Russian Jewish Culture

The first lesson I am taught in this country is the unique quality of Russian Jewish mathematics. For example, if a community has 15,000 Jews, I am told, and 20,000 emigrate, there can be 10,000 remaining.That’s because, according to Yossi Rabin, who runs the local office of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), provider of social and educational services to Jews in need around the world, Jewish numbers – like life here – can be fluid and situational rather than absolute, raising issues like who is a Jew and what it takes for someone to declare himself to be Jewish.

Ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a few weeks after Israel welcomed its one millionth emigrant from the former Soviet Union (FSU), many American Jews consider the chapter of Soviet Jewish rescue miraculous, but essentially closed. After all, the gates of oppression have been opened wide, those Jews who want to come to Israel may do so, and, according to conventional wisdom, those who remain behind are elderly or infirm and have chosen to stay.

But a first-time visitor to Russia, having spent three days in Moscow and four in St. Petersburg, learns that the situation is more complex. About 800,000 to 1 million Jews remain in Russia, at least half of them in the two largest cities, and though emigration continues on a steady if undramatic level – 30,000 to Israel last year – the estimated Jewish population in these two cities remains fairly constant as emigrants are replaced by other Jews who move here from more rural areas of the FSU.

Jewish life is active, even as worries over the direction of President Vladimir Putin’s new government continue. Anti-Semitism is a constant concern, and though it is prohibited officially, Jews often experience prejudice at home or at work. They worried last week, for example, when a government-owned television channel broadcast a program on Jewish media mogul Vladimir Goussinsky, accusing him of working secretly for Israel.

Still, the Choral Synagogue, more than a century old and the second largest synagogue in Europe, is undergoing extensive renovations, St. Petersburg’s first kosher restaurant is scheduled to open this month – Moscow’s first kosher restaurant just opened – and communally sponsored “warm houses,” apartments where elderly Jews can meet and socialize several times a week, are increasing.

For all the grand tourist sites of the Kremlin in Moscow and the Hermitage and numerous splendid, if slightly crumbling, czarist-era palaces in St. Petersburg, the most memorable aspects of the trip for me were meetings with Russian Jews struggling to deepen new-found ties to their religious tradition.I visited one of about 25 “warm houses,” a fourth-floor walk-up where about a dozen mostly elderly Jews crowded around a festively prepared dining room table. Warm and friendly, they gave mixed reviews to perestroika, which brought political and economic freedom after seven decades of Communist rule. The men and women agree as one that perestroika has made life infinitely more difficult for them financially. But in the next breath, they say they enjoy their new freedom, particularly the opportunity to get together and learn about Jewish traditions and history.

“We can be proud to be Jewish now,” one woman explains. “Before,” says a man across the table, laden with cheese, beets and fruit, “Jews were second-rate, and we tried to live unnoticed. We knew nothing about our religion, and we didn’t know each other. But now we are like family. We get together for the Jewish holidays, to hear lectures, to know more about Judaism.”

They sing several Yiddish songs for their visitors, speak with pride of relatives in Israel, and say their greatest dream is to see the Jewish state.

The “warm houses” are part of the work of Chesed Avraham, a local social service group the JDC helped create in 1993. Chesed boasts some 900 volunteers and offers an impressively wide range of programs for children and adults, with a main center providing meals, medical aid and social programs each day.One small Jewish Agency program, called Na’aleh, brings two dozen or so qualified Russian teenagers to Israel each fall for three years of high school. In 95 percent of the cases, officials say, the parents follow their youngsters to settle in Israel. One evening I meet Vladimir and Alla Erenberg in their small apartment here, and they proudly show me photos of their son, Ilya, 15, who is completing his first year of high school on a kibbutz in Israel. They miss him, of course, but say they are studying Hebrew and preparing to emigrate, along with Alla’s mother, Rya Shalmon, who lives with them.

Ilya will be eligible for the Israeli army when he is 18, but Vladimir says he is glad his son will not be going to the Russian army. A computer programmer, as is his wife, Vladimir says he knows jobs will be difficult to find in Israel, but his goal is to unite the family there.

It is families like the Erenbergs and the elderly Jews of the “warm house” who remind me that the saga of Jewish life in Russia continues, even as the debate goes on about whether it is best to sustain the community or encourage it to leave for safer havens. The second lesson I learn, then, is no longer to measure Russian Jewry by numbers or statistics but rather by those individuals who struggle each day with difficult choices – like where and how to live new Jewish lives – and for whom anti-Semitism and Israel weigh constantly on their minds and hearts.