Monday, November 12, 2007

Making Friends

Well, success so far. I found the Congregation. At first the guard wouldn't let me in but I found a window and did jumping jacks until someone noticed me and came outside and explained it was only the stupid americansky. I went into a very large complex surrounded by walls and cameras (felt a little like entering Israel) and discovered about 12 people sitting in heated debate about what I'll never know. A nice guy in his 20's spoke English and offered me a Kipah which I accepted gladly. Then conversation ended and we went into another room with a makeshift Bimah and a number of chairs arranged in rows. The Rabbi asked me my Hebrew name and my parents names. My Hebrew name? Jim I guess. More people arrived because this was the actual service ending Shabbat. A nice mix of ages and very friendly. One grizzled man spoke to me in Russian, then Hebrew, then Yiddish and finally when I had repeated 3 times I didn't understand in Russian (my most practiced phrase) he took my hand, beamed at me and said very loudly and slowly like to a child Sha-lom. Then he sat down.
The room filled. I became uncomfortably warm as my wool undergarments weren't meant for a heated space like this. As I wiped the sweat gathering in my beard I heard my "Hebrew name" being called and realized with horror I was meant to go up and read from the Torah. I stood up cursing my long underwear and dripped my way to the Rabbi. THis was my bar mitzvah all over again. Luckily I was wrong. I was only to read the blessings before and after the torah portion. The Rabbi smiled and whispered not to worry; the Hebrew was transliterated below, but then caught himself. The Cyrillic below it was harder for me than the Hebrew. I muddled through it remembering some of the singsong and went back to my seat only to stand and sweat for 2 hours as we read close to 40 pages of Hebrew and Russian together. I was excited to learn I could follow along in both languages without too much difficulty(of course with very little comprehension), only loosing my place when I paused to pull my collar forward and let the heat from my now drenched chest rise and prevent my collapse.

Afterwards I met Eliana an exquisitely beautiful girl who speaks Russian English and Spanish fluently. She was shy at first being only 7 years old but warmed as I showed her the animated clip I made of the kids from the Brooklyn Synagogue the week before. At first she wouldn't speak. I tried English and spanish. Finally she spoke English in a heavy Russian accent and her mother shot her a glance and the accent slipped away into a Boston accent. Her father the Bostonian worked at the American consulate and her Russian mother was a "cross cultural and life coach" which gave me the creeps for some reason. They were very kind though and after hearing my story they asked to see my work and introduced me to another artist there from Muchina the rival and far more modern art school here in Saint Petersburg. I am now working with her to develop an art curriculum for the religious school. She makes beautiful calligraphy in Hebrew, but is having trouble finding a proper teacher because she lacks balls. I'm formulating a plan to go with her to the Orthodox community with copies of her work. If they're not all idiots someone there will see her talent should not go undeveloped because of her sex. There's another part to that story which involves Katya the woman I'm staying with but that's for later.

Stay tuned for more adventures including getting blood drawn, going to the wrong bathroom after trying so hard to avoid it, and being sober in the wrong place at the wrong time.

P.S. God bless America for bringing so many Citibanks and McDonalds to Russia. One for withdrawals and one for deposits.

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