Kiev (Kyiv), Ukraine
Just as a heads up, I thoroughly enjoyed my three day stopover in the Ukraine and would go back! As another heads up, I did not realize that the Ukraine is currently in a physical war with Russia on Ukrainian soil, and that Ukraine also had a pretty crazy civil war in 2014, which wasn’t too long ago. Now we can begin 🙂
I flew Ukraine International Airline and loved it – staff was great, two free checked bags (I flew with one carry-on only regardless), and Kosher food on the flight. I was seated between two really cool people – one was the mother of current WNBA + NFL players, and the other is an almost NBA star who happened to also be Jewish. They were ridiculously tall so their knees were in me the whole time, but I loved every minute of it. The future NBA star showed me on the flight map how Uman is about a two hour drive from the war field, and also let me know that an Uber driver might leave me on the side of the road and ask me for more money to continue a ride from the airport. On that note, him and his uncle drove me to my AirBnb and we had a mini Chanukah party to celebrate the first night.
After vegging for a bit and watching the Menorah, I walked on over to the National Circus of the Ukraine and bought the best seat in the house (indoor circus). Pro tip – best seat in the house is you basically being IN the circus, and you don’t necessarily get to experience the full effect of the show, but it was also $20 so yolo. Walking back to my AirBNB I got to walk through many winter markets in Sofiyivska Square that were beautiful and had lots of fun activities, and I also heard some awesome music coming from nearby… didn’t realize I was staying so close to the People’s Friendship Arch, which had lots of fun activities as well, such as snowball fights and free live concerts! There’s a clear bridge leading up to the arch with beautiful views of the city, but in the winter, the clear glass was fogged up. Side point – the arch was built to celebrate communist Russia, so many people want this arch torn down with Kiev’s push towards decommunization, and even made a temporary crack in the arch in 2018.
Day #2 – Started with a quick walk to Independence Square, which used to be an area of noble buildings, fun, and rallies. Since the killing of many Ukrainian civilians in this square during the Euromaidan in 2014, fun activities have been moved to Sofiyivska Square (where there is a wall many blocks long with faces of all civilians killed and injured during Euromaidan riots), and it is mainly a commuter hub area now. In 2001 they added the Independence Monument (to celebrate Ukraine’s independence), as well as the Lach Gates (to represent a Polish medieval gate).
(I did a little walking from there to see some Jewish sites and architecture. It was raining when I was walking so I didn’t see as much as I had wanted, but this is a great link to see some important Jewish sites.) First stop was the Golden Gate (passed by Prybutkovyy Budynok Sirotkina first), which is another controversial Soviet Russia reconstruction of a medieval gate that might not look anything like the original. There used to be three main gates into the walled city of ancient Kiev 1) Southern (Golden Gate) 2) Polish (Ladski, now reconstructed as Lach) and 3) Jewish (Zhydivski… literally why is everyone so obsessed with us). Nearby is the House of Baron Steingel, which apparently has a ton of history that is mysterious and unknown. By far the coolest thing I discovered was Karaite Kenesa, essentially a shul that Karaim built (people that follow Judaism exclusively according to the Old Testament and quite literally… think and eye for an eye). It now houses the Ukrainian House of Actors, but there apparently has been a pretty prominent community in Kiev since the 1200’s. National Opera House was nearby and hosts many ballets, concerts and operas. Honestly Kiev is the place to get super cultured with almost no money down if you’re into that type of stuff.
I feel like all these explanations are getting boring, so here were the next stops… Bessarabsky Market -> Golda Meir’s House -> Brodsky Synagogue (which is now the Chabad, and also has a kosher market attached on the side). Behind the Brodsky Synagogue is Mendi’s Kosher Restaurant, which was my absolute favorite food in Kiev – the prices were great, cute environment, and had more cultural food available. I ordered the lamb dumplings and low-key I would fly back to Kiev just to have them again. The statue of Sholem Aleichem is across the street from the synagogue as well (his writings inspired Fiddler on the Roof), and had been vandalized with a swastika days before my visit.
I couldn’t leave Kiev without going to the Microminiatures Museum, which is a museum filled with microscopic art that can only be seen via telescope. Because the pieces are so tiny, it’s just one room and doesn’t take a long time to view, but such a cool concept. As a heads up, you first have to pay an entrance fee to the land it’s on, which is church land it seems, and then pay another cash fee to get into the museum (altogether this was less than $5). I Ubered there because it’s a little far out, and also Uber rides are pennies here. On the way out, I got to meet the artist who is often at the museum, and made a new friend from Greece, and we traveled the rest of the day together talking politics and life which was fun. Also nice to have a built in photographer around 🙂 The Motherland Monument is nearby – you can pay to climb to the top, but we weren’t down. We then Ubered to the Podil synagogue, where I got to explain Jewish culture to my new bud, and buy fresh apple sufganiyot in the market downstairs (Podil synagogue has lots of kosher eateries attached to it, including a pizza store and a nice fleishig restaurant called Taki Da). Walked to Andriviskyy Descent, which is a beautiful historic part of Kiev, which they consider the Montmarte of Kiev, and got a great view of the city from what we thought was Castle Hill, but was actually probably the outside of St. Andrew’s Church.
Split ways with my new Greek friend to light for day two of Chanukah (because it’s kindav ironic to be spending Chanukah with yevonim), and then headed to the National Philharmonic of Ukraine. From the Philharmonic I ran to the restaurant Taki Da, where I ordered a burger to stay and one to go for my long road trip the next day.
Day #3 – Couldn’t have done this day without the best driver in the world, Alex. Not only was he a great driver and super responsible (and saved me from missing my flight), he also speaks a perfect English and was such a mentsch. I can’t imagine not having had him as my driver (Whatsapp +380 50 462 7682)! He also does day trips from long layovers in Kiev from the airport if that’s more your jam, such as heading to Uman for the day. We started at Babi Yar, which is the site where over 33,000 Jews were murdered within two days. It used to be the site of one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe, but almost every kever was destroyed by the Nazi’s, and a radio television tower was put there instead (in Kiev they call this building the pencil). It is also where the Malbim is buried when he was travelling through Kiev and passed away on Rosh Hashana (they founded this kever only about a year ago, in 2019).
We then drove a few hours to the kever of R’ Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, and then a few more hours to the Baal Shem Tov (and his bais medresh, where I davened mincha). We were going to also visit the Baal Shem Tov’s springs, but there was crazy traffic building up and I could have missed my flight (Alex literally parked his car right outside Kiev, and took me on public transport for an hour, and then had a getaway car to drive us the rest of the way. Like I said, he’s the literal best and I could never thank him enough! Also, wearing a backpack with a giant Torah on my back while on public trans was such a boss move that I didn’t choose.)
I chose the Baal Shem Tov over visiting Uman for a few reasons 1) there’s a physical war with Russia happening right now just a mere two hour drive away from Uman 2) I had time to take the very long journey to the Besht and co. (like four hours each way vs. the two hours to Uman) 3) there are actual highways and roads the whole was to the Besht 4) I understand the works of the Besht better than R’ Nachman.