Friday, March 30, 2007

Exhausted and Exhilarated

One day into the Pesach Project, and I find myself with a few minutes to spare while the group prepares their first set of seders for two upcoming home visits -- one to a special needs child or young adult and their family and another to an elderly Chesed client. The groups from Palm Beach, Cleveland, Beit Shean and Tsfat arrived yesterday afternoon within 10 minutes of each other. We only lost 1 piece of luggage and started our program 15 minutes late. But we quickly made up for lost time over our ice breakers and welcome session before heading to dinner. The participants were jetlagged and started to sag over the course of dinner, but today they were fresh and alert for community presentations, visits to the Choral Synagogue and Shaarei Shalom, and a endless activities this afternoon at YESOD. We made our own matzah at the Matzah Factory, discussed cultural identification and clothing at an EITAN-sponsored beit midrash, and we are now preparing for our first few seders.

I can't tell you how proud I was when over lunch, one of the American staff members pulled me aside and told me that everything she had been warned about on past Pesach Project trips was proving to be invalid this year -- bad food, programs running up to 2 hours late, horrible weather, etc. etc. Ok, so I didn't have much to do with the food or the weather, but at least I could take credit for building a reasonable itinerary and keeping the group on schedule.

As I finally sit down and catch my breath for the first time in over 24 hours, I realize that I'm exhausted. I am beginning to wonder if jetlag is contagious; I just know how revved up I was for the first day...things are slowing down a bit and everything is falling into place. But I'm not only exhausted, I'm also exhilarated. I feel like this is the reason we came here. To help the community grow and strengthen itself through partnerships, events, and young leaders -- all of which are exemplified by the Pesach Project experience.

Pesach Project 2007 group photo in front of the Choral Synagogue

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Today is the Day

In just a few hours, 18 Russian young adults will meet up with 15 American and 9 Israeli young adults at the Pulkovo airport. Thus begins the Pesach Project, a whirlwind week of visits to local Jewish organizations, home visits to elderly Hesed clients and Adain Lo special needs clients, stops at local tourist sites, and of course, seders, seders and more seders!

Matt and I have been planning for this day since mid-December and I can hardly believe the day has arrived. I'm a little tired (have been working crazy hours in preparation), a little nervous (the logistics are insane), and very, very excited! Our tiny office is the command center, stacked high with arts supplies, welcome folders, kosher wine and, ironically, countless boxes of matza. (See Matt's post from a week ago on the subject of finding matza.) I still have a few last-minute things to take care of, so I'm going to cut this post short, but I can assure you that there's a much, much longer post to come on this subject.

Wishing you and your loved ones a chag Pesach kasher v'sameach -- a happy and kosher Passover!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Getting My Groove Back

I hit a really rough patch professionally in the weeks leading up to Pesach. At the time, it wasn't really blog-worthy to share that I was frustrated by a lack of progress on certain projects, and I didn't want to cloud the blog with useless negativity. As you would expect, getting work done in a foreign culture, especially in the midst of Purim and Pesach preparations, can be arduous and trying. There was a LOT going on and, even though my initiatives were put on the back burner or canceled entirely, there was still plenty to do. So I figured I should sit back, ride it out, let Pesach come and go, and then dive right back into the work.

Thankfully, this past weekend's Pesach Project Training Seminar was exactly what I needed to get my confidence back and re-focus my energy. The goals of the seminar were to help our Russian participants get "up-to-speed" when it comes to Pesach, and also help them bond with each other and their staff. Since many of the participants have very little in the way of a Jewish education, or come from families where Passover was never celebrated, it was important that they feel comfortable with the seder and the Passover story, as they will be leading seders throughout the city (together with their Israeli and American counterparts).

This was a great partnership with the local organizations, including EITAN (which focuses on Jewish education), the Jewish Agency, and Hillel. I helped push the process along, crafting an excellent agenda that not only covered all the educational bases, but also facilitated the group moving from twenty individuals to a community.

