Saturday, September 29, 2007

Mi Dacha es su Dacha!

Dacha: Russian word for a seasonal or year-round country home.

Instead of dwelling in a sukkah for Sukkot, JDC employees opted to honor the holiday in a slightly less temporary abode, namely a delightful Belarusian dacha!

On Wednesday, September 26th, nearly 25 JDC employees traveled to the organization's lawyer's Dacha for a day of barbecuing (shashliki), box wine, and Belarusian countryside leisure. A lovely day of group bonding and enjoying the natural surroundings ensured that the spirit of the festival of booths was felt by all!

Since kosher meat is not sold in Minsk, the barbecue posed a bit of a challenge for the "koshervores" among us (ie Eritchka and I). But thankfully Eritchka brought along a few packs of Hebrew National hot dogs brought to her via freezer pack all the way from New York! Thanks Eritchka!

Yum! Check out by "bun!"

And now I would like to introduce you to some special JDC folks:

(Pasha, myself, Yoni)

First we have Pasha the JDC driver. Pasha is great. He drives the JDC minivan with skill and grace! He has made it his personal mission to have me speaking Russian by next week (we'll see...) and even miraculously taught me to pronounce the tricky guttural Russian letter "bl" correctly. Pasha enjoys smoking his pipe at the dacha, fishing, Mongolian films, and classical music.

And then, of course, we have Yoni. Yoni is the JDC Minsk representative and the head of the JDC office in Minsk. He is my supervisor, has helped me adjust to life in Minsk, and introduced me to many of the people I will be working with this year. Yoni enjoys DJing during long drives to areas in the "periphery" of Belarus and has impeccable taste in music. Yoni also likes to ask me in Russian if I'm sleeping because "Ya nyee splyoo!" ("I'm not sleeping!") is a whole Russian sentence that I can actually say!


And next we have Iliya, also a JDC driver. Iliya is an excellent van driver and I am grateful to him for picking me up from the airport when I first arrived in Minsk. Iliya speaks Hebrew, which I really appreciate, and is generally a nice person to talk to.


Then we have the oh-so-helpful Natasha, director of logistics for the JDC Minsk. Natasha has helped me so much, from organizing my visa to helping me find an apartment. Her English is excellent, which is great since I always have about a hundred questions for her.

I am grateful to all of these people and many more for helping me through my first three weeks in Minsk.

In the words of one of my favorite (and personally relevant) novels, Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart, "When you are in Absurdistan, my mother will be your mother, my wife your sister, and you will always find water in my well to drink." Oh, and my dacha is your dacha too!

(I learned a new dance at the dacha. It's called "Ifoundtheouthouseyipee!")

Monday, September 24, 2007

Falliday Festival at the Minsk Jewish Campus!

You haven't seen Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot celebrated in style until you've seen the Minsk Jewish Campus Autumn Holiday Festival!

On Sunday, September 23rd, the Minsk Jewish community gathered at the Campus for a festival to celebrate the Jewish New Year and the other Jewish holidays of the Fall season.

Festivities included a ribbon cutting ceremony for a newly built playground, complete with swings and seesaws. The children were welcomed to play on the new equipment.

(Notice the emcee's fashionable mullet haircut. It's the favorite 'do of this Jew!)

(Progressive Rebbetzin Ira Abramovich cuts the ribbon as children get ready, set, go!)

I tried out the monkey bars and swings before the ceremony, just to make sure they were safe for the kids of course! Testing the slide and jungle gym is serious business.

(Who doesn't love a little boy in a bow tie?!)

(Belarusian babies sport stylish headware!)

Other festivities included performances by various dance and choir groups. There was a fabulous dance performance by a group of women from Chesed, the campus' senior citizens group. Don't be fooled though, these pensionerettes are far from frail! They've got some mean moves and add even added pizazz to Yiddish songs like "Cheery Bim Cheery Bom!"

And another performance that knocked our Belarusian socks off was by the Divas. The Divas, a singing group directed by Hillel member, Vicktor "Vitusha" Maslov, sang a lively medley of Hebrew songs with a catchy techno beat. Betcha can't sit still while watching this one!

During the festival the Campus turned into a meeting ground for nearly all the Jewish organizations in Minsk. I especially loved spending time at the
Jewish Agency for Israel table where lots of Hebrew speakers could be found. The new Israeli shlicha from JAFI arrived with her family about one month ago and I'm already in love with her adorable kibbutznik children.

You might recognize the Jewish Fallidays as the "Yamim Noraim," or the "Days of Awe," but here in Minsk, they're celebrated with style!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Aliyitchka: American #2 in Belarus!

Eritchka wrote a blog post about my arrival in Belarus and our adventures together on her blog, "Babushka." It's very funny!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A Memorial for the Jews of Slutsk

On Sunday, September 16th, Erica and I, along with many members of the Minsk Jewish community, traveled to Slutsk, a small town about an hour and a half drive from Minsk. Once the hometown of many Jews and a prominent yeshiva, Slutsk’s Jewish community now contains only about 100 Jews. This past Sunday, a memorial was dedicated to honor and remember “the victims of the Slutsk Ghetto” and a ceremony was held to officially open the monument. Until now, very little has been done to honor the memory of the many Jews who once lived in Slutsk and were forced to live in the Slutsk ghetto, eventually displaced and killed. Sunday was a special day because the Jews of Slutsk were publicly remembered and the mood at the ceremony reflected a sense of both solemnity and accomplishment.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Honey Fair!

