The last time I had varenyky was in late June, at the curiously-named Cafe Restaurant Volna, in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, a neighborhood often referred to as “Little Odessa by the Sea.”
Cafe Volna, to be sure, is not known for its varenyky. There, the crescent-shaped dumplings aren’t made so much as they are assembled — wanton wrappers pinched closed over teaspoons of gelatinous cherry jam or bland farmer cheese. But bad varenyky are better than no varenyky. And besides, I was on a mission to introduce the dish to my friends, three varenyky virgins.
I have no Ukrainian heritage, nor have I ever made a successful batch of varenyky. But the dumplings have played a major role in my Jewish coming-of-age. I talk about my first brush with varenyky the way others share anecdotes about their bar and bat mitzvahs. It was a time of embarrassing missteps, but ultimately it led me to become the adult I am today.
The scene was Kharkov, Ukraine, 2004. A group of 20 early-20-somethings and I had recently arrived in the city after spending a month in Honduras digging a trench for a water pipe in a small, rural village. We were participants in a now-defunct volunteer summer program that was run by American Jewish World Service and involved a month in the developing world, followed by three weeks in a “Jewish” area. Perhaps the trip was meant to be a two-for-one deal for Jewish identity formation: Honduras would inculcate us with a Jewish social justice mission, and then Ukraine would remind us of Jewish suffering.
In Honduras, we rose with the sun and spent the day shoveling a trench that would carry water to the town, Las Delicias, from a distant reservoir. Even though our trip leaders made it clear that it would have been more effective to send the money we paid to go on the trip to local nongovernmental organizations — a brand of institutional self-criticism I found exhilarating — at the end of the month I still felt that we made a small difference in the lives of a handful of Hondurans.
In Ukraine, by comparison, it was unclear whom, if anyone, we were helping. Our crew — which included another 20 participants who had spent the previous four weeks building a school in Ghana — was tasked with cleaning up the Jewish section of a cemetery in Kharkov, a city whose Jews had mostly fled or were killed during the Holocaust. Day after day we sawed overgrown branches, picked up hypodermic needles and shoveled bunches of coagulated leaves. Soon, we grew bored and restless with the project. My friends and I often wandered out of the cemetery to take lengthy “bathroom breaks” in the nearby mall. We started up romances with our fellow participants. We gossiped.
Adding to the trip’s social turmoil was our relationship with our hosts, a group of Ukrainian Hillel students. Many of them had learned of their Jewish roots in only the past few years. It was no wonder that their grandparents and parents had hidden the fact of their Jewishness from them, given the preponderance of spray-painted swastikas on Kharkov’s streets.
Tipped off by a yarmulke found buried in a drawer, or a siddur glimpsed on a closet’s high shelf, the students began to explore their faith. But the Hillel kids’ Judaism looked nothing like mine. On our first night in Ukraine they gave us an ABBA-like song and dance performance, belting out traditional Jewish songs to a Europop soundscape. Jet-lagged and missing Honduras, I felt like laughing and crying at once. How was I supposed to relate to these people?