Thursday, March 06, 2014

I Went to Moscow So Now You Don't Have To (Part I - Why I Went)

I was urged to write this blog series by friends on Facebook who were wondering why I was so, so very glad to be back home from my vacation in Russia. This will take many posts to explain properly. Buckle your seat belt and have fun; I didn't.


Optimism is a powerful force. When I went to journalism school, it was with the specific goal of becoming a freelance magazine journalist. During my time there, many faculty members said "freelancing is really tough. You'll never make it if you don't take an entry-level position, work your way up in the field, develop your network, and THEN become a freelancer."

My internal response was always "there's something they know that I don't know, which is how difficult it is to freelance. But there is something I know that they don't know, which is how badly I want it, and how determined I am." I was pretty successful at freelancing for many years, until I wasn't.

I never set a goal of going to Moscow, but when the chance came unexpectedly, I jumped at it. I work for The Jewish Agency for Israel, as a marketing writer, and therefore often write materials (mostly donor-relations materials) for our Unit for Russian-Speaking Jewry. I recently wrote a material urging Jewish groups to go on  organized visits to our activities in Moscow, and so I knew something both about the tourist attractions there and the activities of the Jewish community. It never occurred to me to go myself; if I were going to spend money on an "exotic" vacation, there are other destinations I'd rather see first.

But El Al, the national airline of Israel, had a "Fun Day" about 2 months ago, during which, for 24 hours, the prices to select (not-popular-in-winter) destinations were rock bottom. For $200 I could go round-trip to Moscow, St. Petersburg, or Valencia.

Valencia would be more relaxing, but I have no connections there and have never been specifically interested in seeing Spain. But in Russia I could see these programs I write about all the time; I have colleagues at our Jewish Agency offices in Moscow (and St. Petersburg) who could help me if something went really wrong (an important point, since I speak neither Russian nor Spanish; in Russia I wouldn't feel as alone); and most importantly, I was sincerely and deeply curious to see Jewish life in the former Soviet Union.

Having grown up in the USA in the 1980's, the idea of being able to witness, with my own eyes, children studying in Jewish day schools in Moscow was very, very compelling, even if it is the middle of a Russian winter; in the summer I could never afford it.

Everyone said I'm crazy. The weather is terrible, and anyway who goes to Moscow on VACATION? There was something they knew that I didn't, which is how ugly and cold and not-vacation-like Moscow is. But there was something I knew that they didn't, which is how deeply connected I feel, for some reason, to my Russian-speaking colleagues and to Russian-Israelis, how cool I, personally, felt it would be to interact with the Jewish community of Moscow, and to see the Kremlin and Red Square. For $200, it was within reach now.

So I booked the ticket.

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