Abolish Jackson-Vanik, Russian Jews urge Congress


Representatives of the Russian Jewish Congress asked the U.S. Congress to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment.

The appeal was addressed to the U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Beyrly, during a meeting Monday in Moscow that took place on the 36th anniversary of the amendment’s adoption. The amendment restricts Russian trade with the United States.

“The viewpoint of the Jewish community on the problem is that the amendment affects the community negatively now, being a stumbling block in the development of U.S.- Russia relations,” Russian Jewish Congress President Yuri Kanner said in a statement.

“We believe that repeal of the amendment will mark positive changes in the life of the Jewish community in Russia since the end of the policy of state anti-Semitism, and will also contribute to the ‘reset’ of relations between Russia and the U.S.”

Beyrly said at the meeting that the amendment’s repeal is a priority for the Obama administration in 2011, according to Kanner.

The Jackson-Vanik amendment is a provision in United States federal law, adopted in 1974, that was intended to pressure the Soviet Union to allow emigration of Jews to Israel. It remains in force but has been waived regularly in recent years.

Lawsuit Filed in Granada Hills Jewish Community Center Shooting


Lawsuit Filed in Granada Hills Jewish Community Center Shooting

Families of the victims of the 1999 North Valley Jewish Community Center (JCC) shooting in Granada Hills are suing the state of Washington for allegedly failing to supervise the man who committed the crime. The $15 million lawsuit filed Aug. 18 says the state’s Department of Corrections failed to adequately monitor Buford Furrow Jr., an ex-convict on probation from a Washington state jail. On Aug. 10, 1999, Furrow burst into the North Valley JCC and opened fire. He wounded two small boys, a teenager and an adult receptionist, and later killed a Filipino-American letter carrier nearby. Furrow is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole.

Young Quits After ‘Hurtful’ Remarks

Andrew Young resigned as a Wal-Mart advocate after disparaging Jewish, Arab and Korean shop owners. A former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and mayor of Atlanta, Young resigned as head of “Working Families for Wal-Mart,” and apologized. The Los Angeles Sentinel, a black newspaper, asked Young how he could advocate for an organization that displaces “mom and pop” outfits. Young said he was pleased when those stores were “run out” of his neighborhood. “Those are the people who have been overcharging us — selling us stale bread, and bad meat and wilted vegetables,” he said. “And they sold out and moved to Florida. I think they’ve ripped off our communities enough. First it was Jews, then it was Koreans and now it’s Arabs, very few black people own these stores.”

Olmert Pressed on War Inquiry

Ehud Olmert is under pressure to establish a state commission of inquiry to investigate how officials handled Israel’s war with Hezbollah. The Israeli prime minister told the attorney general to see what alternatives exist for such an investigation, ranging from inquiries that would be made public to those that might remain confidential within the Cabinet. Meanwhile, criticism of how the war was conducted is mounting. Petitions have been circulating by reserve soldiers who have returned from fighting in Lebanon with long lists of complaints.

Diaspora Money Heads North

World Jewry is expected to contribute about $344 million to rehabilitating Israel’s northern towns and cities. The money, according to an Israeli government plan announced Sunday, would contribute to the overall cost of repairing damage and providing assistance to northern residents, estimated at about $1 billion. Money would go to financial aid for residents and businesses, repairs, psychological counseling, rebuilding schools and other projects run by a newly formed Israeli government committee. An emergency campaign in the United States has already raised $220 million for assistance to the North.

Israeli Officials Face Sexual-Harassment Charges

On Monday, police seized computers and documents from President Moshe Katsav’s Residence in Jerusalem, seeking possible evidence related to charges by a former employee who has claimed that Katsav coerced her into sexual relations. Katsav has denied any wrongdoing. Meanwhile, Israel’s justice minister resigned in the wake of sexual-harassment charges. Haim Ramon announced his resignation Sunday. Israel’s attorney general said he plans to indict Ramon on charges that he forcibly kissed an 18-year-old soldier at an office party July 12, the day the war started between Israel and Hezbollah.

“I am sure that I will succeed in court,” Ramon said. “A kiss of two, three seconds, based on the version of the complainant, cannot be turned into a criminal act.”

Israeli Children Anxious After War

About 35 percent of Israeli schoolchildren who stayed in the North during the war with Hezbollah are suffering from anxiety, nightmares and other problems, a survey found. The 16,000 or so children also were found to have difficulty concentrating and are crying more often, the Tel Chai Academic College found in the survey. Problems are especially acute among preschoolers.

Major Israeli Writer Dies

Writer Yizhar Smilansky, an Israel Prize-winner better known by the pen name S. Yizhar, died Monday. One month shy of his 90th birthday, Yizhar died of heart failure. Known as a major innovator of Hebrew literature, he wrote prose, poetry and children’s literature. He also was well-known for his essays, which gained attention at the beginning of the war in Lebanon in 1982. His writing, which often challenged the Zionist narrative and the morality of the army, was the subject of intense controversy.

Israel: Hezbollah Used Russian Weapons

Israel complained to Russia that Russian-made anti-tank missiles reached Hezbollah fighters, who used them with devastating effect against Israeli troops. An Israeli delegation traveled to Moscow earlier this week to deliver the complaint, Ha’aretz reported. The anti-tank missiles proved to be one of Hezbollah’s most effective weapons in the monthlong war in Lebanon, responsible for the deaths of at least 50 of the 118 Israeli soldiers killed in the fighting. Israel protested in recent years when Russia sold advanced weapons to Syria, warning that they would be forwarded them to Hezbollah, but Russia dismissed the concerns. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said it was “impossible” that Russian weapons could have reached Hezbollah.

