New approach in effort to bring Russian-speaking U.S. Jews into the fold


When David Weinstein went to summer camp many years ago, the Jewish world was animated by the campaign to free Soviet Jewry.

In his younger days, Weinstein even visited the Soviet Union once to meet members of the Jewish community there. When he left them, he recalls, he thought he’d never see any of them again.

Today, Weinstein is the director of Camp Tel Yehudah, the national teen leadership camp of Young Judaea, in Barryville, N.Y., and his camp dining room is packed with the American children of some of those Russian Jews he met decades earlier.

But the Russian-speaking children, ages 14 to 18, aren’t regular campers at Tel Yehudah. They’re enrolled in Camp Havurah, a camp-within-a-camp at Tel Yehudah that caters to Jews from families from the former Soviet Union.

While Tel Yehudah’s pluralistic educational curriculum puts more focus on religion, Havurah puts more focus on Russian-American Jewish history and identity. Tel Yehudah campers pray every day, but Havurah campers discuss religion instead. Both tracks also focus on Zionism and tikkun olam, or repairing the world, but the Russian track has more structured educational programming than the American track.

“The reasons for a separate track are rational,” said Alona Stavans, educational director at Havurah. “There have been attempts to attract Russian kids to American camps, but they failed.”

The camp-within-a-camp program, now in its third year, is part of a relatively new approach: creating tracks within existing Jewish programming specifically for young people from Russian-speaking Jewish immigrant families in America. Even though most of the young people from these families by now are more fluent in English than in Russian, Jewish programmers have found that a cultural chasm still separates them from mainstream American Jews.

The idea is to build on the successes of existing Jewish programs by designing tracks specially tailored for these Jews, rather than creating new and untested programs for them.

“We want summer camp to be as important to the Russian-speaking Jewish community as it is to the larger American community,” Weinstein said.

This novel approach, which has taken hold over the last three or four years, marks a significant departure from the prevailing models for reaching out to Russian-speaking Jewish immigrant families: creating completely separate programs focused on teaching them about Judaism, or simply welcoming them into existing programs for American Jews.

Those approaches, say community officials, have not worked well. By and large, they say, Russian Jewish immigrants to this country lack a strong Jewish identity.

“We were Jews by culture, by affiliation, not by religion,” said Marina Belotserkovsky, senior director of Russian communications and community outreach at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Although Jews from post-Soviet immigrant families now make up an estimated 8 percent of the American Jewish population, according to Jewish demographer Ira Sheskin of the University of Miami, they are far less represented in Jewish programs and institutions.

“Today, we are losing a lot of Jewish identity. I’m looking at my friends and they’re losing it,” said Diane Kabakov, who emigrated from Ukraine in 1993. Her son Daniel is a camper at Havurah. “I would like him to keep his Jewish identity as much as possible,” she said.

Sophia Joseph, a 15-year-old camper at Havurah from New Jersey, immigrated to America from Georgia with her parents in 1999. When her parents sent her to Havurah to “get in touch with Jewish culture,” Sophia said, she was skeptical—“especially of the religious stuff.”

“But everything changed,” she said in an interview. “I love the community and have even come to enjoy prayer. My parents were right. They felt I didn’t appreciate my identity.”

Her mother, Anna Joseph, told JTA her daughter has a stronger Jewish identity now.

“We woke up in the last few years,” said Rabbi Jay Moses, director of the Wexner Heritage Program, a leadership-training institute that is creating a separate track for Jews from Russian immigrant families. “As a community, we did a great job trying to rescue and resettle immigrants in a short period of time. We took care of their immediate needs well, but we did a less impressive job securing the future of Jewish life as they came of age in America.”

The Wexner program has hired a consultant to fine-tune its curriculum for its pilot Russian cohort initiative, which will be taking applications next spring.

The Genesis Philanthropy Group, which promotes strengthening Jewish identity among Russian speakers, is one of the main foundations behind this new approach to Russian Jewish immigrants.

In association with Genesis, the PJ Library, which sends free Jewish books to Jewish households, worked with three community centers in Russian-speaking areas to create a pilot free-book program targeting the Russian-speaking community. The program has proved highly successful, and the PJ Library now plans to expand to other Russian-speaking communities and also to begin printing books in Russian.