The seminar was held at a retreat center outside the city and, because it was a Friday night, we started with a Shabbat service. As the ice breaker, everyone was asked to talk about either their most memorable Shabbat experience, or their first Shabbat experience. Amazingly, many of the Russian participants talked about both simultaneously: their first Shabbat in Israel as part of the Taglit-birthright Israel experience. The philanthropists who fund that program would be floored to hear how meaningful the trip was for these students, as many of the participants talked about how they truly understood the power of Shabbat only when they celebrated it in Israel. But Israel is also a dividing force in this Jewish community: one girl named Marina talked about how, when her sister made aliyah, it made her parents very sad and now she feels the burden of being an only child. Another girl named Marina talked about how her family made aliyah, but she returned to Russia for university, and now she lives a split life between the two countries.

We learned so much from these participants -- it's amazing how much you can understand when the seminar is held in English! For example, Bella related the story of how the choosing of her name was a big debate in her family because Bella "sounds Jewish"; in fact, her grandmother still calls her grandfather by his Russan name (Misha) instead of his real name (Moshe). Seva, Olga, and Lena told about how they moved to SPB from other Russian-speaking towns, and the culture shock that they experienced coming to a big, cosmopolitan city (so we aren't alone!). Finally, one of the educators we brought to the seminar, Alisa, told us later that she over-estimated the Jewish knowledge of the participants, assuming that they would know basic things about Jewish history and finding that many of the participants are in desperate need of fundamental Jewish education. This is something that happens to us very often here in SPB, and it was good to share the feeling of surprise and confusion with a fellow educator.

There were plenty of humorous moments during the seminar. Lonya told a D'var Torah about how Pharoah's headstrong nature reminded him of his own--at an airport once, he was determined to shop, hang out, and talk to his mom before his flight. He got everything done--except the part about boarding the plane! Rabbi Michael Farbman, who is actively looking for a rabbinical job in the States, told a funny story about how he had to learn the two-letter endings of the lesser-known states: while "DC" and "NY" are pretty obvious, he's also been looking at jobs in places like "MO" and "OR." Lastly, Inna led a small revolt over a problem she saw in the PP itinerary by organizing a petition amongst the participants. I couldn't help but laugh--here was a Russian teaching the Americans about democracy!

There was one particular session that really stands out in my mind. You see, I really wanted to teach the participants how to create and present a D'var Torah--I thought this was a valuable skill that they could use for the rest of their lives. What's a D'var Torah? Well, it's a short (or long) speech that takes the current parshah or Jewish holiday and connects it to modern life in a personal, meaningful way. I knew very well that it would be hard to get the participants to understand, first of all, what a D'var Torah is; then, getting them to actually create one would be even more difficult! But after struggling through the first half-hour, they finally started to get it. As Masha told us later, "I was thinking about it and trying to understand and then, suddenly, it's like a light just turned on!" She then told a great D'var Torah about how her mother is still living in Egypt, and the struggle to adapt to and accept religious freedom in her family. Olga, who has never celebrated Passover before, talked about how the Pesach story reminds us that "timing is everything." She then told us that she had never known about her Jewish roots until, by coincidence, she saw a JDC job advertisement and asked her parents if they knew any Jews (it turns out, her grandfather was Jewish but the family had long ago decided to keep it a secret).

Looking back, what made the seminar so meaningful for me was that I felt that here was a real, tangible, and high-quality product of my work. From conception, to planning, to execution, to evaluation, I facilitated the process all the way through, and I couldn't be happier with the way it turned out. Alyson and I were a great team: on Saturday morning, Alyson talked about the small picture (the goals and itinerary for the Pesach Project), and then I piggy-backed by teaching about how PP fits into the big picture of philanthropy, the Federations, and the global Jewish future.

Occasionally during our eight months here, I've felt very isolated from the Jewish community, like my efforts have been ineffective or ineffectual, or that I am unable to contribute because of the language and cultural barriers. But this past weekend, I felt like I was making a real difference in giving these young people skills, knowledge, and enjoyment that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. At one point, when I finished teaching a session and sat down exhaustedly next to Alyson, she turned to me with eyes alight and reminded me, "We're doing it! We're doing it!"

Check out pictures from the seminar by clicking here.

