The Estonian Society of Los Angeles is proud to present the winning essays of “The Importance of Community” contest for Middle and High School students
by Miina Anvelt
Growing up as an Estonian-American initially separated my communal identity into two. There was the Estonian version of me: someone who went swimming in Soomaa (bogland) lakes, attended midnight concerts with Estonian folk singers, sang as an alto in an Estonian choir, braided flowers in my hair for midsummer’s night, and biked to a neighbor’s house to buy fresh farm eggs. Then there was the American version of me: someone who enjoyed reading science fiction, watching Netflix with friends, learning Spanish in school, and participating in Robotics. At the beginning of high school, I struggled to see how the two different communities could be combined when they seemed to make up separate parts of my identity. Junior year summer changed this. It was the Arvamusfestival (Opinion Festival) in Paide that brought me a new perspective.
The Arvamusfestival brings the community together to discuss opinions, listen to traditional Estonian folk concerts, and share topics ranging from science to popular media. The streets of Paide had come alive: lightbulbs hung across houses, people bought snacks like pancakes or toasted garlic bread from food trucks, and cute lounge spaces filled the town center. In front of the town’s central church, small handcraft booths surrounded a stage and open area for standing. They were selling items such as traditional woolen clothes or blacksmith trinkets. People could buy the woolen socks necessary to last through the cold dark Scandinavian winter months and the blacksmith work representing ancestral tradesman origins. From booth to booth, people were mingling their way around. Witnessing all of this during a post-COVID time, where it had been three years since I last saw these types of events, was magical. Life was going on, and people looked happy to be at the event again.
As we walked around, a wooden booth set up next to the stage, filled with books, captured my attention. “Books?” I thought to myself. I hadn’t ever seen anything like that in the US, which led to my initial intrigue. Most surprising was that people of all ages were sitting around the booth and reading. So I went closer and noticed the signs: “Jäta raamat ja lahku raamatuga [Leave a book and leave with a book].” It was not an understatement to say that this booth was filled entirely with books – in shelves from the floor to the ceiling and extra tables set up. People were excited to share the books they had cherished with new people, spontaneously forming a new community of book lovers. After a bit of searching, a book about folk songs and a book on calculus enraptured me. Both were written in Estonian, but I was interested in the challenge of reading through them to get a better insight into the language and culture.
The folk song book fascinated me because I have been part of the Baltimore-Washington Estonian Mixed Choir since middle school and participated in the past two Song Festivals in Estonia. During song festivals, around 30,000 choir singers gather on a stage to sing traditional folk songs, newly composed songs, and songs of hope for a continued independence in Estonia. It is one of the most unique experiences to be on the huge stage, sometimes teary-eyed, and feeling connected to the people. In choir, I gain confidence in singing when surrounded by different harmonizing voices unifying. My favorite memory is from the 2019 Estonian Song Festival when singing, “Ta lendab mesipuu poole” – a song about freedom – the crowd turned on their flashlights and sang along. The moment was indescribably beautiful. Reading the book about folk songs gave me a new perspective on the Estonian communities’ relation to folk songs from renowned composers such as Alo Mattiisen and Arvo Pärt. The modernly composed songs have allowed the traditional values of the Estonian community to continue being cherished. Singing traditional songs makes me a part of the community carrying on these Estonian traditions.
While my sister and I continued to browse books at the Arvamusfestival, we noticed “Tantsulaager” flashing on the stage screen. Three dancers enthusiastically took the stage, encouraging the crowd to follow their moves. Some people confidently went in front and began dancing along. I was hesitant at first: should we join them? People were enjoying themselves, laughing as they threw their hands up and down and twirled around to classics like “I Will Survive” and “Kauges külas.” So my sister and I joined in smiling, sliding, and vibing to the hit songs. The next hour passed like a second under the starry night sky, surrounded by people unified in their dance. My favorite part was when Kaerajaan began playing, and the crowd linked arms, creating a chain. I clasped the hand of strangers next to me, and we skipped along, moving slower, then faster as people kept joining. It felt like harmony. I was part of a community, savoring the moment and dancing to the Estonian folk song. Community can be found everywhere, from people harmonizing in a choir to joining together in spontaneous dance. Other parts of the community are built from its history and traditions, like the Estonian traditional folk songs and dances that are carried on by the people globally. We are interconnected by our ancestral roots and the actions we take to remember the culture. Most of all, the people in a community define the community. My identity as an Estonian-American means the two communities provide me with new perspectives and values. The Estonian community has shaped my identity to be appreciative of diverse cultures and languages, strong like my ancestors, and joyful like my choir. My American community taught me to share my knowledge, appreciate time with friends, and be adaptable to new situations. Both communities motivate me to follow my dreams, following the American dream and embodying the resilience of the Estonian people along the way.