Reflections on a summer in Dnipropetrovsk
I’m sitting in the backseat of a small compact car trying to gain my bearings as the rain comes pouring down in faster and harder gushes. The radio station begins to play a mediocre 90’s song barely heard above the rain pounding on the roof. The decade old American pop hit offers a bizarre backdrop of English to the Russian being exchanged in the front seats and the ridiculous amounts of water, potholes, and unruly traffic that we weave in between. To my right I see we are driving a long a wide river and to my left I can make out buildings no higher than six or seven stories, a plethora of flashy advertisements, and massive, identical apartment buildings only distinguished by their varying shades of crumbling pastel yellows and blues. As I try to shake off my exhaustion and involuntarily closing eyes, I think, Welcome to Ukraine Faith!
My first car ride to my host family’s apartment captures a bit of how I felt during my Eastern European adventure… a unknown, wild ride. Working as a counselor for a Jewish camp in Dnipropetrosvk, Ukraine was the job description but what I ended up experiencing kind of felt like living a summer novel. My host family provided large, expressive characters that I got to know mostly through miming, translating, and smiling. My host mother, her 9-year-old daughter, my host mother’s parents, brothers, and the brother’s girlfriend. They spoke virtually no English but took a great interest in learning about America- engrossed in looking at my passport, asking me about “American business men,” and the cost of random items. They treated me like a queen on my birthday (a tiara, balloons, and cake!) and worked hard to finally find food I would eat since I declined their most generous gifts of pork, ham, and cheese. (By the way, since it’s very hot in Ukraine, imagine them all in their underwear most of the time.) The apartment was small, but clean and organized and definitely “a home.” The building on the other hand was built at least forty years ago. There was trash strewn everywhere, windows broken, and some walls completely bare of paint. It struck me that a sense of communal space was totally lost on its inhabitants.
Much of the city that I would come to see over the next weeks would also contain old, abandoned buildings, covered in trash- only to be found right next to a new modern looking apartment building or shopping complex. Nobody seemed to mind.
The other characters in this strange novel were my five fellow counselors, two girls and three boys, from various universities around the US, our respective host families, our school “family” of children (1st-4th grade), teachers and administrators, and the Jewish community.
Over the next three weeks we worked at the school from 9am – 4pm, assisting the ESL teachers, teaching English through games, arts&crafts, field trips, dance, and sports. Knowing no Russian ourselves, it was often frustrating and confusing to know if the kids were gaining much from our being there. As the kids became more comfortable around us and we around them, we realized that our presence was at least exposing them to non-celebrity status Americans that they seem to idealize on TV. We also hoped that immersing them in English would help them feel more comfortable being around English in general. A new dear friend and Jewish leader of the community referred to us as “angels” for teaching English to his children; a gift that would help them advance their jobs and income later in their lives. What struck me was how deeply this community believed in what we were there to do. Their sense of immense appreciation clung to their sincere and humble words and eagerness to assist us in any way possible. Over the next weeks we were welcome into more than a half dozen homes for Shabbat meals, lunches, and even my 22nd birthday party one week after we arrived.
In these homes we learned about the history of the city and life in Ukraine in general and for Jews specifically. We heard stories of pre-soviet union restriction and despair and how the only things Jews seemed to know about “being Jewish” was “Matzah” and the “problem” that it seemed to be for everyone else. I met Jews who homed crucifixes in their apartments out of what seemed a cultural Ukrainian habit and although they do not consider themselves Jewish by practice, send their children to the Jewish school because “at least it is safe and doesn’t have drugs.” We learned of the numerous Jewish projects and quickly understood the amount of energy, money, focus, and momentum the leadership appears to have in empowering and growing their community. We learned that thousands of Jews are still finding out that they are Jewish, and even more still do not know. I walked along the main commercial road, Karl Marx, acutely aware of the irony in that, and crossed the intersection of Karl Marx and Lenin with my mind churning through old history lessons. I also tried a few Russian delicacies, almost all including some form of potatoes, and learned a few phrases of Russian. I have yet to learn a word of Ukrainian, as it is not spoken in this city of mostly Russian immigrants.
I made some wonderful friends in my co-counselors and felt a sense of deep connection with the Dnipropetrovsk community. Their warmth, honesty, generosity, and love of life, freedom, and their families reaffirmed my deep belief that we really aren’t as different as our history books and politicians might lead us to believe.
This post was submitted by Faith Brigham who participated in JCRC’s Boston English Immersion Camp in Dnipropetrovsk in the Summer of 2010.