Likewise, Moishe House, which funds young, community-minded Jews to create a house-based community center for their Jewish peers, worked with Genesis to open its first Russian-speaking Moishe House in Chicago in 2009. Since then, it has opened four more houses in the former Soviet Union, and this year it is planning to open two more Russian-speaking Moishe Houses in the United States.

“Genesis asked us about Russian Moishe Houses, and if I thought it would work,” Moishe House founder and CEO David Cygielman told JTA. “I said, ‘I don’t know, but it seems like it’s worth a try.”

Directors of the Havurah camp, which is also funded by Genesis, say they have struggled over the last three years to strike a balance between being a single camp and creating a special program. At the summer camp, the Russians and Americans spend most mornings together and eat in a shared dining hall, but the Russian immigrant children get separate educational programming.

As they view such programs, some organizational leaders say it is important not to assume that just because something has caught on with the mainstream American Jewish community it will work for the Russian immigrant community as well.

Several campers interviewed by JTA said they liked being apart from the rest of the camp.

It helps, said Havurah program manager Yelena Pogorelsky, herself a Russian immigrant, when you are familiar with common Russian traditions — “when you’re around people who you don’t have to explain yourself to, why you are spitting over your shoulder three times, or sitting quietly before a long trip.”

Sitting with a group of 15-year-old campers, counselor Inna Dykorskaya led a discussion of prayer and Jewish texts, then asked the campers to design their own prayers. When it came time to share them, the campers recited their blessings in English and Russian.

“Everything in life you should do because it is relevant to your life,” Dykorskaya said. “We don’t force you to pray; we ask you to consider and analyze prayer.”

In a few years, Pogorelsky, said, separate Jewish programming for campers like these won’t be necessary anymore.

“In 10 years there won’t be a need,” she said. “The Russian community will be split: It will either be integrated into the larger Jewish community, or secular and unaffiliated.”

Melancholy Russian soul flourishing in immigrants


The Russian soul, that hard to define, but deep and informed melancholy, is flourishing in Rego Park, Queens, N.Y.

To the title character in Irina Reyn’s new novel, “What Happened to Anna K” (Touchstone), the velikaia russkaia dusha, Russian soul, transplanted to America might be embodied in the way Russians avoid voicing public praise, rebuke strangers in public and show a fondness for politically incorrect jokes.

Shards of it are locked up even in Anna, who wakes up optimistic to a new day, yet loves to drink, even if it makes her argumentative or depressed afterward and tends to see things in binary mode — as either wonderful or terrible. An overall feeling of doom is never far away.

“The Russian soul had come to claim her, extinguishing all that was sanguine and buoyant, all that was American inside her, leaving only the Siberian Steppes, the crust of black bread, the acerbic aftertaste of marinated herring, the eternal, bleak winter,” Reyn writes.

In an interview, the Moscow-born author, who immigrated to the United States at the age of 7, admits that she, too, has a lingering Russian soul. Her well-written and very enjoyable first novel recasts Tolstoy, as its title suggests, observing immigrants from the former Soviet Union, body and soul.

Reyn said in unaccented English that she began writing some stories and sketches that would become pieces of this novel during graduate school, when she reread “Anna Karenina.” As she was thinking about issues of identity for her characters, of integrating tradition and modernity, she realized that Tolstoy had dealt with some of the same concerns, and her questions overlapped with some of his.

“Once I decided that I was going to draw attention to a dialogue with Tolstoy, the challenge was how far to go with this. I didn’t want to literally transpose his story,” she explains, but, rather, wanted to find moments that would inform her novel. She took care to be sure her novel had its own identity, even while calling attention to this other great work.

Readers don’t need to have read the great Russian classic to appreciate Reyn’s novel. She says that many American readers have turned to Tolstoy after reading “What Happened to Anna K.”

Reyn’s Anna K., who had expected great love for herself and that she would shape great art reflecting her emotional life, “waited patiently for the call of the relevant lovers through her 20s and early 30s.”

Single at 36 and aware that her creative inspiration has yet to materialize, she settles into marriage with a successful Russian businessman. Even at her wedding at a Brighton Beach nightclub, she feels an uneasy desire for something more.

