Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Springtime, At Last!

After months and months of seemingly endless cold, gray, and snowy/rainy days, springtime has finally arrived in St. Petersburg. The blue skies, sunshine, and blossoming tulips have been asuper- delightful change of pace! My freshly polished toes are thrilled to be exposed once again to daylight. And there is plenty of daylight here these days: the sun rises shortly after 5am and doesn't set until close to midnight. (It makes for really bizarre Shabbat observance -- but not nearly as weird as when Shabbat doesn't end until Sunday morning! And it makes me rethink the over-simplified statement that Saturday is our day of rest.)

I've been explaining a lot of the basics of Judaism of late. Irina, our new missions director at JDC, started yesterday. She, like so many members of this community, has Jewish roots (her father is Jewish) but relatively no knowledge to accompany her ancestry. Fortunately, she is inquisitive and hungry for knowledge; she made a list of vocab words she didn't understand after reading our missions book. It makes me realize just how much I take my Jewish knowledge for granted. I can't really remember a time when I didn't know what "yiddishkeit" meant. I really struggled when I tried to explain that one. We decided together that it means "Jewish spirit" or something along those lines. Hopefully over the next few weeks, I'll transmit to Irina more than just the responsibilities of her new job -- I have the amazing opportunity to help shape her fledgling Jewish identity.

Me and my FotoQuest teammates running around SPB.

Fortunately, it's not all work and the heaviness of conveying our tradition. The warmer, spring-like weather has also brought us outdoors for many fun activities, including a recent outing to the Udelnaya flea market, Hillel's FotoQuest (scavenger hunt all over the city), and last night's late night rooftop party at a local club sponsored by a new, cutting-edge indie Jewish organization called Krem. We've also had a bunch of fun, indoor activities, like our latest Shabbat meal on Friday night, dinner out with friends at an Azerbaijani restaurant, the final EVA performance, and a Zenit game.

Here is me wading through the crowds at Udelnaya Market. Can you find me?

Tonight is a huge Shavuot celebration at YESOD, including over ten different modern "beit midrash" classes, including flower arranging, aromatherapy, as well as a few more traditional offerings, including Matt's text study on the Ten Commandments in English, and a shiur on piyut (liturgical poems that are often set to music). As Shavuot approaches, and I reflect on what it means to receive the Torah, I can't help but draw the parallel to the freedoms that the Jews of this community have regained, anew in recent years. It's not surprising that my feelings about celebrating Pesach here among the Russian Jewish community carry over, 40 days later, to Shavuot. Chag sameach l'kulam -- wishing all of our readers a joyous Shavuot!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

We've Come A Long Way, Baby!

So much has happened in the last week, I don't even know where to begin...

I guess I should start with last Thursday morning, when our local supervisor called and asked me to come into the office for a private meeting with him. This was a bit weird, since Matt and I usually meet with him together. Nonetheless, I obliged, and was honored -- and a bit surprised -- to find him asking me to step in to act as the head of the local JDC missions department for the next few weeks, at least until we find a permanent replacement for my friend and colleague Lena who left about a month ago. (I was devastated, by the way, when she told me she was leaving. She was my partner-in-crime in planning Pesach Project.)

For those of you not in the JDC world, a mission is usually a group of high-level donors who comes to visit St. Petersburg, sometimes on business and sometimes on pleasure. We try to find time in their schedule and manage the logistics in such a way that they get to see all of the amazing programs and initiatives that their dollars, directly or indirectly, are funding. Some of these missions constitute 2 people for an afternoon tour of YESOD and others involve 40 participants over the course of a week, from dawn until dusk (like Pesach Project).

I am now responsible for making sure all of the upcoming missions -- and we've had 3 in the last 2 weeks, to give you an idea of the spring and summer pace -- are organized with precision and care. Fortunately, Olga, who is the coordinator in my department speaks beautiful fluent English, so we make a good duo and we are starting to put systems into place to make our lives even easier. Needless to say, this is a huge promotion and a clear sign that my boss trusts and respects me. I just hope that we are able to find a full-time missions director soon so that I can transition back to the laid-back world of YESOD. Balancing my old portfolio (YESOD website, tours of YESOD, hosting Shabbat dinners, teaching, camps, etc.) and my new one is a bit of a challenge, especially considering that my hours are not as flexible as they once were.

In order to unwind at the end of what turned out to be a crazy, hectic week with an unexpected new job, on Friday night, we went to Shaarei Shalom for services. Rabbi Stas whatever-his-last-name-is-I'll-never-be-able-to-spell-it was co-officiating with Rabbi Michael Farbman, who is leaving at the end of June. It's such a bittersweet transition. Rabbi Michael has been a major player in this community and a guiding light for us, personally. He is leaving soon to move to the United States with his family. It kills me that a rabbi as charismatic and amazing as he is hasn't yet been placed with a congregation in the US. (Yes, this is a shameless plug for him!) I wish him only the best and I am excited to see how Rabbi Stas begins to integrate with the community over the next few months.