Jewish-Owned Market in Moscow Bombed

An explosion at a Jewish-owned market in Moscow killed at least 10 people and left 16 to 40 wounded. According to preliminary reports, no Jews were hurt in the blast at the Cherkizovsky market. The market is believed to be owned and operated by members of the “Mountain Jewish” community, which has its roots in Azerbaijan. At least two children died in the Monday morning blast in Moscow. Investigators say the explosion, which caused a two-story building to collapse, could have been a settling of scores among gangs, but officials are not ruling out that the blast was a terrorist attack.

Restaurant in India Named After Hitler

A new restaurant in India is named after Hitler and has swastikas on its walls. The owner of the Hitler’s Cross restaurant in Bombay told Reuters that he just wanted to stand out from the crowd. India’s Jewish community is protesting the name.

Annan Chides Iran on Holocaust Cartoons

Commenting on an exhibit of cartoons questioning the Holocaust, Kofi Annan’s spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said that the U.N. secretary-general has made clear in past conversations with Iranian officials that while he supports free speech, “people need to exercise that right responsibly and not use it as a pretext for incitement, hatred or for insulting beliefs of any community.”

A museum in Tehran opened the exhibit last week, in response to the publication in Denmark last year of cartoons that targeted Mohammed, the Muslim prophet.Exhibit organizers say they took their cue from Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called the Holocaust a “myth.” Annan is to visit Iran in coming weeks as part of a tour to follow up on the Lebanon-Israel cease-fire.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Evangelicals Slate Pro-Israel Lobbying


Some 2,000 extremely pro-Israel community and religious leaders will meet in Washington on July 19, fan out across Capitol Hill and, in effect, tell their legislators: If you want our political backing, you must support the Jewish state — no ifs or buts.

There won’t be a single Jew among the citizen lobbyists. They will all be evangelical Christians, mainly ordained and lay pastors, embarking on the first major public action of the newly formed Christians United for Israel (CUFI).

The founder and leader of the group is the Rev. John C. Hagee of the 19,000-member Cornerstone Church of San Antonio, Texas, and a televangelist whose broadcasts reach millions in the United States and 120 other countries.

In 1978, in the first of his 21 trips to Israel, “I went as a tourist and returned as a Zionist,” Hagee said.

Last week, Hagee visited Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego to enlist support for his 4-month-old organization –both among fellow evangelicals and in front of generally enthusiastic, but occasionally skeptical, Jewish audiences.

Addressing the Board of Rabbis of Southern California at the L.A. Jewish Community Building, Hagee outlined two major projects, in addition to the July summit in Washington:

  • Expand the existing “rapid response network” of 12,000 pastors, who can mobilize their congregations instantly to flood the White House and Congress with e-mails on any legislation affecting Israel’s security and well-being.
  • Institute an annual “Night to Honor Israel” in every major American city to assure Israel and Jews everywhere that “you do not stand alone.” The emotional event is already a fixture in large Texas cities and in other Southern states.

Hagee and his followers have given a total of $8.5 million to Israeli causes, including an orphanage and for absorption of Russian immigrants, he said, but the major impact of CUFI is likely to be on the political scene.

The pastor didn’t spell it out, but his associates made clear that they view CUFI as a kind of super American Israel Public Affairs Committee, representing some 50 million evangelical Christians. This constituency, in sharp contrast to the Jewish community, shares the conservative social outlook of the present administration and represents its hardcore political base.

This kind of influence cannot be ignored by U.S. Jews, said Shimon Erem, founding president of the Israel-Christian Nexus, who introduced Hagee.

“We don’t have too many friends; we cannot prevail without them,” said Erem.

CUFI’s purpose, according to its official brochure, is “to provide a national association through which every pro-Israel church, parachurch organization, ministry or individual in America can speak and act with one voice in support of Israel in matters related to biblical issues.”

The last six words may sound vague, but they are key to the evangelicals’ deeply rooted advocacy for Israel. As unquestioning believers in the inerrant truth of Scripture, Hagee and his followers are convinced that every inch of the God-given land belongs to the Jews alone and forever.

Hagee insists that he never interferes in the decisions of the Israeli government, but his opposition to the withdrawals in Gaza and the West Bank, for instance, gives concern to liberal Jewish organizations.

However, it is mainly Orthodox spokesmen, who otherwise agree with Hagee’s social and biblical views, who have publicly questioned whether the pastor’s underlying motive is the conversion of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora.

The Rabbinical Council of America, representing Orthodox rabbis and congregations, has officially protested the Israeli government’s license to Daystar, the second largest Christian network in the United States, to broadcast 24/7 over an Israeli satellite network.

Hagee, a major Daystar supporter and on-air personality, has consistently affirmed that he will not proselytize Jews, although the network’s lineup also includes “messianic” Jews with long pro-conversion records.

When Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, head of the anti-cult Jews for Judaism, raised this issue with Hagee at the Los Angeles meeting, the pastor did not respond directly, but his genial Southern folksiness took on a harder edge.

“If rabbis would put more emphasis on putting Jewish kids into Jewish schools, young Jews would never want to become Christians,” Hagee said.

 

Latin American Jews Create L.A. Oasis


Imagine that you live in Latin America and you’re Jewish. Typically, you and your family would belong to a full-service Jewish club with cultural, recreational, educational and athletic activities for all ages. The club is reasonably priced, promotes Jewish identity in a secular manner and is the backbone of your social life.

