|Sarah covers her table in a sparkling white tablecloth. She sets out heaping plates of bread, tangerines, and other snacks. She brings out a teapot and eight china cups for her guests. Sunlight floods the room, which is just big enough to hold the table and a bookcase.|
Sarah’s guests, like Sarah herself, are elderly Ukrainian Jews. They sit elbow to elbow at her table, filling the dining room in her single-person apartment. They dress formally, with precise hairstyles and threadbare suits, but the mood is convivial. Although they are mostly in their 80s, they are sturdy and they eat heartily.
The group has met twice a week for the past eight years as part of JDC’s Warm Homes program, which pairs hosts with groups of around ten other elderly people. Aimed at preventing the isolation that frequently accompanies old age, Warm Homes brings together Jewish seniors for simple socializing. They gather to share stories, reminisce, eat, and sing songs. Topics of discussion range from neighborhood gossip to debates on kosher law.
“Why do we drink four glasses of wine on Passover?” Anna asks.
“Get to the point and tell us why,” Isaac says.
“Because there was the Tenth Plague, the Death of the Firstborn. This is how we apologize to the Egyptian people for the deaths of their first-born children.”
On Passover, Chesed gives the group matzoh. All the women cook something; the men bring wine. They practice Judaism at varying levels: some of them rid their house of flour, while others do not even know that flour is not allowed on Passover. For years, the Soviet government systematically stamped out all expressions of religion; many Ukrainian Jews have only just begun to learn about their heritage. “Feeling that I am truly a Jew… it only began with Chesed,” says Polina. “This is when I felt that I am Jewish. This is when I took a fancy for singing Jewish songs, meeting Jewish people, and all that.”
Chesed is a network of social service organizations that serves 3,000 people across the former Soviet Union. The group discusses everything Chesed has done for them: it brings them to hair salons when they need a trim. It provides sugar substitutes to diabetics. When a friend of theirs suffered a stroke, Chesed got her a housekeeper. It has a library where the group goes to find poetry to recite to each other. They are all big fans of poetry.
“I actually want to say...” Polina announces, “we have a journalist among us. But she’s not just a journalist. She is a wonderful poetess.”
“Oh, my living advertiser,” says Lucia. But she allows Polina to recite her poem for the audience.
The group frequently sings songs in both Yiddish and Russian. When asked if there are any particular songs they sing for Passover, everyone speaks at once. “‘Varnishkes’” on Pesach,” says Eva.
“Maybe ‘Tumbalalaika’ first,” says Frida.
They launch enthusiastically into “Tumbalalaika.” When they are done, Isaac performs Tchaikovsky’s “Amid the Din of the Ball.”
All of them remember where they were on Victory Day. One man, Yura, recalls walking to meet the Army. He was ten years old and his mother had sent him to the countryside, away from possible violence in Kiev. Without a map, a compass, or an adult, he managed to find his way from the farmhouse where he was staying to the nearest city.
In her sixties, Lucia is one of the youngest members of the group. “We have very few people left whom we can congratulate on Victory Day, who were personally involved in the war,” says Lucia. “To us you represent one of those people, Polina Yakovlevna.”
“Thank you, thank you,” Polina says.
“We enjoy feeling a direct connection to Victory Day,” Lucia continues. “Now we can congratulate Polina.”
The connection that Warm Homes gives its participants is invaluable. Eva, one of the members, explains, “Everyone tells me, ‘You go out to some place, you are a perfect example to us, so clean and neat, so dressed-up.’ And I reply, ‘Why should I stay at home and wait for my death to come?’ I am 82 years old. But I’m keeping it up thanks to coming here, enjoying myself.”
Polina adds, “I am 93, and I am not waiting for death. One shouldn’t be waiting.”