Ukraine: an informal report

Joel M. Hoffman, PhD


I JUST RETURNED from my nearly-two-week trip to the Ukraine (sponsored by the World Union of Progressive Judaism --- WUPJ), where I had the opportunity to teach Israeli folk dance, to adults and to children; to teach music, also to adults and children; to talk about Hanukkah and share in the rebirth of its celebration; to discuss and present American-style Judaism; and to see and learn from some amazing people representing a cross-section of communities and lifestyles that have been reborn since the end of Soviet control. I also saw remnants of a police state and a collapsing economy and infrastructure unable to suppress the expression of high culture in its finest form, yet amid sometimes unbelievable poverty. And I saw joy and curiosity in the eyes of children offset by dismay, apathy and hopelessness in the eyes of their parents and grandparents.

MY MOST STRIKING impression is one of the extreme contrast between impoverished living conditions and healthy spiritual and cultural well-being. Ironically, I heard several times that New York is the city of contrast, and perhaps it is, but the contrast here cannot compare to what I saw in the Ukraine. And so I start with the middle of my trip, when I visited Chernovtsi, a city 15 hours by (slow) train outside of Kiev. Chernovtsi has several hundred thousand residents, a major train station, a downtown shopping district, and a major university. It is a city, not a small village.

But when I arrived, the hotel in Chernovtsi had no electricity, because it was Tuesday, and it had no running water, though it was once a well-to-do hotel, with grand sitting rooms. The city, in general, does not have enough water or electricity, and so both are available only during select times of the week; homes and schools, like the hotel, cannot count on electricity or water, to say nothing of hot water or drinkable tap water. And while food is not scarce, neither is it plentiful, and tasty food is rare.

On my second day in Chernovtsi, the children of the local Hebrew school (which I describe immediately below), ages 5 to 15, roughly, presented a Hanukkah show in the local cultural center. The show was presented on stage, to an audience of roughly 200 people (mostly their parents?) in an auditorium.

The show was without doubt the finest Hanukkah show I have ever seen in my life.

Replete with dance (modern, ballet, and Israeli folk), music, and drama, all exquisitely performed by children in costume, the show would have been impressive anywhere, but to see such a show in a city where running water could not be counted on, and where apples and bananas made a meal into a feast, was almost unbelievable. No one could blame the residents if they were to spend their time lamenting the lack of basic necessities, or even just dealing with their difficult life, but instead they manage to find time to preserve the arts in the finest way possible.

The performers were from the local Hebrew school, which is actually a public school that happens to teach Hebrew, Judaica, Jewish history and the like. There are apparently between three and six thousand Jews in the city, and 200 students at the school, though not all of them are Jewish.

While at the school, I visited 3rd- and 5th-grade classes. Each time I entered a classroom, the students jumped to attention, like little soldiers greeting an officer in the army, but without the salutes. Clearly, this was "old-style" education, but the students seemed very happy. They also knew Hebrew, even the 8-year-olds. I had traveled 10 hours by plane and then 15 by train to a remote city in the Ukraine, and there I was able to talk to the children in Hebrew. We talked about their families, even a bit about their life. Of course, they didn't know nearly enough for everything I or they wanted to say, but one of the teachers translated for me from Hebrew to Russian. The school so impressed me that I hope I have an opportunity to return, perhaps to teach there for a few weeks. It is a remarkable jewel of Jewish culture and joy.

I told the students there a story about a family whose members were separated 2,000 years ago. I told them people (Prophets, but I didn't tell them that) wrote about the city they used to live in, and asked the city why it was crying, and the answer was that the city's daughters had left her. The reply to the city was not to cry, because the children would return. And then I told them that in the 1990's, that 2,000-year-old wish had come true, that the parts of the family had been reunited, and that I was part of the family, and so were they, and that through the 3,000-year-old language of Hebrew that we now shared we could talk about our reunion.

