is known in Jewish circles as the Jerusalem of Lithuania, I was surprised how many churches there are in Vilnius. In fact, we even stayed in an old monastery near the Gates of Dawn, just at the edge of the Old City.

Thursday we spent looking for Jewish sites and signs of Jewish life. We started at one of the three locations of the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum. There was no mention of who the Vilna Gaon was or what his connection may have been to the sad, small and delapidated museum. Fortunately, we stumbled across the Jewish community center next door that seemed to breath a little life into the small Jewish community of today's Vilnius. Our search continued at the Green House, stop #2 on the tour of the Vilna Gaon Museum. This museum, although still small and humble, did a better job of capturing the history of the city and the richness of Jewish life during the Vilna Gaon's lifetime up until the WWI. Stop #3 turned out to be the jewel in our crown: Dubbed the Tolerance Museum, we had no idea that it was actually a Jewish museum with a fabulous depiction of the city's amazing and tragic Jewish history, including many relics saved from the Great Synagogue before the Soviets destroyed it after WWII. After lunch, we wandered back through the Old City, this time armed with a guidebook on the Jewish sites. We finally found the site of the former Great Synagogue, the Vilna Gaon memorial and the site of the Vilna ghetto.

Sadly, there is little beyond the numerous plaques to remind us of the vitality of Jewish life that once thrived in Lithuania. With a twinge of sadness, we darted through town to catch an overnight bus to Tallinn.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Bumming around the Baltics

After nearly four months of working 6-7 days a week, Matt and I decided it was high time for a vacation. We decided to check out the nearby Baltic countries--Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania--especially after we caught wind of a some amazing airfares from airBaltic. So after some extensive planning, we packed up Sunday night and caught a flight out of St. Petersburg on Monday early afternoon.

That's when the fun began. We got through passport control when we had to go through our third metal detector/frisking station, just to sit at the waiting area by our gate. Lo and behold, there was a man three people ahead of us who looked really familiar. After seeing that he was carrying a cello case, my hunch was confirmed: We were standing 3 feet away from Yo Yo Ma!! After we all successfully got through the security check-point, I gathered all of my courage and approached him. Turns out he is one of the nicest people I've ever met -- he was genuinely interested in learning about us and the work we're doing in St. Petersburg. Unfortunately, he wasn't on our flight (he was going to Oslo), so we had to part ways, but fortunately, we got an awesome photo to show our 2 loyal blog readers! (We'll post it when we get home next week, we promise!)

Our flight was delayed a bit, but without too much of a hassle, we arrived in Riga, the capital of Latvia late yesterday afternoon. It was cold, dark and rainy, but we ventured out anyway, in search of a memorable dinner in Old Town. WOW -- this place is really, really cute and quaint. I barely walked two blocks into Old Town before I had nearly a dozen photos of picture-perfect little streets, replete with gas burning lamps and cobblestone streets. We had dinner in a medieval themed restaurant, which we were half-expecting to cheesy; quite to the contrary, it was quaint, romantic and very unique! After dinner, we grabbed dessert and coffee at a place that reminded us of the Cosi before we went to the movies. Yes, it was so decadent to be able to watch Borat (which is banned in Russia) and in English, no less. And it only cost us $12 for two tickets!

This morning we walked around the residential neighborhood where our B&B is located. Even though it's not in Old Town, it's still really interesting. The architecture is mostly Art Nouveau, which is a welcome change for us from the style we're used to seeing in St. Petersburg -- we casually refer to it as "decaying Soviet" style. The beauty of the architecture is actually in the variety; next door to an elegant Old World building, you may find a gorgeous brand new, high-design building. We've found that it's very easy to get around here and people are very comfortable speaking to us in Russia, Latvian or English, whichever one we use first! And it's great to be able to use credit cards widely (unlike in Russia, where they are often not accepted). Riga defintely has a European and Scandinavian feel, with many of the conveniences of the West.

We spent most of the afternoon strolling through Old Town again, purposely getting lost in the tiny alleyways and discovering new nooks and cranies. We saw churches, museums, old houses, guilds, shops, bakeries, bookstores, the old synagogue and more. Each street was more beautiful than the last and as the sun sank in the sky, the town took on a beautiful wintery holiday feel. Needless to say, this is one place we'll definitely recommend! Tomorrow we're off to Vilnius, where we hope to unearth some of the city's rich Jewish heritage. (Photos to come; check back in a week or so!)