Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Travel the World Without Ever Leaving Nashville

I've heard people over and over tell me how jealous they are of those who get to travel; they complain that they themselves could never afford such experiences.
Au contraire.  Let me remind you...
We are a nation of immigrants!  All over America you'll find pockets of first- and second-generation immigrants who are holding on to and cherishing the traditions of their forefathers, and would you believe...they are not only willing, they are ecstatic when individuals outside their community take an interest and come to learn about and share in their traditions. If you've never encountered a community of immigrants who have preserved the customs and traditions of their motherland, you might be surprised at how spending time with them will sweep you off your feet, transporting you millions of miles, to anywhere in the world.

You'll try foods you never knew existed; learn songs and dances whose names you might have read in a history book; hear stories that would blow your mind...

I'm incredibly fortunate in that I landed haphazardly in one of America's most international cities.
 Nashville is one of the last "refugee cities," meaning that we accept and welcome refugees from all over the world.  Did you know that there is a Kurdish population of over 15,000 people in Nashville? (Kurdish people come from a region around northern Iraq, however political borders have split up the land they occupy, making the Kurds a minority population in three or four different countries.)
There is also a big Laotian community here.  Could you find Laos on a map? Would you even know where to start looking?  It's actually a country in Southeast Asia, situated between Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and China.


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I've found a really neat group of Ukrainian people here; I told you last time that I've been going to their church and joined the youth choir.  And I learned just yesterday that there are many Bulgarian people in Nashville as well.

All my new Ukrainian friends!  The 'molodyozh' youth group. I'm the in 2nd row, third from the right.





This weekend I had the opportunity to take part in two major cultural celebrations; of course I jumped at the chance and took full advantage of an amazing learning and fellowship opportunity!

I've been wanting to attend a shabbat service with my Jewish friend Sam for a while.  He invited me this past Friday to a special evening service for Sukkot, a holiday that involves praying, feasting, decorating, and a little construction.  Everything about my visit to Congregation Micah was new and wonderful.  Sam grabbed a yarmulke (a prayer cap for men) as we walked in, and we were given a sort of prayerbook/hymnal to follow along during the service.

Did you know that Hebrew is written (and read) from right to left? Correspondingly, a book in Hebrew opens "backwards" from what we are used to. What we would consider to be the back cover is actually the front!  The specific book we were given had the original Hebrew script, a transliteration for English speakers next to that (basically a pronunciation guide), and then a translation into English below, so that even if you don't speak Hebrew you can still enjoy the full meaning of the prayers and songs.  The service comprised a variation of songs, led by one woman with a beautiful, clear voice and an acoustic guitar; several prayers recited in unison; a few short messages from the Rabbi; and an opportunity for members of the congregation to offer worries, concerns, and sicknesses up for prayer.

That night the congregation also celebrated the first "shearing" of one little boy, meaning that he got his first hair cut. I can't remember exactly why, but I learned that night that little Jewish boys don't receive a hair cut until the age of 3.  I'll have to ask again why that is.  It was pretty funny though, when the parents brought their son up to the front and he was allowed to take off his hood and cap to show everyone his haircut.  At first he was excited and eager to do so, constantly trying to pull it off before the Rabbi had finished explaining the tradition. Then, finally, when the little guy was told, "Go ahead, show everyone!" he got really shy and wouldn't. When his mom finally pulled off his hat, he got angry and started yelling, "It was supposed to be a surprise!" The Rabbi bent down to give the little boy a blessing, but he confidently said, "No" in the Rabbi's face, and then made an about-face and walked into a corner with his face to the wall.  I was about cracking up by this time, trying not to show it, especially when the toddler's dad picked him up upside-down and swung the little guy over his shoulder while the Rabbi prayed over him.

The beautiful auditorium at Congregation Micah in Nashville.












On this door are written the Ten Commandments.
Behind these doors is where you'll find the Torah.


hat I enjoyed most about the service was the story behind Sukkot, the holiday we had all gathered to celebrate. This is a day when Jewish people remember their ancestors, the Israelites, who wandered in the desert for forty years at one point, constructing small shacks, or sukkahs, wherever they went. The modern holiday Sukkot involves the construction of such a shelter, in which the family (or those brave enough) spend the night.  The sukkah can be built of wood, stone, brick, metal, plastic...any material can be used.  The only requirement is that the roof be made of "thin strips of wood or bark through which the stars can be seen," according to the Rabbi.  The purpose of this shabby roof is to remind the resident -- as he looks up at the stars through his roof and hopes it doesn't rain -- that no matter how much effort we put into building security up around ourselves, it's really God who is our protection.

