Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Some notes from Jewish New Years…

Sometimes I forget that I am actually living in Belarus. What this means is that I get to feeling insolated by working and as my work is primarily in English I tend to forget that I live a long, long ways from the USA. But then things happen and I get reminded where I live and that there is a completely different world going on around me than the one I grew up with.

This last Saturday and Sunday was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Years and we celebrated at the temple with prayers and the blowing of the shofar. But during services, and specifically when the rabbi was blowing the ram's horn whose call signifies the coming of the new year, a very sacred moment really, a woman who I suppose lives in the house next door to the synagogue actually came and banged on the window, screaming at the rabbi to stop making that silly noise because her husband was trying to sleep. The rabbi handled it with humor and waved to the woman, but she would not have any of it and continued to yell and pound the window calling for quiet. Someone finally explained to her that this was a 3000-year-old ritual and that she really ought to stop mixing her Geritol with vodka.

I am not sure that this particular moment was anti-Semitism as much as it was foolishness, but there was also some of that here over the weekend. I have taken up the habit of wearing my yarmulke on Saturdays and when there are holidays. I wear a hat normally, not always, but in general when I go out (Actually, I sort of have come to feel naked without one- I suppose that is the point), but I go with the skull cap when there is a significant Jewish event. But even though most people know me already, Pinskers really can't seem to help themselves from either freaking out socially at such a display or allowing themselves to wallow for a moment in dark and ominous thoughts. This is not to say that these little events such as old people who cross themselves when they see you or women with baby carriages who look away are dangerous. But older boys who have been raised never to have the common sense that G-d gave a pig take the sight of a kippa adorned Jewish man as a chance to get all excited- at the least it is a joke to laugh at, at the worst, it is an inspiration to mull their racial misgivings.

I was walking with R' David, he a Chabadnik with a full-on beard, and I had my Anya on my shoulders, when we walked past several boys, perhaps fourteen years of age, who were sitting at a table outside a café. When we went by, the boys broke into laughter at the sight of a Chasidic Jew walking down the street as if he was a real human being. I turned and stared them down, even with Anya on my shoulders and, give credit where credit is due; they got the message clear enough that they had not been all that "priatna", gracious I suppose would be a good translation, and quit the game straight off. Perhaps that they did get that this was not a very respectful thing is to their credit, and you could also say that super-provincial Pinsk is well known for its snobbishness- and you could also even say that this business of allowing for these moments helps the town to accept Jews as people- but to me it all just acts as a reminder that I actually still live in the19th century.

However, even this thought of living in another era these days is being called into question. I am also finding a widening gap between the world I actually live in and the one that the president likes to tell us about on TV. Alexander Lukashenka came up through the KolHoz ranks and has always hammered the point of agriculture, agriculture, agriculture as the heart and soul of Belarus. But over the last couple of years the oil and gas money seem to have him thinking much more in terms of bottom line economics rather than the bottom line for life. I think this year's big joke with the apples is a good indicator that the government would soon be coming to the conclusion that they would just as soon bulldoze the villages as support the people who live in them, as has been the case since the beginning. I am also pretty sure that in Minsk, they are becoming more and more culturally diverse in their thinking and moving away from that spiritual core of their attachment to the land.

I have mentioned that students and business minded people are starting to think of Arab and Chinese cultures as interesting. Perhaps this will spill off and allow for an appreciation for the chosen people as well, but I am not so sure. Perhaps the flaw here lies in that the Jewish community of Belarus has not really made its presence known to the government as a politically ideological entity as of the moment. I know that the Jewish community is trying to grow and that they are investing here to an extent, but I don't think they have found a way to enter into the discussion as they have in Russia and because of this, I think that there is a good chance that they might just be relegated as an inconsequential sect in the mind of the president, and certainly nothing so interesting as the billions spent by the Arabs for the guns and nuclear fuel to wipe Israel off the map.

This rather dim view of the future becomes all the more real after reading Belarus' new best friend, Hugo Chaves' speeches. I know that he has it in for the US, but the rhetoric is he is using is not too far away from something one of Hittler's script writers might have come up with in 1932. But do I really think we are looking forward to a "Crystal Nacht" or a book burning party here in Pinsk? I don't know. There are incidents that take place here that seem to be inferences that a rising tide against would be accepted, but they are isolated and they don't seem to happen so often. I mean, we had our swastika painted on the synagogue but it was done by someone who did it and ran rather than by a mob asking to be fought back against. But on the other hand, there is no normalcy for simply saying one is a Jew here. It is an exotic and not something people simply agree is. People who know me well don't care that I wear a kippa on Shabbos and they don't think of me as picking fights because of it. But some of these same people act as though they are receiving a shock when I walk over to the temple with a piece of cloth covering the back of my head. And this is every time.

If there is the alternative argument that says I should not do things that "call attention to myself", well, this is the quintessential go-along-and-get along place. But even if this is the de rigueur culture here, does this mean that I must deny the fact of my religious heritage? I mean, I thought that they were allowing the opium of the masses back into pipes of the masses. Or does this simply not count for Jews here?

In any case, it is an issue and it is worthy of thought and attention. I really don't plan on seeing any utopias around here any time soon, but I also really, really hope that things don't start turning for the worst. I no longer have that argument that we are past this sort of ugliness as a species because nothing I ever read in the news or see with my own eyes tells me this is so. It really could get ugly here and I certainly hope something happens to allow for some peace before this happens.

More soon…