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.