As a last note to this long blog post, I have one more success to boast about :-) Over the past couple weeks, I arranged with the local, English-speaking American School to bring their students to YESOD to see the building, learn about Passover, and experience the matzah factory. That field trip happened this morning, with Alyson and I being the madrichim, and the school's students had a blast. Of course, we took the innocent questions that you would expect from children: "Are you Jewish?" and "Do Jews believe in Jesus?" When I asked the kids to tell me what a miracle was, one of the girls took the opportunity to list the miracles that Jesus supposedly performed. But it was great to lead another activity in English, to educate these kids about Passover, and to feel like I'm "getting my groove back" in my work here.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Baking Matzah Can Be Hazardous to Your Health!

I had a dilemma this afternoon, as I had to choose between two competing priorities. I was thinking about joining Alyson, who was driving around the city, checking out locations for home-visits. You see, when the Pesach Project is here next week, participants will go visit elderly Chesed clients in their homes. Of course, the hosts need to be somewhat healthy, articulate, interested in having guests and, most importantly, their homes have to be able to hold a group of seven people. So, an unfortunate necessity is that the potential hosts need to be screened, and Alyson was in charge of checking out their cribs. It's always interesting to visit these people, and I really wanted to go, but I figured I spend enough time with Alyson (and she'll tell me all the stories anyway!).

Instead, I opted for a different experience with the elderly. All this week and next, YESOD will be hosting a matzah-baking factory. This factory isn't anything fancy: a few tables where people can roll the dough into thin circles, and two large hot-plates where the matzah bakes before your very eyes. The big children's event is this Sunday, but during the regular workdays, the clientele of the matzah-baking factory is the Chesed clients.

I volunteered to help in the matzah factory this afternoon, and I was in for a fun experience! Over the course of an hour, about 30 elderly people (mostly babushkas) came through the factory. Since my Russian isn't that good (and it's basically non-existent when it comes to cooking!) I let my fellow volunteer, a nice student from the Jewish university, explain how to make the matzah. I was content with a supporting role, flipping matzahs on the hotplate and, once finished, handing them to their eager maker. Here is what I witnessed:
  • First, either Russian doesn't have an equivalent of "a watched pot never boils," or no-one bothered to tell these people that "a stared-at matzah doesn't bake." In the five minutes it takes to cook one of these matzahs, they must have asked 50 times "Eta Gatov? (Is it ready?)". You would expect them to make small talk or chat amongst themselves, but no--they stood there, just staring at their creations. Literally, there were times I couldn't even get to the oven, because the crowd was so thick it would push me away! I wanted to tell them, "Seriously, people, it's just matzah!" - but then I realized that, after living their whole lives under the Soviets, it's still a novelty here.
  • Then, an argument erupted over whose matzah belonged to whom. Imagine four-foot-tall babushkas yelling at each other: "Eta mayah!" "Nyet, eta mayah." "Nyet, you have the ugly one." "Nyet, I have the pretty one." "Nyet, that one is yours. This one is mine." "Nyet. Young man, tell her that one's mine." I thought they were going to pull off their rubber gloves and hairnets and start slugging each other! Luckily, one woman stepped in and negotiated a compromise, so I didn't have to call security on the babushkas and shut down the matzah factory for fear of a geriatric riot.
  • One woman didn't feel any pain in her hands. She flipped the matzah by herself, ignoring the fact that it was on a 250-degree hotplate. She belongs on that tv show, "Heroes."
  • One man was flat-out crazy. He was all alone at the very end, just yelling to himself about how he remembers his grandmother teaching him how to bake matzah and repeating the Hamotzi blessing over and over. I think he scared some of the other participants. Anyway, his grandmother taught him well, because the crazy guy made the most beautiful, circular matzahs of any of the participants.
I thought I was just spending an hour volunteering to flip matzahs. I ended up getting a lesson in post-Soviet geriatric sociology!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Search for Matzah

Finding matzah here in SPB was an unexpectedly harrowing experience. We knew that this would be a harder Passover than our previous experiences in America, but we figured that in a community of 100,000 Russian Jews, it wouldn't be hard to find the basics for observing Passover: matzah meal, matzah, and cake meal. Besides, I saw lots of nice old babushkas from Chesed walking out of YESOD loaded down with boxes of matzah...if they can get it easily, surely we can, too!

