- The sense of gimilut chasadim, deeds of loving kindness, in every city we went to. We received clothes from both communities (sweaters, coats, ponchos, scarves, etc.) when the people realized we had come unprepared for the cold Belorussian spring. At the end of our seder in Baranovichi, the whole community thanked us by giving us small gifts and joining together in Hatikvah, Israel's national anthem. There was so much love for Israel and respect for their "Jerusalemite" guests present in the room that it was impossible not to feel the power of the words, melody and meaning of the song.
- The amazing kids in Brest, who gave us souvenir pins, a burnt copy of Shrek 2 on DVD, money w/ pictures of attractions we would see later in our trip, invitations to parties, guided tours of their favorite spots in Brest. They shared their pride of their city and their culture with us as they gave back what they could to the American strangers who came to help them. They might not know much about Judaism, but they understand better than most Americans what it means to be truly Jewish by their generosity and kind words/deeds.
- In general, the kids know more about Judaism than their parents and grandparents, probably thanks to Netzer Clubs. They are more excited about gathering together and celebrating their Jewish identities in a safe place than their parents ever were. Also, their English is generally better than their parents, particularly the small children we met.
- Antisemitism is still alive and well in the FSU, particularly in Belarus. It is almost impossible to be openly Jewish and accepted in society, and people hide their Jewish identities to find jobs, go to schools, etc. One of the Netzer kids in Baranovichi (that we did not get to meet) was severely beaten after the Purim spiel this year because he forgot to take off part of his costume that showed the Israeli flag. It's only one example of the hatred that still exists in the world we live in.
- The synagogues in Belarus are called "offices", and are hidden in obscure buildings in obscure parts of town. The world at large would never know that these are holy spaces, yet once inside, there is no doubt that Jewish spirit and tradition is definitely present in Belarus.
- Several of the kids have been to Israel, many more than once, and many want to make Aliyah or return to study and spend more time there.
- Many of the kids speak better Hebrew than they do English. Many choose to study in ulpanim in for 4-6 months and continue their studies with each other in Belarus.
- There are coat checks everywhere--in every bar, restaurant, grocery store, etc. You are considered rude if you choose not to surrender your coat. And if you lose your plastic number, you are dumb outta luck when it comes to getting any of your stuff back.
- The food is basically the same in every restaurant--pork, chicken, fish, potatoes, borscht, bread, and vodka. There are very few multi-cultural restaurants (except for Italian food) and it is/was very, very tough to keep Passover in Belarus.
- There are war monuments everywhere you turn--statues, gardens, plaques, etc. We don't usually know what they are, as the signs are in Russian, but it's a safe bet to assume they are memorializing one of the many wars or people that were killed in the wars that have taken place over the years.
- The prices were so cheap to us (2,130 Rubles=1 US Dollar), but very expensive to the people living here. For example, a bottle of water typically cost about 750 Rubles, around 35 cents. It was easy for us to forget that the average salary of $300/month can barely cover the basic needs of a family, even when prices are as low as they are.
- Apparently, it is acceptable to wear micro-mini skirts and thigh-high 5-inch stiletto heels around town: to synagogues, to restaurants, to work, etc. I decided not to partake in this fashion trend, for the sake of my classmates and the Belorussian world at large. I know they appreciated my thoughtfulness :)
- People want to get out of Belarus. There are very few opportunities, especially for Jews and women, to do anything more than teach or be an economist. As much as they want to leave, they need to stay with their families and with their home country--many people, especially young women, feel as though they are stuck. Ana, our translator, is scared to even come visit America for fear that she won't want to leave. She knows that there is nothing for her in Belarus, yet she feels as though she can't leave her mom or destroy her loyalty to her country.
- Small packets of dried fish are in every grocery store, gas station, airport, etc. People in Belarus eat dried fish like people in America eat potato chips. Ana tried to get us to taste them, but we all refused--I'll stick to my potato chips.
- 2 words: SQUAT TOILET. Basically, a porcelain hole in the ground over which you squat and do your business. They were everywhere (thank Gd not in any of our hotel rooms!)The night of the cantorial concert, the hall had only squat toilets, and I had to go pretty badly. I took the time to take off my skirt and pantyhose, squatted, waited for 2 minutes (a lonnnnng time when you're squatting over a hole in the ground) and nothing happened. It was like my body knew it just wasn't going to be a good idea. So, I waited until the end of the concert, until we returned to our hotel room where we had a legit toilet. It was tough, but I think I made the right choice.
From Grisha, the head Reform Rabbi in Belarus, who sounded exactly like Borat as he briefed us about our visit on the way to Minsk from the airport when we arrived.
- "Don't worry, the situation will be pinkey-rosey!" (My personal favorite quote from the trip, one I've been using non-stop since returning to J'lem. Grisha was telling us not to worry about the KGB or being deported out of the country. Luckily, none of us had any trouble and made it back to J'lem without any major problems.)
- "There are no terrorists on the train, only drunk Belorussians." (Apparently, one of the students who was on a prior trip thought that a drunk Belorussian was a terrorist, and ending up running off the train and out of the train station.)
- "For the concert, please dress in business lunch." (He was trying to tell us to dress in 'business casual' attire for the cantorial concert, and was confused it for the term for the lunch specials in every restaurant in Jerusalem.)
- "Everywhere there is Coca-Cola, there is a Jew." (No explanation--I don't even know how or why he said this. It literally came from out of nowhere.)
- "My douche isn't working--can I borrow yours?" (Ana came to Ari and I's hotel room to ask us this--we looked at each other, dumbfounded, before bursting into a fit of giggles. Confused, Ana asked us what was so funny. Apparently, we didn't know that the term 'douche' is the European term for 'shower.' Conversely, she didn't realize that in America, the word has an entirely different meaning...)
- "During the summer, it is possible to ride the ponies and the assholes." (We were eating lunch in a restaurant in a park, which had a petting zoo in the summertime. Ana was obviously trying to say 'asses' , and got a little mixed up. She had no idea what the term 'asshole' really means in English, so we taught her a little lesson. Needless to say, she understands it perfectly well, now!)
- "I need an ass-tray." (She meant to say 'ashtray'--in our pre-adolescent minds, we found this to be hysterically funny--especially Brad.)