Any endeavor should have a “gesheft”: A conversation about Yevbaz with Maryna Hrymych, pt. 1

A conversation with the writer and Doctor of Historical Sciences Maryna Hrymych. We talked about the Jewish Bazaar, a well-known area in Kyiv depicted in her novels.

Iryna Slavinska: What is Yevbaz?

Maryna Hrymych: Yevbaz is the historic name of a small residential district in Kyiv situated around a key Kyivan bazaar that was popularly known as the Jewish Bazaar, hence Yevbaz.

The name indicates that we are talking about an area that was compactly settled by Jews. The bazaar existed roughly from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century and was located on Halytska Ploshcha. Considering that at one time names were given to municipal squares or large thoroughfares according to geographic direction, it is not difficult to guess that we are talking about the part of Kyiv that was used by people arriving in the city above all from western Ukraine, where the Jewish population was once the largest in Europe; it seems to have been bigger only in Romania. It is thought that Yevbaz was historically connected with Galicia, not as a bazaar but as a small district compactly settled by the Jewish community. Today the former Halytska Square is called Ploshcha Peremohy (Victory Square), the start of the major urban thoroughfare called Prospekt Peremohy, which turns into Brest-Litovsky Prospekt; these names also indicate the western geographic direction.

Radiating from Ploshcha Peremohy are the small side streets Bulvarno-Kudriavska, Dmytrivska, and Zolotoustivska, which we associate with the historic locale known as Yevbaz.

For at least half a century Halytska Ploshcha was a kind of hub, a meeting point between the city and countryside, which exchanged goods, products, and services, with all the necessary ethnographic accoutrements: carts, horses, wagon trains, hurdy-gurdy players (lirnyky), a church, raucous female hawkers, beggars, baskets with vegetables and mushrooms, stalls filled with goods, kerchiefs, thread, crammed in among which were middle-class luxury items that were eagerly purchased by well-to-do peasants, like, for example, cuckoo clocks. But the city slowly expanded, and the agricultural segment of Yevbaz markedly shrank, supplanted ever more clearly by trade specializations, so to speak. The first was a set of services, to use modern parlance; in other words, the provision of various services, from sharpening knives, straightening nails, repairing kerosene stoves, shining shoes, and selling street food, which, incidentally, was incredibly tasty, according to eyewitness reports: savory pies, cutlets, and meatballs, hot pea soup or borshch, and buns.

Yevbaz’s second specialization was the trade in clothing and various types of bourgeois junk (in Yevbaz-speak: barakhlo and motlokh). In Soviet times such bazaars were called tovkuchky [meaning, a place where people jostle each other—Trans.] and barakholky (junk kiosks).

After the stalls and the church were closed down (this happened in the late 1940s), they were supplanted by thriving flea markets. After they were banned, a large section of the bazaar was moved into small thrift stores, workshops, and ateliers; into apartments and the courtyards of the residential district of Yevbaz, where semi-clandestine trading and the semi-legal sale of services flourished. All this still existed in my time.

Iryna Slavinska: Are contemporary Kyivites familiar with the toponym Yevbaz and what the Dmytrivska bathhouse was?

Maryna Hrymych: My childhood was spent at the Yevbaz, although my parents are not native Yevbazians. In 1962–1963 two well-known Khrushchevkas [apartment buildings constructed during the tenure of Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev—Ed.], in one of which I grew up, were built in the area, on Hlibov Street. As a matter of fact, from time to time I involuntarily include this locus in the plots of my novels, like Klavka, Yura, and Frida, the latter of which, admittedly, is about Berdychiv but written on the basis of my experiences in Yevbaz. Hlibov Street in Kyiv was the border between two and even three historic locales: Yevbaz, Soldatska Slobidka, and Lukianivka.

I will say straight away that when I was growing up in the Yevbaz, that is from 1960 to 1980, it was not called that yet. During my entire childhood, I heard this name only one time, from my girlfriend’s grandmother.

When Kyivites asked one another, “Where are you from?” meaning, from which district, people replied as a rule by naming their street or the main landmark of their district. Since our small Hlibov Street was a short and little-known road, we said that we live in the area of the Dmytrivska bathhouse), which was part of the Bath and Laundry Plant complex.

The return to common parlance of the historical names of the Kyivan locales and former settlements and farms that have become part of contemporary Kyiv began sometime in the early 2000s.

The Dmytrivska bathhouse, together with the hair salon attached to it, was a key building in Yevbaz, but not the main one. I see the ironic smile on your lips, but do not rush to criticize. In Soviet times—and not just during this period—when there was not even a hint of the Internet or social media sites, hair salons and bathhouses were important centers of mass communication. People also communicated at work, in lineups in front of stores, in communal apartments, and on benches in front of apartment buildings, but these were small information and communication stations, so to speak, while bathhouses and hair salons were hub stations of mass communication.