This morning, Alyson and I left bright and early at 9:15 (yes, that's really early in this part of the world!) to head down to the kosher store at the synagogue.The kosher store is nearly an hour-long schlep from our house: a 5-minute walk to the Metro, a 20-minute ride on the Metro, and a 25-minute walk from there to the synagogue. On the bright side, it was a gorgeous day today--sunny and in the high 40s--so I packed away my heavy ski coat, opted for my lighter wool coat, and look forward to walking outside. Alyson, however, loves her pink coat, and can't bring herself to part with it!

So we show up at the kosher store as the doors open at 10 am, but we are totally disappointed by what they have to offer. This isn't KosherMart in Rockville, or even the Giant near our house in DC...this is basically a closet of kosher candy, macaroons, and other noshy food. Nothing to cook, but we find the matzah in the corner. We eagerly start loading up on matzah, but then notice a sign saying, "This matzah is not kosher for Passover."

Frustrated, we approach the counter-lady. Will there be another, kosher shipment coming in? No. Is this all there is in the store? Yes. So where do we get matzah that's really kosher for Passover? The synagogue. When does the synagogue open? I don't know.

Luckily, two blocks from the synagogue is the yeshivah, which (if it's possible) has an even smaller kosher store. It's basically two bookshelves put together and stacked with kosher food. There, we find a whole bunch more kosher-for-Passover noshy food (cakes, pudding, etc) but still no matzah! Another nice counter-lady gets accosted by two bumbling Americans who, in broken Russian, strike up a conversation: Where is the matzah in this town? It has to be specially ordered. When can we order it? Today is the last day. Oh, whew. Who do we order from? There is one lady who takes the orders, but she doesn't come in for another hour. Seeing no other option, we found some chairs and decided to wait. (While we waited, a nice Orthodox guy from the yeshiva decided we should eat pizza, so he makes us a couple of pizzas to nosh on. They may not be efficient, but at least they're hospitable!)

An hour later, a nice young lady named Sveta shows up. At this point, we've been searching for two hours and we're getting desperate, so I cheat on my Russian and speak Hebrew with her. Where is the matzah? We're all out. You're out of regular matzah? No, we never had regular matzah; we only sell hand-made shmurah matzah. We didn't want shmurah matzah anyway, so no big loss if she sells the other things we need. What about matzah meal, cake meal, or anything to actually make Pesadich food with? Nope...but we have salt, sugar, water, and macaroons. No thanks, we say, and dejectedly continue our search.

At this point, we leave the yeshivah and decide to try our luck one last time with the synagogue. On the way, I call the director of Chesed Avraham, which gives matzah to its elderly and needy clients for free (those are the babushkas I mentioned earlier). I ask him if, in case of emergency, we can buy some matzah from Chesed so we can survive Passover. The answer is "only if we have some left over from giving to the needy." Do you often have left-overs? We NEVER have enough matzah to go around, and we run out every year. OK, well, thanks anyway.

We get to the synagogue, which is now open, and find people distributing matzah in the basement. After 10 minutes waiting in line, we find out that this line is only for people who pre-ordered matzah; if you want to buy matzah, you have to go upstairs. Finally, we find the matzah lady, buy a ridiculous amount of matzah from her, then schlep our matzah, like the treasure it is, back to our home. Three-and-a-half hours after leaving our house, we arrive back home with the matzah we so desperately needed.

Even though we get to spend 4 days eating catered meals as part of the Pesach Project, the last 4 days of Passover will be difficult with so little Pesadic food available here. But maybe, somewhere in this city of 5 million residents, we'll find that matzah meal!

Friday, March 16, 2007

Our Russian: Aptitude or Ineptitude?