She and her husband move from Rego Park to the Upper East Side of Manhattan; their circle consists of his friends and their wives who speak “a Russian-English patois, Americanizing their Russian, Russifying their English. The women dressed themselves and their men and the result was bright pinks, pinstripes, matching necklaces and earrings, manicures, thick, visible lip liner. Gold was favored over silver, chunky pieces that screamed out for attention.”

Anna K. is drawn into an affair with the boyfriend of her Bukharan cousin — first glimpsed at a train station. With him she can talk about books and ideas, and she likes the notion of being his muse. Her cousin Katia marries Lev, a fellow Bukharan, who’s passionate about French film. But Anna K’s life resembles that of Tolstoy’s tragic heroine.

With humor laced into this story, Reyn explores aging, love and marriage, ethnic identity, the power of tradition and the pull of family and community. This may be the first novel, at least in English, to offer a glimpse into the lives of Bukharan Jews in Queens, where many thousands have settled. This is a community with great devotion to memory, which exerts strong efforts to maintain their religious and cultural traditions.

Katia’s father is so happy to be marrying off his daughter that he promises, on first meeting his son-in-law to be, free haircuts for life. Lev doesn’t have the heart to tell him that he has half a dozen barbers in his own family. Food is described in appealing detail, which may inspire readers to board a subway to Rego Park to try out a Bukharan restaurant.

“I think of myself as a Russian Jewish American writer,” Reyn says.

When she came to the United States from Moscow with her parents in 1981, she knew no English and found herself struggling through third grade in a Brooklyn public school. In the evenings, members of the family would quiz one another on vocabulary using homemade flash cards. By fourth grade, Reyn was the class spelling bee champ and, as her parents would say, soaking up the English language.

Her family moved from Flatbush to Rego Park when she was 9, where they lived among Bukharan families. Later on they moved to Fairlawn, N.J. She attended Rutgers University, and earned a masters in fine arts from Bennington College. Now 34, she teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh and divides her time between Pittsburgh and Brooklyn.

Reyn, along with her parents, sister and American husband, recently visited Moscow, and she was doubly struck — by seeing what her life might have been like had they stayed, as they visited family friends still living there, and also by the new wealthy, global and over-the-top Moscow.

Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week.

‘Non-Jewish’ Jews endure challenges living in Israel


In Israel, the “non-Jewish Jews,” as some Israelis call them, are everywhere. They drive buses, teach university classes, patrol in army jeeps and follow the latest Israeli reality TV shows as avidly as their Jewish counterparts.

For these people — mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jews according to Israeli law — the question of where they fit into the Jewish state remains unanswered nearly two decades after they began coming to Israel.

At an estimated 320,000 people and with their ranks growing due to childbirth, the question is growing ever more acute.

“They are not going to be religious but want to be part of what is called the Jewish secular population,” said Asher Cohen, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University, who has written a book on the subject.

“Thousands are being born here, and they are no longer immigrants,” he said. “They are raised just like their secular neighbors, and these children want to know why they are not Jewish because their mother is not Jewish. The problem is just getting worse.”

In almost every respect, these Israelis live as do their secular fellow countrymen, even marking the Jewish holidays, lighting candles on Chanukah and conducting seders on Passover. But, because they do not qualify as Jews according to halacha, or Jewish law, they are treated differently when it comes to matters that are the purview of the Orthodox-controlled religious establishment, such as lifecycle events like marriage, divorce and burial.

For some, the real question is about identity and fitting in.

Unlike non-Jews residing in Israel illegally, these are people who qualified to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, which grants the right of Israeli citizenship to all descendants of a Jewish grandparent or those married to such persons. But the Israeli government does not consider them Jews, because their mothers are not Jewish. Non-Jewish Israelis constitute almost a third of all immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Some of these people say they’ve always considered themselves Jewish and were thought as such by others — until they came to Israel.

Lilia Itskov, 36, grew up in Siberia with a paternal grandmother who preserved the traditions of her observant Jewish home. She said she is heartbroken when her daughter questions whether they are Jewish because Itskov’s mother was not Jewish.

“She studies the Bible in school; it’s all she knows,” Itskov said of her daughter. “She cannot understand why she is not considered a Jew.”

Itskov observed Jewish holidays even back in Siberia, and she said she never tried to hide her Jewishness.