But I get the impression that many parents send their children to the school so that the children will someday move to Israel. (Most former students have already left.) Everyone I spoke with agreed that there was no future in Chernovtsi (and they seemed to take for granted their high level of culture, not realizing that they might not find it elsewhere), and thus many parents send their children to the school as a stepping stone by which the children will leave a land apparently without a future, but in so doing will also leave their parents.

Chernovtsi typified what I saw throughout my trip: incredible culture (and not just Jewish culture), difficult living conditions, and a sense of hopelessness about the future. I don't know if a viable future awaits the citizens of the Ukraine, but I do know that if living conditions force them out, in leaving behind their physical poverty they will also leave behind cultural riches.

The other image I bring back with me is one I only appreciated on my last day there. I was taken to a Kiev subway station built in 1960. It was astoundingly beautiful, decorated with marble columns, roomy waiting rooms, vaulted ceilings, and statues of famous cultural heros.

In retrospect, I realized that the same grandeur was to be seen in the hotels, too, which also offered large, elegant sitting rooms and lobbies. In fact, while the rooms are small, the sitting rooms are large, a fact which represents the general mentality that happiness is to be found in the company of fellow citizens, not in isolation.

The subway gave me a glimpse of what the modern builders of Ukraine --- probably of the entire Soviet Union --- must have envisioned forty years ago for their people and their country. The were looking forward to, and building and planning for, a glorious society whose citizens would live in each other's company surrounded by great culture and art.

It is tragic what has happened to the dream of those early builders.


REGARDING THE PHYSICAL conditions, I return to the start of my trip, the pre-Hanukkah seminar for lay leaders of the Progressive congregations in the FSU. When I arrived in Kiev, I learned that it was at the time the coldest major city in the world, with a low temperature of -30c degrees (-22f); because the sun does not rise higher than the trees during the winter, the daily high was not much warmer. The ``retreat center'' in which the seminar was held, once a resort only for elite members of the communist party, had no heat when we arrived. I was shocked to find ice on my bedroom floor. As a member of the staff, I was given a Russian electric space heater. It was too heavy for me to lift by myself, and in terms of heating value it was not much better than the electric lights overhead (which I left on for their heat). After several hours the radiators reached a temperature where one might warm the hands by leaving them on the radiators.

We had hot water twice a day, and, of course, the cold water was not suitable for drinking. (And even the bottled water had a shelf life of only a year --- a fact I still don't understand.) There was also the issue of potential radiation from Chernoble (the old joke about Chicken Kiev Flambee came to mind), and the shower water did sting the eyes, another fact I tried to ignore.

Meals were sparse, and there was little difference between breakfast, lunch and dinner. Each consisted of potatoes in some form, occasionally in two forms, fish (for those who ate it) and cole-slaw. Sometimes we had kasha (again, for those who dared eat it!) or rice. We always had bread. Once or twice we had chicken.

But the dining room staff, in spite of the little they were able to offer us, arranged what they had with care, setting cutlery in patterns and doing their best to serve and present a fancy environment.

For Friday night dinner, we had brought additional food --- apples, bananas, oranges, and some inedible chocolate cake --- which made the evening a relative feast.

Because of the extreme cold, we cancelled the planned trip to Babi-Yar on Shabbat, and instead invited children from the Kiev Congregation to come and sing. The local Jewish children's choir (ages 7 to 15, I would guess) consisted of about a dozen singers, but also of four skilled violinists, two flutists and two pianists. And not only were they all on key, they were all good, even performing in a room cold enough that most of us were wearing winter coats over sweaters. (This sort of cold can make it difficult to work the fingers properly!) Similar to Chernovtsi, this was not a case of appreciating the performance because the children were doing the best they could, but because the performance was good.

At other times during the seminar, I taught Israeli folk dance (in Russian!) and some music, though oportunties for singing were more limited that I would have liked, and I only had 20 minutes or so with the guitar. The group enjoyed both, and in both cases would have continued past the allotted time. They had no patience for learning songs, and wanted me just to sing them, and they would catch on, which they did. Several people also discovered the joy of folk-dancing for the first time, having previously thought that it was beyond their reach.