As Matt explained in his last blog post, much of the work we do here in St. Petersburg is in English. This is because most of our colleagues speak English and/or because we cannot perform at a high-level in Russian. Today, I found myself at work with a little time to kill when a meeting we had scheduled was canceled. So I was reading articles online, exploring a few Russian learning sites...and viola, I found a language school that allows you to test your Russian language skills online. I was actually surprised by how much of it I understood; unfortunately, I also realized how much of the minutiae of the grammar I have forgotten since the end of our Russian classes back in December. 52 questions, and a small headache later, I found out my level of Russian: 25 out of 52 or "pre-intermediate," which they define as follows:

You are familiar with common structures of Russian grammar, and your level, which we would describe as pre-intermediate, allows you to understand Russian in personal and social contexts, to react accordingly in everyday situations and to express your opinion on topics of personal and common interest. Accuracy and knowledge of peculiarities of Russian are subject to further improvement.

In my typical competitive style, I then encouraged Matt to take the same test. He managed to score 7 points more than I did, which isn't surprising, considering how much more effort he has put into learning Russian than I have. His added effort landed him in the next category up, "intermediate:"

You are able to communicate and convey precisely what you want to say in everyday living situations. You understand written and conversational language on a range of personal and social topics. For further language training we recommend to work more on passive, negative and other specific grammar constructions, train fluency and building longer and more complex syntax structures (e.g. impersonal constructions, sentences with indefinite/generalised subject, expressive word order). Well done!

On one hand, I'm bummed that after 7 months here, I can't speak Russian as easily as I would like to be able to. On the other hand, considering that it's one of the world's most difficult languages and that I didn't know one word of it a year ago, I feel better than at least I can understand, if not speak. And for once, I can graciously admit that my husband is better at something than I am.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Where Am I?

After six months of living in Russia, I have found myself suddenly struggling with the question, "where the heck am I?" Take a look at my life here, and you'll understand why:
  • First, all of our recent meetings have been in English. Yesterday, we met with American Jewish professionals from the Jewish Agency, who were here in SPB on a study trip. I gave the presentation about the local Jewish community, and Alyson led a tour of the building. Although we had never met these people before, we instantly developed a camaraderie, joking about American politics, sports, and the latest celebrity scandal. Today's meeting, about launching the YESOD Visitor's Center, was also totally in English. And tonight's meeting, with Pesach Project staff members from Cleveland and Palm guessed it.
  • On Sunday, I played family football, the latest in YESOD's ever-expanding list of regular programs. Family football is targeted towards English-speaking families with young children, who want to get them running around and playing soccer. I do a little coaching, a little encouraging, and a lot of playing
  • Last night, after teaching my weekly English Club class, I came back to my office to make calls on our Vonage phone. I caught my sister as she was boarding her Spring Break cruise to the Caribbean, and we gossiped about life at UF and our crazy family (ha ha!). There was a great article by a new friend of ours, Cliff Levy, who is a writer for the NY Times and fellow Petersburger. I highly recommend it, especially to those of you who aren't quite sure exactly what a "Vonage phone" is!
  • During that English class, three twenty-something-year-old students joined me for a discussion on identity. The conversation turned to politics and the recent election for the local assembly, in which just 1 in 3 Petersburgers actually voted. I want to share with you what they told me, because their insights sounded as American as anything I've heard so far in this country. Yosef didn't vote, because he felt that his vote wouldn't matter and that the election's result was already largely pre-determined. Mary voted for the party with the best advertising, which just happened to be an "ultra-right" party that published a fancy newspaper. And Genia, who made aliyah and lived in Israel for 10 years before returning to Russia, decided that things were better under the Communists, so he voted for that party. The views of these students really struck me, because they captured the frustration, confusion, and apathy that many Americans also face when it comes to democracy.
  • As Alyson mentioned in her post about the IWC Ball at Yusupov Palace (another picture on the left), we attended a really high-falutin, English-speaking event recently. What she didn't mention is that it reminded us strongly of a charity benefit we attended at the Kennedy Center almost exactly one year ago to the day (right side). Both were classy, at unique locations, and filled with fascinating people!
So, with that in mind, I give you pictures from both events, one year apart - and now you understand the strange situation of standing in two difference countries, with your feet straddling the Atlantic Ocean.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Lots of Flowers / Not Many Voters