“I want people to understand we are part of this country, and where we lived before we were always considered Jews,” she said. “And now, after so many years, I am told that I am a goy (non-Jew).”

Others are believing Christians who struggle to maintain their religious identity while living in Jewish communities in Israel. Keeping a low profile, many of them attend religious services on Sundays in community members’ apartments or go to Arab-run Christian churches in Jerusalem and Jaffa on major holidays. In the Israeli Arab village of Abu Ghosh near Jerusalem, there are church services held in Hebrew.

“Little is known about them; there is no research about them, and they try to hide their faith,” Cohen said of the active Christians among the Russian-speaking immigrants. “It’s hard for them to be Christians in any overt way here.”

For Vera Gorman, 21, whose family immigrated to Israel from Russia seven years ago and whose mother’s grandfather was Jewish, the sting of exclusion hit for the first time when it came time to marry.

In Israel, where there is no civil marriage, all citizens must be married by clergymen, and Jewish clergy are not allowed to perform intermarriages. Gorman is Jewish, but the man she planned on marrying, Maxim Gorman, was not, so there was no way for the couple to get married in Israel. Instead, they had to go to Prague. Marriages abroad are recognized in Israel. They were angry and bewildered by the rules.

Maxim Gorman, 25, who served in an Israel Defense Forces combat unit and twice was injured in fighting in Gaza, said he does not understand why, if he spilled blood for his country, he had to go abroad on the most important day of his life.

“It was especially hard, because although I am not Jewish according to halacha, I do feel Jewish in my heart,” he said. “In my opinion, state and religion simply do not go together. Israel needs to be democratic and Jewish, and we need to protect our traditions, because this is what unites us. But we live in the 21st century, and we need to be going forward.”

Some Israelis, especially religious ones, take issue with the large number of non-Jews able to become Israeli, saying they threaten the Jewish character of the state. They complain about the rising number of butchers that sell pork and condemn the proliferation of Christmas trees, tinsel and plastic Santa Claus dolls that go on sale at shops around the country around Christmastime to cater to the growing population in Israel that celebrates the holiday.

Russian immigrants — Jews among them — say they’re not so much celebrating Christmas as participating in festivities honoring the new year.

A few rabbis and members of Orthodox parties in the Knesset have suggested changing the Law of Return to exclude non-Jews from becoming Israeli. But many secular Israelis argue against such changes and say immigration is vital to the country’s future.

Despite the challenges they face in Israel as non-Jews, only a minority of non-Jewish immigrants to Israel choose to convert to Judaism.

Because Orthodox conversions are the only kind accepted by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which controls religious law in Israel, prospective converts must master Jewish knowledge and pledge to become strictly observant Jews. Most immigrants from the former Soviet Union — both Jewish and not — are secular and uninterested in enduring a lengthy, restrictive conversion process.

Israelis fear anti-Semitism imported from Russia


Ari Ackerman, a student from Switzerland, was walking home along the Tel Aviv beach after a late-night swim when he and a friend were jumped by a gang singing Nazi songs and displaying swastika tattoos.

The perpetrators, a group of Russian-speaking teenagers, eventually ran off. Ackerman and his friend, their faces bruised and bloodied, set off to the closest police station only to have their case shrugged off.

“Israel is a country that faces the same problems any other country faces,” Ackerman said, trying to make sense of what he experienced. “There is a phenomenon of neo-Nazism, even if it is fringe, but to acknowledge it is to go against the country’s own narrative.”

In recent years, sporadic acts of anti-Semitism have hit Israel, most of them carried out by disaffected immigrant youths from the former Soviet Union (FSU). Although the youths came to Israel under the Law of Return, they are among those who identify not as Jews but as ethnic Russians. Under Israel’s Law of Return, a cornerstone of Israel’s identity as a haven for all Jews, anyone with a Jewish parent or grandparent is permitted to immigrate and be granted citizenship.

Experts say the perpetrators of such acts feel rebuffed and marginalized by Israeli society, so they turn their furor into the same anti-Semitism with which they may have been tormented in their countries of birth.

Recent incidents occurred at a school in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam, where its mezuzahs were torn down and burned. About three months ago, a club for Russian-speaking immigrant veterans of World War II was desecrated with swastikas.

