Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A Special Day with "A Special World"

On Sunday July 29th, Moishe House Minsk joined a local non-profit organization, "A Special World," for a day of horseback riding and a picnic. What made this activity extra special were the children who joined us from "A Special World." Each child is disabled and uses a wheelchair. We decided to go horseback riding with them in order to provide them with an activity that is both fun and therapeutic.

"A Special World," directed by Elena Serkulskaya, helps the children in a variety of ways. First, Serkulskaya has trained this group of children and their mothers in adaptive wheelchair dance and their dance troupe, "Mandarin," has traveled all over Belarus and abroad to perform. Adaptive dance for those in wheelchairs is an excellent means of rehabilitation and has improved the self-esteem of the children tremendously. Additionally, since the mothers participate, they feel proud to dance with their children, instead of ashamed due to social stigmas regarding disability. Lastly, the group of children and mother pairs is cohesive and supportive, which is one of its most important assets. On Sunday during our group event, Moishe House Minsk was privileged to take part in that supportive group.

"Mandarin" Performs at the Minsk Jewish Campus

Directors of "A Special World," Dmitry Shaplyko and Elena Serkulskaya, are themselves world champions of adaptive ballroom dance. As partners, they won the Paralympic World Championship in adaptive dance in Tokyo in 2004. Dmitry was trained in traditional ballroom dance and partnered with Elena, who dances in a wheelchair, in 2003. Many years ago when performing a complicated freestyle ski-jump routine, Elena endured a serious accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down. After spending many years without leaving her home, Elena felt that as an athlete, her life was over. Nevertheless, she not only found the strength to rejoin society, but to improve the lives of children in wheelchairs as well. She manages the "Mandarin" dance troupe of disabled children and mother pairs, instructs rehabilitative excercise, and provides governement agencies with educational seminars on disabilities and effective rehabilitation. Additionally, Elena is a PhD candidate, one of the first to have writen her disertation on disability and rehabilitaion in Belarus. On Sunday, she was our instructor of rehabilitative horseback riding and each of us took part in the process of helping the children, and Elena herlsef, ride.

Helping Elena onto the horse

And she's on!

The most marvelous thing about our day of horseback riding with "A Special World" was that after each of the children had parked their wheelchairs many meters away and gotten up on the horses it became difficult to remember which of us had arrived in wheelchairs and which hadn't. Moishe House guests began to see the children as Geniya, Anton, and Natasha, instead of seeing them as their disability, so blatant when one sits in a wheelchair. And more importantly, the children themselves began to feel liberated from their wheelchairs, moving much higher and faster than usual. Elena herself remarked that being on the horse reminded her of walking.

After everyone had had a turn on the horses, mothers included, we sat down for a picnic lunch.

We shared stories from Moishe House events and listened to stories from the children and mothers of "A Special World." When it was time to go home, everyone left smiling, having enjoyed a very special day.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Celebrating Israel's 60th in Minsk

I have celebrated many a Yom Haatzmaut in the diaspora before, but this year's was different. Perhaps because of the hardships the Jews of Minsk have endured in their recent history, and because of the relatively limited Jewish outlets here (compared to other diaspora locations where I have lived like Los Angeles and New York), I expected to feel particularly far away from Eretz Yisrael Sheli on Israel's sixtieth. But several events were held by the Minsk Jewish community, which actually brought me very close to Israel in unexpected ways.

First, a benefit concert was organized by several Jewish organizations here, at "Bronx" nightclub, one of Minsk's most popular. The concert featured a Belarusian Rock Band called J:MORS. The band usually sings in Russian in Belarusian, but in honor of Yom Haatzmaut, they added a new language to their repertoire, Hebrew! The band, whose members are not Jewish, but have some friends in Israel, sang the famous Israeli song "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav," Jerusalem of Gold, by Naomi Shemer.
Take a look at the video below. Vladamir of J:MORS sang from his transliterated song sheet so well that you might forget that you're watching a Belarusian band.

Second, The Israeli Embassy and Israel Cultural Center in Minsk sponsored an Israeli film festival, which began with the showing of one of my favorite Israeli films, "Ha Kochavim Shel Shlomi," or "Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi." This film has the power to emotionally transport you right into Israel, even from Minsk!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Minsk's First Mimouna

On the evening of Sunday, April 27th, Jewish Minskers celebrated their very first Mimouna. Originally a tradition observed by Jews from North Africa, a Mimouna is a party held on the evening when Pesach is finished and Jews get to trade in their bread of affliction for chametz-o-licious treats. Accordingly, the Mimouna is an evening filled with songs, dance, and most importantly, said treats. One especially traditional and tasty Mimouna delicacy is called moufletta. It is basically a folded crepe with honey and butter inside. Nothing says chametz-o-licious quite like moufletta.