At Congregation Micah, one big sukkah had been constructed for the kids to decorate -- the "official" sukkah, I guess. And all the families were sleeping in a dozen or so REI tents arranged in a semi-circle on the grass outside the synagogue.  I asked one guy: "So, even though you're in the modern REI sukkah, you don't put the tent's fly on, right?  That just wouldn't be authentic.  It's not a real sukkah unless the prospect of rain is a little unnerving, right?"

Sam and I helped this little girl Rachel make paper chains to
decorate the
sukkah.
This little boy, Jacob, was precious!
The kids drag their long paper chains out to the sukkah
Sam helps the kids attach their decorations to the roof.

It was really neat to see how enthusiastic the kids were, even older boys who can be hard to motivate when it comes
to decorating.  They knew the stories, the traditions, and WHY they were celebrating.
Sam and Jacob enjoy the satisfaction of a job well-done.
 Once the sukkah was decorated, we joined the adults around the bonfire for s'mores, while the kids watched an outdoor movie on a big projector screen.  While we were standing around the fire, one of the guys came up and asked if he could get us a cold beer.  Everyone was really laid back and very welcoming!
I'm looking forward to going back this Friday night to celebrate Simchat Torah with Congregation Micah.  I'm not quite sure what this holiday entails yet, but I'm sure I'll learn and have lots to share about it next week.

After celebrating Sukkot on Friday night, I transitioned right into Saturday's Zhatva "harvest" celebration at the Russian church.  This is essentially a Ukrainian version of Thanksgiving, as it also ties together the theme of harvesting and giving thanks. The denomination of the church is called "Slavic Baptist," and this harvest holiday appears to be unique to protestant groups in Ukraine/Russia. I have one professor from central Russia, and another from the Czech Republic (who teaches Russian and has lived in Russia before), and neither of them were familiar with this holiday. Nevertheless, it was really neat to celebrate with this community!

Ukrainian food is delicious, and there was certainly an abundance on Saturday, after the service. I wish I had a photo of the sladkiy stol - dessert table - as it was EVEN BIGGER and more crowded than the main course. Valik's plate, below, only displays two or three of the 30+ desserts offered...


Let the feast begin :)
Andrey and Max in matching purple.
While having dinner together, I started to tell Andrey, Max, Natalie, and some other friends about my experience at Sukkot the night before. The more I told, the faster and louder I talked...until my last sentence started to rise above the din of 200+ feasting people.  I excitedly wrapped it all off with, "...and we even built a SUKKAH!"  All conversations around me came to a screeching halt; I looked over and Andrey was bright red, Natalie had a very surprised look on her face, and Anya next to me had stopped fiddling with her napkin.  "Don't say that," she said after about ten seconds.  Everyone else at my table was looking around as if trying to make sure no one heard.

"What?" I couldn't figure out their reactions. "No, you don't get it," I continued, "we built a sukkah; it's a shack where the Israelites slept in the desert..."
"DON'T say that," Anya interruputed me again.  The others started to chime in.  Finally Andrey pulled himself together enough to say, "That's a really bad word in Russian."  He kept looking around behind me.
"That lady was walking by when you said that," he told me, "and she stopped and her face got all red and shocked-looking, and then she just kept walking."  
"Oh no, did anyone else hear?" I asked.  "Yeah. They were looking.  But don't worry, just don't say it again."
"Go explain it to them!" I told him over and over.  "Explain to them what a sukkah is and tell them the story, it's really a good story."
"Just stop saying the word" - he looked at me as if I just didn't get it. And I didn't. It's just so strange....this word that means nothing to me means something neutral in Hebrew and something pretty bad in Russian.  Apparently the word that sounds like "sookah" in Russian means something like "bitch" or "whore."  

Yeah....probably not the best thing to be yelling in a group of conservative church-going Ukrainians.
Luckily, it doesn't appear as though any lasting harm was done :)

Ukrainian kids singing some pretty cute songs in Russian during the service.
One girl leaned over to me unprompted and said "Don't worry, we don't understand what they're saying either."







So here's the moral of the stories....
Next time you're itching to travel but just can't quite pull together the funds, try venturing into a new neighborhood in your own city....I guarantee you can find international cultural experiences in each of our 50 states!  Who knows, you might even make some great friends!









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