I also had the opportunity to lead a Torah study group of about 20 people (via an interpretor, who, however, was barely up to the task). Although the ages of the participants ranged from roughly 17 to 67, everyone seemed to mimic the best attributes of childhood: honesty, active participation, free sharing of ideas, and enthusiasm, all of which compensated for what the group lacked in knowledge. And the group, even the local leaders, did lack even basic knowledge.

In addition to the ``general'' members of the group, there were some students from the Machon in Kiev, a school set up to help prepare lay-leaders to lead their congregations. I helped three Machon students learn three lines of Torah each, to be read during Shabbat services, marking for each of them the first time they had read from the Torah. Saturday morning they read, showing great emotion. I also chanted the Maftir section; for most people it was the first time they had heard cantilation.

The services were --- as is to be expected at a program run from the Jerusalem office --- a mix between American Reform and Conservative, with the liturgy tending toward the Conservative. The music was a cross between ``traditional'' melodies and chants, with Debbie Friedman and Kol B'Seder woven in. (I suspect that in 15 years, the congregations in the FSU will consider those the ``traditional'' melodies.) To hear Debbie's Shema sung by leaders of FSU congregations, at a retreat center outside of Kiev, was astounding.

Saturday evening we held a dedication ceremony for a full Russian/Hebrew prayer-book (prepared under the guidance of Maya in Jerusalem), used for the first time at this seminar. It is a remarkable achievement, complete with translation and transliteration, and it will open the doors of Jewish worship to many.

Before everyone left, I was given 20 minutes to address the group, and I talked about ``kodesh,'' telling them that some things are inherently Kodesh and some we make into Kodesh by blessings. We did a short excercise involving blessings. And then I told them that the Hanukkah candles represent double Kodesh, and that, a few days hence, when lighting the candles, they should look at their light and be reminded that Jews the world over are doing the same, and I thanked them for inviting me into their community.

Lecturing through a translator is more difficult than I would have imagined, and the usual task of choosing exactly the right words (which is pointless because the translator will choose new words, often merely paraphrasing) is replaced with the challenge of deciding how often to stop to let the translator translate, the goal being to use those breaks to create the usual tensions and resolutions a proper presentation contains.

In the end, while I would have arranged the content of the seminar considerably differently, focusing more on basic issues, and introducing more overt spiritual and group-building activities, I think it was a success, even with the extreme cold, and the participants walked away enriched.


AFTER THE SEMINAR, I set out for Chernovtsi and then Vinnitsa. To get to the former, I spent 15 hours in a sleeper train (sleep being the goal, though hardly a reality) which was heated to somewhere around 30 degrees Celsius (almost 90 F.) Once in town, we spent an hour checking into the hotel, because it had no electricity, and the receptionist, in her 60's at least, probably didn't see so well even with light, but certainly had trouble reading by candlelight. The rates for the rooms varied for each of us: mine was the most expensive ($20/night), because I was not from the FSU; my translator's room was next, as she was from Russia; rooms for people from the Ukraine were $10/night. In spite of the prices and current dark condition, the hotel had clearly once been fancy.

I've already described some of the joy Chernovtsi brought me. In addition, I attended a Hanukkah celebration there on the first night of Hanukkah. Before it began, a local Israeli dance troupe comprised of children met for rehearsal, which we all saw (they were very, very good, even the 8-year-olds). I was given the chance to teach them a dance, and while I had planned on teaching something easy, because they were children, I quickly found that they could master whatever I taught, and so I taught something harder and much more fun. I still remember the laughing faces of the children as they learned the dance.