You spend a lot of time in club-sponsored activities with your nuclear and extended family, and with friends from the club: Friday night dinners, Sunday afternoon barbecues, weekends in the country, vacations at the seashore — a full and active communal life.

Now imagine that — mainly for economic reasons — you emigrate from such a country and come to Los Angeles. You have your nuclear family, but you’re separated from your extended family and friends. You may know enough English to earn a living, but you’re not at ease with the language. As a result, it remains difficult for you to have a social life with English-speaking friends, or participate fully in an American cultural life — whether you’re a new arrival or have been in the country for a number of years.

And even though you have a strong Jewish identity — you may speak Hebrew and/or Yiddish — you’re not really interested in a communal life that revolves around a shul: first, you’re not observant and you don’t want to make a shul the center of your life; second, it would be in English, not Spanish; and third, it would mean spending more than you feel you can afford. The Jewish Community Center (JCC) might be a possibility, but in the last few years there has been a cutback in JCCs in Los Angeles, and what they offer is not exactly you’re looking for.

So what do you do?

What you could do is start your own Jewish organization, using the Latin American model. That’s what happened in early 2005 when the Latin American Jewish Association (LAJA) was founded by several people with exactly that idea.

Omar Zayat, director of LAJA and one of its founders, said the “drive to create this organization came from the fact that after 2001, with the economic crash in Argentina, many Jews left there, and a lot of them came to L.A. Once here, they wanted to recreate the kind of community they’d left behind, and creating their own club seemed a good way to go about it.”

In Argentina, Zayat had worked for Jewish groups, organizing children’s summer camps and programs for seniors and other age groups, so it was logical that he would continue doing that kind of work here. He’s not a hands-off administrator: LAJA presents evening dance workshops that are both energetic and sweat-inducing and where about 20 to 30 people get a good workout in Israeli and other kinds of dance. Zayat himself leads these groups.

“For now,” he said, “we have 85 families signed up and many more come when we have special events. We have the names of 400 families that we contact for these events, like movies that someone has brought from Argentina or casino night or a tango show.”

One of the challenges for LAJA has been to adapt to Los Angeles’ sprawling area, which has meager public transport. Here, a parent needs to drop off and pick up a child, which takes getting used to by Latin American parents whose children were accustomed to using good public transport or cheap taxis to navigate their own way around a city like Buenos Aires. It also means scheduling activities to fit working parents who double as chauffeurs.

LAJA divides its activities into youth, Jewish education, university student programs, adults, sports, arts and drama and marketing. Youth activities are handled by teenage madrichim, Hebrew for guides. Zayat said that “using the Latin American model, older kids are trained to guide the younger ones, encouraging Jewish identity and having fun while doing it.”

LAJA is co-sponsored by The New JCC at Milken in West Hills, which has provided office space and other facilities. Since many of the new immigrants arrived with limited resources, the JCC has permitted them to become members at a discounted price.

If you go to The New JCC at Milken nowadays, you’re as likely to hear Spanish as English. There’s an unmistakable spark of creative, communal energy in the air, whether one attends a workshop that helps new arrivals get oriented to life in Los Angeles or a Latin American-style barbecue or a musical recital.

Michael Jeser, director of development and community affairs at The New JCC at Milken, noted that “one of the most exciting pieces in working with the Latin American Jewish Association is that the JCC, historically, has been a home for new immigrants and a venue for the absorption of new immigrants into American society. And here we are in 2006, and it’s really no different. When the Latin American group came to us and said, ‘We’re looking for a home,’ it was a really natural partnership, and we’ve sort of adopted them, made them into one of our own programs, and have watched them flourish.”

Jeser said that “seeing how the members are interacting with our other JCC members, it’s the extension of a real family, and the feeling of a real international ethnic Jewish community, even beyond Los Angeles’ typical ethnic diversity. The JCC has been home to a large Russian community, a large Persian community, a large Israeli community, and now with the growing Latin American group, it’s just getting larger. And we are very proud to have this community [because] they have a strong history with Jewish community centers in Argentina, which lent itself to this partnership.”

“Having them here is like having a piece that we were missing,” Jeser said. “Now we’ve filled that void in the community and are looking to expand it.”

?LAJA is located at The New JCC at Milken, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. They can be contacted at (818) 464-3274. Their Web site (in Spanish) is

Cantor Glickman Returns to Israel


Cantor Binyamin Glickman, who taught generations of Los Angeles children to love God through music, is returning home to his beloved Jerusalem.

Ask him what he will see from his flat there and the 70-year-old smiles.

“The cemetery of Mount Olive, where grandparents are buried and my [first] wife is buried and I will be buried,” he said.” His view also includes the building that housed the old British Mandate offices, a place he walked by as a child in Palestine.

Glickman is not going back to retire but to direct the Jerusalem Center for Jewish Music. Aside from that, his grandfatherly wisdom is sought.

“‘The family needs you,'” Glickman said, repeating what his grown children have told him. Thirty-five of his 44 grandchildren live in Israel.

Glickman will leave behind a Los Angeles community of Jews he has known and taught since 1960, when he began a 22-year stretch as cantor at Beth Jacob Congregation, an Orthodox shul on Olympic Boulevard in Beverly Hills. He returned to Israel in the early 1980s, but by 2001 he was back in Los Angeles at Congregation Mogen David, the Pico-Robertson Orthodox shul that sits across the street from the Museum of Tolerance.

“Generations of bar mitzvah students were taught by him,” said Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, dean of the rabbinical school at the Academy of Jewish Religion, where Glickman also teaches. “Cantors in shuls in Pico-Robertson were all taught by Cantor Glickman at some point.”

