Sunday, February 25, 2007

Weekend Update

My mother says I'm not blogging enough. So this one's for her...

Last Friday was February 23, which is celebrated in Russia unofficially as Men's Day, when Russian women are supposed to shower the men in their lives with cards, candy, flowers and other signs of affection. Officially, it's called День защитника Отечества, Defender of the Fatherland Day. As with all Russian holidays, it's a hold-over from Soviet times. I chose to give Matt a terribly tacky card (replete with Russian soldiers and ridiculous nationalist imagery) and an equally tacky present: a banya set! Since neither of us have been to the banya, I thought this just might be the motivation Matt would need to entice him.

Because it was a holiday and everyone had the day off (not including us, of course), EVA organized a Purim celebration for their family club. It was a great event -- hamantashen baking (inspired by my successful foray into challah baking with the kids at camp!), a puppet show, snacks and a slideshow from EVA's winter camp. Matt and I then split up and went our separate ways to celebrate Shabbat with a few elderly Chesed clients around the city through our Malachai Shabbat program. The 90-year-old woman I visited really touched my heart. An engineer by trade, she learned to paint when she was 60 and her apartment is covered floor to ceiling with her amazing artwork. Now that her vision has deteriorated, she can no longer read or paint, leaving her bored and disinterested with life. Our visit was clearly a highlight -- and she repeated over and over that she is so thankful that she hasn't been forgotten. Exhausted, we crossed town and enjoyed a delicious Shabbat meal at the home of two Israeli young women who are doing their national service in St. Petersburg by teaching Hebrew at a number of the Jewish schools here. Playing cards after dinner and swapping stories about being far from was the perfect way to end the week.

Matt and Sasha show off their freshly made hamantashen.

Shabbat morning we went to a Chabad minyan near our apartment on the Vyborgskaya side of town. We've come to adore the young, hip Chabad rabbi who leads the minyan. We came home after a light lunch of cholent (yum!) and salads and took a good, long nap. Last night we went to a joint birthday party for my friend Jen and her husband Vanya at their apartment. First of all, their apartment is so cute! It's decorated like it's been on some HGTV show -- lime green, bright blue, and bright peach. It's totally my style, replete with ultra modern lighting. Ok, enough about the apartment. It was nice to be at a party that was 50% Russian and 50% foreigners. The guy sitting next to me, for example, was from Baku. As the night wore on, we started singing karaoke, both in Russian and in English. Even I sang -- with my terrible voice and all!

On our way home, we had a classically Russian experience. Never mind the puke on the metro. As we left Jen and Vanya's apartment and turned the corner, I noticed a dark heap on the ground.
I asked Matt if he thought that was a person on the ground. Mind you, it was probably 3°F outside. Apparently, it was a very, very drunk man who had tried to stop and pee on the side of the street. Instead, he fell over with his fly wide open and his penis hanging out. We didn't know whether to laugh or to feel bad for the guy. Ah, to live in Russia!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Out and About in Petersburg

In this second half of our posting here, we feel like we've finally begun to hit our stride, both personally and professionally. Work-wise, we've found useful roles in the community, with the local organizations are coming to us on a regular basis for help and advice. Alyson is working hard on the Pesach Project and launching the YESOD website, and I've been keeping myself busy with my summer camp program, launching the YESOD Sports Program, and helping with Purim preparations. It was a long time coming, but we seem to have found our niche at YESOD and in the overall community.

On a funny side note, you may have heard that there was a bombing at a St. Petersburg McDonald's. The bombing certainly isn't funny, but the response of our Israeli friends, Liat and Biko, is. I received an email from them asking if we were ok -- and telling us how excited they are that the tables are turned, and now they are the ones checking up on us!

We also have this awesome streak going: four consecutive weeks with Saturday night plans with friends. Since returning from Israel, we've been to concerts, out to Georgian food, visited a painter's studio apartment, and I even found an ultimate frisbee game to join! This week, we have plans three of the next four nights. I am enjoying... but for Alyson, who is the true social butterfly in this family, this is a major coup and I'm excited for her to feel like she has a base of friends here.
That brings me to the highlight of this past Sunday: Maslenitza. I couldn't even begin to explain this unique piece of Russian culture, except to say that it is a big festival that involves lots of blini eating, walking around in sub-freezing temperatures, ice skating, creating large hay-stacks in the shapes of people, and then burning them. Like I said, I can't explain it. But you know you have reached true Russian culture when the music played around the campground is Russian and not American.

Friday, February 16, 2007

When in Russia...

We've had some fascinating, truly Russian experiences over the past few days. First, there is an election coming up, so the streets are covered in political advertisements. There are also tons of people paid to hand out fliers--you can't leave a Metro station without being accosted by them. I've been collecting everything I can get my hands on, examining the similarities and differences with American campaign literature. I even found a flier that used Valentine's Day symbolism--two polar bears kissing over a big red heart--to push a political party, even though Valentine's Day is not a Russian holiday! I won't say any more about the upcoming election, except to point you towards this New York Times article. Second, we got a package from America, and it only took 4 months to get here! Who says the Russian mail is inefficient?

