In 1994, some 300 women were chosen from the Americas and Eastern Europe – 150 from each side of the world – for Project Kesher. I was one of them.
Project Kesher was relatively new then. Kesher is Hebrew for “connection” or “reconnection” and its original mission was to connect Russian and Ukrainian women to Israel and Judaism through new business methods as well as feminist ideology and spirituality that begins in the home. The impetus was a need to counter the then-recent influx and influence of Lubavitch centers that were prayer- and male-centric.
Instead, Project Kesher was about sensory memories from the home and continuing the Jewish education of the women involved so they would rekindle their faith and find their place in a Jewish home as well as in the workplace. The program grew from self-respect and Jewish life cycle memories.
We met in Kiev, Ukraine, at a new but run-down, spider-and insect-ridden hotel near a huge farmers’ market, where we bought provisions for our cooking workshops. There were toothless old women selling flowers at the curb. My friend Sheila and I offered a dollar to one flower seller in the hope of getting three or four stems of irises. Instead, she gave us the entire stock of two pails! We shared some and placed the rest on the small stand between the beds in our shabby little room. They brightened up the place considerably. And improved the smell a bit, too.
Our directive was simple: To ask the participating women if they could remember an aroma and a seasonal ritual that was celebrated a certain way or had a pleasant memory, and align them with a Jewish holiday or ritual, such as lighting candles on Shabbat. Did they even know it was Shabbat? Baths and special meals and quiet time on Friday evenings? When did they have special bread? Chicken? Chicken soup? Where are those candles now?
What about seasonal food traditions, such as not eating bread during a certain time in the spring? Did they remember matzoh? The smell in their kitchen when their mothers or grandmothers were cooking. What were they preparing?
Other questions we asked: Do you have a prayer shawl or tallit in your home, or a memory not anchored to religion? Did you keep a particular plate for a specific use and have no idea what it was used for? Were you educated in household management, did you attend religious school or any school and, if so, until what age? Did you learn a trade? Is a 13th birthday a bigger celebration for your brothers, cousins or uncles than any other birthday? Do you have any memory of a bar mitzvah or a Friday evening or Saturday morning gathering place? Prayers and chants? Hebrew? A menorah? Dreidels? Mezuzahs?
Interested Russian and Ukrainian women ranged from teenagers to grandmothers. They were invited to spend a week rekindling their Jewish memories. It was a big draw. After all, they were given room and board and all they had to do was attend workshops. (We had multiple workshops daily and each workstation had a morning and afternoon class, plus lunch and break times. I was a cook in the morning, with prayers, table settings, recipes and materials.)
The women put their hands and hearts into the program. We became friends, if only temporarily. One newly married young woman was especially sweet and eager. She told us how she lived with her non-Jewish Ukrainian husband as well as her parents in a two-room apartment. Eating eggs and chicken was a wish fulfilled only once or twice a year. But she did recall the aroma of chicken soup and when we made it, we made sure to send lots home for her and her family. (My friend Sheila attempted to keep up the friendship once we returned, but our sweet girl evaporated along with the ink on the page.)
My memories of her are still distinct. She was a 20-something young girl, a pale, homespun beauty with blue eyes, flaxen hair and a shy smile. What she remembered was her grandmother cooking a dish she could still smell. The scent could fill her nostrils and her memories with warmth and love and kindness, and she was sure there was more food variety and availability then than now. (We later discovered that the meal was a Hanukkah brisket.)
Many women had equally potent scent memories and, regardless of age, they could still see the vapors from the pots of favorite dishes. They even remembered there were repeated rituals that they had lost track of until now. They remembered the linens on the table, the dishes of matzoh kugel, the chicken soup and brisket. Now, they couldn’t always put their patchwork memories together, but we helped them with that.
In the afternoon, I was the arts and crafts maven. We made tallit out of muslin and magic markers. We taught the women how and when to wear it. We translated prayers as we inscribed them onto the cloth. We had discussions about the purpose of this ritual garment and why it was holy. I think I still have the one I made somewhere in a box in a forgotten corner.
Dreidels were constructed out of cardboard and poster paper, glue sticks, markers, glitter – whatever it took to make that beautiful top spin. Then we sang Hanukkah songs, spun the dreidel and passed out chocolate gelt to the players. What fun!
Language, though a problem, was not a deal-breaker. One of the most astonishing revelations was that although few of us spoke Russian, we had enough mama loshun (Yiddish) to speak to each other with comparative ease. What a wonderful gift!
Project Kesher has morphed with time, and I am no longer affiliated with it. Yet it is one of my most cherished memories – not just because I felt fulfilled and accomplished when I taught and shared my heritage with eager Jewish women, but also because doing so gave me a chance to visit other parts of Russia, as well.
My mother’s family was from Kiev and my heart is broken to know it has been all but razed. Babi Yar has been demolished. Borschahivka, the Jewish village and its Biaikove cemetery have been destroyed. What remains standing is Kiev’s Monastery of the Caves, a fabulous medieval structure renowned for its numerous catacombs and glass tombs.
Sheila and I took a day or two to visit this UNESCO World Site, but we were not allowed to take any pictures. That said, we each took our cameras down the twirling, swirling, narrow steps and viewed ancient Russian Orthodox priests all decked out in their funerial splendor and resting with their legs tucked under them.
Of course, we knew not to take photos, but I tried anyway. The camera slipped and a very tiny fissure appeared in one of the glass tombs. I can still hear the hissing air in my ears. Sheila took a snapshot of my camera as it hit the top of the glass tomb. I still get giddy from guilt.
I remember this as a time of open exchange and hope between two cultures and one religion previously divided by time, politics and geography. Here in America, despite the recent rise of antisemitism, I still enjoy a full Jewish life and I live comfortably. With the strife and bloodshed and demolition in Kiev persist, I cannot help but wonder why the Jewish cities and places were among the first to be destroyed. I feel an estrangement that carries its own shadow of pain and care. I remember the petite blond who had no memories but the aroma of an ancient brisket. I’m sure that’s gone by now. But I remember what could have been.
I am a proud, longtime member of Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America which stands for Jewish values and traditions. Hadassah also stands for women’s empowerment and leadership and supports Jewish women’s role as keepers of the flame of those values and traditions. I am so proud to be a leader and member of a national organization with such a noble purpose and I am proud to have shared what I know with the women of Project Kesher.