A year in Dnepropetrovsk

An American volunteer in Ukraine

Rosh Hashana

Friday, September 26

3 days until erev Rosh Hashana

Since the entire Joint office would have Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday off, and since not everyone works on Sunday, the office Rosh Hashana celebration was set for the Friday before the holiday. Someone had heard Sharon talk about making sushi for her family, and soon all the women were asking her to teach them (there are quite a few sushi restaurants in the city, but at least in the office, only Lena really goes to any of them. Many people had never tried Japanese food, in fact). Well, one thing led to another, and Friday’s Rosh Hashana lunch was a homemade sushi feast! We all helped prepare, rolling the maki, preparing the sumka (a type of salmon, I don’t know what it’s called in English), setting up the ginger and wasabi, making a platter of all the Rosh Hashana foods– apples, honey, pomegranate, and challah (the sushi was the fish)– and of course, since this is Ukraine after all, setting up platters of pickles, pickled mushrooms, and olives.

It was a wonderful lunch! Everyone had filled out small cards for at least five other staff members, and we all exchanged these. Drinks were poured, and toasts were made. Wine abounded. Everyone was in good spirits, and lunch lasted quite a few hours (as meals here tend to do).

Sunday, September 28

1 day until erev Rosh Hashana

This afternoon was the first of two JCC community Rosh Hashana lunches. We were supposed to begin at 1 pm, but of course no one showed up until after 1:30, and then there was still setting up to be done. Very Dnepropetrovsk Jewish community– nothing starts on time here. Once the party got started, however, it couldn’t be stopped!

This was the most Ukrainian lunch you could possibly imagine. There was, of course, challah, apples and honey (no pomegranates or the heads of fish this time, however), but the mainstay of the afternoon was buterbrod (like sandwiches, but with only the bottom piece of bread). They really pulled out all the stops. There were buterbrody with butter and sardines, pate, ikra spread (ikra = caviar, the new love of my life), and other spreads. There were also platters with different cheeses and varieties of kalbaca (salami), lots of fruit, and of course, ALCOHOL. Everyone was drinking wine or vodka and making toasts throughout the entire lunch and all the events of the afternoon.

As a side note, I love the system here. Women aren’t allowed to pour themselves a drink. Any drink, any time. It is the duty of the man to ask a women with an empty or nearly empty glass what she is drinking and if she would like a refill. This was a good crowd; I never even had a chance to finish a glass before it was refilled.

While the eating and drinking and toasting were going on, Lena (the head librarian and coordinator of various programs at the JCC) hosted the festivities. A parade of children around 12 years old came in and played a game of Rosh Hashana trivia with the audience (us). They then left, and the two young children in the room (probably 6 years old– their parents were part of the lunch crowd, which is why they were there) dressed up in pomegranate crowns (made of paper, not the actual fruit) and sang some songs. Lena then motioned to me, and so I sang a cute little Hebrew Rosh Hashana song. Then came the poetry. Most people in the room recited something, either from memory or from a volume that Genia, Lena’s husband, brought out for the occasion.

When the poetry was done, the piano followed. We had, in our crowd, a well known professional musician and composer of Dnepropetrovsk (although right now I can’t remember his name, unfortunately). He soloed on the piano, and then accompanied the room at large as they sang popular Russian songs. At this point, everyone in the room (and I really mean everyone) asked me to sing again, so I broke out Voi Che Sapete from Le Nozze di Figaro and performed for someone other than my father for the first time in over two years! I was impressed with myself, actually, for although my range is nothing compared to what it once was, my technique is pretty good and my breathing provided good and proper support. Just like riding a bicycle, I guess. As soon as I finished, Lena and the pianist, who had accompanied me from memory because he’s just that good, started planning a joint recital that he and I are to give sometime after Hanukkah (I have no say in the matter, apparently; it’s a done deal and we’ll discuss the details and look through music at a later date). Others sang after me, and then other men took turns playing the piano. It was quite a lively crowd, drinking and singing and reciting and toasting– great fun!