We also went to go register with the local government. It was a crazy experience that I can't talk about in detail on the blog. For now, suffice it to say that when a mean, fur-wearing Russian lady decided to grab Alyson and push me when we jumped ahead of her in line (we had been smart and made an appointment!), I nearly lost it. I yelled at her, in my best Russian, "What the hell?" She responded by calling me "not normal." If being rude and aggressive is normal, then yes, I'm not normal. Anyway, if you're interested in hearing more, email me.

On the work side of things, I have been having some success with an idea that I had to help Russian Jewish students work in the States as summer camp counselors at Jewish camps. I had such a fantastic time at Ramah (Palmer and Darom), and I want these young people to be able to share the American sleep-away camp experience. Along the way, they'll gain valuable skills and excitement about Jewish life, which they will bring back to invigorate this community. Over the past few weeks, I've received dozens of phone calls and emails expressing interest, and yesterday five students stopped by my office to formally apply.

It has been quite funny as cross-cultural issues continue to creep up through the application process. For example, one student wanted to know if she would be able to check email from camp. Why? Because, on a previous trip to the States, when she tried to check her email, she found that ALL the Russian websites at her host family's house were blocked because they were ALL considered inappropriate for children! Also, Camp America, the international company we are working with, has a policy that all applicants have to submit their parents' tax returns. But, because many Russians avoid taxes through special arrangements with their employers, they have seperate procedures specifically for Russian applicants! Lastly, a common question I ask the applicants is, "Would you like to work at a religious camp and, if so, how religious?" You should see the look on their faces--they suddenly turn petrified, because the only exposure they have had to religious Judaism is the Chabad synagogue here. When I try to explain to them that, hey, there are many branches of Judaism, and you can work at a kosher camp, Shabbat-observant camp, Conservative camp, JCC camp, etc., all I get are perplexed looks. The reaction of these Russian students further emphasizes the need to get them to the States, where they can see firsthand what it means to have pluralistic, multi-faceted opportunities for Jewish expression.

Now, I just have to find them camps to work at, so if you have any connections with overnight Jewish camp directors, please send them my way!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

47 Days 'til Passover!

Purim isn't even here yet and already my head is swimming with visions of matzah and maror. I've been crazy busy with planning for this year's Pesach Project -- looking at hotels, drafting and re-drafting itineraries, setting up meetings/conference calls/video conferences and building planning teams around the world. It's a massive undertaking, but totally up my ally.

Today was a big day. Avraham Infeld and Aaron Goldberg from Hillel's Schusterman International Center were visiting St. Petersburg to talk about the JAFI/Hillel merger that is slowly occurring across the FSU. If this is news to you, wake up and smell the coffee: the merger was made public back in December. Anyway, it also happens to be the day we randomly decided to hold our first local planning committee meeting, which involved players from JAFI and Hillel. Officially, it was the first time both parties sat across from each other, rolled up their sleeves and agreed to tackle a project of this scale together. Despite a few uneasy moments at today's meeting, overall, it went really well. I left the meeting really optimistic and upbeat about the collaboration we are building on the ground in St. Petersburg. Pesach Project is going to be a good catalyst for bringing Hillel and JAFI together and I feel proud to be part of the process.

One of my colleagues at Palm Beach Federation sent me a link to a video he made after participating in Pesach Project 2005. It captures perfectly the energy and spirit of the initiative. Enjoy watching!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Not Their Parents' Russia

Here's an interesting op-ed piece from Thomas Friedman on the state of democracy in Russia today:

Not Their Parents' Russia
| 9 Feb 2007 | New York Times | Thomas L. Friedman

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

10 Ways You Know It's Winter in Russia

10. You can't feel your extremities...and when a feeling comes back, it's painful frostbite.
9. Every step down the ice-covered street is an adventure, and every pedestrian a potential handrail.
8. The streets and sidewalks are covered in grey, mushy stuff that people lovingly refer to as "snow."
7. You see people fall on their asses, and you just keep on walking.
6. There is so much fur around you, you feel like you're at the zoo.
5. It takes you 20 minutes just to put on your scarf, coat, hat, gloves, two layers of socks, boots, etc.
4. Your consumption of tea and soup triples, as well as your number of trips to the bathroom.
3. You find yourself calling your space heater "Fido," and you lead it around by its "leash" so it can follow you from room to room.
2. Rather than make your 20-minute walk to work, you'd rather take a 35-minute, crowded Metro ride.

And the #1 way to know it's winter in Russia is...

1. You wonder aloud how many pairs of pants you can physically wear at one time.

Enjoy the view from our office window!

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Tu B'Shvat Reflections

Just before we left Israel, we hiked through Bet Guvrin and saw a number of blossoming almond trees, a sign that Tu B'Shvat -- and springtime -- was just around the corner. Since we've returned to the cold, snowy weather here in St. Petersburg, it has been nice to remember those tiny white blossoms and think that sometime soon, spring will return to St. Petersburg. It's a little reminiscent of the Jewish community here and how it went into hibernation for over seven decades of communism and has now re-emerged only to grow and blossom. I can't help but to mention the YESOD logo today, as I reflect on Tu B'Shvat. It's an image of a small plant breaking through an abstract shape. It represents the renewal and growth of Jewish life in St. Petersburg.

