Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ahhhhh ODESSA!

Privoz; Celebrating a mock Seder in a Warm Home of Ghetto Survivors and Righteous Gentiles; The most famous street in Odessa-Deribasovskaya Street; Primorsky Blvd; The Architect of Odessa-Duke Richelieu; Potemakin Staircase; Empress Catherine II- signing Odessa into existence; Aleksandr Pushkin- one of Odessa's most famous residents; City Hall; The magical Odessa Opera House

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Jewish Renewal Over Tea with my Great-Aunt

Early today I was woken up by a knock at my door. Startled, I jumped to see who it is; it is rare for me to get visitors I am not expecting in Odessa- as I don’t really know too many people. To my surprise it was my Great-Aunt. [I had recently found out I have great-Aunt, with a daughter and two grand-children- my cousins who remained in Odessa after my family’s departure in the 1970’s.] We had talked on the phone, and I mentioned where I lived and were planning to meet, and would hopefully visit the Jewish Cemetery- where many of my great-grandparents are buried. But here she was standing at my door, completely unexpected – my family in Odessa!

As I welcomed her in she began telling me how she had just walked the entire building asking for the Jewish apartment (oy…now that the whole building was awoken due to me and knew I was Jewish, I am definitely going to have some hostile neighbors).

As we sat in the kitchen over a cup of tea talking, me showing her pictures of my grandmother, aunt, and mother (over 30 years since she has seen any of them), she telling me stories of how my grandfather’s workshop (he was an artist) was right underneath her dvor, and how him and her would talk every afternoon, him in his workshop and her on her balcony.

Of course she asked about my family in New York, about me, and why I was in Odessa. The first question was if I was religious and if I was not how it came to be that I was in Odessa to work with and in the Jewish Community here…to which I didn’t know how to answer- no one had ever directly asked me these questions.

Then she told me she just arrived from synagogue, Saturday services- asked if I attend synagogue; I told her with my grandmother on high holidays sometimes…She than began to tell me about her family, her daughter worked as an instructor in the Jewish orphanage in the Center of the city (also her son-in-law used to work there). Both her grandchildren (around my age a few years older) were orthodox, finishing yeshiva’s here, one even studying in Israel, both of them now working in a synagogue in Odessa. I was also surprised to find out that one of them had two children; she even had great-grand children. As one of the oldest in my extended family (my siblings and most of my cousins are younger) I couldn’t believe that someone from “our generation” in my family already had children.

Of course, one of my first questions was if I could meet everybody, she said of course but it would be a little difficult as her grandsons don’t often come over, and can’t have dinner at her house due to kashrut issues.

It is hard to be in Odessa, realizing that for over 70 years this city as most of the FSU suppressed any kind of active Jewish life or memory… Why than am I sitting having tea with my great-Aunt who never left this city and being questioned on my “Jewishness”. I couldn’t help wondering at loud why they had decided to send my cousins to Jewish Schools v. Public Schools in Odessa. It is the same question I pose to my grandmother back in New York when she attends synagogue for Shabbat Services. How do you know you are Jewish if your entire life you weren’t allowed to know or practice? In the over fifty years my grandmother lived in Odessa, she never once stepped foot into a synagogue. My grandmother’s only Jewish memory was when she was a child going to her grandmother’s house on Friday nights, seeing her close the curtains, light candles, say something in a language she did not understand, and eating apple pie- she didn’t know what was Jewish about that tradition but she knew it was other-thus Jewish. Yet on arriving in New York in the late 70’s her first destination was a synagogue…Why? How did she know? Her answer always astounds me…Even if it was never said out loud she always knew she was a Jew (even if in Odessa, it was just being other). As she says “only in America could I actualize it but I always knew, it was always in my heart-I was a Jew.”

I guess the core of the question I was asking my Grandmother in New York and now my Great-Aunt in Odessa: what is Jewish Renewal? How do you revive a lost heritage, a fragmented history, a feeling of other all into someone’s or a community’s Jewish identity. It is not about location: New York or Odessa, both community’s (populations: Russian Speaking Jews) are struggling to find the path to this question, of course along the way they take many different turns (it’s all about the context as I have learned here).

After much getting to know each other, my great-Aunt offered for me to go to synagogue with her, of course I agreed quickly, she added right after just make sure you bring documents that show you’re a Jew. “What documents ?” The nationality/religion of a person is not written on their birth certificate in the U.S. as it was up to a few years ago in Ukraine. I have none I told her, I joked “I have a star of David and my lifetime of belonging to Jewish camps, schools, centers, and the field.” Well she said you can get your parents’ birth certificates or a letter from the Joint, but either way make sure you have them or else they won’t let you into the synagogue…especially since you don’t look Jewish…you look so Russian.”