Here is a picture of Erica and I with our new Belarusian hunnies!

Just kidding! Well, sort of... On Sunday, September 9th, the sweetest place to be in Minsk was the center of the city, along the Svislach River.

Minskers gathered for a colorful festival of honey from all over Belarus. Vedors set up booths selling honey, honeycomb, bee pollen and other bee products. Erica and I particularly enjoyed free sample tastes of the different kinds of honey. Erica's favorite was a dark amber honey from kasha and mine was a light colored, whipped clover honey. The vendors we purchased our honey from graciously allowed us to take a picture with them! Thanks "honeys"!

Speaking of honey, I would like to wish everyone a Shana Tova U'Metukah! A sweet new year! Make sure to have some apples dipped in honey!

Saturday, September 8, 2007

From Couscous to Kartoshkas

Privet! Shalom! Hello!

I’m excited let everyone know that I have arrived safely and it's
been a great time so far!

First, let me explain the title of this post. My grandmother, who was born in Casablanca, Morocco and is originally of Algerian Jewish descent, prepares a special food, couscous, on special occasions. Couscous is a delicious traditional North African food and is often served with broth and vegetables. My grandmother made sure to prepare a wonderful Shabbat meal of couscous with vegetables and chicken right before I left. It was, of course, delicious!

(Grandma with couscous) (Aliyah with couscous)

And here in Belarus, Kartoshka (Russian for “potato”) is a very traditional food. Potatoes are prepared in many different ways and I’m excited to try out some traditional recipes. Think of Belarus as a veritable land-o-latkes. So far, I have enjoyed Belarusian potato chips in… mushroom flavor! This may sound a bit funky to some, but believe me they are “ochen vkoosna” (very tasty)!

My blog post title reflects more than just food, though. It represents an interesting combination of identities. My mother’s family is Ashkenazi Jewish, of Russian or maybe Ukrainian descent, and as I mentioned above, my father’s family is Sephardic Jewish, of North African descent. Put those two together (Ashkenazi+Sephardic) and I’m an Ashkephardic Jew!

In the past, I have associated strongly with my Sephardic side, its spicy food, Passover traditions, and fascinating history of both accommodation of non-Jewish Arab traditions and the preservation of a distinctly Jewish identity. I have also appreciated aspects of my Ashkenazi side, but now, here in Belarus, I feel that I might connect with it on a deeper level. Once the heart of the “Pale of Settlement,” this area was heavily saturated with Jewish communities, nearing 50% of the general population. Now that population is smaller, but enjoying a vibrant revival which I am proud to take a small part in.

So, my journey from couscous to kartoshkas is not only a physical one, but a process of broadening my mind and exploring aspects of my “Ashkephardic” identity, especially the “Ashke” part. While I once shied away from admitting that I actually like some foods like gefilte fish, herring, and horseradish, (in Yiddish and Russian “Hrain”) I will now say it loud and proud! I almost feel as though I’ve joined a support group where I hesitatingly declare, “My name is Aliyah and I like herring,” and my group replies in unison, “Privet (Hi) Aliyah!”

(The herring aisle at the local market. Yum!)

Food is always a nice place to begin but what else has made first impressions upon me?
People have been especially warm and nice to me. Current JDC volunteer, Erica Fishbein, has been especially wonderful, accompanying me everywhere, introducing me to important people with whom I will work closely this year, and slowly guiding me through the initial foreignness (so foreign, I feel like Borat) of grocery shopping and money exchange. Thanks to Eritchka I’m not overwhelmed, just 'whelmed'!

(Erica, Alona, and Aliyah at the JDC office)

And the Minsk Jewish Campus impressed me a great deal as well. At the campus, many different Jewish organizations share space and offer a rich community setting to a very broad sector of society here. Much of the campus’ activities are run by highly committed volunteers and employees who take their work seriously.

Friday evening, Shabbat, I enjoyed taking part in a gathering of about 20 Jewish Belarusian students at Hillel. We first had an abridged kabalat shabbat service and then socialized while snacking on challah (which is delicious and sweet here) for at least a couple of hours.

(Aliyah and Erica with Hillel friends)

Personally, I’m still a bit jet lagged, but adjusting quickly. I am enthusiastic about learning Russian and I’m picking up new words all the time. (Ella, padrujka, you’d be proud!) I have a long ways to go in terms of language but I can see that this sort of immersion is the best way to learn. For now though, I find myself smiling and nodding while not really understanding everything.

And I hope you will smile knowing that I’m happy, warm (weather’s been ok so far), well-fed, being challenged, and looked after well by good people during this new beginning.

May we all take an opportunity to look at the foods we enjoy and what they might mean in the context of our identities. Learn a traditional recipe! Teach someone one you are fond of! And if you like herring, then say it loud, say it proud!