I didn’t go to the Dmytrivska bathhouse because we had our own bathroom, but the hair salon and everything that happened there are etched in my memory. In those days, apart from their professional skills, the hair salons, hairdressers, manicurists, and pedicurists of Yevbaz were distinguished by their amazing communication skills. They were simply priests and priestesses of mass communication and stars of folk journalistic art, proficient in all methods of collecting, processing, and issuing information. They manipulated it perfectly and made able use of emotional intellect. The hairdressers of Yevbaz were masters at selling not just news but also valuable information, contacts, and links. They knew dozens of telephone numbers and names by heart. In addition, hair salons were centers of clandestine trading; in other words, female hairdressers were often called speculators. They sold foreign-made items: clothing, footwear, perfume, watches, haberdashery goods. No wonder there was a rhyming saying, Shakher-makher-parikmakher (Hairdressers are shady); it was based on truth.

Meanwhile, I remember male hairdressers as being reserved, with a sense of self-dignity. Why do I know male hairdressers? Because in my childhood I had short hair, and in those days children’s hair was cut by men; naturally, in the men’s part of a hair salon. At least, that’s the way it was in Yevbaz. My first hairdresser was Uncle Yosia from the men’s section of the hair salon at the Dmytrivska bathhouse.

For a long time, I could not figure out why I have such a good memory of my short-lasting visits to the hair salon until I realized one simple thing: those visits were actually not that brief. The thing is that in those days no appointments were made. I had to wait for my turn with a bunch of people, and since Yevbaz was the center of common law, the custom of granting privileges to “our own people,” who were always served first, was permanently in force here. I would pout when someone was taken before me, but I couldn’t do anything about it; it was the custom. Years ago you couldn’t stare at a gadget or a television. So you flip through some women’s magazines, you yawn. Then, with mouth agape, you listen to the hairdressers’ news. This was no ordinary chit-chat; it was a show, and you became part of the show as a viewer and listener. Clients talked about things that people share on their Facebook pages today:  Either they whine, or they construct their own image of their imagined “I.”

Iryna Slavinska: What is Yevbazian common law?

Maryna Hrymych: Yevbaz lived according to common law. This does not mean that Yevbazian customs were not encountered elsewhere. It is simply that the level of their concentration was considerably higher here, and its presence in everyday life was more intense.

Let’s try and examine the key customs.

First: Yevbazian common law was based on mediation to a greater extent than outside its boundaries. Blat, meaning acquaintance, actually, mediation for the purpose of carrying out some action, occupied first place here. Jews always knew how to support their own people. This was a way for them to survive in the Soviet world, which was quite unfriendly and hostile toward them.

For example, I was forbidden to talk about who my parents were at the hair salon. My mother taught at the university and was horribly afraid that a line of “clients” would show up at her house asking for help to get their children into the university.

Second: In Yevbaz, much, if not everything, was illegal or semi-legal.

The reference to “illegality” is clear. Here many services were provided by private tradesmen. Put yourself in the Soviet reality for a minute! Hats and coats were sewn in apartments; repairs were done in apartments. I remember handsome Uncle Felix, who did repairs for us. He would come over, change into his work clothing, put on a massive weightlifter’s belt to support his back when he lifted pails of paint, which, incidentally, he mixed himself, searching for the right shade; he would take hefty rulers, triangles, and protractors and begin his practically abstract creativity. I remember the living room after the renovations: It shone with some kind of fiery colors and geometrical figures on the walls painted in a gold shade.

As for the issue of illegality, it went something like this: You come to an atelier to get a dress sewn, you want to select the fabric, but the fabrics are so-so, as they say. At this point, the dressmaker offers you a piece of “gorgeous imported” fabric. In other words, it’s like you’re officially ordering a service, but at the same time you are giving the dressmaker a chance to earn money unofficially. Any endeavor should have a gesheft.

Third: Unofficial services offered to one’s own people were not monetized. There existed a system of exchange of services. “You help me, I help you.” Here anonymity was not appreciated—the kind that my parents taught me: to be quiet about my mother’s profession; that’s why we paid for everything. In Yevbaz people from the professions were valued: a doctor, butcher, trading associate, barmaid, passport clerk. But it was customary not to name the professions; a descriptive form was used. For example, people said, “Uncle Izia from the shoe factory”; “Lionia from the grocery store’s meat department”; Frida Borisovna (a real person, incidentally) from the [Ivan] Franko Theater, who will get you tickets for any show”; “Vladimir Lvovich Rubin will teach your son how to play the piano no worse than [Artur] Rubinstein (said this way, not “music teacher” or “piano teacher”). Incidentally, he was my first teacher; admittedly, he didn’t teach me to play the piano better than Rubinstein.