One of the three missions that I mentioned was a small-but-powerful group of professionals and lay leaders from Palm Beach and Cleveland; they arrived in SPB on Thursday and stayed through Monday. They really pushed the envelope, digging and prying into some of the community's latest issues in order to move everyone and everything forward. Their missions are always a little uncomfortable for me -- to some extent, their probing questions (which are certainly well-meaning) can often put me in an unpleasant place, stuck between a rock and a hard place. At the same time, though, it's a lot of fun to hang out with Americans who really "get it." This time was no exception -- we had dinner with them one night and had them over to our apartment for dessert on Saturday night.

After they left on Saturday night, Matt and I stayed up to the wee hours of the morning watching the Eurovision song contest. We were really glad to see that Serbia won, since that was Matt's favorite. I was personally happy to see a country win that chose to sing in their native tongue; I was a bit shocked by how many contestants entered songs in English.

Sadly, my days of teaching kids about Shabbat at EVA are over.

Sunday morning brought my last EVA class (sniffle, sniffle). I'm not sure if I'll miss waking up early and pantomiming to my rambunctious group of 5-8 year olds. I love their energy, but it really drains me, too. Sunday also brought be back to YESOD after two full days of working in the JDC office across town. It was so nice to be back...it really feels like home after all these months and on Sunday is was packed with people. There was a community performance of a riveting Children of the Holocaust by EVA after a great Israeli singer played some Carlebach-style tunes. There was a young leadership seminar in town. And to top things off, Matt organized a sports tournament to help promote his YESOD Sports Program. He had four teams (one from Hillel, two from local universities, and one pick-up team) go head-to-head, or foot-to-foot as I should say, with a professional ref calling the shots. We spent the evening at JAFI's Cafe im Mashmaut program which is quite possibly one of the best programs for young adults that we've seen in this community.
The Hillel team, on the right, takes on a team from a local university in YESOD's fantastic gym.

Then on Monday night, we "relaunched" English Club with the assistance of Ira, the JDC's PR manager. As our original group dwindled, she kick-started the energy and the redesigned the format a bit in order to attract a more unaffiliated audience. We had about 15 come for the first week to discuss the experience of recent graduates as they enter the working world. The discussion was interesting, but the part that warmed our hearts was that a handful of people were late because they couldn't find the building. That means that they've never been there before and our program was the reason they came! Between English Club on Monday and the sports program on Sunday, we estimate that at least two dozen new faces were in YESOD this week, due to our efforts. We've come a long way, baby!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Hello, America?

Although history has given us many such examples, it's still difficult me to understand why someone would be killed simply for being Jewish. I'm saddened -- and a bit frightened -- by Saturday's murder of a young Jewish man. But what infuriates me is that the American media hasn't even picked up the story. Israeli media picked up the story right away. A dear family friend in Israel even emailed me to suggest that I might want to reconsider wearing my Magen David necklace that I recently bought in Israel after she read the news story. (I've already made the difficult decision to stop wearing it: safety trumps ideology in my book.)

But come on, America, where are you? Why are you not the least bit interested? The mainstream press seems to care about world Jewry. Case in point: the Wall Street Journal recently ran an expose on the Chabad movement in Russia. So there has to be some interest, right? Is it because a 22-year-old's murder doesn't represent hundreds of thousands of dollars? Or is it because hate crimes in Russia are no longer shocking? Or is it a trend to simply ignore what's going on here, like the US press did when Russia and Estonia went head-to-head over the relocation of a war monument? (CNN was the only US media outlet that covered that story.)

Regardless, I am terribly saddened and angered by the silence of the American press. Didn't we say "never again" to responding to tragedy with silence? According to Jewish tradition, when does one murder not count for an entire world?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

From the Headlines: Tragic News

Yesterday morning around 10am, while I was tucked cozily in my bed, enjoying a quiet Shabbat morning, across town something awful and tragic happened. A 22-year-old Jewish young man named Dmitri Mikolinski was stabbed to death. Only two media outlets have reported on the incident so far, but it appears that the incident was racially motivated. On his way to synagogue, Dmitri was stabbed in the neck in a manner that is indicative of a group of skinheads in the city. We received word from our security team early this morning. Needless to say, this makes our stomachs churn and our hearts beat faster. Please pray for the safety of the Jewish community here.

Local yeshiva student stabbed to death in St. Petersburg | Ha'aretz
| Amiram Barkat | 13 May 07

Thursday, May 10, 2007

S'Dnyom Pobeda - Happy Victory Day!

