'For the Bulgarians, There’s No Difference Between a Jew and an Israeli'

Last week at the Tel Aviv airport: What it's like to teach non-Jews attending a Jewish school in Bulgaria, and what's the point of taking part in a dog show?

From left, Einav Haviv-Asa, Zhuro Katsarov, Ronit Finkelstein Hazan, Flaman Stasrov, and Perslava Michailova.
תומר אפלבאום

From left, Einav Haviv-Asa, 42, lives in Tel Aviv; Zhuro Katsarov, 15, Ronit Finkelstein Hazan, 46, Flaman Stasrov, 15, Perslava Michailova, 16 – all of whom live in Sofia, Bulgaria, and are arriving from there

Einav: Wow, we didn’t believe we’d see them after all the [health] directives [concerning the coronavirus, earlier this month]. A lot of delegations were canceled, but the mayor of Kiryat Ono insisted, and it’s happening.

What’s happening?

Einav: This group of students from Sofia has come. I am in charge of exchange projects in a Kiryat Ono middle school. Two years ago we did something in Germany, which was a great success. Afterward we wanted to do something with a Jewish school in Europe. It didn’t work out, until we were contacted by ORT Sofia [a Jewish global educational network].

So who’s here?

Einav: Students who are 15 or 16. In May our students are supposed to visit them. They have already corresponded a little, in Hebrew, and now they are going to meet.

What’s your job?

Ronit: I teach Hebrew. I met my husband in Israel 20 years ago – he’s Bulgarian. We met when we were both working at the Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv. He wanted to go back, and I went with him. I have a Bulgarian teaching certificate, and have taught Hebrew at a high school for 15 years.

Do you speak Bulgarian?

I learned it from my students, it wasn’t easy. My husband and my 15-year-old twins are there, so today you could say that I speak the language pretty well.

How’s life in Bulgaria?

Comfortable and calm. You don’t have to work like crazy to live well. There’s no stress about going to after-school enrichment groups and day camps and working around the clock. It’s all easygoing, no pressure.

What’s it like teaching Jews in Bulgaria?

Lots of fun. By the way, they’re not Jews.

Not Jews?!

Right. It’s a Jewish school, but actually only a third of the students are Jewish. As it happens, the ones in the delegation are not Jewish. It’s enjoyable to be teaching non-Jews – so they will love Israel.

Do you teach them about Israeli culture?

Sure. I teach them about Friday evenings, the meals and the Kiddush. They don’t really know about Shabbat there, where the weekend is Saturday-Sunday, and Friday is a regular working day.

Well, they’re not Jews, why should they know?

It’s an experience that’s worth getting to know. They chose this school because it’s good, and they know that Hebrew and learning about Israel go along with it. For the Bulgarians, there’s no difference between a Jew and an Israeli, both are ebre – meaning a Hebrew. I explain the difference.

How do you do that?

I try to explain that all the texts and other things in Hebrew until 1948 were Jewish, but since then it’s Israeli. I also tell them about Israeli Arabs.

What’s it like to learn Hebrew?

Perslava: I can understand most of what I hear, but I can’t speak it – that’s too hard. I hope that within two years I’ll be able to do that, too. It’s the only school in Bulgaria that teaches Hebrew, so it’s pretty cool. We learned the alphabet in the first and second grades, and then go on to sentences and texts.

What will you do in Israel?

Zhuro: We’ll visit Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, we’ll study a little at their school, and we’ll have a good time. We came for five days.

Flaman: We’ll go to an amusement park, go bowling and shop in a mall.

Perslava: We were already here once, last August and really enjoyed it. I liked the Western Wall, you feel the holiness there.

Zhuro: I liked the caves in the City of David best.

What was your impression of people your age?

Zhuro: We met 17- and 18-year-olds, and they were nice, but a bit childish, like 15-year-olds from Sofia.

Where will you live when you grow up?

Perslava: In America or in Israel, because there are more opportunities. At the moment, I want to be an actress, but you also need a profession.

Flaman: We want to travel a lot, and Israel is a good start.

Svetlana Berdichevsky, Michelle Goldner and Koka.
Tomer Appelbaum

Svetlana Berdichevsky, 59, lives in Jerusalem, Michelle Goldner, 15, lives in Be’er Sheva, and Koka, 5, lives in Jerusalem; all are flying to Birmingham, England

What awaits you in Birmingham?

Svetlana: The world’s biggest competition for dogs, called Crufts, where more than 20,000 pedigrees take part. Just being there is a matter of great pride. [This conversation took part before the coronavirus travel restrictions were in place.] I own Koka, and Michelle is her handler in the competition. We’ve been together at shows for two-and-a-half years.

Handler?

Michelle: I show the dog to the judges.

What do the judges check for?

For each breed there is a standard set of criteria, explaining how the dog is supposed to look, down to the level of the smallest bone in its leg. The handler’s task is to get the dog to run a certain way and stand in a certain pose, to show the judges its anatomy. Dogs need to be trained for that, for walking and standing well; that’s why they have us. The competition is actually about which dog most closely meets the perfect standard for its breed.

Which perfection is Koka aspiring to?

Svetlana: She’s a Scottish Terrier. They are hunting dogs above all, but are often used to catch rats. Look at her build: very short legs, very powerful teeth and a long nose. She can crawl into the burrows of rats and catch them, and then the dog’s owner pulls her out by the tail with the rat.

Even today?

Svetlana: No, of course not. Today they are “decorative” dogs, but they have had the same build since about the 1870s in Scotland.

How did you get involved in dog shows?

Svetlana: I bought Koka from a breeder in Eilat five years ago. I didn’t know about the shows. I’m a family doctor and a geriatrician, I had no connection with anything like that. I was told she has great potential and that it would be worth showing her – and the truth is that she is a multi-championship dog and is very, very famous. Since then we’ve been flying all over the world.

Michelle: For me it all began when my mother bought a pedigreed Saluki. That was the first time I encountered the world of dog shows: We started to show her and I began to go to her training sessions, which really interested me. I started out at a special competition of the Israel Kennel Club, where kids up to the age of 18 are judged for the way they connect with the dog and how they show it. I started to learn more and to visit trainers and workshops. At first I showed dogs I owned and later dogs that weren’t mine. It became a hobby that today is most of my life. Now I am trying to learn about more types of canine sports, beyond shows. Just now I’m learning about agility training, which involves getting dogs to run and do hurdles on tracks, and I hope to continue and turn that into a profession.

How did you meet?

Michelle: Before a show in Cyprus, two and a half years ago. That’s where I first showed her dog. I understood what a Scottish Terrier is, and we kept training and working hard. We have been to Germany, Croatia and China.

Does Svetlana take you to every competition?

Michelle: No. She goes every month, and occasionally takes me.

What do you get out of going to these competitions?

Svetlana: Not too much. Now we’re on the way to the most prestigious show, so there are prizes, but usually there aren’t any.

Michelle: The thing is that there isn’t much chance of being in the top places when there are 20,000 dogs involved.

What is there, then?

Svetlana: Personal satisfaction, Israeli pride. There are 11 Israeli dogs taking part, and you have to remember that they need to be at a very high level to get into this competition.

Michelle: It’s mostly for the fun of it.

Svetlana: Raising pedigreed animals is an art. A breeder hopes to produce one that is beautiful, healthy and has a good character, and that takes a great deal of time, it’s crazy work. They have to look at the dogs and choose the perfect mother and father with the traits they want, after observing them for a long time. It takes great expertise. People at shows tell us: We’ve heard about the Israeli dogs all over the world.