A year in Dnepropetrovsk

An American volunteer in Ukraine

Archive for Personal stories

Birthdays

As soon as I arrived at the office on the day of my birthday, I was greeted by full birthday wishes. What do I mean by a full birthday wish? I’ll give you an example. My friend and colleague Mila hugged me and looked me in the eye and said, “Congratulations! I wish you a life full of happiness and success and money, wherever you are (even if it’s not Ukraine). I wish you to always smile as brightly as you do now, and to stay young and beautiful. I wish you love and soon to be married and have children. May your life be complete and happy and may you have everything you desire.”

This was a comparatively short birthday wish.

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Yom HaShoah

Holocaust Remembrance Day is an extremely important and meaningful holiday for Jews throughout Ukraine. Guests came from all over the country– from Kharkov, Dneprodzerzhinsk, and other eastern Ukrainian cities– as well as from Israel. In addition to the JDC Jerusalem group, the Metsudah leader, Shy, also came to Dnepropetrovsk to commemorate the occasion.

We congregated around the memorial that commemorates where the Jews of Dnepropetrovsk were executed at the start of the Holocaust. There were speeches by Rabbi Kaminetzky, Aharon Weiss, survivers and their relatives, high school students, and others. Poetry was read, candles were lit, and Yulia and I sang a sad Hebrew piece, Eli Eli. We then laid carnations and stones on the memorial. It was a beautiful and moving ceremony. You can see the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish Community’s pictures of the event here.

JCC Oscars

In the past two years, the Jewish Community Center has made four films, including Purimspiel, the silent film we made at Sunday school. On April 19 the JCC held an Oscars ceremony to celebrate these films and those who participated in the process of creating them. The JDC Jerusalem group, visiting eastern Ukraine for the week, attended as well. My friend Yulia and I sang a Hebrew song, HaLev, between film screenings. It was quite a celebration.

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Passover highlights

First night, first seder: There were several seders happening in the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish community, including at the JCC, at Hesed, at the Yeshiva, one prominent private seder for parents of children in the kindergarten (ages 2-5), and the VIP seder in the synagogue, which I attended as a guest of the Ben-Zvi clan. Amir, Sharon, Ori, Ido, and I sat at a table near the bimah and the Kaminetzky table (“It must be nice to have your immediate family fill an entire table,” I commented to Sharon) at this most massive seder. You have to see the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish Community website pictures to understand the scope of this monster. It was not only the largest seder I’ve attended, it was also the fastest. It was so noisy in the cavernous synagogue, with every whisper echoing off its accoustically sound walls, and even next to the rabbi and Yan, who was leading the seder, I could barely hear a thing. Given the wide scope of participants, the goal was apparently to give everyone a small taste of a seder and then get them the food. It’s a shame it went by so quickly, because I know how much preparation went into it. Yan brought in the Jewish singers from the Dnepropetrovsk opera, and the Hillel kids were recruited to serve as helpers throughout the service. They stood in strategic locations and indicated which page we were on and which vegetable was being dipped at any given time. Believe it or not, they rehearsed for this several days in a row, for hours at a time. In any event, the seder meal was absolutely spectacular. There were five or six courses, featuring herring and salmon at each course, brought out by professional (goyishe) waiters and somehow served piping hot to all 200 or 300 guests. It was quite impressive.

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Purimspiel silent film

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30 days hath September…

I don’t know about you, but it’s pretty annoying to figure out how many days are in May the American way. You have to go through the entire poem (except the February part– everyone knows how many days are in February) before realizing that May is one of the unmentioned “all the rest have 31” months. Now, there’s an easier way.

I present to you the Ukrainian method:

danyas-super-ruchki

The months on the knuckles have 31 days, while the months in the spaces between have only 30 (except February, but as I said, we all know what her deal is). You’ll never be caught looking upward, biting your bottom lip, and humming that poem you learned in first grade again.

More cultural differences

“I went to the toy store to buy a gift for Ksyusha,” a friend was telling me the other day. “And I was totally surprised! They have everything there! I’ve never seen so many toys in my life! When I went to Oksana’s house to give the gift to her, I saw all the stuff that Elizavetta [her daughter] has. There’s this… thing, for example, that hangs over her cradle and spins and plays music and everything!”

“Yeah, so?” I snorted.

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