“Everybody loves this guy,” said Cantor Nathan Lam of Bel Air’s Reform synagogue, Stephen S. Wise Temple, and dean of the Jewish academy’s cantorial school. “He’s a special human being. He makes a room feel good. If you’re sick, he’s the guy you want to come and cheer you up.”

On Nov. 30, Glickman’s synagogue will stage a community farewell concert in his honor hosted by longtime TV producer Sol Turtletaub of “Sanford & Son” fame. Glickman sang at Turtletaub’s son’s bar mitzvah — one of thousands of religious events graced by his tenor.

“I have [taught] hundreds of kids who know how to sing, know how to pray,” Glickman said.

Expected to attend are old friends, including Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who knew Glickman decades ago when both were active in the movement to help Soviet Jews.

Glickman’s late wife also was involved in that movement and demonstrated repeatedly at the Soviet consulate in San Francisco. “Hundreds and hundreds of Jews came out of Russia because of my wife,” he said.

A fifth-generation Jerusalemite, the gregarious Glickman got behind a microphone early. As a boy in Palestine during World War II, he won an audition to sing the jingle that introduced the BBC’s daily Hebrew-language broadcast. After finishing his musical studies in 1955, he conducted choirs before moving to Los Angeles in 1960.

He interrupted his career in Los Angeles to return to Israel to fight in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Glickman left Congregation Beth Jacob in 1982 to live in Israel. During his 10 years there, he set up the Jerusalem Center for Jewish Music and served as director of the separate Jewish music center at the Gush Etzion settlement near Jerusalem. He twice visited Russian Jews in the 1990s and compiled a 1991 Hebrew-Russian songbook.

With his children grown, Glickman returned to the United States in 1992.

Cantors, he said, are paid poorly in Israel, but they can make a living in America.

Glickman worked in Connecticut from 1992 to 2001 as cantor at Congregation Agudath Shalom in Stamford; his wife died in 1994. In 2001, he accepted his position at Mogen David.

Come December, he’ll reside in Israel with his second wife Shifra, 62, who will take Ulpan courses to learn Hebrew.

He is proud of his work with Soviet Jews and proud that he fought for Israel, but his work as a conductor and cantor are what will stay with him.

“I transmitted the Jewish musical experience to a whole generation here,” he said, “to bring them closer to God.”

 

7 Days in The Arts


Saturday, October 15

Joyous dance and celebration is at the heart of Russian American painter Ann Krasnow’s art. Take it in, and meet the artist in person at Solaris Gallery’s opening reception for “Ann Krasner: New Work.”

6-9 p.m. 9009 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood. (310) 273-6935.

1114 by Ann Krasner 
“1114” by Ann Krasner. 

Sunday, October 16

Your favorite glass-eyed investigator gets honored by the American Cinematheque this weekend at their “Peter Falk In Person Retrospective.” Friday, see a double feature of “The In-Laws” and “Mikey and Nickey,” with a discussion in between films with Columbo himself. Saturday, see “Happy New Year,” or come later for “Wings of Desire” followed by a talk with Falk and director Wim Wenders. And wrap up the weekend with today’s screening of “A Woman Under the Influence.”

$6-9 (per feature or double feature). Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica. (323) 466-3456.

 
(From left) Alan Arkin, Peter Falk and director Arthur Hiller.

Monday, October 17

In David Margolick’s new book, “Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling and a World on the Brink,” a boxing match in the days leading up to World War II carried the weight of the world. Hear all about it, as Margolick reads from and signs his book tonight at Book Soup.

7 p.m. Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110.

Schmeling
Schmeling, a drenched Joe Jacobs at his side. Photo courtesy New York Daily News

Tuesday, October 18

The daughter of late British Jewish actor Laurence Harvey and supermodel Paulene Stone, Domino Harvey led a turbulent existence. Tony Scott’s new biopic, “Domino,” is loosely based on her life story as a drug- and adrenaline-addicted heiress turned bounty hunter. The film opens this week and stars Keira Knightley.

www.dominomovie.com.

Keira Knightley
Keira Knightley stars as model-turned-bounty hunter Domino Harvey. Pnoto by Daniela Scaramuzza/New Line Productions

Wednesday, October 19

“If Hitler had the atomic bomb first, we’d all be speaking German,” observes one World War II British agent in the PBS documentary “Secrets of the Dead: The Hunt for Nazi Scientists.” There’s plenty of derring-do behind enemy lines to track down Nazi nuclear and rocket scientists, and then to snatch them before the Russians could. Harrowing testimony by survivors detail the deaths of 10,000 slave laborers used in the German weapon project. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

8 p.m. on KCET. www.kcet.org.

 

Thursday, October 20

Theatrical readings along the theme of “In a Lonely Place” take place today at the Hammer Museum. Co-sponsored by Los Angeles Conservancy’s “Curating the City: Wilshire Boulevard” project, readers include actress Dana Delaney and prototypical L.A. writers James Ellroy and Bruce Wagner.

7 p.m. 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 443-7000.

Bruce Wagner
Bruce Wagner

Friday, October 14

Recall the angst-ridden days of college application season in David T. Levinson’s new comedic play, “Early Decision.” The playwright may be more recognizable as the founder and chair of Big Sunday, Los Angeles’ largest volunteer day, but the Jewish community has a role in his play as well.

Oct. 9-Nov. 13. Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica. (310) 392-7327.

Early Decision
(From left) Susan Merson, Lara Everly, Brain Chase and Bob Neches star in “Early Decision.”

