CHERKASSY, Ukraine (Aug. 11)
Think it’s hard finding your soul mate in New York City? Try Cherkassy, Ukraine. "There are very few Jewish men, and as you get older, even fewer," says Marina Olexinko, 25, a teacher in the Jewish Agency for Israel’s kindergarten in this tired, gray Ukrainian city along the Dnepr River, a two-hour drive southeast of Kiev.
"And Jewish men like to marry Ukrainian women," charges Lena Horbatyuk, 31, the director of Cherkassy’s Chabad youth movement, referring to non-Jewish women.
Olexinko adds: "My children will be Jewish, no matter what my husband is. Still, I’m so involved in Jewish life, that if my husband isn’t Jewish, he won’t understand what’s important to me. But my chances of finding him in Cherkassy?"
She brings her right thumb and forefinger together in a circle. "Zero."
The Jewish pickings are mighty slim here east of the Carpathian Mountains, according to young Ukrainian Jews on the dating circu! it. And it’s not so easy elsewhere in Ukraine, home to anywhere between 200,000 and 500,000 Jews, many singles say.
Looking for a Jewish mate in the former Soviet republic is complicated by the fact that many, if not most, of the young Jews active in Hillel and other Jewish organizations have intermarried parents.
And in the Soviet era, it was virtually unheard of for the non-Jewish spouse to convert.
Although the Reform movement, with its acceptance of patrilineal descent, did not even exist in the region until the mid-1990s, young post-Soviet Jews tend to have a flexible interpretation of what it means to be Jewish. If you self-identify as Jewish, they say, that makes you part of the community.
Like most cities in the former Pale of Settlement, Cherkassy once had a large, thriving Jewish community.
According to the director of the Hesed welfare center in Cherkassy, Dmitry Spivakovsky, Jews made up of 65 percent of the population, some 21,000 people, be! fore World War I.
The Holocaust and 70 years of communism decimate d the community, and today, government statistics put the city’s Jews at a mere 880 out of a total population of almost 300,000.
And in the new Ukraine, where the emerging Jewish community is becoming as concerned as American Jews with "continuity," hooking up with a fellow Jew has become a priority — even as many of the eligible, Jewishly aware young people have emigrated and moved to Jerusalem, New York or Berlin.
What’s the sense of revitalizing the country’s Jewish community, young Ukrainian Jews wonder, if their chances of creating new Jewish families are next to nil?
"The population of the Ukraine is decreasing, Jewish and non-Jewish," says 26-year-old Mikhail Povolotskyi, who, like many of his friends, is living abroad — in his case, as an engineering student in Rome. "The average age of a Jew in Cherkassy is over 50. Kiev and Kharkov have a future, but the smaller places? I won’t come back here; It’s a problem to find a nice Yiddishe maidele."
His w! ords make the young women in the room roll their eyes.
"You’re just not looking hard enough," Horbatyuk says.
"You married a non-Jew!" Povolotskyi counters.
Horbatyuk sighs. "I’m jealous of the young people today," she admits. "You have lots of opportunities to meet other Jews. There are the Sochnut camps," she says, using the Hebrew word for the Jewish Agency for Israel, "Chabad, Shabbat programs, Jewish youth groups. We didn’t have that when I was single."
"Two people who met in the Sochnut camp in February got married this week," chimes in 22-year-old Zhennya Pysina, a Hesed staffer who leads an "English Tea" weekly conversation club through Cherkassy’s Hillel.
Two years ago when she started her club, 15 young Jews showed up each week. Now, she’s lucky if she gets 10.
"They’ve all left for Israel and Germany," she says. Then she brightens. "I’m dating a Jewish guy now. We met two years ago at the youth camp.
"Honestly, I’m really glad that he’s ! Jewish," she continues. "But life changes and we could split up. If I meet a non-Jew who appreciates my values and emotions, and I love him very much, it won’t be a problem. If he loves me, he’ll love my traditions."
Things aren’t much better 250 miles to the south in Odessa, according to 25-year-old Irina Zborovskaya, a sociologist with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee who’s looking for Mr. Right in this Black Sea seaport. "Jewish women in Odessa are very intelligent, and we have to compete with all the beautiful girls who wear flashy clothes," she laments, also referring to non-Jewish women. "There are a lot of rich men here, and they don’t want a wife who’s too smart."
Zborovskaya says marrying a Jewish man is important to her, yet she’s almost over the hill in a society that still marries young.
