Monday, May 28, 2007

The best tour guide in all of Pinsk…

The ghetto memorial in Pinsk located just in front of “Sport” School #2; had there even been a thought in my head, we would have gone over there.
Had an interesting day on Saturday. As I mentioned last Friday, my friend Erica Fishbein was coming down from Minsk with a group of Jewish high schoolers from New York. Erica works for the Joint Distribution Committee. The JDC's mission statement says that Since 1914, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Inc. (JDC) has served as the overseas arm of the American Jewish community. Our mission is to serve the needs of Jews throughout the world, particularly where their lives as Jews are threatened or made more difficult.

So as you can see she is one of the good guys.

I have been talking with Erica off and on for a while via the web because she also happens to support the Babushka blog which is full of what is going on up there in Minsk, which is where she is stationed. But I had never had the chance to meet up with her face to face until this last weekend. The notice came pretty suddenly actually. I got an e-mail on Thursday saying that she would be coming down with a group the next evening and would I be available. Well, this was a pleasant surprise and it was not a difficult decision to change my plans a bit. I talked to her on the phone and found out that Friday evening was booked up but that the whole group was coming over to the synagogue for services Saturday morning. We finally got to meet just after services on Saturday morning and she is just as her group had described her: Bubbly enthusiasm, kindness to a fault and not hard to look at; a winning combination.

That moment actually was made even better by the nasty looks the rabbis were giving me while we were gabbing. Orthodox rabbis have an issue with idea chatter between men and women don't you know and so having our little powwow (and on the men's side of the curtain even) just made it that much more interesting.

In any case, though I thought that the plan might call for a tour, I was thinking that I would simply tag along. But as soon as things finally got organized I found that I was the one who was supposed to lead it. No one told me but ok. It's not like I don't know anything about the town I live in. So thinking quickly, I figured that the best walk that Pinsk has to offer is a trip down Lenin Ulitsa to the Museum and the main square, perhaps spend a little time there and then head back along the waterfront. Not to say anything bad about the Pinsk landscape, but in terms of at least reasonable attractiveness, this is about what you get.

However, what I really didn't get was that this group was looking for a specifically Jewish walk, not a pleasant stroll. Had I even given this thing a moment's thought I might have figured this out. In fact, if I had even listened to the guys from the yeshiva I would have followed a completely different path that would have let to several very heavy sites which recalled both terrible and wonderful memories of Pinsk Jewry.

And I should have listened: Our group couldn't have given a damn about the Pinsk shopping district. The best I could come up with was the Chaim Weitzman memorial and a lot of chatter about the Nazi occupation. Even the museum failed to work for me because when we got there, we found that the exhibit for the 500th anniversary of Jews in Pinsk was already closed. To add to the disappointment, I failed to understand that the group was not even interested in getting any exercise. As I have mentioned, it has been really hot of late and maybe I have been dacha farming for too long but I wasn't really thinking of how hot it was until I noticed that the group was basically following any and all shade that was possible. "Why are they heading for those trees?" I asked Erica who was dressed in black and looking a bit like our late cabbages herself.

"I think they are trying not to die."


A few curses and under-the-breath mutterings that I should leave them alone later, we finally made it back to their hotel. Erica lagged behind with me and with the others too exhausted from the heat to protest further, we camped out in a cool corridor and got to know each other.

Erica volunteered to come to Belarus after University where she majored in Islamic studies. She understands that this usually garners a laugh from people but to her it all had something to do with simply understanding the situation better. Probably thinking along the same lines, she chose to come to Belarus and be an organizer/liaison here. She says that she actually likes it quite a bit here, that Minsk is just about the right sized town for her and that she is thinking to stay on after her contract is up. She says she likes the people she works with, likes the job she does and has learned many, many things.

I guess what I really liked about her though is that at the bottom line Erica is what you might call a community builder. What this means is that she is the sort of person who makes any place better for her having been there. If she has a selfish bone or two, you can't see it; she works hard at her job, thinks of others ahead of her own comfort (she even bought an I Love Belarus t-shirt for each member of the tour; though I am sure that after my Bataan death march, they might regard the phrase with a sense of irony) and tries to make sure that the life of each person that comes along her path is just a little better than it was before. Certainly she is a fine addition to a fine enterprise and we here in Belarus are lucky to have her.

To support JDS please see their website. And if you are planning to come to Belarus to find some part of your history, don't forget to check in at their offices. You'll be happy you did.

More soon…