I ended up leaving early, at around 4 pm, after being there for 3 hours already, because my friend Danya was waiting for me. I would have planned on staying longer, had I known it would last so long and be so much fun, but a great evening awaited me. Danya and I drank quite a bit and then went to the Dnepr football match. I sat with the ultras (soccer hooligans) in the fan sector, which was SO much fun, despite the fact that Dnepr lost to Metallurg Z from Zaparozhia. We were waving flags and singing and cheering and jumping up and down to the beat of the drum (there was a drummer and a man with a megaphone who organized the entire fan sector and led the cheers)– no one sat down the entire hour and a half. But I digress.

Monday, September 29

erev Rosh Hashana

After Russian class, I spent the entire afternoon shopping for groceries and cooking. I cleaned and gutted my carp and got it ready to cook the next day, and then I made a Ukrainian honey cake (“medivnik” in Ukrainian, “medovy” in Russian) and tried to make these chocolate balls that are like a Ukrainian version of truffles, but in that I failed miserably. The honey cake turned out well, however, and I adorned it with apples so as to be the perfect Rosh Hashana dessert.

At 7 pm, Seriozha, one of the JDC drivers, picked me up and then picked Amir and Ido up from synagogue. It took us over ten minutes just to find them, so crowded was the street in front of the building! Everyone had packed inside the synagogue for the hour-long service, led by a famous Chazzan from Paris. He’s apparently traveling around the world for a year and engaging his chazzanut in each city. Amir said it was a very interesting service.

We made our way from the synagogue to Amir and Sharon’s house, where Sharon had prepared the most fantastic Rosh Hashana dinner! Sharon is a fantastic cook, and she and Amir are so welcoming, so a meal at their house is always a delicious and pleasant gathering. This one was no exception. The guest list included me, three couples that Sharon and Amir know from kindergarden, all their kids (8 total, including Ido and Ori), and Liana, the director of JCC. Conversation was mostly in Russian, so I didn’t really have much to add, but everyone was in good spirits, laughing and telling stories, and of course drinking and toasting (although I must say, this crowd wasn’t so good about the alcohol as the last one. There was a while when I had nothing to drink, and I even toasted once with orange juice because I was out of wine. Finally, I asked Amir to pass me the wine, and then all the men at the table jumped up and grabbed different bottles of liquor and ran across the room, refilling everyone’s glasses. It was very amusing!). I had a very good time, despite not really speaking the language of the table, and I even got a couple of offers for potential language classes in the future! You see, these couples are some of the more rich and influential Dnepropetrovskians. One couple has a house in Mallorca, and so they want to learn Spanish. When they heard that I was not only a Spanish major, but had been trained as a Spanish teacher, they asked me to give them lessons. Another couple wanted me to help them with their English. I said that I couldn’t commit to anything at the present, because I still don’t know how consumed with my work I will be (and my boss was sitting right at the head of the table!), but that in a month they should check in and see what’s doing. Amir and Sharon said they’d give them my number. I’m looking forward to it!

Tuesday, September30

Rosh Hashana, day 1

I arrived at synagogue at 10:30 am, which would be rather late in NY but was early in Dnepropetrovsk. Apparently, the French Chazzan was freaking out this morning because services started 45 minutes late. The Dnepropetrovsk people shrugged and laughed. So things go here.

Services were already overcrowded when I arrived. I had been told by Sharon that most people show up just for the shofar, so I figured I could commandeer a seat. Nope. The women’s section, up in the balcony, was already filled past capacity, and every Machzor taken, so I contented myself to standing behind the chairs and listening to the service. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really hear anything, because all of the women were kibbutzing so loudly. Really, it was like social hour at the synagogue! I joined in the fray, chatting with some of the people I recognized, but it’s hard for me to talk too long in Russian, so I went back to my trance, staring at the bimah and kind of zoning out. By 11:45, when the shofar was scheduled to be blown, the place was PACKED. I mean STUFFED beyond belief. Upstairs, there were women smushed together and then even out the door onto the stairs. Downstairs, I could see that the men were crowded so far as to overwhelm the bimah, even! The place was a zoo. I couldn’t hear a THING, because all the talking created one loud Russian buzz all around me. For 45 minutes, we stood, waiting, crushed against one another. I did hear a couple of things finally in the service. I heard the returning of the Torah (because many of the women immediately stopped talking and started kissing their hands and waving in the direction of the Torah), and I heard the Avinu Malkeinu (to the same tune I knew). There was also a boys’ choir, much like in churches, that sang some prayers like Aitz Chaim. They were really good, too, except for one poor boy soprano who couldn’t keep his pitch. It was overall quite lovely.