Over the last couple of days, we have celebrated Tu B'Shvat, the new year for the trees, with a new appreciation for the natural world around us. On Shabbat, we trudged through the freshly fallen snow (about 3" fell over night) to attend a new Chabad minyan that has just started to meet regularly at the newest Jewish building in St. Petersburg, a Chabad school called Maor. It was beautiful to see the untouched white snow. At Shabbat lunch, as we chatted in a smattering of Russian, Hebrew and English, we enjoyed dried fruits and customary Tu B'Shvat songs.

Today, I taught my youngest students all of the parts of the tree in English and we learned about all of the gifts that trees provide for us. Tonight, we attended a Tu B'Shvat event at YESOD that really brought the building to life and honored us in an unexpected way. One of our colleagues asked us to participate in the ceremonial planting of a palm sapling -- we were really touched by the honor and proud to be building, physically and spiritually, the landscape of the Jewish community here. Tonight's event focused around an opening of a large art exhibit by a wide variety of Jewish artists, both amateur and professional. It was beautiful to see the walls come to life with the colors and textures of Jewish culture. The evening was capped off with a performance by young adults from EVA who depicted the story of Noah and the Ark from the animals' perspectives in the form of a musical. Tonight's event was about as homegrown as they come -- Russian Jewish life revolves around the arts and culture, nearly to the exclusion of all other expressions of Judaism.

After personally struggling for so long with the culturally-based expressions of Jewish life in this community, I am slowly beginning to appreciate the value and beauty of this commitment. The Russian Jewish community makes countless contributions to the world Jewish community -- by treasuring, protecting and nurturing certain elements of Jewish arts and culture that we take for granted in the West. Take klezmer and Yiddish culture, for example.

Tonight, over a late-night bowl of soup, I read an article written by Nessa Rapoport in the October issue of Sh'ma which really resonated with me. Eloquently, she writes that "culture arises from a paradox -- the sense of being replete, rich with a past we know, merged with longing for something intangible and beautiful that can never be had in precisely its old form but must be distilled and made new." With this simple and beautiful sentence, I immediately understood why Jews in Russia are so deeply attached to their cultural expressions of Judaism. They know that they cannot recreate the rich Jewish life that once existed in the shtetl; yet they are acutely aware of the lifestyle that their great-grandparents enjoyed from the paintings of Chagall, from S. Ansky's The Dybbuk and from countless other legacies of Jews from this region. Today, three generations later, they long for something spiritual -- a way to access what the generations before them so dearly cherished.

May the Jewish community of St. Petersburg continue to "flourish like the palm tree and grow like the cedar in Lebanon."

Friday, February 02, 2007

Water, Water Everywhere

Never a dull minute here in Peter (as the locals call it). This morning, I had two back-to-back meetings at the JDC office across town. When I got home around 3, I was thinking of grabbing a snack, relaxing a bit and changing into shul clothes. But alas, when I opened the door, I discovered that my apartment had something else in mind for me.

Our kitchen sink and its Soviet-era pipes decided to rebel. The sink was filled and overflowing with nasty water with small brown flaky chunks (yum!). The floor was quickly filling with water. I threw off my coat, shoes and socks, rolled up my pants and started bailing water into empty trash cans as quickly as I could. I threw down old towels to keep me from slipping on the wet floor. In the span of an hour, I had filled 6 buckets with water and dumped them into our tub to drain. Fortunately, our local JDC staff jumped into action when I called, sending over two plumbers from YESOD as well as our friendly security guy, Raf. It was an added bonus that they gave Matt a ride home, too. So Raf chatted with us in simple Russian, asking us about our trip to Israel, while our two resident plumbers went into action. Less than an hour later, the sink has been repaired, although the plumbers refused to say that it was "fixed." They said it was "better," but that it might happen again. Good thing it didn't decide to do this while we were away -- I can't even begin to imagine how gross that would have been!

Off to finish the clean up efforts before Shabbat begins. Shabbat shalom and happy Tu B'Shvat!

Thursday, February 01, 2007

More to Share from Israel

Lots more to share! Here is a multi-media feast:

Session on Jewish Identity in the FSU - For those of you interested in the work that we're doing, here is a handout that we put together on the complexity of Jewish identity in the FSU. It's just a sample of some of the stories and experiences we've had; for a more complete picture, you should do some research on your own.

186 Pictures for your viewing pleasure - Tons and tons of pictures. Have fun seeing how beautiful Israel is in the winter!

On the beach in Tel Aviv - A short video introducing the Tel Aviv beach and Matt's favorite restaurant, Yotvata. Check out the kite-surfers behind Alyson!

Frisbee Blooper - We went to throw the frisbee on the beach, and ran into a friendly dog. Antics ensue.