Yesterday (Wednesday, May 9th) was a big national holiday here, commemorating the victory of the Russians over the Nazis in WWII. Symbolic of Russia in general, this day is held one day after the rest of the Europe celebrates their victory over the Nazis--everything in Russia has to be done differently than in Europe, what can I say?

Anyway, it was an exceptionally gross day yesterday, and most of the festivities were muted or even canceled altogether. But the parade happened, and we enjoyed checking it out. Then we went to a concert by Alexander Rozenbaum, a famous Russian singer who happens to be proudly and openly Jewish, even singing a handful of songs with Hebrew lyrics.

Unfortunately, we didn't get to hear any of his non-traditional stuff. In fact, the half part of the concert was him singing old Soviet war songs. The most memorable part, aside from the music that we didn't understand, was the guy who threw up in the seat behind me (that's three times in three weeks, for those of you who are counting). Otherwise, it's hard to describe the whole event in words; instead, take a look at the pictures--which I have diligently captioned and even translated the banners--by clicking here.
Marching sailors from one of the city's many military universities.

Alyson enjoys intermission at the concert hall.

Monday, May 07, 2007

"Chiste Yevrey" - A Pure Jew

The first time I heard it, I didn't understand it. The second time I heard it, and I thought about its literal meaning, I found it totally repulsive. And as the phrase continued to pop up in conversation--"Chiste Yevrey," a clean or pure Jew, something Russians say about themselves when they have purely Jewish roots--I struggled to understand what the heck the phrase really means. Why is this country so obsessed with the roots of its people? Why would anyone (other than a white supremacist) boast about their "pure" heritage? And what does this mean for people who aren't "chisti yevri" - are they somehow dirty?

Part of the answer might come from this anecdote, which our friend Veronica told us over Shabbat dinner at our apartment a couple weeks ago:

Veronica was in 3rd grade, and the teacher was talking about ethnic groups in Russia. He was going down the list of students, and pointing out what their last name said about their ethnic identity: "Andrei Pluschenko - that's Ukrainian. Vladimir Vukovich - that's a Russian last name." Belorussians, Poles, etc. - they were all present in the class. "Timor Jugashvili - that's a Georgian name." Finally, the teacher came to Veronica Zalmonovich, with her unmistakably Jewish last name. The teacher hesitated, knowing that pointing out Veronica's Jewish roots would mean social isolation and ostracism for the young girl. He continued, "Veronica - now that is clearly a French name!" So, for the rest of grade school, Veronica was French!
Veronica accompanied me on a Malachei Shabbat ("Angels of Shabbat") visit recently, bringing joy and warmth to Henrietta Popova. That's Alyson's challah on the lower left.

Another anecdote I heard recently came from Lubov Iosifovna Lebedeva, an 81-year-old Chesed client. I visited her in her apartment through the Malachei Shabbat program, with another young Russian Jewish woman named Liza. Lubov told us:

It was 1941. The Siege of Leningrad had just begun and, as a typical, able-bodied 15-year-old, Lubov was ordered to report for work in a factory that manufactured guns. Upon arriving at the factory, she was asked for her Komsomol card, proving that she was a member of the Communist Party's Youth Movement. She explained that she wasn't allowed to be a member of the Communist Party, because she was Jewish (even though she had no Jewish education or knowledge whatsoever). She was told she couldn't work in the factory because she wasn't a member of the Komsomol, and was dejectedly sent home.
Sharing a laugh with Lubov in her tiny one-bedroom apartment.

Being a devoted citizen of Leningrad, she returned the next day to beg the plant's director for a job. After much convincing, he allowed her to work in the factory, even though she was Jewish. However, he couldn't put her on the "payroll" -- meaning that she would work as a volunteer and receive no credit for the 10-hour shifts she worked 6 days per week. Because she was not considered a worker by the Soviet regime, she was not entitled to a worker's extra rations. Despite selflessly contributing three full years of her life to the Soviet effort to defeat the Nazis, over the course of the 900-day Siege, she nearly starved to death on several occasions. Of course, as soon as the Siege ended, her Jewish roots were publicized and she was expelled from the factory.

As I've come to realize from stories like these--and many more that I've heard over the past 9 months--being a "chiste yevrey" is a badge of honor. These people have not only Jewish relatives, they have been branded with Jewish names, making them the subject of ridicule, threats, and discrimination. Though they have little or no Jewish education, they are proud of who they are and will never return to second-class citizens. They live in the constant shadow of anti-Semitism; if they were not overtly persecuted like Lubov's generation was, then Veronica and her peers fear social rejection by their non-Jewish peers. But they remain undaunted--what was once a curse has become a point of pride and, while I still cringe every time I hear the phrase "chiste yevrey," I have finally begun to understand what it means to the Russian Jewish community around me.

