Everything Will Be Illuminated

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Was Everything Illuminated?

This year has been at the same time the most amazing and difficult experience of my life. In my senior year of college I decided that I wanted to spend a year in a Russian speaking country doing some kind of community health work. This year I was able to do exactly that. I feel blessed and honoured to have had this opportunity. The professional experience I gained was immense. I had the opportunity to do extensive program development and implementation, learn how a non-profit and NGO operates, in Ukraine no less, and be a part of an incredible international organization.

The personal growth I went through and the life education I received were also enormous. I learned so much about myself: about my strengths and my weaknesses and how to utilize and/or overcome them. I feel almost completely acculturated and very at-home in Ukraine, as scary as that is given some of the backwardness of this country. I was able to make a life here, and make sense of this culture and society. My Russian really is almost fluent. At graduation last year I spoke briefly with Tufts’ Provost. When I told him what I would be doing this year, he said, “Wow, you are really taking our global citizenship message seriously!” I do take the idea of global citizenship seriously, and after this year I am pretty confident that I could manage to live anywhere in the world, for a year at least. I am also more committed to the values of cross cultural exchanges, knowing foreign languages, and studying/living/volunteering abroad.

How I feel about being Jewish and what being Jewish means to me has also changed. I expected this to happen over the course of the year, and I have to admit it was one of the things I was most anxious about before I left. I started this year as an “un-affiliated Jew.” I was not involved in Hillel or any other Jewish youth group, I went to synagogue only for the High Holidays, and Judaism was something that was important to me only because it was important to my parents and grand-parents. There were many times this year when I felt very guilty for this; for taking my being Jewish and having had a Jewish education and up-bringing for granted. Seeing the vitality of the community here, and meeting so many people who were discriminated against because they were Jewish and were not allowed to practice at all, and now that they can are overjoyed by the “privilege” of just participating in a Jewish community, has inspired me to value being Jewish. Being Jewish and participating in Jewish communal life and maintaining Jewish traditions are all much more important to me now and I will be looking for ways to incorporate this into my life when I return home.

I leave for the airport tomorrow at 8am. This is probably my last post. Thanks for following my adventures in Ukraine! Not to worry, I'm sure there will be more to come...

Friday, July 27, 2007

Final Countdown

Its hard to believe, but I have less than a week left in Kyiv! If all goes according to schedule, which it probably won't, I will be touching down in Boston at 6pm on Thursday August 2nd. My replacement, Sarah, has arrived, and we are busy orienting her and making sure she feels as overwhelmed as possible before I abandon her next week.

The past month has been jam packed! A few weeks ago I went to St. Petersburg to visit the Fieldmans and to see Kristin. The differences between Russia and Ukraine were apparent from the second I got off of the plane and stepped into a crumbly Soviet airport filled with hundreds of Uzbeks carrying bags of melons trying to get through customs. In general: Russia is dirtier, more backwards, has more bureaucracy (the number of small, stamped pieces of paper you need to leave the country is really ludicrous), the people are angry and mean, and it is expensive! It makes Ukraine, ok well Kyiv, look like Europe. I have noticed all year that the people here are much friendlier and more helpful. I find Ukrainians to be quite warm and endearing.

It was great to visit Petersburg and see some friends, but I was actually relieved to be back in Ukraine! That was a weird feeling...

Both right before, and since my trip to Russia, I've been hosting lots of missions. I really am good at this "Jewish Tour of Kyiv" thing. I'm pretty sick of all the "sights" here--Jewish and otherwise. If I never go back to the souvenir market it will be too soon.

Other than a few last meetings, phone calls, and actually packing my bags, I'm done! My final report is all written, I've packed my last box of warm home cookies, and said good bye to almost all of my old ladies, who are all surprised and sad that I am leaving.

I am also sad, but mostly excited! I can't wait to do American things like bbq, drink iced coffee, and shop at Target.

Here's a link to the article from JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency, basically the Jewish Associated Press) about the Jewish Service Corps. If you are still un-clear as to exactly what I am doing here, this should help! Oh, and when it says Weinberg, they mean Wertlieb...


