Hey everyone! This is Ariel reporting from Penn State Hillel’s trip to Moldova!
We’ve been in Moldova for two full days; I can’t believe it’s already Wednesday night! But I suppose that’s what you get when you spend almost two days traveling. We got in Monday night after delays on the first flight and a consequently short layover in Kiev, Ukraine; we spent more than half a day on planes alone, not to mention that we lost time.
When we finally got in, we piled into a van and were immediately immersed in the capital city of Chisinau (also spelled “Kishinev”) as we passed through the city “gates.” Watching from our windows, many of us had mixed reactions. For me personally, it really did simply look like what you would expect from the former Soviet Union, particularly because of the many run-down apartment buildings. Though, I have been told that they are not so bad on the inside.
The streets are dirty and let’s not even begin to talk about the ridiculous driving patterns–people cut off each other left and right, there are rarely any marked lanes and most people don’t adhere to them, and the pedestrians nonchalantly walk across the unmarked crosswalks as a car is only a few feet in front of them. There are countless cell phone stores–either “Orange” or “Moldcell”–and everything is in three languages: Moldovan (a dialect of Romanian, in the same way British English and American English are different), Russian, and sometimes English. However, it seems as though most people we’ve encountered prefer to speak Russian.
Oh, and we can’t forget “Malldova.”
I think all of the play-on-words of “Moldova” is to garner a sense of nationalism.
Another interesting point is that many people dress incredibly nicely. Women particularly favor heels and fur coats, as well as fashionable haircuts and nice makeup, and many guys wear very nice jeans and shirts.
Anyway, we checked into our hotel, called the Jazz Hotel, which is incredibly nice!
We headed off to our first dinner, which was at the Popasul Dacilor restaurant. It served traditional Moldovan cuisine, and the decor was so cool!
We spent almost three hours there ordering tons of food and being entertaining by a singer who was quite good.
The next day, we had a very good breakfast and had our first reflection session. We discussed Jewish peoplehood and got a briefing on the general problems Moldova faces.
It was International Women’s Day! It’s basically the same as Mother’s Day in the US, but it seems as though it’s a bigger deal in Moldova. A few of us girls received flowers and gifts from random guys on the street!
We met a few of the Moldovan peers who attend the Haverim Jewish youth program at the JDC center in Chisinau. My peers were Tania, 21, who was very outgoing and studying theater, and Olga, 17, who was more reserved with very good English and studies ecology.
First, they gave us pins with little stitched red and white flowers which are only worn during the month of March. Here is an explanation of the legend behind the flowers, if you’re interested. After exchanging some money into lei ($1 = 11.80 lei!), we started heading to our home visit. We had split into six groups to meet several older, Jewish women and give them gifts for International Women’s Day. We got on a bus, and when we paid for our ticket, Tania explained the superstition of “lucky tickets.” If the first two numbers and the last two numbers add up to the same sum, it’s a “happy ticket” and you’re supposed to eat it!
It took a bit of an effort to find the woman’s apartment, but when we finally did, we found it to be tiny and cozy. There were pictures of poets, one being Hemingway, as well as books and magazines. Her name was Esfir, and she just had the most incredibly story.
Her father was a Jewish member of the Romanian parliament, and both he and her mother were killed by the Soviets. They sent her to a Siberian prison camp. When she told them that she wanted to study to become a doctor, they told her she could only specialize in one thing: Cutting down trees and hauling lumber. That’s what she did for a couple of years, but during this time, the guards recognized that she was a cultured person and exceptional poet, so they respected her. Also, while everyone around her was cursing and pressuring her to curse, she refused. One night, she got on her knees on her bed, imagined her parents under the bed, and she swore that she would never use bad words for the rest of her life.
She escaped the camp and worked in a ship-building plant in Ukraine, but she was caught and sent back to the camp. This would happen four times. The final time, the cold and hard labor had taken its toll, and she had developed a heart condition. She had to have surgery, which somehow rendered her barren.
She finally was able to go free once Stalin was out of power, and she’s lived in Chisinau ever since. She has no children and never married–she has no one. Yet still, one of the things she emphasized is that the only person you can rely on is yourself.
While she was talking, our peers translating for us, I felt so captivated by this woman, despite the fact that I can’t understand Russian. She later recited a poem that she had written, and again, even though I couldn’t understand…I don’t know, I could just tell that it was a very powerful, riveting poem. I very much wish I could have understood it. The poem was about love, keeping faith in God, and the beauty of flowers.
It was an honor to be in her presence; I was incredibly moved. One of the things she told us was that she hoped that we will never have to know of war; that really stuck with me. I will definitely treasure that experience for the rest of my life.
Afterwards, we headed to Andy’s Pizza for lunch! It was delicious and we had the opportunity to meet other Moldovan peers.
Next, we had the privilege of getting a tour of Jewish Chisinau. Two highlights were that we got to see the only remaining synagogue out of the former 77 before Soviet occupation and a Jewish cemetery. In the cemetery, we saw an abandoned mikvah, and there were still bullet holes in the doors from the 1903 Chisinau pogrom. It was incredibly beautiful, despite the destruction and the trash, and many of us wished we could have stayed to help clean up.
After “freshening up,” we headed to the Kishinev Jacobs Jewish Campus for a Latino-themed party hosted by Haverim! Everyone commented that it was very reminiscent of high school and BBYO dances, with limbo and all. A girl named Kira actually called me out of the room just to talk. She wanted to know if I had any questions about Moldova, but since I couldn’t think of anything on the spot, I asked her if she had any questions about the USA. We talked about everything from movie stars to government; I’m not going to go into too much detail just for her privacy. But it was incredibly fascinating.
We had dinner at the Big Deal Restaurant. There had been a lot of jokes leading up to this moment (“What’s the big deal about Big Deal?” “…It’s kind of a big deal.”, from Anchorman, of course), so we were eager to eat here. I think the general consensus was that nobody was crazy about fish, but regardless it was a very nice restaurant.
Today was started off with another reflection session, and then we got a tour of the KJCC. We got to see many of its programs in-action, such as a computer class and a women’s empowerment class. There was a group of elderly who were making Purim crafts and even gave us some homemade graggers as gifts! We also got to meet both younger children and elderly learning English. The kids were absolutely precious (one of them kept giving us the “rock on!” sign), and the elderly people were so personable. We asked each other questions in English, and the one old man started saying that he wished us all of the happiness and luck in the world–and the others chimed in, “And wealth!” They were wonderful and many of us wished we could spend more time with them.
Next, we drove to the Hesed, or the welfare center. Many volunteers who had worked there for years and years told us about the programs which had gone on there over the years. Many of these have been moved to the KJCC. One lady who spoke was actually the wife of a very famous Moldovan writer. The Hesed needs a lot of fixing up, so after a boxed lunch, we got to work! Some of us cleaned, some of us did some manual labor, and many of us painted. I spent most of the time painting a door and its frame with primer for a future beauty salon space. I barely took a break because I was really enjoying myself!
We were very proud of how much we accomplished a few hours and we are looking forward to continuing our work not only at the Hesed, but because we know that the people we meet are so honored that we would travel such a long distance in order to help them and visit them. But that, I think, is just as much of an honor for us as it is for them.