Zalman Gilichinsky, who immigrated to Israel from Moldova, started a center for victims of anti-Semitic attacks or harassment.

“Neo-Nazism is the same development they see in Russia and they transplant it here,” he said, referring to the youth.

Gilichinsky said he has been frustrated by what he sees as the relative lack of seriousness with which Israel has taken the issue.

Knesset hearings, however, have been held, and the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption says it is working to reach the type of disconnected young immigrants who might be drawn to committing such acts. Officials also stress that the numbers involved in such activities are very few and not at all representative of most young immigrants from the FSU.

Gilichinsky claims Israel is embarrassed by the issue, which he said stems from too many non-Jews being allowed into Israel under the Law of Return.

“Israel wants to maintain its image as a refuge from anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism, so they don’t want to publicize anything that would go against that image,” he said.

Gilichinsky said that according to the calls his center receives, there are almost daily incidents. They are exacerbated, he said, by connections forged online between young immigrants here and their counterparts in the FSU through neo-Nazi Web sites and chat rooms.

Arieh Turkiments, an immigrant from Vilna, is among those who contacted the organization after he was slapped in the face by another immigrant and cursed for being a Jew. He was standing outside a Jerusalem yeshiva, where he had been attending classes on Judaism.

“It is a terrible feeling here in the Land of Israel that we have to hear such insults,” Turkiments’ wife, Maria, said. “The reality is that it is sometimes worse being here than in the Diaspora.”

Maria Turkiments herself took issue with the Law of Return.

“It lets all sorts of people in who should not be here,” she said.

Avinoam Bar-Yosef, director-general of the Jewish People Policy Institute think tank, downplayed notions that Israel might be facing anything close to a phenomenon when it comes to imported anti-Semitism.

“It’s not really significant. This is a fringe issue,” Bar-Yosef said. “When you have major waves of aliyah, you are going to have members of families of Jews who are not Jewish.”
Part of the problem, he said, “comes from suffering the trauma of moving from one place to another.”

“It should be monitored and anti-Semitic acts should be dealt with everywhere, but it is not a real problem in Israel,” Bar-Yosef said, arguing that most immigrants from the FSU integrate well into Israeli society.

Sara Cohen, director of social services at the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, said those youth at risk either do not see themselves as Jews or are not considered Jewish.

“These are youth with a confused identity,” Cohen said. “In Russia they are called Jews and in Israel they are called goyim. Part of the confusion over identity can lead them to feel disconnected.”

The ministry sponsors several programs to help immigrant youth at risk feel more integrated into Israeli society.

Roughly one-quarter of immigrants who have come to Israel since the major wave of immigration began from the FSU in the early 1990s are not considered Jewish according to halacha, or Jewish law. In Israel, only Orthodox conversions are considered valid.

Alex Selsky, a Jewish Agency for Israel spokesman for the Russian language media who emigrated from Russia in 1993, said if Israel accepted Reform and Conservative conversions, many more immigrants from the FSU would try to convert. He said Jewish education courses such as Nativ, sponsored jointly by the Jewish Agency and the army, are one way young immigrant soldiers from the FSU are forging a stronger connection to both Israel and their Jewish heritage.

David Zelventsky runs a museum at an immigrant club in Hadera about Jews who fought for the Red Army during World War II. He said much still needs to be done to tackle anti-Semitism around the world, including in Israel. It was hard for him to see the swastikas and slurs against Jews spray-painted on the center’s walls, but he was not necessarily surprised.

“I’ve seen many things in my lifetime,” said Zelventsky, whose father was a World War II veteran. “What I know is that it is too early to lay down arms in the battle against anti-Semitism.”

Russian Singer Goes From Defector to Cantor


“I was born in the 1960s into a typical Soviet Jewish family,” says Svetlana Portnyansky. “We never went to synagogue, never were religious. At family events at home, we sang Jewish songs sometimes, but we’d close all the doors to make sure no one heard us.”

Given Portnyansky’s non-Jewish upbringing, it’s odd that this interview is taking place at Newport Beach’s Temple Isaiah, where she’s the cantor. How did she go from being a popular singer in the Soviet Union to a defector who had to leave her family behind, to a cantor at a shul in Orange County?