As she left, I sat to reflect, our conversation- while nothing she said astounded me, they were all things I had been observing myself in my time in Odessa, the complexity and choices of Judaism in the FSU, it all became very personal when I was confronted with it in on a familial level. While there is much diversity in the Jewish Community in Odessa, and much more in New York, and even more between my family here (Odessa) and family back home (New York). I found myself not thinking of the diversity or difference but of the connection. Whether my family would of remained in Odessa or chosen to immigrate to New York, there would of been a path (very different from each other but still there) for them to reconnect/renew their Jewish heritage and identity (much do to the work of the Joint).

Not to steal the words of the leader whose name I carry all year with me, Ralph I. Goldman: but there really is “a single intertwined and interconnected Jewish World.” And every day in the field, I see firsthand aspects of this single world, which I am a part of.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

From the Chudo (Miracle) of Lights to the Chudo (Miracle) of Snow

It is hard to believe that I have been in Odessa almost a month and half, and even harder to know where to begin…

Arriving just in time for the Festival of Lights, Chanukah, I had an opportunity see to the Jewish Community and Jewish Organizations of Odessa at their most active and celebratory (though I can only imagine or have hints at the Festivities awaiting for Purim).

While dozens of events took place, the largest scale event that I personally took a role in was the first “maladushka”- evening for youth- that the Beit Grande planned and executed since its opening. The Beit Grande or the Jewish Cultural Center- is the brand new, beautiful, full block building, which was recently constructed and opened in Odessa. While there are many active, established, and quite impressive Jewish organizations in Odessa, the Beit Grande is very unique to Odessa’s Jewish Community.

Upon walking into the Beit Grande you immediately notice that above you there is a three floor, spiraling staircase sculpture (representing Jacob’s dream from Genesis), while below you, you find yourself standing on a piece of Jerusalem limestone in the middle of the lobby. Immediately you understand the goal of this massive and very beautiful Jewish institution; to reach and dream high for the future of their Jewish Community while remaining firmly planted in the values and traditions that have always held the Jewish People together.

[As a note, I must mention that my project in arriving in Odessa was to assist with Jewish Renewal programs at the Beit Grande and having a strong background in JCC work, I am quite partial to the Beit Grande and deeply believe in its mission].

Having only opened last Chanukah, the Beit Grande had double to celebrate this Chanukah with their first anniversary, and their “maladushka” was the crowning jewel on 8 day’s worth of events and commemorations. The “maladushka” involved over a hundred young adults, ranging in age from 17 to 30 in attendance, a fire show, performances by Ukrainian pop stars (who just happened to grow up in the Jewish community and attending Jewish camps in Ukraine), menorah give-a-ways, and lots and lots of ponichiki.

While Chanukah in Odessa was quite an experience, even the festival of lights could not keep the snow from arriving. Odessa, in matter of days had more snow and freezing temperatures than it had seen in over half of century. Being a Mediterranean city with long summers and short (mostly snowless) winters, the arrival of the first blizzard of the winter had completely paralyzed the city. As the city was not prepared, it had no choice but to shut down (schools, work places, and stores). The Heaps of snow had created terrible traffic conditions where drivers stood in traffic for 7-10 hours only than to be forced to get out and push their cars to side streets. Public transportation was temporarily suspended and many people had to spend a night or two sleeping at their jobs or friends close by, as they were not able to get out of the center of the city to get home to Odessa’s residential areas. Garbage could not be picked (and the usual several stray dogs problem- worsened). Trucks with produce deliveries were unable to get into the city and bread quickly became a valuable commodity as it could not be found in most stores for several days. Of course the weather conditions were not all bad, children were quickly spotted outside with the first signs of snowflakes riding their sleighs down snow hills, and I even spotted several people snowboarding down the Potemkin Staircase!

Overall, it took the city about a week and half to fully recover- going from a winter wonderland to an ice skating ring (with temperatures falling minus 20 Celsius and causing the entire unshoveled city to become frozen) to a swimming pool (with temperatures going to plus 10 Celsius, with no drainage system on the streets) and finally returning to the beautiful streets that I have come to know and love.

With the city being shut down by the snow and in preparation for the holidays, I took advantage and took a quick trip to Kiev to visit some friends and colleagues. While I only spent a few days in Kiev, I was immediately astounded by how large the city was and how very different from Odessa. While I have only been away from New York for a month and half, I had already forgotten the craziness of riding subways (Odessa does not have a metro system- as it build on catacombs used as a system of leaving and entering the city during wars in the previous century- the catacombs have caused parts of Odessa to be sinking as well as constant traffic jams due to lack of public transportation). As a side note, the subways in Kiev are quite deep underground and the escalators run very quickly causing a scary situation for first-time users.

