A year in Dnepropetrovsk

An American volunteer in Ukraine

International Worker’s Day, or May Day

May 1. It’s pretty much what it sounds like. It’s the celebration of the worker. Only you can imagine that in the Former Soviet Union it’s even more of a big deal. I was on my way to the synagogue to catch the mashrutka (bus… sort of. Like a van) to the Shabbaton, and I caught the end of the parade along Karl Marx Prospect to Lenin Square, where a big rally was being held with flags and balloons and speeches. You can see for yourself:

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.

Paskha, the Russian Easter

Like in many European Catholic countries, Paskha is a weeklong festival. For the very religious, there are church ceremonies beginning a week in advance, but the most important days are the last four: Great Thursday (also known as “Clean Thursday,” because this day is dedicated to a thorough spring cleaning), Friday of the Passion, Great Saturday, and finally Paskha itself on Sunday. For some, Saturday is a fast day, broken after the Paskhal vigil church service, which ends at midnight Saturday night/Sunday morning. After that, the Paskha feast can begin!

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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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