Monday, July 02, 2007

Getting Friendly with My Neighbor

I was just on my way out the door (locking the last of my 5 locks) when my neighbor poked his head out. I don’t have much to do with my neighbors. From my two encounters with this man in the last eight months, I have learned that he is a 95 year old Hesed client (what a coincidence!) named Mikhail. He is blind in one eye and very hard of hearing. He has a son, Alexander, who lives with him part-time and speaks English. The “4” of “41” had fallen off my door a few months ago, and he had found it outside on the ground. “Let me give you your 4,” he said today. I agreed and he ushered me into his apartment (which is identical to mine expect three times the size). Mikhail shuffled with remarkable speed into the back room and brought me my 4.

I thanked him and turned to go. He said, “Dochenka moya (little daughter of mine), can you sit with me for a couple of minutes, I have a question for you.” I of course agreed and followed him into the living room. We sat. He launched into a story about how he has a very close friend who lives in America who has a 60 year old son who he has known since he was born who is looking for a good Jewish girl to marry. Did I know anyone? I told him I would have to think about it. Then he told me it had been his 95th birthday a few days ago. He had received lots of cards. If I had a moment, could he read them to me? I of course agreed and he jumped up and again shuffled with remarkable speed to collect his birthday cards, which he then read aloud to me. He told me about who had sent him the cards (Veteran’s society, regional government party, a friend in the US, a friend elsewhere in Ukraine…). He said he felt bad for not inviting me to his birthday party.

The cards and names of course triggered lots of memories and stories for Mikhail. “If you have another minute, would you like to see some pictures of my friends and family?” Mikhail asked me, “Or maybe another time if you have to run somewhere.” I asked to be shown the pictures now. He led me, again at remarkable shuffling speed, to another room. I told him not to rush, that I had time. He said, “I can’t move slowly! My son is always telling me to slow down, but I can’t! You should see me when I clean the apartment!” In this room there were pictures of Mikhail, his family, and his army pals spread out over a large desk and up on the wall. He pointed out brothers and sisters (who lived until 98, or were killed by the Germans, or had moved to Israel but were now blind), wedding pictures (a group of 15 people, and he is the only one still living), his wife who died two years ago, his son, a niece, a comrade whose teeth he had fixed at the front (Mikhail was a dentist. When he told me this I glanced at his teeth, which are PERFECT: a rarity for any elderly person, and even rarer in Ukraine.)

Mikhail kept telling me to come over if I ever got bored, or maybe just to chat in the evening, or maybe he would come ring my bell (he will push twice so I know it’s him). He was so sorry we hadn’t gotten acquainted earlier, but, “better late than never!” he said.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

A Few Words About My Feetnes Tsentr (Fitness Center)

In an attempt to combat the mass amounts of deep fried, sugar coated, fat laden, mayonnaise smothered food I am force fed on a daily basis, I joined a gym way back in November. My membership has expired at this point, but I figure if their system is too archaic to keep track of the memberships (we're talking no computers, I paid in cash, and my ID is handwritten and laminated...) then I have the right to keep going until they discover me.

My gym is called "Olympic Style" and is situated on the campus (they say "territory") of the Ukrainian National University of Physical Fitness and Athletics, on Physical Fitness Street. I couldn't make this up, could I? Its a 10 minute walk from my apartment. As far as I can tell, I am the only American who goes to this gym. I am also the only woman who works out without the assistance of a trainer, does not wear biking gloves on the elliptical, does not wear trendy pumas on the treadmill, does not wear a cute matching spandex work out outfit that exposes most of my skin, and who actually breaks a sweat. I get a lot of weird looks. The men are equally entertaining. Lots of body builders, lots of mullets, lots of hunky trainers (I'm serious). My favorite is the guy that runs bare-foot on the treadmill. Ouch!

machines, lots of weight machines, free weights, a mat area, a boxing ring, and a bowling alley...I have yet to bowl. There are of course, flat screen TVs. The non-stop. Why on earth do the The gym is actually pretty nice (I pay more than I do in the US, even though my US gym is nicer...there just aren't a lot of gyms here to drive the prices down). It has several cardioTV's however, are on mute, and there is no way to plug in headphones to the machines. But, even if I could hear the TVs, I wouldn't want to. The only stations that are ever playing are the Russian Sports channel, which sometimes shows awesome stuff like rhythmic gymnastics (its sooo cool!), but usually shows something awful like Russian Billiards...The other TV broadcasts all Fashion TV all the time. This channel is the bane of my existence. A lot of "trendy restaurants" also show this channel. Why do restaurant and gym people think you want to watch skinny girls parade around in their underware while you are eating or exercising? Today it was in fact a lingerie run-way show. Awful. I should also mention that my mp3 player is broken, so I am subjected to Russian/Ukrainian pop and house music, which I have to admit, I sort of like.