 

The Arts


The three A’s in “Natasha” are filled in by tiny stylized Matryoshka dolls, the traditional Russian stacking dolls,
on the book jacket of David Bezmozgis’ radiant debut (Farrar Straus and Giroux, $18).

In this collection of linked stories, the three figures at the center are a mother,
father and son who leave Riga, Latvia, for Toronto, Canada. The stories are told from
the point of view of the son, Mark Berman, who observes everything and helps interpret the New World for his parents.

Like his narrator, Bezmozgis is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union. He left Riga in 1979 and arrived in Toronto
in 1980 at the age of 6. But the stories are “not very autobiographical – they are only superficially based on my family.
It’s a combination of incidents that happened, things I misremembered, stories that happened to other immigrants,” he said.

Bezmozgis writes with a beautiful economy of words, and with warmth, wit and loyalty toward a community he feels very much part of.
The first story opens soon after the family arrives in Toronto, and they live “one respectable block” from the center of the Russian
community with its “flapping clotheslines” and borscht-smelling hallways. Through the stories they struggle and progress to better
apartments and to a suburban house “at the edge of Toronto’s sprawl.”

Each story is a fully lived moment on the Berman family’s journey toward fitting in. In Latvia, Roman Berman was a massage therapist, a
trainer of Olympic athletes. Sometimes, when the father isn’t around, the young boy takes out and studies an old photo of his father in Riga,
his face carrying the “detached confidence of the highly placed Soviet functionary.” For the boy, “it was comforting to think that
the man in the picture and my father were once the same person.”

In the story “Roman Berman, Massage Therapist,” the father passes difficult certification exams, sets up an office with his name on
the door and then waits for clients. A rabbi suggests advertising, and they pass out copies of a flyer full of newly acquired superlatives.
When a doctor calls and invites the family to Shabbat dinner, they accept, full of hope.

He writes, “Before Stalin, my great-grandmother lit the candles and made an apple cake every Friday night. In my grandfather’s recollection
of prewar Jewish Latvia, the candles and apple cakes feature prominently. When my mother was a girl, Stalin was already in charge, and although
there was still apple cake, there were no more candles. By the time I was born, there were neither candles nor apple cake, though in my mother’s
mind, apple cake still meant Jewish. With this in mind, she retrieved the apple cake recipe and went to the expensive supermarket for the
ingredients.”

They arrive at Dr. Kornblum’s home with “feigned confidence” and a warm apple cake. The doctor means well, but is patronizing, even insulting,
sending the family home with their cold apple cake. Fearing more bad luck and rejection, they dump the cake, expensive ingredients and all.

With poignancy, Bezmozgis shows how the yearnings of the immigrants and the good intentions of others don’t quite match. Other stories
reveal gaps of understanding between the family and friends they left behind, and between members of the larger family.

Bezmozgis, Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar are a troika of young Russian Jewish émigré fiction writers of considerable talent. They
write of a sense of being between worlds, although each is quite different: Shteyngart is the satirist of the group. Bezmozgis and Vapnyar,
who has also published a collections of stories, are more similar in their spare, understated style, although most of Vapnyar’s stories are
set in the former Soviet Union, while Bezmozgis portrays one émigré family, and through them, the larger community.

The three follow in a long, respected line of Jewish writers who have creatively mined their immigrant pasts and ethnic neighborhoods
in fiction. Writers like Philip Roth, Grace Paley, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Mordecai Richler and Bernard Malamud come to mind.

“It’s a dream to be part of that tradition,” Bezmozgis said, although he feels most akin, stylistically and thematically, with writers
like Isaac Babel and Leonard Michaels.

For the author, being Jewish is very important. “I’m an atheist. I think that limits what kind of religious life I can have without
being a tourist or hypocrite. Being part of a community, at synagogue, gives me pleasure.” He added, “You put me in a synagogue with old
Eastern European Jews, and I’m likely to break down in tears. That is my idea of Jewish tradition and my identity.”

Growing up, he was the family’s translator and since he was 10, he would write letters for his father, a massage therapist like
Roman Berman. The author attended an Orthodox Jewish day school for eight years and then a public high school. After graduating from
McGill University in Montreal, he received an MFA in film. He worked in Los Angeles for five years as a documentary filmmaker before
moving back to Toronto.

He admittedly has a poor memory, and finds that can be valuable. About Latvia, he remembers nothing. “It allows me not to be too
deeply connected to things. I can’t be faithful to something I can’t remember.” In writing he tries “to find the emotional truth,
not a documentary truth,” he said.

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

Aaron Samson wrote and stars in “Not Dead Yet,” a piece inspired by his grandfather’s memoirs of his Russian past: working for Leon Trotsky, the consequent threat of execution by Russia’s communist regime and his quick escape to the United States where he began a new life. The one-man show follows the journey of a grandson, Jacob Samson, back to Russia to find his roots and the missing pieces of the story his grandfather Leo wrote down. It plays today at the Elephant Lab.Runs Saturdays, through Sept. 18. 8 p.m. $10. 1078 Lillian Way, Los Angeles. (323) 878-2377.

Sunday

Might wanna throw some buttered popcorn into the picnic basket tonight for the Hollywood Bowl’s movie night program, “The Big Picture.” John Mauceri conducts the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in selections from MGM/UA movie scores, as scenes from the films are projected on the Bowl’s giant screen. The James Bond series, “Rocky,” “The Pink Panther” and “West Side Story” are some of the featured films.7:30 p.m. $3-$88. 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. (213) 480-3232 (for tickets).