Today is March 11, Election Day, and surprisingly, things are relatively quiet here. From local media reports that we've seen, less than 25% of the local population is expected to vote. Our informal conversations with friends only reinforce the anticipated low voter-turnout, although we did receive a handwritten invitation to go and vote. A number of our friends and family back home have asked us to comment on the elections and the recent protests in St. Petersburg; since we are here for other reasons and have been entirely consumed by Purim celebrations, Passover preparations and hosting Shabbat meals, we haven't paid much attention. We try to keep abreast of the news, but it's mostly through the international media. One recent op-ed piece caught my eye and I thought it was worthy of being shared here:

Breaking Putin's Cordon | The Washington Post | by Masha Lipman | 10 Mar 2007

In other recent goings-on, this past Thursday was a national holiday: International Women's Day. It felt to me like a cross between Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, and not anything like the politically-motivated women's rights day that it is in the States.

Interestingly, I learned that International Women's Day was founded in 1911 by a German Jewish women's rights activist, Clara Zetkin, and that International Women's Day was proved to be the first stage of the Russian Revolution of 1917. It wasn't until 1965, though, that it became an official holiday here in Russia, replete with a day off from work, according to the official USSR decree "in commemoration of outstanding merits of the Soviet women in communistic construction, in the defense of their Motherland during the Great Patriotic War, their heroism and selflessness at the front and in rear, and also marking the big contribution of women to strengthening friendship between peoples and struggle for the peace."

Seems all very lofty, but in reality, it's a rather meaningless holiday in my estimation. Men here typically shower their women in chocolates and flowers, and true to tradition, I received a number of gifts from my colleagues while my inner feminist cringed. I've never seen quite so many flowers before in my life -- it looked like the Amsterdam Flower Market set up shop outside virtually every Metro station in St. Petersburg! Matt dutifully bought roses for all of the women we work with at YESOD, but when we got to the flower shop that morning, there was a line nearly 20 men long! We opted for one of the make-shift stands nearby instead!

International Women's Day is also supposed to herald the start of spring, and if the weather is any indicator, it's right on time! The temperatures here have consistently stayed above freezing for the last week and have even peeked into the 40s on a few days. But more importantly, the grocery stores here got the memo about the start of spring: all of a sudden, more fresh fruits and veggies have appeared on the store shelves, just in time for our monthly Shabbat dinner on Friday night! We hosted 6 friends: 2 Americans, 1 Israeli/Russian, and 3 Russians. It was a wonderful feeling to sit around the table discussing this week's parsha, debating issues related to culture and assimilation, and celebrating Shabbat together. Another highlight of the weekend was the 20th Anniversary Celebration of the International Women's Club that was held last night at the Yusapov Palace. Here's a picture of us all fancied up (in our apartment, NOT the palace)!

Monday, March 05, 2007 from Petersburg!

Purim here in Russia was a wonderful experience. While many boisterous Russians were celebrating in their own way, we spent Purim helping organize activities at YESOD. The building was truly rocking over the weekend--on Sunday, we estimate that over 600 people came through the building as part of the festivities. We have lots to tell you about, so here we go...

The weekend started with the second installment of "Amerikansky Shabbat" at Hillel. This time, I took a page out of the Russian playbook, using a popular trivia local gameshow format called "Shto, gde, kagda?" (What, where, when?) The students were split into teams and, interspersed throughout the service, I asked the teams trivia questions about famous American Jews. The two winning teams got 11 right...see how many you can get correct by clicking here. Of course, the best part is the eating and shmoozing; Alyson made a nice spread of cookies, challah, and vegetables for the kids to eat. You can check out the pictures here.

Saturday night was a big Purim party for the community. At 300 rubles, the ticket price was deliberately steep, designed to attract a high-class crowd. As you would expect, the event was quite fancy, transforming the building into a fashionable, trendy club for the evening. The highlight for me was a hip-hop-inspired Purim production, complete with a fashion show as potential queens paraded in front of Achashverosh. I took a video of the show, which you can watch by clicking here. You don't need to know any Russian to enjoy the funky fashions and festive atmosphere!

