October 5, 2009

'Not So Lost in Translation'

Suzanne Baumgarten, a participant on a recent JDC Short Term Service program to Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine shares her thoughts and impressions. 

From the Cornell Daily Sun
Column: Culturally Disinclined
October 2, 2009
By Suzanne Baumgarten

Apparently, people over 70 years old can sing. I don’t mean sing a little tune — I mean opera singer status. There’s this one particular woman who solos every once in a while, and when she opens her mouth, she really belts it out, singing with every bone in her body, every muscle, every organ.

Of course, I can’t understand the words these women are singing because they are in Russian. Or they could be in Ukrainian. These women are members of a choir that I saw perform at a hesed in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, during my trip there this summer. A hesed, which means “mercy” in Hebrew, is a community center for Jews in the community that offers everything from social activities, to food and clothing to the less fortunate. These choir members were women who were in their sixties and seventies. They were wearing long green skirts and matching blouses and looked like there was nothing they’d rather be doing in the world.

When we first arrived in Ukraine, I was shocked that besides the impressive synagogue and never-ending river, there are really very few “attractions” in Dnepropetrovsk. For instance, in the cities in which I had spent time up until my visit to Ukraine, I had left them with a clear idea of the main attractions: Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty in New York, The Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. I do not have a similar list regarding Dnepropetrovsk.

What I ultimately realized, by the end of my visit, is: The people, not tourist attractions, are the essence of the Ukrainian culture.


This trip, sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Hillel and the JDC chapter at Cornell, is not your average community service trip. In fact, it’s more a trip of immersion that features community service than a community service trip alone — and I think that this says more about the places we visited than the trip itself. Besides a few painting jobs and the redecorating of a hesed’s yard, we spent a ton of time dancing with the elderly, putting on puppet shows for Ukrainian children and diving into the local cuisine (eating was an especially interesting experience for myself and the other vegetarians who existed on a diet of bread, potatoes and the beloved Ukrainian herb, dill).

In Ukraine, most people know both Russian and Ukrainian. One day, I had to buy medicine. A Ukrainian woman translated the directions on the medicine box from Ukrainian to Russian, and an American volunteer, who had lived in Ukraine for the past year and learned Russian, translated the directions from Russian to English. This is not the language barrier you find in Paris or Italy. One language just doesn’t cut it. If it’s not in Russian, it’s in Ukrainian. Furthermore, it’s not like most people know a little bit of English. Most people do not know any English. Thus, the other students from Cornell and I became skilled at devising motions to get our point across; for example, we crossed our arms and rubbed our shoulders and then fisted our hands and moved them in circles to show that we wanted iced (the cold motion) coffee (the blended motion) at cafes.

And man, Russian is hard! Even after spending a week surrounded by other Russian young adults, my knowledge of the Russian language increased from only about zero words to four. I might have known more at the very end of the trip, but at this point, just over a month later, I can only remember words for “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “Thank you” and “You’re welcome.”

During the trip, my friend prided herself in “teaching” herself to read Russian — in fact, we couldn’t walk more than a block or so without her showing off her new skills by sounding out words on store signs around us. Most of them were cognates, but it was nonetheless impressive that she figured out how to pronounce letters based on the words she realized were similar to their equivalents in English. The other day, though, when iChatting with a Ukrainian student from our trip (we were accompanied and immediately befriended by 20 or so Ukrainian Hillel students), the same friend forgot how to say goodbye in Russian. I reminded her. I suppose everyone has his or her own strengths and weaknesses.

Over the course of my visit, my feelings about Ukraine changed from viewing it as a barren, desolate country filled with random buildings and never-ending sunflower fields to seeing it as a center of celebration, culture and probably above all, resilience.

There was Zhanna, the 70-year-old who had lost her only surviving family member, her twin sister, just months before and who was completely dependent on the hesed for food and shelter. Zhanna moved around quicker than I do, always had a huge grin on her face when she greeted you in a spew of Russian sentences, and daily picked up mentally challenged boys to bring them to the hesed with her. There was Pavel, a man who, for no reason, was robbed of everything he owned and beaten up just short of being murdered — he couldn’t walk or talk. But people who met him all described a certain light in his eyes that they would never forget.

I did not know that you could be touched by people who don’t speak your language. Nor did I realize, until I arrived home from Ukraine, that it did not matter that I was not able to understand Russian or Ukrainian.

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