Monday

Horn in on High Holiday fun with shofar-making activities this week. The Hebrew Discovery Center holds a Shofar Factory Party on Sunday for kids ages 5 and up, while Calabasas Shul holds a shofar-making workshop at the local Albertsons today.HDC: Sept. 5, Noon. $7 (per child, include slice of pizza and refreshments). (818) 348-4432. Calabasas Shul: Sept. 6, 5-6:30 p.m. $5 (per shofar). (818) 591-7485.

Tuesday

The Mexican Jewish community isn’t one that gets much ofa spotlight, but for filmmaker Guita Shyfter, it made sense to focus on her ownroots and community. “Like a Bride” (“Novia Que Te Vea”) is the result. Thefilm’s uncommon subject matter is made more unique by its treatment: the storyof two women friends coming of age in 1960s Mexico City is told primarilythrough dialogue in Ladino and Spanish, with some Hebrew and Yiddish, as well.It is newly released on DVD. $17.96. www.amazon.com

.

Wednesday

Klezmer goes upbeat in the latest CD by Yiddishe Cup,”Meshugeneh Mambo.” Six parody tracks pay tribute to klezmer comedian MickeyKatz, with the rest offering up original or reworked “neo-Borscht Belt klezmercomedy” tunes, and the titles say it all: “K’nock Around the Clock,” “I Am A Manof Constant Blessings” and “Second Avenue Square Dance.” $15. www.yiddishecup.com .

Thursday

Sports nuts despair not. With the close of this summer’s Olympic Games also comes the opening of “Game Face: What Does a Female Athlete Look Like?” at USC Fisher Gallery. The exhibition features photographs of women from the 1890s to today participating in sports from hunting to ping-pong to soccer. Creator Jane Gottesman has compiled images from myriad sources, including the Associated Press and various renown photographers including Ansel Adams, Robert Mapplethorpe, April Saul and Annie Leibowitz.Runs through Oct. 30. Noon-5 p.m. (Tues.-Sat.). Harris Hall, 823 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 740-4561.

Friday

The Nuart goes behind the music tonight, presenting the L.A. premiere of “End of the Century,” a documentary about the seminal punk rock band, The Ramones. From their interpersonal disputes to their struggles for fame, the doc takes a hard look at the hard-living band that arguably failed to achieve the recognition they deserved until long after they’d split.11272 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 281-8223.

Russian Kids’ Home Has Fashionable Help


Who would guess that every hip-hop kid sporting the Ecko label inadvertently helps save a Jewish child half a world away in the former Soviet Union?

The founders of Ecko Unltd., a popular line of hip-hop apparel that features a distinctive rhinoceros, promised in 1998 to donate a portion of their profits to charity if they got out from under their considerable debt. In late 2000, Marc Ecko, Marci Tapper and Seth Gerzberg started fulfilling that promise after learning about Ukraine’s Ohr Dessa Project and Tikva Children’s Home.

The Ohr Dessa Project was established 11 years ago by Rabbi Shlomo Bakst to rebuild Kiev’s Great Choral Synagogue, completed in 1997. During reconstruction, Bakst became aware of numerous homeless Jewish orphans in Odessa. The Tikva Children’s Home was created in 1996 as a spin-off of the Ohr Dessa Project.

Today, Ecko Unltd., based in South River, N.J., underwrites all administrative costs for Tivka, which means “hope” in Hebrew.

“Marc [Ecko] and his business partners have had a major influence on Tikva,” said Emily Lehrmann, Tikva’s director of operations. “They have enabled us to more than double the number of children we are able to help.”

Ecko also draws other U.S. supporters to Tikva, including Sandra and Leonard Piontak, of Corona del Mar, who became Tikva’s largest contributors.

On their last fundraising mission to Odessa in May, Ecko and friends raised over $700,000 for Tikva, bringing the total amount raised this year to $2.5 million. The effort is part of a larger capital campaign (with a goal of $6.5 million) that will support the construction of a new girls’ high school, dormitory and infants’ home, set to open in the fall of 2006. The Piontaks are Tikva trustees.

Sandra Piontak got involved with Tikva a year ago at the suggestion of Effy Zinkin, general counsel for Ecko Unltd. “‘Just wait until you see these kids,’ he told me,” Piontak said. “He was right.”

The Piontaks and their son Adam took an 11-hour flight to Budapest, Hungary and from there they flew to Odessa. After touring the city and visiting many places where Jewish children live — some in train stations by the tracks, some small one-room houses crammed full with people — the group of executives went to the children’s home.

“The great thing about Tikva is that you can actually see, touch and smell the difference that you’re making in the children’s lives,” Sandra Piontak said.

Tikva provides food, shelter and schooling for 180 girls and boys and educates an additional 500 Jewish children in the greater Odessa area. All children attending Tikva’s schools receive two hot meals a day.

Since her first trip last year, Piontak says the children recognize her and come running up, offering a wave of affection. On this last trip in May, Piontak visited three brothers, aged 8 months, 2 and 4 years old. Atur, the oldest, pulled up a chair for her to join them in the common room. Older children helped translate.

“The kids are just adorable,” Piontak said. “You fall in love with them right away.”

The younger ones are very fond of bubbles, she said. Ecko’s influence can be seen in the older children’s taste in music — they rave about Eminem and Beyoncé.

In addition to Atur’s two younger brothers, he has 11 cousins living in Tikva’s home with him. This is often the case, according to Lehrmann. Tikva’s staff includes researchers, who sift through old Soviet records — birth certificates, passports, etc. — to confirm a child’s true Jewish heritage and to find relatives of children that have come through Tikva’s doors.