To my surprise, though, the children didn't stay for the Hanukkah celebration, or even for lighting the candles. So that section of the evening consisted of about 20 adults sitting quietly around a table eating dessert, by and large looking forlorn. After they lit the candles, I sang a few songs with them --- though they were more interested in a performance than in group singing --- and talked with them about their lives and mine.


FROM CHERNOVTSI IT took only 11 hours by train to get to Vinnitsa. Like the first train, it was too hot for comfort, but not quite as hot as before. Still, I slept in fits. Once in Vinnitsa, we went directly to the Jewish center, repeating a pattern (begun in Chernovtsi) of introducing me to the leaders of the community after I had just slept poorly in my clothes. I was also interviewed for a local TV program there.

Trying to check into the hotel (after we had left the Jewish center) reminded me that I was still in the remnants of a police state, and even though the central police that used to run it was an extinct organization, the infrastructure they had created lived on. The hotel wouldn't give me a room because, they said, I didn't have the proper registration. After speaking to a variety of clerks at the hotel, I was told that in order to check into any hotel I needed some sort of registration endorsement from the local (city) branch of the ministry of the interior, or some such. (Telling them that I had already been in three hotels without such registration didn't sway them.) The clerks were by and large polite but indifferent. So we trekked off down town to get the registration I needed. At the proper ministry, after speaking to several people, we were told that I absolutely did not need any new registration, but that I might need a letter from the local ministry of tourism. ``And where might that be?'' I asked. The local ministry of tourism was in another hotel, and so I thought it would be convenient if we just checked in there, but they didn't want us to. They also didn't want to write a letter, because it was too much trouble. But they told of a third hotel, run by a Jew, where they were sure we'd have no trouble. So that's where we went.

There were other indications of the ``police state mentality.'' Everything has a paper trail, and receipts are issued for everything (except, I suppose, bribes, but I didn't have a chance to find out). The public toilets all charge admission, for example, and in return for payment (10 cents or so) a numbered receipt is issued. All hotels require written registration on a registration form, which includes passport information, and one's passport must be surrendered for some time while they confirm its validity. (Even at the airport I had trouble with customs, because they wanted to count my money to make sure my declaration of $700 on my person was accurate. One is also supposed to list every currency exchange transaction during one's stay, including receipt numbers.) Hotel rooms still contain a written list of the contents, enumerating how many towels, beds, etc., are in the room.

Once checked into the hotel, I attended another Chanukkah party, this one focusing on Yiddish rather than Hebrew. There were about 40 people, filling a room in which children performed in an amateur but warm environment. Again I was an honored guest, and I addressed the group briefly.

That evening, we went to a party for kindergarten teachers, and the next day I taught Jewish kindergarten children some Shabbat songs, and lit candles with them. It was one of the highlights of my trip to hear the kids singing ``Shabbat Shalom,'' which they had just learned, as I left.

The teachers' party again confirmed the prevelence of music. The party, attended by about a dozen people, divided roughly evenly between women in their 20's and women in their 50's, took place in one of the kindergarten rooms. There was a variety of home-made salads, and lots of vodka (which I declined, at first politely, and then more and more adamantly.) After a bit of dancing to music from a tape-deck, we spent most of the evening around a working but poorly tuned piano, singing Russian and Ukrainian folk songs (to which everyone except me knew the words). I'm told this is a typical Ukrainian evening: drinks and three-part harmony around a piano. I also played a few Israeli folk songs for the group, and then started Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, for which the whole group fell silent to listen in great appreciation. I don't know all of it by heart, but someone quickly found the music for me. Everyone there recognized the piece, knew its name and composer, and no one was surprised that the sheet music was handy. Again, very impressive for a room where they couldn't afford to tune the piano and in which there was very little heat.

There were lots of Chanukkah celebrations around that time in Vinnitsa, some by various Jewish organizations and some by the City, and so, I was told, the local congregation was not offering services or even lighting Chanukkah candles Friday night, prefering instead to give people the night off. It's an odd approach.