Like just about everything else in Portnyansky’s life, the answer has to do with music. Her father was “a musician at heart” who made a living as an industrial engineer in Moscow. “He taught me piano,” she says. “I grew up with music and absorbed it in my soul. I knew that I was born to be a professional singer. So I went to the Moscow Conservatory of Music, graduated with honors and became a singer who specializes in Jewish songs.”

After graduating, she was invited to sing at the Moscow Jewish Theater. This was in the late 1980s, during Perestroika, and it was the theater’s grand reopening after having been closed for 40 years.

“I sang a solo concert,” Portnyansky says, “and my musical career took off. I became a public figure, sang on nationwide radio and television. It was wonderful to be popular, but it was also dangerous: I received threatening letters saying things like, ‘Jews are supposed to be in Israel. Go home! This is our country!'”

Portnyansky felt it was time to leave. “I didn’t see any future for myself in the Soviet Union. I couldn’t see how I was going to live that way, being threatened. Besides, I’d always wanted to go to America.”

Ever since she was a little girl, she says, she dreamed of coming to the United States. “My parents used to get a magazine called Amerika. It had photos and articles about the U.S. In my mind I was already there, from the first grade.”
The opportunity came in 1991, during the last throes of the Soviet Union: She received an invitation from the U.S government to do a concert tour.

“My musicians and I got theatrical exchange visas. I knew I was going to defect. I talked it over with my family. I said to them, ‘It’s our only chance. I have to take it now.’ They understood. They blessed me.” Portnyansky was in her mid-20s then, with a 4-year-old son who stayed in Moscow with her husband and her parents.

“In the U.S. we had some very successful concerts, East Coast to West Coast. The tour lasted two months. When it was over, I told my musicians I would go back [to the Soviet Union], but not just yet. Of course, I knew I wasn’t going back.”

She defected, and during those first few months in New York it was very difficult not being with her family. But she had some money, and she had friends who let her stay in their place. “That was the hardest time of my life,” she says. “I called my family very often. It was also a period of concern, whether I would make the right choices. I was determined not to do certain things, like wash dishes or sing at a restaurant.”

After much thought, she decided to pursue a second Jewish musical track, one that paralleled her pop singing career: She would study to become a cantor at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

In order to become a legal resident of the United States, she contacted the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and told them that she could not go back to the Soviet Union. She showed them the threatening letters she’d received. HIAS took up her case.

During the months she was in New York without her family, Portnyansky got word that her father had died in Moscow. She couldn’t risk going to the funeral. “I didn’t have the green card,” she says. “I was afraid I might not be permitted to come back to the United States.”

But in early 1992, Portnyansky’s family found a way to join her: Her husband, son and mother came to the United States on tourist visas. They moved to Southern California, where Portnyansky gave birth to a second son and continued her cantorial studies.

During the early 1990s, though she was not yet a legal resident, HIAS’s advocacy bore results: She was permitted to work in the U.S. She gave “jazzy, cabaret-style” concerts; and, after completing her liturgical training, she started to work as a cantor. “I was busy at that time,” she says. “My only problem was that I couldn’t leave the United States.”

Getting her green card took more than five years. She later found out that the process had been delayed because her file had been lost. After Portnyansky became a legal resident in 1996, her first trip was to Israel. Since then she’s continued her dual career: cantor in Newport Beach … and

Russian Singer’s Star Shines Again


The waitress at Canter’s Deli looks vaguely annoyed as Aida Vedischeva makes herself at home in a back booth, spreading her memorabilia across the table. The Russian singer is coiffed in the platinum blonde Marilyn-style hairdo of decades ago, and her green eyes are brought out by the zebra-print scarf dramatically tossed over one shoulder. The disgruntled waitress brings coffee and blintzes, but doesn’t ask for an autograph.

Like most Americans, the waitress has never heard of Amazing Aida. When Vedischeva left Russia in 1980, she had sold more than 30 million albums. Her songs were featured on the soundtracks of the most popular Russian movies of the decade. She performed on the famed stages of Moscow and St. Petersburg. She was dubbed the "Marilyn Monroe of Russia" by her fans and called herself "Amazing Aida."

Now, after 24 years in the United States, obscurity has not suited her. Today the singer is armed with props — old playbills, faded posters, glossy photographs, newspaper reviews in Russian, magazine articles in English, video tapes of past performances, letters of praise, letters of rejection, even a Russian encyclopedia with an entry under ‘V’ for Vedischeva — that she spreads across the table.

