On Visit to the Field, Challenging Easy Assumptions

'In late June and early July, I spent a week in Tbilisi and a handful of other Georgian cities. Embedded on a JDC Entwine service trip for young professionals, I crisscrossed this country of about 5 million people - and approximately 8,000 Jews - with a cohort of 15 young adults from all over the world, visiting Jewish communities everywhere from relatively thriving cosmopolitan cities to depressed former Soviet factory towns plagued by near universal unemployment.

August 11, 2015

Ivan and his grandmother.photo: photo credit: Alex Weisler

‘In late June and early July, I spent a week in Tbilisi and a handful of other Georgian cities. Embedded on a JDC Entwine service trip for young professionals, I crisscrossed this country of about 5 million people – and approximately 8,000 Jews – with a cohort of 15 young adults from all over the world, visiting Jewish communities everywhere from relatively thriving cosmopolitan cities to depressed former Soviet factory towns plagued by near universal unemployment.

We ate delicacies like cheesy khachapuri and savory khinkali dumplings. We visited with homebound elderly Hesed clients and impoverished families, grateful for the brave vulnerability they showed as they humbly let us in, unfussily sharing stories of unimaginable hardship and challenge.

We watched in awe as a troupe of talented Jewish youngsters wowed us with traditional Georgian dances, stomps and claps and elegant twirls. We lit candles and blessed wine and bread with smart, funny Hillel students caught between their love for the nation of their birth and the pull of countries like Israel and Germany that promised the sort of opportunity and stability impossible to dream of in Tbilisi or Kutaisi or Rustavi.

Georgia was not one vignette or story.

I know it’s reductive, shortsighted, ultimately futile to attempt to distill into a single anecdote the sensory overload that is a week in the field – especially in a nation as frenetic, stirring, messy, and striving as Georgia.

Georgia was a rich and troubling multi-sensory experience that challenged easy narratives about what Jewish renewal looks like in the former Soviet Union.

And yet. And yet! I keep returning to 10-year-old Ivan.

We met Ivan in Gori, the city of about 55,000 people where Joseph Stalin grew up as Iosif Dzhugashvili. Just a short drive from the gleaming marble museum that still lionizes the genocidal dictator, Ivan was the featured soloist for a troupe of a half-dozen young Georgian kids belting out Jewish classics like ‘Shalom Aleichem’ and throaty Russian songs our group had never heard before.

He had real stage presence, with fierce eyes and a clear voice. He was in his element. He was the star.

I was entranced.

When the children’s song and dance program had concluded, we got on buses for home visits to some of the most vulnerable Jews of Gori, which struggles with unemployment above 90 percent.

As we pulled up to one of the hulking Soviet-era apartment buildings, indistinguishable from the one across the courtyard or the ones across the street, we were surprised to learn it was Ivan’s family we were visiting.

Ivan has a difficult life. His mother and grandmother are both divorced and unemployed and live with developmental delays. His younger brother is in Tbilisi for medical treatment, and Ivan’s mother leaves him for months at a time to live in the hospital.

I’ve been on home visits before, spending an hour or so with homebound elderly women quick to share stories, to pinch my cheeks, to offer me blessings of true love and lifelong happiness. Though it was sad to leave them, knowing their lives were lonely and small, it was also easy to feel unabashedly good about having gone to see them. They made it clear our visit would be the highlight of their week, month, maybe even year.

It wasn’t that way with Ivan.

Our group brought a scarf for his grandmother and a bag full of toys for Ivan. He wasn’t interested. His grandmother told us her story, seemingly baffled by how she’d arrived at this tough, tiring life. Ivan sat on his family’s threadbare couch and stared at us.

You got the sense Ivan was ashamed we were seeing this side of him.

He didn’t want to be the boy in the grimy apartment for us. He just wanted to be the soloist.

That’s the value of traveling with JDC to the field – you get the chance to go deeper. You get to see people in their fullness.

Ivan is not either/or. He’s both. Always.

In Georgia, it was easy to trick myself into thinking I’d arrived at some great and powerful burst of cross-cultural understanding at the end of the week of travel. I could delude myself that 20 minutes of playing checkers at a Hesed day center taught me what life’s like for the elderly, or that a Shabbat meal was a real window into Jewish observance and rituals in a given location.

But I know nothing.

Ivan was a needed reminder that though there is great beauty and nuance and emotional resonance in the encounters any given itinerary includes, they present just one side of the story. We pop into our clients’ lives for an hour, a morning, a day.

Those visits? They’re just small slivers of their stories. Our clients keep living their lives, whether or not we’re there to bear witness.

What a beautiful thing that we got to see both sides of Ivan. Coming halfway through our trip, that reminder of the complexity of our clients’ lives colored and strengthened the rest of our encounters in Georgia.

When we coordinated a carnival for at-risk youth at a JDC family retreat in a beach town the next day, we knew each of the children involved came from a background like Ivan’s. Quite simply, if their families were more financially stable than his, they wouldn’t have qualified to attend.

As we painted their faces and lifted them up in the air, as we made them their first S’mores and danced with them around a campfire built on the magnetic sand of a Black Sea beach, we weren’t just interacting with the experience in front of us.

We were conjuring Ivan.

My challenge going forward is to remember that apartment in Gori and answer its call as I write stories about clients in Kazakhstan, in Bulgaria, in Argentina, and so many other places around the world.

Even if they are dependent on JDC for assistance, our clients are the fierce, clear-eyed soloists of their lives.

Who am I to say they’re just one thing? I know nothing.

So it’s my job to learn.

Alex Weisler is JDC’s digital content and strategy producer.

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