So we went to the Sochnut office (the Sochnut's goal is to convince people to move to Israel), where they were celebrating Chanukkah and Shabbat for some high school kids associated with the place. The Sochnut maintains a rec hall of sorts for them, complete with ping-pong table, which I was happy to use while there. We sat around tables arranged in a large square, lit Shabbat and Chanukkah candles, and then they had a disco party. The students there were upbeat and cheerful, and extremely proud to have me visit. I have mixed feelings about the fact that in five years every one of them will be in Israel.


EVERYTHING WE DID was a project, including, for example, just trying to call Kiev (which he had to do because I had changed my itinerary; the original version had us traveling four hours to Kiev and then fours back on the same line in the other direction!). We had to walk to the PTT, wait in line, call, and then wait in line again to pay for the call. Changing our train tickets was similarly involved, as we had to go to the train station, only to learn from one teller that there were no tickets available at all. A second teller sold us tickets. But later we couldn't get place assignments until three hours before the train ride, and so we would have to return early the next day.

But because we got to the train station early, to get places, we had time Shabbat morning to visit the local Orthodox shul, where I saw about 30 men, mostly over 50 but some younger, davening through the Torah service. The services were held in Russian, with Yiddish-style Hebrew pronunciation.


BACK IN KIEV, on Sunday, I spent a day touring the capital of the Ukraine. The main street of town is closed off on the weekends to make it into a an enormous promenade, almost like a fair, complete with performing dancers, music, and food.

I also saw an 800-year-old Russian Orthodox church. On the way up to the church I encountered three young girls begging, each about 100 feet from the other, and was told that they are professional beggars. I was also told that it's not appropriate to give them money. But still, I thought in the church, reflecting that the youngest was only about 6 years old, I should have given them money, and on the way back I did. I gave each five dollars (a large sum there --- enough to provide dinner for an entire family --- though I still wish I had given more) and told each child, as I was giving her the money, that she was created in the image of God and that children shouldn't be beggars. After we had left, I caught one of the children looking at me and almost smiling, in spite of the fact that they are clearly taught to look and act as pathetic as possible.

The church itself was full of people standing, and had (real) Byzantine art on the walls. A priest up front was conducting services, leading the group in chant via hand signals.

Then we moved on to Babi-Yar. Kiev has erected a memorial to the victims of Baby-Yar, not far from the actual mass burial, and while both mark almost unbelievable tragedy, there is little left to suggest any of it, and I found my thoughts still with the children begging on the steps up to the church.

After shopping for some gifts, I spent the early evening walking around Kiev. My guide at the time was from Kiev, and I am greatly indebted to her for showing me the positive side of life there. Everyone else I had spoken to (mostly foreigners, from within and without the FSU, but not from Kiev) had only negative things to say about the Ukraine. I have already mentioned the subway station that prompted my thinking about shattered dreams, but even seeing what was left, and seeing that part of the city was alive and functioning, was a wonderful way to end my visit.


AND SO IN summary, I found the Former Soviet Union a place with much to offer. One of the leaders I met asked why I was coming, wanting to make sure that, unlike previous visiters, I didn't intend merely to drop my culture into their lives, bringing modernity to the backwaters of the FSU, as it were. While many foreigners I spoke with thought about their visit in precisely those mistaken terms --- and, indeed, took every oportunity to tell me of Russia's problems --- we do everyone a disservice not to recognize the cultural and personal beauty hidden under what has become a thick layer of poverty made worse by a devastated infrastructure. And it is partially for this reason that I'm so grateful for my final evening in Kiev, when I glimpsed the dreams the modern builders had in mind for their people, and even saw the parts that survive. The FSU has as much to offer as we have, but the infrastucture problems and newly-found immense poverty threaten to destroy the country along with its jewels, and that would be nothing short of a tragedy. For us to foster the demise of the FSU, either actively or merely by passively watching its decline, is unconscionable.




For more information about my trip, or to give me feedback, feel free to write me.