"I like to cook, I can sew and knit, I like to dance and sing, I like children, and I’m not ugly," she declares with some exasperation. "But it’s clearly not enough. If I were willing to marry a non-Jew, I’d have a bigg! er pool to choose from."
Three years ago, she registered with a local marriage agency. Two men came from the United States to meet her. "One was 20 years older than me, and all he talked about was how much money he makes," she recalls.
"The other, we didn’t like each other right away. The agency then set me up on dates with local men, also non-Jews. One was married, and he didn’t tell me until we’d been talking for hours."
By all rights, Zborovskaya shouldn’t be having this kind of trouble.
Ever since Odessa’s governor-general invited Jewish merchants from Galicia and Austro-Hungary to settle here in the early 1830s, Ukraine’s most southern port city has been a haven for Jewish intellectual, political and economic endeavors.
By the early 20th century, one-third of Odessa was Jewish, making it the world’s largest Jewish community after New York and Warsaw.
Seventy percent perished in the Holocaust, but the community quickly reasserted itself after the! war and, even during Soviet times, maintained a degree of independenc e unthinkable in most of the former Soviet Union.
Still today, Odessa is known as a very Jewish city.
"I think that every second person, if not every person, in Odessa has some Jewish connection," says Liza Gudina, 21, a professional flutist with the National Philharmonic.
Gudina is sitting with a dozen other young people in Odessa’s Hillel clubhouse, a rented apartment filled with overstuffed, second-hand furniture, where a coffeepot is always steaming, and young Jews come and go all evening.
"When I came to Odessa five years ago for work, I had no friends at all," says 22-year-old Arseniy Finberg, who works for the shipping giant Maersk Ukraine. "The next day I came to Hillel and immediately had friends."
Maybe if Zborovskaya spent less time at work, and started hanging out at Hillel, these students say, she wouldn’t be so lonely.
"You know Hillel’s mission statement," says Finberg with a sly grin. " ‘Maximizing opportunities for Jews to do Jewish! with other Jews.’ "
Amid peals of laughter from the rest of the room, he continues. "Seriously, for me it’s really important for my future wife to be Jewish. And a place to find that is Hillel."
Of course, that’s not the only reason young post-Soviet Jews come to Hillel, says the Hillel director in Kiev, Osik Akselrud, who has headed the group in the Ukrainian capital since it was founded in 1995.
But in creating a friendly, lively place for young Jews to congregate and learn about their heritage, Hillel has also become a de facto hot spot for Jewish matchmaking.
"We’ve celebrated 11 weddings, all people who met at Hillel," Akselrud says.
"It’s easier to meet a Jewish girl here than on the street," Felix Indenbaum, 23, agrees. "Hillel gathers together people who are more deep, thoughtful, spiritual. We discuss all sorts of things — Jewish life, traditions, values. It’s a great foundation for building relationships."
Viktoria Dianova, 25, met her hu! sband, 31-year-old Alexander, at Hillel in 1997, when both were studen ts at Kiev’s Solomon University, the city’s Jewish university.
"Both my parents were Jewish, and I thought I wanted a Jewish husband, but it wasn’t obligatory," Dianova says. "I wanted to fall in love first, and then see."
If she hadn’t gotten close to Alexander when the two were leading a Hillel-sponsored Passover seder in the Ukrainian city of Vinnitsa, they would probably have drifted apart.
"I wasn’t concerned about marrying Jewish, but my mother wanted me to," admits Alexander. "She didn’t marry a Jew, but she rediscovered her roots and wanted me to have a Jewish family."
The prevalence of intermarriage throws a wrench into the "Who is a Jew?" question.
"Here in Hillel we don’t divide Jews by halachah," or Jewish law, Finberg says. "We even have non-Jews."
In fact, one of the founders of Odessa’s Hillel has no Jewish relations at all.
When Hillel International heard this, Finberg relates, "they told us to kick him out."
But all 300 delegat! es to a convention of Hillel activists from the former Soviet Union signed a petition demanding his reinstatement; the international body acquiesced.
"If a person feels Jewish, it doesn’t matter if your mother or your father is Jewish," declares Odessa’s current Hillel director, 21-year-old Boris Fikhtman, who says he met his girlfriend five years ago through Hillel. "If in your heart you’re Jewish, then you are Jewish."
This article is one in a series of pieces on Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. This series was made possible, in part, by support from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.