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Local Color: 'My dad's in Odesa, my brother's in Donetsk'


Photo: Uri in the weight room, maybe listening to breaking news reports from his war-torn birthland, or calming music. Or both.

 

Reporter's notebook: I'm a regular attendee of a gym at the nearby city of Carmiel, here in northern Israel, and FSU olim (immigrants) make up a significant part of the culture and tone of the more than 46,000 residents of the planned city, established in 1964.

There's enough of them, in fact - from across Ukraine, Russia, and the once-satellite states - to have set up and run a fascinating Jewish-Russian military museum in an apartment block ground-floor storefront shopping strip. I visited the center a few years back and hope to get back there soon for a more in-depth report on reactions to the fighting by both Russian and Ukrainian locals. Full disclosure: one of my daughters, Shayna, was recently engaged to her Russian-born boyfriend, Dima, after a five-year courtship. Yes - thank you so much - I was happily stunned, too. Dima and his brother made aliya (immigration) to Israel over a decade ago, and were joined last year by his parents (a sister remains in Russia) - all of whom hail from - are you sitting down? The Kamchatka Peninsula. Yes, the one from "Risk" and other board games when they need an exotic place as far away as possible from what we'd like to presume is the Western world.

But they're here and building new lives, and now, back to our story: many hundreds of FSU Carmiel residents also regularly attend the city's well-appointed municipal pool and gym complex, and several of the coaches and staffers are native Russian speakers.

One of them, an energetic, well-toned trainer who I'll call "Tatiana," for her family's safety, hails from Odesa and spoke with me the day before and a day after Russia's brutal invasion.

"I've been up since 0400," the 20-something woman told me the day the invasion began, and her physically and mentally exhausted manner made me wonder how she even had the internal fortitude to come into work.

Q: Have you been in contact with your dad and brother?

A: "We try to be in contact every two hours, but his data plan is running out - there's no internet since the Russians cut everything with cyberattacks," she said, with red-rimmed, watery eyes.

Meanwhile, in Odesa, "my dad's trying to go west, but says the border is blocked," and - despite the Israeli government's expansive, frantic attempts to secure a land bridge for local Jewish residents and an estimated 8,000 Israeli passport holders - the situation looks grim.

I shot two brief video clips 48-hours apart from my perch on the elliptical trainer overlooking the Olympic-sized indoor pool, and they show the effect the distant fighting is close to home having on what I have come to affectionately call "the Babushka Brigade," seemingly made up of primarily older FSU women doing their daily pool noodles and weights exercises with their Russian coach.

Coach and the water workout brigade, 24-hours before the Russian invasion of Ukraine (photo intentionally blurred to protect identities)

On Friday, however - normally the busiest day of the week - there was no coach and no one to follow along.

I'd wanted to post the clips here, but - out of respect to the folks appearing in them - opted to let you use your imagination, instead. Back in the guys' locker room, however, loud, Slavic contentions about the war and its ramifications - usually followed by laughter or grunts of approval - echoed off the white tiles walls as the showers hissed in the background. Over by the lockers where I dressed, one big, barrel-chested Ukrainian who looked like he could rip a phone book in half, barreled into the lockers where I stood. He carried on, animatedly, about the war to anyone who'd listen, until I finally shook my head in incomprehension. Trying to be helpful to the confused Amerikanski, he suddenly spat out the name, "Putin?!?" in derision and made a sudden slashing motion with his finger across his throat, which was encircled by a delicate chain threaded with a tiny gold Jewish star. I hurriedly nodded in comprehension and quickly edged out of his way so he could get to his locker, non-violently.

Back in the gym weight room - 24-hours prior to the Russian army onslaught - I chatted with my workout buddy, Uri, a lanky and ridiculously fit 60-something regular on the pulley machines and free weights, and an immigrant from Russia's Kazakhstan region; he's been here in Israel about a decade and his Hebrew still lags behind his hardcore workout schedule.

When I asked him what he expected to happen, though, he laughed easily and assured me that "nothing will happen," adding that, "we're all Russians," because the Soviet Union, over the decades, could and did move populations en masse in order to fulfill planning quotas and quash separatist dissent.

Forty-eight hours later, however, I found him, sitting on the black padded seat of a bench press, quietly looking off into the distance, and wondering about the fate of his family remaining in his homeland. His brother is still there, and his concern is palpable. A day later, he was back in good form, though; "I went fishing for a day in the Golan," he noted with a grin, bragging about his rod and tackle, and that he caught some carp. While we were chatting, one of the other native Israeli gymratti ambled over and asked him who he was supporting back in the "old country." "I don't want Putin. I don't want Zelensky," he declared with a brief, dismissive motion, concluding, "I want here," and returned to pumping iron.

(Photo: Uri in the weight room - shot on a Galaxy #s20ultra and edited in #LightroomMobile; below: elderly Russian war hero shuffling through Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda open-air market, seemingly weighed down by his battle ribbons - shot on my first dslr, a Fuji, and edited in #Lightroom).


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