Amazing Aida sits amid a sea of her own memorabilia reconstructing the story of her life.

"I came to America because our government was bureaucratic," she began. "Our leaders were so jealous they didn’t give us freedom to create. You sing whatever they want. You do whatever they want. We were like soldiers. It is not like here."

At the time, the Soviet Union had sealed itself off from open contact with the West and other noncommunist countries. Citizens were denied many liberties including political and religious freedom, and in 1972 restrictions on Jewish migration were instituted. Despite these hardships, however, Amazing Aida’s career thrived — that is, until the government decided to take away her musicians.

After eight months of rehearsals for her new musical, with no warning and no explanation, the government sent the entire band to Europe. This was a wake-up call for Vedischeva.

"We did not have freedoms," she states in her still-thick Russian accent. "We did not have liberties."

So the Russian superstar decided to shed her floor-length sequined gowns, abandon her adoring fans, give up the spotlight and make her way to New York City.

What she found there amazed her.

"I went to study Judaism that I never could study in Russia," Aida said. "I was so grateful there is no anti-Semitism and you do whatever you want and nobody punishes you for that."

Thus began Aida’s love affair with America. Like many good love stories, however, this one also has its fair share of angst. While Amazing Aida embraced her new country with the fervor of an immigrant, America responded with apathy. Despite fleeting moments in the spotlight — she performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York — in America, Amazing Aida was anonymous.

"She is as well-known in Russia as Barbra Streisand is here." said Irene Parker, editor of Almanakh Panorama, a Russian-language newspaper in Los Angeles. That Amazing Aida’s career failed to translate in her new country is a story, Parker said she has heard often.

"That is common for all immigrants," she explained. "She is not as young as she was at the time and it is a human tragedy that occurs when you change countries, change languages."

But Amazing Aida did not let this setback beat her. She used her immigrant experience as fodder for a new musical based on her own story and the story of her favorite symbol of America — the Statue of Liberty. The musical, which at different times has been called "Masterpiece" and "Singing Liberty" and later "Miss Liberty for the New Millennium," parallels the statue’s journey from France to America with Aida’s own exodus from Russia.

After Sept. 11, the patriotic mood of the country sparked interest in pro-American themes and the show garnered praise from prominent figures, including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Once again a star was born and Amazing Aida found herself in the spotlight.

Now Amazing Aida is putting on a new show, "Young at Heart: Your Favorite Songs of the 20th Century," a bevy of blockbuster Broadway hits in English, Russian and Hebrew. The theme is freedom.

"I think it is always the right time to honor liberty," she said.

At Canter’s, as Aida surveys the retrospective of souvenirs fanned out before her on the diner table, she rejects a theme of heartbreak and chooses a happy ending.

"I accomplished two lifetimes; instead of one I have two," Vedischeva said. "This is my exodus."

"Young at Heart," starring Aida Vedischeva, will play at Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd. on Saturday, May 8, 7 p.m. For more Information, call (323) 876-8330.

Russians & Gays & Lesbians, Oh My…


Paul Koretz, a 44-year-old politician, owns up to an unusual distinction. He is the only member of the city council in the 15-year history of West Hollywood to have a wife and family at home.

Anywhere else in the country, being married with young children would be considered a plus for an ambitious office holder. In tolerant West Hollywood, his status is not a handicap, just an anomaly.

While Los Angeles as a whole acclaims itself the world capital of diversity, nowhere is the mix as singular as in the pistol-shaped, 1.9-sq.-mile enclave sandwiched between Beverly Hills and the Hollywood section of Los Angeles.

Allowing for overlaps between categories, half the city’s 38,000 residents are Jewish, 35 percent are gay men, 3 percent are lesbians, 19 percent are senior citizens, and 12 – 15 percent are Russian immigrants. West Hollywood may be the only city whose official 1998 population survey included check-offs for bisexual (7 percent) and transgendered (1 percent) taxpayers.