Finally came the shofar! This shofarist was UNBELIEVABLE. Every tkiyah was like a tkiyah gdolah– he held the note for what seemed like a lifetime. Also, his truah wasn’t 9 or 12 small blasts– it was THIRTY small blasts, all fully sounded in perfect stocatto. Everyone in the whole synagogue (and outside, too, I later found out– many people gathered in the courtyard and in front of the synagogue, because there was no room inside) was silent and listening with rapt attention. As soon as it ended, though, it was a crazy exodus! Everyone was leaving, and all at once. I figured I had zoned out enough; I might as well go, too. When I finally made it outside, I felt so at home, because Jews here behave just as they do in NY. Everyone was finding their friends and family and were talking about the shofar, Rosh Hashana, and everything else going on in their lives. I was introduced to quite a few new people and was doing my best to keep up with conversation, when I saw Sharon, Amir, and the boys and they took me with them to their home for lunch.

Lunch was a feast in itself– Sharon had made enough food for twenty people the night before, so her fridge was stuffed with leftovers. I really had a wonderful afternoon hanging out with them. They’re like my Dnepropetrovsk family. They take such good care of me, and have been warm and inviting in every way, and I feel very comfortable just being in their home. There was food, conversation, and then a lot of nothing, just chilling out. I played a lot with Ido, I admired Sharon’s art, we colored this puzzle that they bought for Ido, we had coffee (good Israeli coffee that Amir made; I’ll break my abstention only for really worthwhile causes, such as this)… it was just so nice to relax with the family. I had to leave by 3:30, however, to go home and finish cooking, because later in the evening was the Hillel potluck dinner that I myself had suggested and helped organize (well, suggested. I told Danya that he should organize it, so I guess that could be considered helping?).

Dinner was so much fun. Quite a few people showed up, and everyone brought something, whether a homemade salad or kolbaca or honey. There was more than enough food for everyone. I brought my vinaigrette and baklazhannaya ikra that I had made before, plus a carp I prepared (with the head of the fish still in tact for Rosh Hashana), a pomegranate, and what was left of the medivnik honey cake that I had made for Sharon. And, of course, there was alcohol: wine, champagne, and vodka.

Here you can see Nastia setting up.

From right to left: cheese, kolbaca, salad (cucumber and tomato with dressing), crab salad (really delicious with eggs and veggies), bread, my vinaigrette, olives, more crab salad, more cheese and kolbaca, wine, a decorative vase thing, my baklazhannaya ikra, my vinaigrette, more crab salad, more bread, sardines, my carp, and apples and grapes.

From left to right (just to be confusing and contrary): pomegranate, crab salad, regular salad, baklazhannaya ikra, cheese and kolbaca, green olives, sardines, vinaigrette, apples and grapes, my carp, more crab salad, bread, and really you’ve seen this all already so just look at the previous picture.

We began at 6 and stayed until about 11. When we finished eating, we cleaned everything up, put it away, and then went back to drinking and toasting. When we ran out of alcohol (which happened very quickly), someone went to the store around the corner and bought more. There were a couple of alcohol runs, just for vodka, because really you can only mess around with wine for so long. We also bought some juice to chase it with (they know how to drink their vodka properly here. You never mix it like in a cocktail, unless you’re all prissy at a bar. You drink it straight, but you always follow up with something substantive. This way, you can drink an awful lot and get very drunk, but not feel sick). It was a very good time. I myself ended up quite drunk before the night was out…

Wednesday, October 1

Rosh Hashana, day 2

…so you can imagine why I decided to only show up in time for the shofar the next morning. As much as I enjoy standing in an enormous crowd and zoning out for two hours straight, my headache just wouldn’t permit me, and it took all of my effort to make it to the synagogue before noon. I was surprised to find it fairly empty (compared to the previous day, at least). I showed up pretty much immediately before the blowing of the shofar (I noted Rabbi Kaminetzky himself was blowing it– had he blown it yesterday, too?), and yet the women’s section was only just full. I stood not too far behind the seats, and only saw some of the people I know. When it was over, we all filed out, just as before, except that it took maybe a third of the time. Outside, instead of being like a giant ball with everyone who was anyone in attendance, there were only a select few friends that I knew there. It was definitely a more relaxed second day of Rosh Hashana.

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