In sitting down to write this I’m still in Ukraine. Posting it, I'm not. Reflections here will mostly be about Kiev, recognizing that there are similarities between the communities I’m visiting (and differences), but some might be more generalizations. In Ukraine I’m visiting, Kiev, Kharkov, and Odessa.
Upon landing late at night, I had the realization that I really don’t have a great handle on the history of this part of the world. I was also a little spooked in getting into the car that picked me up (I had a driver), when we took a shortcut through an off road unlit forest. Thank you google maps for allowing me to see that we were taking a shortcut and not going to the back roads. And no my driver did not speak a lick of English.
My first response about Kiev is it’s big. I’m not sure what I pictured, but Soviet style buildings are just large. The city itself also felt much larger than places I’ve been. Someone described it to me as similar to Chicago, and in some ways yes, but even more spread out. I was forever walking up hills too. I stumbled upon an underground walkway mall, and happened upon magnolia trees blossoming in botanical gardens. I pictured the place more bleak, but it’s really a bustling city.
I was in Kiev in the lead up to and the day of their recent elections. You know the one where they elected an actor/comedian who plays the President on a tv sitcom. No, you can’t make this stuff up. Oh, and he happens to be Jewish. He ended up winning by a landslide, and without too much protesting around. Safety wise I was much more on my toes and did far less wandering, as there were some demonstrations happening and a few places that had bomb threats – that were always just threats or hoaxes.
The JDC does much more direct service here in Ukraine (really the entire FSU region) than every else. This means that things like the JCC, Chesed (think Jewish Family Services and elderly care), are much more directly funded and organized by the JDC. The JDC is also providing food cards and care for elderly and families in need. In Kiev I visited the JCC and a warm home. The JCC has programs going on all day long for the elderly, they run a preschool, Hebrew lessons, dance classes, and more. It’s very active. I participated in a community seder and had a chance to see people in the community of all ages interacting.
Warm Home – Kiev
Warm homes are what I think a really powerful movement. These are groups that gather once a week in a volunteer’s home. They are organized by proximity and seniors gather together to talk, celebrate holidays, and just share elements of life together. They are all single, and often these warm homes are where they get the most interaction. The warm homes are usually for independent people. The volunteer’s are given a little money to be able to provide snacks and drinks. I attended a warm home where they were having a seder led by two local Hillel students.
The room was filled with women ages 70 plus. The women were so happy to have the group come together. It also occurred to me as I was sitting around the table, recognizing that not many of them seemed to know too much of the seder that I was nearly able to recite by heart. I looked at their faces and immediately reflected on my own grandparents. Their faces were my grandmothers. The recognition that the difference between these Jewish women and my grandmother was that she left. My grandma Alice was put on a boat over 100 years ago at the age of 12 and sailed away from this part of the world, she never came back. So it’s poignant to sit here as well versed as I am with a strong Jewish identity. These women’s family stayed, they were born during or after a devastating World War which means someone in their family survived, and then went on to live through Communism, only to come out on the other side and find a way back to Judaism. They are excited about their identity but being Jewish has such different meaning.
I went to the World War II museum in Kiev. I’d say it was much more of an artifact showcase and you can really feel how singular the story they are telling is. In the Ukraine there is so much history it’s really hard to keep everything straight, and to understand the layers of power that have existed over time. The museum was primarily in Ukrainian/Russian (I honestly can’t tell the difference), I had an audio guide in English. The stories that they choose to tell are very interesting and give a sense of the type of place you are in. There was one room that talked about concentration camps, and throughout the entire museum, I think that “Jewish people” were mentioned maybe once. In all the traveling I am doing I’m constantly being reminded to think through what story is being told, who is telling it, and what might be missing from it and why.
Passover in Kiev (and Kharkov). This year was one of the more challenging Passover experiences I’ve had in terms to keeping kosher throughout the holiday. I ate soup, tuna, and kosher for Passover cookies throughout the holiday. I attended both official seders with the local Chabad in Kiev. The first night they hosted over 200 people for a seder, with the majority of guests being Ukrainian. I happened to sit at a table with people, mostly Israeli's who weren’t so into the seder, so I’d say that together with the main explanations happening in Russian, it was more of a “do it yourself” experience. It ultimately made me miss home. That said. wherever I would’ve been probably would make me miss home. Seders make me think of family and also those that are no longer with us. It’s also just steeped in funny traditions and good times. Night two of seder I went to the Chabad family’s home. I was connected to them thanks to Rabbi Yisrael Pinson (the amazing Chabad Rabbi in Detroit), his sister is the daughter-in-law of the main Rabbi in Kiev. She and her husband run young professional programs. It was a much more intimate crowd, mainly their family which made it a little more like home, although still pretty different. All in all a different but good experience.
Celebrating holidays away from home is always a bit of an adventure. It’s one of those things you need to sort of adjust to and commit to accepting the fact that it will be a little bit different. I’ve also seen where it’s a way to embrace and learn how others celebrate. Trying to understand the “why” we celebrate, or participate in different Jewish events or even traditions is something that has been on my mind a lot. Which elements are most important to teach someone? Where do you begin?
Summing up Kiev, because I have a TON of things to say about the rest of my time in Ukraine in further posts, it was a great introduction to Ukraine, it’s a huge city. More to come…