But West Hollywood is more than a demographer’s delight. It includes Southern California’s most vibrant night life, mainly along the fabled Sunset Strip. When snooty Beverly Hills rolls up the sidewalks at night, the action is just warming up at the Strip’s rock and roll clubs, comedy shows and tony restaurants. “We’re the Left Bank of Beverly Hills,” says Scott Svonkin, Koretz’s right-hand man.

After some rough times, the economy is now booming. Luxury hotels and swank night spots are going up while design-oriented businesses are encircling the landmark Pacific Design Center, dubbed The Blue Whale for its shape and color. It’s gotten to the point where city officials must restrain developers from encroaching into residential areas.

The city has an enviable range of social service programs for the elderly, immigrants and the AIDS-infected, and relations between the diverse citizenry and law enforcement agencies are, by all accounts, remarkably harmonious.

Back in 1984, harassment of gays by Los Angeles city police and fear that rent controls for apartment dwellers might be abolished led to an unusual gay-seniors alliance that pushed through incorporation of West Hollywood. The city now contracts for law enforcement with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which puts deputies through a sensitivity training course before assignment to West Hollywood.

When it first became a city, West Hollywood was dubbed the “Gay Camelot” by the press, which marveled at a municipality run by a five-person city council (one of whom serves as mayor on a rotating basis) with a three-man majority of gays.

Since then, the makeup of the council has fluctuated. At one time there were three Jews on the council, now there is one; at another time, there were three councilwomen, now there is none. The present council again has three gays, one senior, and Koretz, who has served since 1988.

On Super Tuesday, Koretz squeaked through in a very tight race to become the Democratic nominee for the State Assembly in the 42nd district.

In the heart of West Hollywood lies Plummer Park, where on any day hundreds of Jewish immigrants from all parts of the former Soviet Union play chess, or cards for modest stakes, which are quickly hidden when strangers, who might conceivably enforce the park’s anti-gambling rules, walk by. Anti-smoking rules are uniformly ignored as well.

The only monument in the United States to the Nazi massacre of Jews at Babi Yar stands nearby, with inscriptions in Russian Cyrillic script, English and Hebrew.

Most of the 5,000 to 6,000 Russian Jews settled in West Hollywood in two major immigration waves, 1978-79 and 1988-92, and their arrival led to inevitable frictions.

“Initially, the greatest conflict was between elderly Russian immigrants and the established Jewish seniors,” says Koretz. “The American Jews complained that the Russians, using their official ‘refugee’ status, were getting more of the social services and affordable housing than the old-timers.”

It also took the Russian housewives some time to learn not to cut into supermarket lines for fear that — as in their homeland — the stores would run out of supplies.

But more spectacular than the grumbling between two sets of elderly Jews was the encounter between the wildly different cultures of the Russian and gay communities.

There was hardly any physical violence, but “there would be a lot of screaming, and since they couldn’t understand each other’s language, we had a lot of misunderstandings,” says Rabbi Naftoli Estulin, who runs the Chabad Russian Immigrant Program and Synagogue.

Helen Levin, director of the city-funded Russian Cultural Center, explains that “in the Soviet Union, homosexuality was a crime, punishable by seven years in prison. You can’t expect people raised in that way to be open-minded and relaxed about openly gay behavior. They’re changing, but it’s a long process in education and tolerance.”

In general, it has taken American Jews some time to adjust to the Russian immigrants, adds Levin. “The Americans expected a race of heroes, like Natan Sharansky. But most Russians didn’t come for ideological reasons, but to make a better life for themselves and their children.”

While Levin’s cultural center is a more integral part of West Hollywood than the Chabad center, both offer a range of education, language, job training, counseling, social service, youth and senior programs. Since the immigrants must become U.S. citizens within seven years of arrival or lose their benefits, there is a heavy emphasis on citizenship training classes.

But, in line with Jewish custom, the two Russian centers don’t speak to each other. For a while, there was an annual confrontation as each center sought to stage its Chanukah festival in Plummer Park. A modus vivendi has now been reached in which each organization stages the festival in alternate years.

Otherwise, a cold peace prevails between the two centers. “Rabbi Estulin can’t tolerate a woman who raises her voice and is independent,” says Levin. “I can manage my relationship with anyone and have an understanding with every agency, but not with Chabad.”

Estulin shrugs off the relationship problem. “They see me with a beard and they think I’m from another world,” he says. “I’m just one of the boys, one of the guys.”