The organization also provides other services to the greater Jewish community, including a daily “meals on wheels” program for the elderly and a day care center for working parents. The group is the largest and most well-respected group seeking to rebuild the Jewish community in Odessa.

After hearing horror stories about Jewish survival, most especially the Holocaust, Piontak feels compelled to give something back.

“Meeting these children and spending time with them has been the most moving experience of my life,” she said.

For more information about Tikva, visit

Kazan’s Residents:


A Sunday in the park. A brilliant, bright sun warms the air. The frozen tundra has given way to seedlings, flowers and patches of green. On this day, memories of the harsh Russian winter recede like so much melted snow.

Along with the blue skies and verdant forests, Judaism has returned here after a long hibernation. About 125 Russian Jews gathered May 9 to celebrate Lag B’Omer, a minor Jewish holiday that commemorates the day a plague ended during the time of Rabbi Akiba. Boys kicked around a soccer ball. Parents stopped to catch up with old friends or to share a smoke. A crowd huddled around a fiery barbecue from which the sweet smells of succulent chicken kabobs wafted.

Spring had arrived in Kazan, a city of 1.4 million about 500 miles southeast of Moscow. Life seemed especially good for the estimated 7,000 Jews who continue to call the place home. For decades, Kazan’s Jews had lived uncomfortably in an atheist state that viewed them as outsiders. Practicing Judaism during the Soviet era — publicly or even privately — could derail careers, lead to academic expulsions and attract the unwanted attention of the KGB.

Today, a Jewish renaissance is taking place in Kazan, as in other parts of the former Soviet Union (FSU). In the past 15 years, a Jewish community has slowly grown up in here, partly under the auspices of the Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch sect. Kazan has a renovated Jewish community center in the heart of town that houses a synagogue, a mikvah (ritual bath), and a library teeming with Jewish texts. Jewish pensioners receive free medical care, meals and Hebrew lessons from a group called Hessid. In March, a new 30-minute radio program about Jewish philosophy began airing on a local station.

"We now have the possibility in Kazan to say we’re Jewish and proud of it," said Sofia Botodova, a 45-year-old mother of two and director of cultural programs for the Jewish Community Center. "We can celebrate all the Jewish holidays and invite our non-Jewish and Jewish friends. We can have a Jewish life here."

That’s not to suggest anti-Semitism has disappeared from the Russian landscape. It hasn’t, said Alistair Hodgett, spokesman for Amnesty International. In recent years, Jews have been beaten, robbed and intimidated for their beliefs, and Russian authorities have sometimes shown a reluctance to classify anti-Semetic acts as hate crimes, he said.

Still, many Jews in Kazan and elsewhere in the FSU said things have improved dramatically since the crumbling of communism.

Grigory Dyakov, born to a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father, said religion never mattered much to him growing up. But when his grandmother died six years ago, Dyakov went to temple to say Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer for the dead. The 32-year-old investment banker said he discovered a beauty in Judaism that completed him. He has since become an Orthodox Jew and underwent an adult circumcision in 1999.

"The synagogue has become my top priority," he said as he performed the Jewish religious custom of wrapping tefillin. "I come to pray in the morning, at lunch and in the evening. I am a better Jew, and I think a better person as well."

Kazan State University student Jenya Sontz said she has forged her closest friendships at the Union of Kazan Jewish Youth Center. There, students celebrate Shabbat, attend lectures on Judaism and feel pride in their heritage.

"Maybe it’s a cliché to say, but we’re all family," she said.

In Kazan, Chabad works in tandem with several other Jewish organizations, including the Joint Distribution Committee, Hillel and the Russian Jewish Congress to support Jewish life. Elsewhere in the FSU, Chabad is "the only game in town," said Sue Fishkoff, author of "The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch" (Schoken Books, 2003).

The group has permanently stationed 220 rabbis throughout the FSU, funds seven Jewish day schools, 10 Jewish orphanages, Jewish summer camps and soup kitchens, among other projects. Its annual budget for the region of $60 million dwarfs that of other Jewish organizations. Chabad traces its roots to the former Russian city of Lubavitch.

Some Russian Jews mutter privately that Chabad wants nothing less than to turn the largely secular Jews of the FSU into ultra-Orthodox foot soldiers. Nonsense, said Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, the executive director of the Chabad-Lubavitch-dominated Federation of Jewish Communities of the Former Soviet Union.

"Chabad wants to help every Jew: man, woman, or child, to appreciate and love their faith and traditions more and go up one step at a time to add a little more to their observance," he said.

Kazan was gentler to its Jews than most other parts of the FSU. Jews began settling there in the 1830s when the czar forcibly conscripted young Jewish boys to serve him in the region. Jewish traders and craftsman followed, bringing the Jewish population to about 2,000 by the end of the 19th century. In 1915, the relatively prosperous Jewish community opened a synagogue, which the Soviets later nationalized and turned into a cultural center for teachers.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Ukrainian and White Russian Jewish students barred from their home universities fled to Kazan where anti-Jewish quotas were more relaxed. Kazan authorities sometimes looked the other way when Jews celebrated minor Jewish holidays such as Simchat Torah or baked matzah in their homes.

But Kazan’s Jews faced insurmountable obstacles to practicing their faith. During Soviet times, there existed "no Jewish schools, no Jewish education, really no organized Jewish life here," said Lev Bunimovich, a 77-year-old retired welder. Even in the nominally tolerant ’60s, a Jewish professor of mathematics lost his job for refusing to teach on Shabbat.