That's the gym in a nutshell. Not my favorite place.

On another note entirely, I'm going to St. Petersburg at the end of next week!!! I am so excited. After Boston, Petersburg is my favorite city in the world. I'm going to visit Matt and Alyson, the JSC volunteers there (I've directed you to their blog on many occasions), hopefully my host mom from when I studied abroad (a hysterical 75 year old woman who I became very close with), and one of my best friends, Kristin, who is there doing a writing program with Gary Shteyngart (author of my favorite book, Absurdistan). She's a lucky girl! I had a mild visa scare and wasn't sure that I would get my Russian visa in time, but it turns out if you are willing to wait in line for hours and pay a lot money, anything is possible. I'm sure you can imagine that the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Kiev Ukraine is a bit of a nightmare...

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Rocket Man Rocks the Socks Off Kyiv at AIDS Awareness Concert

Last night I attended what may have been the best concert I've ever been to. Elton John on Independence Square FOR FREE. Sir Elton played a 2.5 hour set including every hit imaginable...and it turns out I know most of the words...Highlights were Rocket Man, Crocodile Rock, and The Circle of Life complete with Lion King video montage on the big screens.

Katya and I were a little weary of what the scene would be like: thousands of sweaty, drunk Ukrainians drawn to a free downtown event. Beers in hand, we made our way towards Independence square quite easily. On the street, volunteers were giving out information, condoms and addresses of the HIV testing and counseling centers. Then we came to a fence on the edge of Independence Square. We were happy to see that it didn't seem too crowded on the other side, by the stage. A mob quickly formed by this militsia enforced "entrance." At first we were all moving forward through the gate. Then, much to the mob's dismay, the guards stopped letting people in, and were only letting people out. At first we all stood calmly sipping our drinks. But after 10 minutes of standing and sweating, the mob got restless. So we did what Ukrainians do best: we pushed. The mass of bodies (all still with a bottle or two in hand) was too much for the small gate and few militsia to handle. We knocked the gate and guards over, and were all pushed/trampled/squeezed through. Success! It is amazing the kind of camaraderie that you sometimes feel here in beating "The Man."

We pushed through as much of the crowd as we could, until we could see the top of the stage (Katya and I are short), and had a good view of the big monitors. We got settled just as Elton came on stage. The Ukrainians were surprisingly un-animated for most of the concert, and the songs they really got excited about were obscure ones that Katya and I didn't recognize. We didn't let the placidity of the rest of the crowd stand in our way. We sang along with Elton and danced the Crocodile Rock like it was 1999. We got a lot of confused, yet supportive, looks from our neighbors.

Sneaky Ukrainians that we are, we managed to squeeze our way past another gate into a sort of VIP zone for the encore set. From here we were sort of able to see Elton! And with the help of an enthusiastic picture taker, snap some shots of Elton on stage.

A couple times during the show Elton said a few words pledging his help to Ukraine and our emerging AIDS epidemic. Katya and I cheered. The Ukrainians didn't seem to understand the English, cheering only when Elton attempted a few words in Russian and Ukrainian.

How did this incredible event come to be? The reason is actually quite sad. Ukraine is on the brink of a devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic. In 2005, there were over 80,000 registered cases of HIV in Ukraine. The most common means of transmission are intra-venous drug use, and in-vitro transmission. According to the socio-economic forecast of HIV/AIDS epidemic conducted by the World Bank, by 2014, 40,000 children will become full orphans and up to 169 thousand children will lose one of their parents due to the AIDS epidemic. Most of these children will inherit HIV status from their parents.