In Israel today, the mimouna celebration is enjoyed by Jews fro
m all over the world, Sephardi and Ashkenazi alike. Inspired by this synergy of traditions, I decided to organize a Mimouna in Minsk. Basically every Jew in Minsk is Ashkenazi. At least one grandparent of nearly all my friends here speaks Yiddish. But Jews here are still hungry for knowledge (and moufletta!) about Jewish traditions from around the world. Thanks to Moishe House and the JDC, Natasha and I were able to organize this event in the big hall of the Minsk Jewish Campus. Preparations began weeks in advance, with our advertisement which we posted in many of the Minsk Jewish youth clubs and organization offices.

Then we decided the "program" for the evening. Here in Minsk, people rarely just throw a casual party. An unwritten social rule is that there must be a program for the evening.

Mimouna Minsk Program

We began the evening with Havdalah, which in this case sanctified the separation between the holiday at the end of Pesach and the rest of the week.
Mimouna is said to celebrate the luck of the people of Israel that God parted the Sea of Reeds and allowed them to escape the Egyptians. While Pesach remembers the moment of the exodus from Egypt, Mimouna remembers the arrival at the sea, which occurred seven days after leaving Egypt. Thus, we decorated the stage and curtain to look like the Sea of Reeds, complete with waves and fish.
Our emcees, the charming Olga and Dima, also connected quite literally to the theme of the parting the sea. Olga dressed as Moses and held her staff high to part the sea curtain for the first act. And Dima dressed as Moses' sister Miriam who lead the women with their timbrels in a victory song and dance after the seas had parted. They introduced themselves in character and lead our audience through the Mimouna performances with grace, aplomb, and, well, gender fluidity.

Our first performers were from the Hillel dance group and they performed an Israeli folk dance in pairs.

Later in the evening, the ladies and one brave young man performed a middle eastern style dance for us as well.

Our next act was the wonderful singer, a true Belarusian Jewish diva, Anya Shalutina.

Each act was separated by the presentation of some slides with information and pictures of Mimouna celebrations throughout history. The presentation was translated into Russian and can be seen here, and for the English version,
click here. Use the arrows to control the slides.
And last but not least, a professional belly dancer named Karima performed two dances for us and then taught our guests some moves. One of her dances was choreographed especially for us to a song in Ladino sung by Yasmin Levy. The audience was surprised to hear that just as the Jews from this region once commonly spoke Yiddish, the Jews of pre- and post- Inquisition Spain spoke Ladino.

Then the evening continued with Israeli, Turkish, and Arabic disco dancing. And sure enough, by 11pm, there was not a trace of moufletta left. When the last song was over and everyone began to leave, I overheard one friend remark that she hopes they'll have a Mimouna again next year. I hope so too.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Perpetual Pesach

Two kindred spirits in the Minsk Jewish Campus parking lot : the matzah-colored Zhiguli and the matzah.

I have 5 seders down and another 2 to go. Apparently, the Minsk Jewish community likes to have a lot of Pesach seders throughout the entire week of Pesach. You would think more than two seders would be enough to make anyone say "dayenu," but somehow, I'm still going strong. Possibly thanks to my box of "Joint" brand matzah that I took home with me on Friday afternoon!

One of the highlights of Pesach 2008 in Minsk was the Cantorial Concert held in a large concert hall in the center of the city on April 22nd. The concert was organized by the World Union for Progressive Judaism, Minsk JCC Emunah, and sponsored by the Joint Distribution Committee and Union of Jewish Communities. The concert showcased musical pieces composed and sung by cantors and performers from Israel, America, Russia and other countries as well. Additionally, dances were performed by groups of children and young adults from the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Minsk JCC. Every performance added something special to this concert.
The concert began with a group of cantorial students from Hebrew Union College, accompanied by Rabbi Grisha Abramovich, carrying a Torah into the concert hall and laying it down on a small platform on the stage. They covered the Torah in talitot and it remained on the platform throughout the entire concert, transforming the stage into a real bima just for the event.
An especially moving performance was by a young boy named Dmitry Rubinshtein, who recently celebrated his Bar Mitzvah. Since having a Bar Mitzvah is less common for Jews in Minsk today, Dmitry's choice to have a Bar Mitzvah reflects a strong commitment to his Jewish heritage. Dmitry played guitar and sang "
Yerushalayim Shel Zahav," "Jerusalem of Gold," while a captivated audience sat silently listening to his sweet voice and perfect accompaniment.