Sunday was our big day to shine, as we played an important part in the chidren's carnival. I taught Purim songs, using my Hebrew school education to the fullest as I transliterated the Hebrew into Russian! Behind my head is that classic children's song, "La-Kova Sheli Shalosh Pinot" - you can imagine how awkward it is to explain to children that Haman's hat had three corners, and that's why we sing this bizarre song about a three-cornered hat! Or take the song on the lower left of the picture, "Leytzan Katan," about my little clown that dances with everyone...again, hard to explain to 5-year-olds. In general, the kids were far more interested in the face-painting, caricature artist, and the drums than my boring old singing station, but I found some babushkas who were interested, so I sang with them! Alyson helped the children make groggers using the classic "fill a plate with beans" method. It was a big hit.

The kids enjoyed our activities, then participated in an interactive show, before heading upstairs to the 3rd floor for a wide variety of classes: how to make butterflies out of tree bark (I think that's what they were doing), Latin dancing, balloon animals, magic tricks, etc. The grand finale was a huge inflatable city, which I called a "moon bounce on crack" -- we didn't have such things back in my day! The kids had a blast, which got me thinking that we Americans take fun for granted (think of Chuck E. Cheese, Disney World, Gym-boree, etc), but this was the first time I had seen Russian kids really enjoying themselves in an unfettered, boisterous way. We kept waiting for them to get off of it so we could go on it, but they were still going at 6:30, a full 3 hours after the event had started!

Yesterday evening was another large Purim party, this one targeted towards young adults. There were at least 200 people here for a performance, which had a cabaret theme and was enormously entertaining.

Take a look at some of the best pictures from the Purim festivities by clicking here.

One other note: you may remember that we were the first office our whole wing of the building (3rd floor, opposite from Hillel). In what was once a hinterland in the YESOD building, it's actually starting to get crowded these days! In December came the staff of MegaGym, the company that has rented out a significant portion of YESOD to set up a private workout facility. Now, as the YESOD JCC formally launches, programming staff are flocking to our wing. We now have a neighbor: Simeon Parizhky, who will run YESOD's educational department (officially called EITAN). Alex, the director of arts and cultural programming, has moved to the third floor, along with Yakov, who will be researching YESOD's audience and targeting specific populations. And, in a funny and strange situation that I won't get into on the blog, some of the Reform synagogue's staff has unexpectedly moved to our floor as well. We feel like veterans, with our office already set up and knowing our way around the building. In fact, we often find ourselves wondering, "Who the heck are these people that are suddenly taking over our floor?"

In the end, this year's Purim experience was enormously exhausting, entertaining, and educational. Again, a very different experience from our DC Minyan community: there was no big production made out of the mitzvot, such as mishloach manot (in previous years, we've received 20 or more of these nice food packages; this year, we were excited to get one!), reading the megillah, having a Purim meal, or matanot l'evyonim. Rather, the focus was on celebrating Jewishly through arts, singing, dancing, and merry-making. Through Purim, YESOD proved yet again that it can attract large and prestigious audiences, willing to pay real money for a high-quality Jewish programming on the holidays. The questions we will try to answer over the next four months, along with our colleagues at the YESOD JCC, are: How can we get these people to come here on a regular basis? Between now and Pesach, what events and programs can we hold that will keep crowds streaming through the building? What are people interested in, and, just as importantly, what programs are they willing to pay for?

Hopefully, finding the answers to these questions will be a lot easier than explaining why I'm singing about a three-cornered hat!

Sunday, March 04, 2007


I survived my first banya experience today. It was weird and scary and relaxing all at the same time. For those of you who don't know what a banya is, it's a Russian bath house. I went with my friend Jen who is a virtual banya expert. She gave me a great overview in advance, which helped me appease my fears about hanging out naked with unfamiliar Russian women.