Elton John's AIDS foundation has funded twenty-three HIV/AIDS related projects in Ukraine over the last six years totaling over $2.6 million. Last night's AIDS awareness concert was the most recent of these projects. Elton partnered with the Victor Pinchuk Foundation (one of our oligarchs who is actually using his money for the betterment and development of Ukraine) and the Elena Franchuk ANTIAIDS Foundation. Together, they have pledged a $2.5 million grant for the 5 year program of the Elton John AIDS Foundation in Ukraine.

To read more about the concert, and to learn about Elton's AIDS foundation, and about the Pinchuk and Franchuk, see Elton's website:

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Sweating to the Oldies: Ukraine Style

The good news is I have been bad about up-dating the blog because I have been so busy! Though I still managed to find time to become addicted to yet ANOTHER tv show. I somehow worked through the first two seasons of “24” in about a week. It’s just so good.

The beginning of the month was slow. We were closed for a number of Ukrainian and International holidays. But as soon as the prazniki were over, mission season began. What is a mission? It is far less religious than it sounds. In the JDC world, a mission is a person, or couple, or group of people, usually from the US, usually Jewish, who are donors or potential donors or people who will get the word out about our work to attract donors, who come for a day or a few days to visit the JDC programming they are either funding or may potentially fund, and meet with representatives of the organizations/programs. My role in receiving missions ranges from giving tours of Hesed, to meeting groups for dinner, to providing information and giving interviews about the Jewish Service Corps, to playing tour-guide and interpreter all over Kyiv covering all the Jewish sites of interest. In May I helped to host 7 missions. That’s a whole lot of translating. I have met a lot of very interesting and influential people in the past few weeks! Maybe one of them will help me find a job...

To test my translating skills further, Natasha and I have been hard at work creating a Hesed website, for which I was responsible for all the English content. Hopefully it will all be done and up and running by the time I leave. Things move slowly here...

Also, summer come early! Starting in mid-May, the weather has been consistently hot and sunny. It has been 80-90 degrees and sweltering for almost a month now. I have no a/c. I do have a large fan...but my babushky have cautioned me against sitting directly in front of it lest I get a lung infection from the draft.

In addition to all the missions, I had more visitors! My dad was in Ukraine for 3 weeks, first on a
short-term Fulbright in Mykolaev, then working on his on-going project in Dnepropetrovsk, then on a quick trip to Kyiv. If you are looking for the source of my bizarre FSU obsession and desire to live/work/play here, my dad is partially to blame/thank. A few days after my dad arrived, I took the sweatiest overnight train imaginable down to Mykolaev. We promptly hopped on a marshrutka (mini-bus) to Odessa where we spent 24 hours strolling, eating, checking out local culture and sharing stories about experiences and interactions in this strange country. If you are looking for Ukraine’s other number one fan, I think my dad is it! Back to Mykolaev the next day to check out dad’s temporary home. Turns out Mykolaev is a very pretty, very green, very walkable, lovely small Ukrainian city! Also turns out we have family from Mykolaev (they left late 1800s)! A cousin of ours gave us the address, so we stopped by. Dad forgot the keys though, so we couldn’t get in. (xaxa it is joke.)

A less-sweaty train ride back to Kyiv and 2 days of packing cookies for the Warm Homes later, Evan arrived in Kyiv! A first trip to Ukraine is shell-shocking. I made sure to keep Evan at the highest level of shell-shocked-ness for the duration of his 11 days here. How did I do this? While we traveled all over the country (and to Moldova for a few hours, then through Transnisteria-- Europe’s Newest Country) I made sure Evan had as many “typical” Soviet, I mean Ukrainian, expereinces as possible— We took multiple forms of loooooooong hot-as-hell overnight transportation next to crying babies, stayed in an un-renovated Soviet in-tourist hotel, rode marshrutkas until we had sweat through our clothes and were on the verge of passing out, were force fed sweets by old ladies (who were ecstatic to meet my “fiance” as they insist on calling him), haggled over differences of a few cents at markets, were interrogated by border guards (you’ll have to e-mail me for the full story on this one...), and dodged drunk men and ill-fitting man-hole covers. Whew. While the rest of this country is beautiful and interesting, and Lviv and Odessa are both strikingly European looking, though a little bit crumbly, we were both relieved to get back to “clean”, modern, cosmopolitan Kyiv! Can you imagine?...