Now we come to the fourth point. This is the practice (and sometimes an entire art) of hyperbole and flattery, to put it mildly. I think that PR was invented by Jews. A key saying that I learned in childhood and which even my father, who was not prone to adopting the culture of his Jewish neighbors, liked to repeat: “Say the same thing!”

For those who did not get the meaning, I will recount a joke that is so old it’s got a beard:

— Doctor, I have a problem. My friend, Ziama, who like me, is way past seventy, says that he has great sex with his wife, Sara. I am really jealous. What should I do?

— Say the same thing!

We, gentiles, who lived alongside [Jews] sometimes suffered from the art of flattery, buying something that we would never need in a hundred years. But masterfully promoted, it was so attractive! Schooled from experience, right now I never buy anything straightaway. I have to sleep on it, then go back and buy it with a cool head.

To be more precise, a struggle of opposites existed in Yevbaz: boasting and poor-mouthing. It was like the law of communicating vessels, with one flowing unnoticed into another. Here is a famous story that became a Yevbazian legend, about a clandestine millionaire who lived in the vicinity of the sausage factory. In order to conceal his wealth, every month a week before payday he would borrow three or five karbovantsi.

Here is another special feature of everyday Yevbazian life: Yevbaz is the art of practicality.

It was not shameful to be poor; in those days, everyone was poor. What was shameful was to be impractical. In Yevbaz, being ballsy and thrifty was valued.

But it was not the practicality of big businessmen, those in power who used Soviet ministry canteens and had state dachas, and so on. It was a practicality of type: to make a bullet out of shit. It was this Yevbazian culture of practicality that the words “to carve out,” that meant to save, alter, resew. Like in Sholom Aleichem’s story “The Enchanted Tailor,”: to sew a kaftan from an old robe, trousers, or a waistcoat from a semi-kaftan, and on and on.

Iryna Slavinska: What was Yevbaz cuisine like?

Maryna Hrymych: Yevbazian behavioral models were preserved quite well during the Soviet period. They were on the surface, so to speak, unlike the material culture, which remained invisible to many.

Let’s look at Yevbazian cuisine. At first, I thought that I knew very little about it because my parents forbade me to eat at other people’s homes. The exception was birthdays. But on birthdays, regardless of the family’s ethnic origins, there was always a Soviet-style table laid with Olivier salads. I, who had grown up in Yevbaz, learned very late about esik fleisch (sweet and sour meat) and gefilte fish.

Why did this happen? It’s worth remembering that we lived among Soviet, secular Jews, who often tried not to emphasize their background and identity. Food and culinary traditions are the very things that foster ethnic identification.

I remember my kindergarten. The menu was tzimmes, a dish of sweet carrots with raisins that was served as a side dish to the main course; forshmak, shaped like a tablespoon, was served instead of cutlets with a side dish; sweet rice with raisins and apples was also served.

Although my mother was from the countryside, from her experience of socializing with her female neighbor, Anna Aronivna, in the communal apartment on Vorovsky Street (today: Bulvarno-Kudriavska Street), where we lived before Hlibov Street, she was taught that pullets are sold at the bazaar, not chicken. So pullets, not chicken, are cooked.

The cult of chicken broth required that the chicken be cooked whole. Once in a while my mother also stuffed a chicken neck with the giblets from a purchased chicken and rice or buckwheat, and seasoned with onions fried in chicken fat. She learned how to do this from her girlfriend, Tania Katz, who eventually moved to Israel with her husband, Roman, and daughter, Maryna. It’s not that my mother loved this food and knew how to prepare it well and not that the two of us loved to eat it. It was simply that the principle of thrift was manifested here: “So that nothing is wasted”; in this case, the chicken skin, gizzard, heart, and liver, which no one in our family liked eating on its own. That’s how it was done in Yevbaz.

I learned about wonderful Jewish strudel when I reached adulthood from my girlfriend, Olia Krekoten, who lived in a communal apartment on Observatorna Street. Their female neighbor would roll out practically transparent layers of dough. Olia’s father, the distinguished specialist in old Ukrainian literature Volodymyr Ivanovych Krekoten, loved to eat them.

What I remember (but not everything exactly) is a Jewish recipe from Frida Borysivna from the Franko Theater (the same person who got us good tickets). It is a recipe for a cough remedy. Melt chocolate, butter, and honey, mix them together, and add a spoon of cognac and the juice from a roasted radish with a hole in it for the honey. The recipe called for another ingredient, but I can’t remember it.

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization. 

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

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