How powerful it was to sit amongst a multi generational Jewish audience of more than 200, listening to such resonant Jewish songs, in a concert hall in the heart of Minsk. A concert hall situated less than a kilometer away from what was once the
Minsk Ghetto. And today, Jews can proudly carry their Torah right into the hall and hold a concert while it remains in the spotlight throughout.The contrast between Jewish Minsk during those years in history and today could not have been more tangible.
Click the arrow to see Dmitry's performance.

The concert quite appropriately concluded with "Dayenu" in Yiddish. All performers joined this classy lady on stage and sang together.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Aliyitchka Wants YOU... to see Purim in Minsk

By the end of Purim in Minsk, it's hard not to feel shpieled, costumed, and hamantaschened out, because the Jews of Minsk really know how to get their Purim on. In this post, I'll take you through my unforgettable Purim in Minsk.

It began with an idea to bake about 150 Hamatashen in my kitchen. Some would be used for Mishloach Manot, and most would be for the Mazal Tov children's Purim Concert.

I invited Tanya, my co-teacher, to help me bake. Vodka bottle=excellent rolling pin!

We brought all the hamantaschen to the Minsk Jewish Campus and got ready for the Mazal Tov Purim Concert. Children in their costumes began to arrive.

The mazaltovniki tots wore costumes and masks. They held their groggers eagerly waiting for Haman's name. Boooo!

Right before our concert began, all the parents and grandparents gave me a surprise birthday gift! Then the children sang me Happy Birthday in English.
And then our program began. First we presented a Purim puppet show in English (with translation) for the children and their families. That's Mordechai telling Queen Ester about Haman's evil plot.

Then the children performed a medley of English songs, including this one:
"Purim Day, Purim Day, what a happy holiday! Wear a mask, wear crown, dance all around! Round go the groggers, rush rush rush (x3), on Purim day."

And then is was time for Hamantaschen and juice. All the parents and grandparents asked me for the recipe!

Who knew Haman's ears could be so tasty?

Then the characters of Purim made their final cameo appearance, ate a few hamantaschen, and went back to Shushan where they belong.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Hevruta: Jewish Knowledge Day at the Minsk Jewish Campus

The following article is from the Minsk Jewish Campus Website.

At 8pm on March 9, 2008, over 500 participants of “Hevruta” — Jewish Knowledge Day, left the Minsk Jewish Campus. They looked tired, but extremely happy — they spent 10 hours of their Sunday studying Jewish tradition and history, making new discoveries about Jewish heritage and modern
research on burning Jewish issues. Each and every participant expressed hope that such a large scale educational event will take place in the Minsk Jewish Campus regularly.

It took over six months for the organizers to get everything ready for the event. There were lots of disputes and various ideas of how the “most perfect Hevruta” was to be held. Despite different views and arguments, the day was a great success and people want the initiative to be continued.

“We are happy we managed to involve many new people and volunteers in the “getting ready for Hevruta” process — they sewed textile tote bags for each participant, decorated the MJC halls where the activities took place, assisted in registration, prepared materials for booklets, and did other important things for Hevruta to become a real community event.

We also would like to express our deepest appreciation of the support provided for the event by the Ginsburg family and AJJDC ,” — said one of the organizers.

The event participants wrote wonderful comments in the Hevruta participant guest book:

…It was a real holiday! The lectures were so interesting and informative. We wanted to be present at all lectures simultaneously. This event was a great opportunity for communication. Thank you, Hevruta!

…Thank you for great lecturers and great Jewish atmosphere!

… Thank you for the opportunity to become one of the participants of this really Jewish event. Can it be held annually?

Aliyitchka's Hevruta Session

I chose to teach two sessions on one of my favorite Jewish traditions: the bedtime "Shma" and "Modeh Ani," said upon waking. Since each of these passages are traditionally recited before and after going to sleep, I thought it would be both interesting and practical to decorate pillows with the words of the Shma on one side, and Modeh Ani on the other.

First, participants who were unfamiliar with this tradition learned the words of each passage and their origins. Next, everyone got to craft their very own pillow with the words transliterated into Russian.I had a great time teaching this session and learning from the other volunteers in their sessions as well.

The Jews of Minsk simply can't wait for the next Hevruta!

(Giddy after a long day of Hevruta fun, I politely asked the jazz musician if I might momentarily sit down in his drum case. That's a normal request, right?)