Overall, Kiev is a very beautiful and impressive city, however walking around many of its famous and infamous sites (will post pictures soon) Baba Yar-site of the mass killing of thousands of Jews during the Second World War (the worst murder of Jewish residents occurred here, where in matter of two days over thirty thousand Jews were murdered and dumped at the now Public Park), Square of Independence, Mandarin, Andriyivisky Spusk, and of course eating at a Puzata Hata- I found myself missing not New York but Odessa…

With this I arrived back to Odessa, to spend my first New Year’s away from New York and home in what is beginning to feel like home with my newfound friends and city. Since I arrived in Odessa, many have welcomed me here with the idea that this city is my rodina (birthplace). Sometimes I find this concept a bit off, as in my month and half here I have been forced to discover how “American” I am in upbringing and mentality. Yet, every day I find myself more drawn to this city, its residents, lifestyle, and Jewish Community.

In the FSU and back home in Little Odessa, New Year’s is always a very big holiday and celebration. Whenever, I would sit as a child at the table with my family on New Year’s we would always begin by toasting good-bye to the Old Year. 2009 was a year of many changes, good-byes, and beginnings for me and 2010 will have many more. This New Year’s I find myself very grateful for all the love and support from my family, friends, and colleagues throughout this experience. Without it I know I would not be privileged enough to be on this journey. While I will be saying good-bye today to 2009 a whole seven hours before all of them, I also know that I bring all the support, memories, experiences, and people into 2010 as I move forward. To illuminate the path for me when it gets dark…

HAPPY New Years!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sunday, December 6, 2009

From Little Odessa to ODESSA

“But Odessa is just a town like any other…the problem is that you are extremely biased…Well, fine. So I am biased, I admit it. Maybe I‘m even extremely biased, but parole d’honneur, there is something to this place!” Isaac Babel, Odessa.

Having been born and raised in a community/neighborhood know as “Little Odessa” (as least as it was when my family first immigrated and when I was a child- in the 70’s and 80’s), I have sat around many family dinners listening to stories, anecdotes, and nostalgia on ODESSA. Thus, getting off the airport at Odessa, a little over two weeks ago, was quite a surreal experience. I would have believed I had arrived anywhere but ODESSA. India, China, Rwanda, or Paris but not ODESSA.

At first sight the street I live on could be mistaken for a street in the heart of Greenwich Village, NY- I am surrounded by trendy cafes with people sitting drinking lattes and surfing the web, fashion stores that are my favorite stops in SOHO, cobble streets, and oh so fashionable pedestrians. However, with a second look, a bit deeper, you realize you are not anywhere near the streets of NY. Could it be the language of the store signs (Ukrainian) or the Russian slang that people walking by are using (making the language I have spoken all my life become almost indecipherable), or perhaps it is the huge German Sheppard eyeing me as I walk into my “dvoar.”

My first weeks in Odessa, have been a whirlwind of visiting and getting to know the Jewish Community of Odessa. It was immediately clear how diverse, vibrant, sophisticated and complicated this community is. The professionals who work in the over half a dozen Jewish organizations/institutions in Odessa, led, collaborated, and jointed together by the Joint, are more than impressive in their abilities as they are in their dedication to the Jewish Community here. It is wonderful to be around colleagues, similarly to myself, who view their job not only as a job but a lifestyle. The commitment, talent, and dedication of these professionals (and active involvement in all aspects of their community) is what creates and sustains the Jewish Community here.

The Jewish Community of Odessa is estimated between 30-45,000 out of a city of a bit more than a million residents. However, as the joke goes in Odessa, “everyone in Odessa has at least one Jewish grandparent”. This anecdote attests to the rich Jewish history of Odessa, which prior to the Revolution, nearly half of the residents were Jewish. Walking the streets of Odessa, I can almost imagine great Zionist leaders like Dizengoff and Jabotinsky walking on the same cobbles streets as I am now (specifically not removed in certain parts of the city for historical preservation). I can see Pushkin (only a resident of Odessa for 13 months, but one of the most famous residents with a large monument fundraised and built by the citizens of Odessa) and Babel sitting on a bench on Primorski Boulevard looking out into the sea and writing poems and stories about Odessa, herself.

In my few weeks here, I have already had dozens of experiences that have expanded my scope of what a Jewish Community can be and is. While Odessa has always had a large Jewish population and history, I find myself amazed and constantly reminded that organized Jewish life has only existed for a little over twenty years. Prior to that, Odessa as the rest of the FSU lived under the Communist Regime for almost a century.

Thus, the amazingly active Jewish Community here today is that much more precious and inspiring. In many ways the Jewish Community here is struggling with many similar challenges as the community I arrive from, as the populations have similar backgrounds. Fore example how to bring in and engage youth (teenagers), the next generation and future, who are unexplainably missing from the picture of services for many Jewish Organizations in Odessa. As well as, how to create local self-sustaining Jewish Organizations. On the other hand the Jewish Community here faces its own unique challenges both in terms of welfare and renewal, the greatest of which seems to be defining and shaping what the next twenty years of Jewish life in Odessa will look like.

ODESSA has always had an almost mystical hold on my imagination and heart. However, everyday that I spend combing the streets, sitting in restaurants, and meetings, I find myself discovering the real city. Slowly, the city that was once Little Odessa, or ODESSA to me is becoming Odessa