Super Shout-Out!

We got a really nice public thank-you from Tanya Linetsky, Esq., who was one of the Pesach Project participants. This is a really compelling article about the positive impact of the Pesach Project - we highly recommend you reading it:


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Joys of Traveling

Clearly, we've been bitten by the travel bug and lately, ever since Pesach Project ended, we've tried to travel even more than before. Part of it was wishful thinking -- it's springtime, so the weather is bound to be warmer, right? (Wrong. Very wrong.) And part of it was parting panic -- ohmigoodness, we only have 3 months left! Maybe it's the beginning of the influx of tourists here in St. Petersburg and, as we hear English spoken on the main streets again, the travel bug is contagious. Unfortunately, it leaves a little something to be desired, namely: convenience.

So in the last three weeks, we've taken three mini-trips: to Gatchina (which was ghetto-fabulous, as Matt wrote about previously), Novgorod, and Helsinki. Each posed a slightly unique travel-related challenge. Take for example, the little kid sitting next to Matt on the bus who puked just outside of the town of Gatchina. (Sadly, it was the second such incident for Matt that week. I was worried he might actually refuse to take public buses, but fortunately, he proved more resilient than I would have been in the same situation.)

Or, on the way to Novgorod, when I noticed that the trip was taking a little longer (4 hours, as opposed to the 3.5 hours) than we had expected. Good thing I piped up, because as it turned out, the bus driver decided to "skip" the stop in Novgorod. He pulled over on the side of the highway to let us off, hail a bus in the opposite direction and graciously paid for our fare in the opposite direction. Imagine my surprise when I asked the second bus driver how far we were from Novgorod and he said "2 hours." Wow, it shouldn't have taken us 6 hours to get there...we could have traveled from DC to Boston by train for the same amount of time. Good thing there's not much to see in Novgorod! Despite its name, which means New City, it's among the oldest cities in Russia. It's a cute town, that's for sure, but besides the walled-in areas of the Kremlin and the area across the river called Yaroslav's Court, which is packed with churches from the 11 and 1200's, there's not a lot to see or do. The highlight, by far, was having a late lunch at a cute restaurant inside the Kremlin walls (originally built in the 1050s). Very cool, indeed, to be eating inside a piece of history!

A view of Novgorod's Kremlin from across the river

Our bus ride to Helsinki was a little less adventurous than our previous rides, although it was still rather exhausting. The 383-kilometer ride (that's 237 miles) took 8.5 hours each way, including a nearly 2-hour stop-and-go dance at the border. (Yes, you can fly cross Atlantic from NY to Paris in less time!) Fortunately, the bus picked us up and dropped us off at our nearest metro stop; unfortunately, it snowed the morning we left! Brrr...

We also traveled to hell and back last week -- a quick weekend getaway, if you will. I found a lump in breast while doing a routine monthly exam on Friday and spent much of the weekend getting poked and prodded by doctors. I spent all day on Saturday at the American Clinic, where they were unable to find anything abnormal on an ultrasound. On Sunday, I met with two traveling doctors from Georgia (in the US, not the FSU) who were here with their church group and who graciously volunteered to see members of the missionary community for free. I decided God would forgive me for twisting the definition of a missionary to include me, especially in my breast-cancer-paranoid state; alas, in the end, I don't think I pissed off God too badly because the prevailing medical opinion -- based on my age, my family history, and the results of the ultrasound -- is that I have a benign cyst.

Helsinki proved to be a wonderful distraction from life in St. Petersburg. We left amid the grayish white snow covering; we were delighted that by the time we arrived in Helsinki it was sunny and bright. We loved the diversity of the people, the architecture and the cuisine. We hated the prices -- holy crap, things were expensive! Lucky for my wallet, many of the stores were closed for the May Day/Student Day festivities. Instead, we were fortunate enough to witness the raucous celebrations littering the streets.

Soaking up the Finnish sunshine near Helsinki's port

In case you aren't familiar with May Day in Finlad (we certainly weren't!), all the students dress up in ridiculous brightly-colored jumpsuits and silly white sailor hats, clean a famous statue, and get wasted. (I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.) Part of the fun was a bunch of outdoor concerts, including a bizarre rap/R&B performance that was fun until we realized that they were singing Christian rock songs! We scooted out to seek some good Mexican fare and try out some Finlandia vodka drinks at the Arctic Bar, which was completely made of ice. So it turned out to be a major tourist trap...oh, well, you only live once!

Nope, those aren't Eskimos or aliens -- it's us, all bundled up at the Artic Bar in Helsinki!

All in all, we've decided that as fun and adventuresome as we are, we will be very happy to return to the monotony of everyday life back in the US soon enough.