Evan is a champ. He learned to read Cyrillic on his first day, and absorbed almost everything I showed and explained to him in true “see how it grows?” fashion (sorry, that’s a little Wertlieb fa-mi-ly joke). The only time he stopped talking to me was for a few hours after a 5 hour Chisinau (capitol of Moldova which I had a burning desire to visit) to Odessa marshrutka that included several border interrogations, transit through Transnisteria (a horrifying and unbelievable fake country, see above in text links), a mandatory bribe, a bag search, and again, gallons and liters of sweat. When we arrived at the hotel after what we now refer to as “that great character building experience we shared,” there was a sign at the desk saying “we regret to inform you that we have no hot water.” When I asked when there would be hot water the lady replied with a chuckle, “I don’t know, maybe October.” Luckily, I had reserved a more expensive room (about $4 more than a standard room) with its own hot water heater, so we did have hot water, and Evan did resume speaking to me after having a nice shower.

Pictures from all of these travels are in the Photo Album link.

Now its back to work until my grandmother and aunt arrive next week. We are planning a little trip to Chernobyl. Not joking. After that its really time to wrap things up (I head home August 2nd!) and then train my replacement! You may remember Sarah, she was the crazy maniac who came to Kyiv on the Kyiv/Chicago Hillel Spring Break trip and stayed a few extra days with me? Well, she’s signed up for more! Guess that makes her Ukraine’s third number one fan...

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Spring Fever...or I Hope I Don't Have Drug-Resistant TB

What happened to April?! I guess with every intense “formative” experience “the days are like weeks and the weeks are like days,” (Mark, TMS). It feels like I just posted that bit about the “Revolution,” but it’s actually been almost a month....but the days themselves went by sooooo sloooooowly.

Passover feels like eons ago…all in all I went to FIVE Seders, two of which I co-lead with a Hillel student. It was a whole lot of Passover and I was ready for it to end mid-way through. As much hard work as it was and as difficult as it was to be away from home, it was of course very meaningful and memorable. As with all Jewish traditions I witness here, I was deeply moved by how much the holiday meant to the community here; how deeply proud and happy the people were to be able to celebrate Passover. At all of the Seders I went to, it was at least one persons first Seder. In addition to all of my usual feelings of guilt for taking being Jewish for granted was the poignancy of the idea of freedom, that we were freed from slavery in Egypt and how today in Ukraine, Jews are free to practice Judaism. This made the holiday particularly meaningful.

After Passover, Josh (my older brother) came to visit! We did literally every single touristy thing Kyiv has to offer…and then we struggled to fill the next two days of his visit. Haha. Josh managed to point out, and not in a mean way, but rather a well-traveled way, all of Kyiv’s shortcomings as a destination city. Nothing he mentioned was news to me, but were all things I am well aware of and choose to ignore so I can go about my life here. As much fun as we had visiting churches, synagogues, old ladies (they LOVED him), wax museums, outdoor markets, demonstrations (they’re pretty unavoidable, you have to walk through them to get around the center of the city) and the Scorpions concert (hilarious), when Josh left I wished it was me in his suitcase instead of all my winter clothes.

Luckily, I only had to bear Kyiv for a few days until I flew to London for a much needed break from Ukraine and time with my mom! We had a glorious long weekend in London town filled with speaking English and eating delicious rarities like Thai and Indian food.

Now I’m in Kyiv trying to wrap my head around where the time has gone and how I will make it through 3.5 more months…I know the time will fly but I am starting to go a little nuts/turn Ukrainian.

The demonstrations have been going on for almost a month and the only change that seems to have occurred is an increase in the severity of traffic due to lots of major street closings. I should mention that the bulk of the protesters here are people from rural Ukraine who get bussed into the capitol and paid $30 a day to wave the flag of the party who’s paying them…That’s how we do democracy.

In other news, a couple days ago as Katya and I were enjoying one of our taco feasts in my apartment, someone tossed a FLAMING mattress out of their 3rd story window down into my courtyard. Luckily no people or stray cats were hurt…