So here's what happens: You arrive at the banya and pay for your visit (about $20 for 2 hours) plus whatever extras you want. You can get a beating with birch branches, a chocolate/coffee massage, or other similarly bizarre treatments. Then you strip down in a little changing room, wrap yourself in a sheet, slip on flip-flops and a strange felt hat and head outside. Yes, outside in Russia -- fortunately, it was nearly 40 degrees F today in St. Petersburg! There, you find a little wooden shack and 3 pools of water (icy cold, luke warm and hot). You enter the wooden shack and find the previously mentioned unfamiliar naked Russian women. The image that immediately came to mind: walruses. My friend Jen, who lived in San Francisco for 9 years, later joked that they remind her of sea lions laying out on Pier 39. You hang out there, in Jen's words, "for as long as you can stand it," which in my book is about 5 minutes. Then, when you think your skin is about to melt, you head outside and jump in the icy pool. After a loud shriek, you hop out, and jump into the luke warm pool, where your skin tingles as it acclimates back to its normal temperature. Then -- as crazy as this sounds -- you repeat the process, as we did 3 more times. Each successive time, I was able to last a little bit longer in the repressively hot banya.

On my last stint in the banya, I got the birch branch treatment. A cute young man (who probably has the best job in the world, hanging out with naked women all day, while he coincidentally gets to wear shorts) beats the sh*t out of you with a wet, hot birch branch contraption. It feels like he is just shy of trying to cause you bodily damage -- a mix of torture and massage. And it gets really, really HOT! When he finally says he's done, you run out as quick as you can -- covered in leaves -- and jump in the cold pool...AHHH!

By the end of our excursion, my limbs felt like jello and I felt totally mellow. In fact, after we showered and got dressed, we had to sit and have a cup of tea before Jen "sobered up" enough to drive home. Like I said, it's weird and scary and relaxing all at the same time. And oh-so-very Russian. Forgive me for not having photos -- I'll bring my camera next time to record the madness! Well, maybe just the part before we get totally naked.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Money, Money, Money

I've noticed a few weird things about money here in Russia over the last couple of weeks. First, it started when a Hillel student asked me what I thought about American men who look online for Russian brides. Hmmm...I wasn't sure what to tell her exactly since many of the thoughts I conjured up were based on stereotypes of scary, weirdos trolling the net, looking for young, blond playthings. Instead, I told her honestly that I didn't know any such men. Why was she asking? Apparently, her mother thinks it's a good way to start a new, better life in America. I turned to the young woman and asked her what she thought. She said that at 24, she wasn't quite ready, but that ultimately, she thought it was a good way out, so to speak. I pressed her on what she meant -- quite frankly, she said, "you have to have noticed that it's not so easy to live here." She was referring, of course, to the discrepancy between salaries (which are often less than half of what they are in the US--but then again, is that only the declared amount?) and the cost of buying household goods (which are often double what they cost in the US). Definitely makes you wonder how the typical Russian makes ends meet.

Then there's this issue with the currency. The coins are pretty much useless, especially those that are worth less than a ruble. Kopecks, as they are called, are basically worth nothing. Take for instance, a 10-kopeck coin: it's worth one-third of a cent. The funny thing is that there still are 10-kopeck coins, 5-kopeck coins, even 1-kopeck coins still in circulation! So it's not surprising that you see these coins on the ground EVERYWHERE. I even saw a woman begging on the street and there were a few coins laying within arm's reach and yet she didn't bother to pick them up and put them in her cup!

A bigger issue is counterfeit money. I never really paid any attention to it until I recently handed a grocery store checkout clerk a bill and she handed it back to me after looking at it under a black-light gizmo. Turns out it was a fake. You could tell with the naked eye: the requisite metallic strip was missing. Since that day, I've looked at my cash before spending it and have noticed on two different occasions that I am handing someone money that could possibly be counterfeit. I'm honestly shocked at the amount of fake money in circulation; that, or I just have really bad luck! [Editor's note: I stand corrected. One of our wonderful blog readers pointed out to me that the old currency still in circulation does not have a metallic strip and it is still legit. Who are you, anonymous comment-poster? We really appreciate your comments!]

Just a few casual items that I've noticed and thought were rather intriguing... As Henry Ward Beecher once said, "It is the heart that makes a man rich. He is rich according to what he is, not according to what he has." Thanks, Henry.