I was beyond excited. There were lots of expectations that I had prior to going on this trip. I saw it as a greatly anticipated pilgrimage, one that I had been dreaming about for years. I can’t pick any specific instance that made an impact on me only because every day there were experiences that left an entire series of great impressions.
There were the Ukrainians. As we entered the terminal in the Dnepropetrovsk Airport we were greeted by lots of highly enthused individuals trying to grab our attention by knocking on the glass walls that separated them from us. After having spent the last 14 hours waiting on flights then flying, then waiting again and flying some more, we were in no shape to mirror their zeal. Yet they didn’t seem to take offense. Instead they pointed out the city’s highlights on the way to the hotel and we half-consciously nodded along. That night we met the group of teenagers we were going to spend the next week with and we made matzah. The interaction that naturally seemed slightly awkward at first, gradually mellowed out as their hearty attitudes guided us through the preparation and rolling of the dough. The next day, a group of three Israelis joined us. After a few days of touring the city, making preparations and then running Seders, and volunteering together with local children and families, we all started growing closer. Somehow, there were very few barriers that needed to be broken down. We were all the same age, all from similar households, all with similar interests. We all spoke a common language, literally and figuratively. During Passover, we split up in four groups and went off to run Seders with different people all across the city in “warm houses.” My group ran a Seder for several children and their mothers. Indeed, these people were quite hospitable and certainly very “warm.” We got to the home and while the boys set up, one of the other girls and I talked to the kids. Some of them were impatient that they had to wait so long to eat, some were quiet and focused, while others were very excitable. Somewhere towards the middle of the Seder as we were saying the blessings one of the girls, a five-year-old named Margarita, quietly got up, walked over to me, and gently took my hand. She stood this way for a while, and eventually began to hug me. It amazed me that she could approach a stranger but at the same time, it greatly warmed my heart. At the end, we ran played around for half an hour and she clung to me when we had to go.
There was Dnepropetrovsk. There was Dnepropetrovsk with its mini-skirts and high heels, construction cranes and demolition sites, Prada and Adidas, beer bottles and stray dogs. We were shocked! How can girls walk around in such scantily-clad outfits? How can teenagers roam the streets in daylight drinking exposed liquor? We couldn’t tell if the city was five years ahead or ten years behind. There were trams but no trains, bathrooms but no toilets, Bentleys but no traffic regulations. During a break for one of our meetings, a few of us decided to get coffee. After searching the office and finding only sugar cubes to dissolve in our cups, we decided that such minor obstacles should not deter us from trying a perfectly seasoned, light cappuccino. A coffee vending machine was located by the door of a nearby shopping complex. After purchasing about five different flavors of cappuccino, macchiato, and espresso, while consistently finding the bitter taste of each flavor more repulsive than the last, we agreed unanimously to give up the search and reinstate our hopes of finding a Starbucks. Ukrainians apparently didn’t believe in milk or sugar. At least not in their coffee.
There was my family. In Dnepropetrovsk I met my aunt and two cousins, both of whom were married and had children not much younger than me. I brought them gifts from America, some from my parents and a few that I picked out. Among these were Hershey’s chocolate bars. I felt that if I were to give my family a true taste of America, then it had to be sweet. While the kids seemed to be enjoying the gifts, my cousin Olga’s husband mumbled something about “capitalist chocolate.” This struck me as somewhat strange even though I chose to ignore it. I got the feeling that America didn’t evoke the strongest sentiment in Ukrainians. This knowledge became rather clear to me as soon as I stepped off our van when we were in the center of Kiev. A few of the other people in our group were speaking English and simultaneously a crowd of Ukrainians walked by, rudely muttering about “those Americans.” Of course, those of us that noticed this acknowledgement met each other’s shocked gazes, but by that point it was already quite clear to us: we didn’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.
The same was true for Jews. Not once before our departure did anyone mention anything to me about the great amount of anti-Semitism still remaining throughout the former Soviet Union. We were in for a very rude awakening on our first Shabbat in Dnepropetrovsk, which also happened to be the first day of Passover. We got dressed up: girls in long black skirts, boys in dress pants, everyone in fresh, white long-sleeved shirts. The synagogue was a 15-minute walk from the hotel. As we headed out on that cool afternoon, we began to notice awkward glances and stares. The further we walked the more malicious they seemed to get. At one point, someone from on an oncoming group of pedestrians viciously muttered “I hate Jews,” substituting “Jews” for a far more derogatory synonym. Several of us whipped around, eyes wide open, and stared at each other in disbelief, thinking at first that we could’ve just misheard but realizing soon enough that this was the harsh reality. Sure, we’ve heard the stories of our parents and grandparents about how they were rejected by colleges, lost friends, denied jobs all because they were Jewish, but wasn’t that decades ago? It always seemed to me that these problems could be overcome with time. Living in America for nearly our entire lives, the way we are taught leads us to believe that anti-Semitism is combated wherever it exists. It never occurred to me that nothing had changed. Growing up in such a liberal city like New York, one often takes for granted the freedom of expression that it offers. Throughout the former Soviet Union, parents are still raising their children under the same ideals as they were raised 30, 40, 50 years ago, instilling their hatred in yet another generation. The thought that the non-Jewish Russian-speaking families that surround us here in the US would be far less tolerant of our backgrounds had we still all been living in the FSU never crosses our mind. As Americans, we are comfortably sheltered from the unforgiving cruelty that continues to plague other societies. As Russians, it is difficult for us to comprehend why our “comrades” draw such boundaries and reject us so vigorously, while our whole lives we have not been compelled to do the same in return. However, as Jews, we are able to embrace and maintain the affinity that has carried our race for centuries. During our trip, we visited major Jewish landmarks like Babiy Yar (in its Kiev and Dnepropetrovsk locations), Brodsky Synagogue, and the homes of great figures like Golda Meir and Shalom Aleichem. I know I’ll never be able to forget the weight on my chest that I felt after visiting Babiy Yar. I cannot put the feeling into words; it is far too strong. I can say, however, that after seeing these places and hearing about the history behind them, my ties to the Jewish race have become stronger and more emotionally invested than ever.
We are a generation caught between generations. While we were born and raised in the time that the Soviet Union was still alive, we have grown up in the American world that actively rejects the Soviet principles of our own households. During one of our discussions on the trip, we were asked to define our own identity. The answer was already clear to me: I am a Ukrainian Jew, with American culture. My family’s roots are equally dispersed throughout Ukraine. My grandfather is from Odessa, my grandmother is from Kharkov, my father is from Dnepropetrovsk, my mother and I are from Kiev. Thus, my ethnic background (in terms of looks and the culture in which my family was raised) is Ukrainian. The morals and ideals that govern our lives are primarily Jewish. While my family never spiritually abided by the laws of the Torah, I was raised under the principles of Judaism. In addition, I was also taught that in order to have a prosperous future, the best option would be to have a spouse who was raised in the same manner. I firmly believe in this. In terms of the essence that I have brought to my own life, it’s safe to say that I fully submerge myself in the American culture whether it be how I speak, what I wear, or how I choose to entertain myself. However, I have yet to feel American. My ties to the world I grew up in are still strong. When we were in Kiev, I got to see old friends, visited my old neighborhood, and explored the city. In the thirteen years since I left, the yearning for all of this never quite died down. In fact, these last few years it even intensified. The climax of my anticipation came once we landed in Kiev. My excitement overwhelmed me and I tried my best not to let it show. The words, “I’m here, I’m here, I’m FINALLY here” echoed in my mind ceaselessly. I had only slept for two out of the past 48 hours, yet I found myself overjoyed as I snapped pictures of the cloudy Borispol Airport, in an attempt to capture as much of the country as possible onto my photo memory. I wanted to remember everything. It was there that it finally hit me. I was back.
My family didn’t leave Ukraine because of the political turmoil, or the inflation, or even the antagonism towards Jews. My parents and grandparents owned apartment and cars, had life-long friends, high-standing positions and degrees. Then the Chernobyl nuclear accident happened in 1986. The radiation spread all over, especially within Ukraine. Since many of the elements that settled into the air, the trees, and the food still had long decay periods (meaning that they would still be just as harmful for decades, if not centuries) the threat of radiation was still just as harmful three years later when I was born. When I was five years old, I had some health issues and after visiting several doctors it was concluded that I had several health problems, specifically with the pituitary gland and lungs, and that it was urgently necessary for us to leave. Within two months, documentation prepared and lives packed up, tearful goodbyes were said, and we were off to a new life.
There was Kiev. Coming back was wonderful. Dnepropetrovsk was quite impressionable but it was Kiev that left a mark on me. The day of our arrival was perfect and sunny. We drove through the city and marveled at nearly everything we passed. The architecture itself was unlike anything we could’ve imagined. Intricate and sophisticated buildings lined horizon; everything was new, clean, and at least 20 stories tall. It was like Manhattan but so much better. In the center of the city the historic buildings were brightly colored and beautifully restored. The unusually clean train stations were nearly 600 ft underground and yet there was still cell phone reception! The people dressed in a mix of European and American styles, which made everything feel a little more familiar and allowed me to feel a little less out of place than I did in Dnepropetrovsk. I thought about how my mom used to take me all around the city when I was little. I remembered a few places like the parks, trains, all the little street shops and vendors. I had lots of expectations. I imagined Kiev as this captivating and sophisticated metropolis but even more so, I somehow envisioned one street. I suspected it was something from childhood memory, from a warm, late afternoon I remember spending in the city with my parents. I found it on my first afternoon in Kiev as we were strolling around on some free time. At that point, it was all the fulfillment I needed. I even have a picture.
One of my favorite parts of the trip was towards the end of the first week in Dnepropetrovsk, when all of us went to a more rural location and stayed in an overnight family camp. The whole place seemed in entirely like a blast from the past, with old Russian songs playing from a loudspeaker in the center of camp as we dragged our suitcases across the paths to our rooms. It reminded me of the old Soviet resorts where my parents and I stayed on vacations years ago. There, we worked with children and adults of all ages, ran activities, had dances, and even put on plays. The first night, a band came in and played lots of upbeat traditional Jewish songs, as the Ukrainian, Israeli, and American boys took over the floor and started dancing with the kids. At the end, it was an experience that, according to the adults, left them and their children alike pleased and refreshed. Maybe it was just that hint of Soviet nostalgia that tingled in me, but whatever it was, I found the camp enthralling. The sparkling lake, the old music, the kids playing everywhere, and just the general lighthearted atmosphere there had really moved me. It was simple and serene and there was so much about it that really left me inspired. When the Ukrainians that we had spent the past week with were leaving, we found ourselves yelling, jumping, and waving frantically in front of the windows of their bus as it pulled away, just as they had been, behind that glass divider in the airport. Maybe that’s really all that separates us. Our physical barriers, whether it’s a piece of glass, or a few thousand miles, really can’t keep us from being able to truly see and understand one another because in the end, we really are family.