Under former Soviet leader Mikail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika, Jewish culture reasserted itself in Kazan. Jewish youth choirs and klezmer bands emerged and held large concerts. Hundreds attended public seders. Still, about 4,000 of Kazan’s Jews immigrated to Israel and the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Surprisingly, those who decided to stay behind did — not because they had lost touch with their heritage — but because they wanted to build a Jewish life in their homeland. Israel’s economic woes and vulnerability to terrorism have put a brake on new immigration and have actually led to a reverse migration. In recent years, an estimated 50,000 Soviet Israeli Jews have returned to the FSU, experts said.

Alexander Velder is one Kazan’s many Jews who said he has no regrets about remaining. The 45-year-old furniture manufacturer chairs a local philanthropic organization called the United Jewish Council of Kazan. The group is actively raising local money to build Russia’s first Jewish home for the aging, which, when completed next year, will house 50 seniors.

Reflecting on Kazan’s Jewish renaissance, Velder smiled and said: "It was never like this for most of my life."

Community Briefs


Cooper Visits Sudan, DiscussesSlavery

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, spent an eventful 21 hours in Sudan in mid-February when he met with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to discuss the country’s ongoing slave trade and a peace treaty with Sudanese rebel.

“The whole notion of enslavement in the 20th and 21st century really has sparked concern and anger in many, many corners,” Cooper told The Journal.

That could change through negotiations to end two horrific decades of civil war between the Muslim-dominated government in Sudan’s north and Christian rebels in the south. At the Sudanese presidential palace in Khartoum, Bashir listened to Cooper’s recommendation to allow anti-slavery activists free reign in traveling across Sudan, seeking to help end slavery.

“Whatever can be done to speed that along,” he said.

Mohammed Khan, a second-generation Pakistani American in Los Angeles and adviser to the American Sudanese Council, traveled with Cooper.

“The Sudanese government is making it very clear that they have nothing to hide,” Khan said.

Decades of civil war mean that “the Sudan was viewed by the U.S. as a kind out outpost and welcome mat for terrorists,” Cooper said. “With all of the bloodshed and everything else that’s taken place, number one, the terrorists are gone.”

The rabbi said he felt comfortable walking around war-torn Khartoum.

“It’s been a long, long time since the people over there have seen any Jews,” he said — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

JFS to Give More to Russian Outreach

Following complaints from elderly ex-Soviet Jews, JFS Family Service (JFS) has scaled back its planned shutdown of a decade-long Santa Monica program of entertainment, social services and twice-monthly meetings for about 150 Russian and Baltic Jewish senior citizens.

JFS instead is allocating more money to the Russian Outreach Program, but the program coordinator has quit because JFS cut her weekly hours from 15 to four.

“I will not work four hours a week and I don’t know who can,” Lina Haimsky said. “There is no possible way anyone can run the program working four hours a week.”

JFS Executive Director Paul Castro said that following a Feb. 16 meeting with concerned senior citizens, JFS decided to cut Haimsky’s hours, but increase the Russian Senior Program’s annual activity fund budget from $1,500 to $2,000 and increase JFS case management for program participants.

“This essentially reinstates the program, but at a smaller level, a lower level,” Castro said.

Retiree Rachel Flaum, who lobbied JFS to save the outreach program, said, “On the one hand, it’s very good because they gave us more money for our activity. But on the other hand, they cut the salary for the coordinator, so she quit. For a short time, we will try to do something without a coordinator, just to keep the people together.” — DF

Social Services Battle SacramentoCuts

Jewish social service agency leaders are planning a spring Sacramento pilgrimage to seek mercy from state legislators planning extensive cuts in health and welfare budgets.

“This is a pretty tough year in Sacramento; there aren’t too many people who are really speaking for the poor and the underrepresented,” said Coby King, association director of the Jewish Public Affairs Committee (JPAC). The statewide coalition of mostly Federation-based groups led a Feb. 11 delegation to Sacramento and is a planning a similar May 10-11 lobbying trip, King said, “to try to lessen some of the damage that’s being done up there.”

Paul Castro, executive director of Jewish Family Service, said JPAC’s Feb. 11 trip had Jewish agency leaders meeting with state Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge), plus senior staff from state senators and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office to discuss medical service cuts.

“Everybody’s sympathetic. I don’t think there’s any clear solution,” Castro said. “There’s a little bit of guarded optimism [about Schwarzenegger]. I guess there’s a sense that he’s not tied into one place or another.”

H. Eric Schockman, executive director of the West Los Angeles-based MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, did not attend the Feb. 11 trip but is monitoring proposed budget cuts in the food stamp and child-care programs.

“Cuts into child care force families to spend more on food resources,” Schockman said. “These all have rippling effects in both our economy and our social fabric. Food is a basic building block for everything else.”

For information about JPAC’s May 10-11 Sacramentolobbying trip, contact Coby King at (310) 489-2820 or visit www.jpac-cal.org . — DF

Haven of Refuge


For centuries, most people have viewed Siberia as a dreaded prison of frozen tundra, the closest cold spot on earth to the gloom of purgatory.

But for the Jews of Asia and Europe, Siberia has represented something far more attractive: a great escape. The targets of deadly anti-Semitism and mass expulsions elsewhere on the continent, Jews historically have looked to Siberia as something of a refuge from hostile local governments that killed, exploited or expelled their Jews.

“The good thing about Siberia is that once you were exiled here, there was nowhere else to go,” an elderly Siberian Jew said.

Jews have been migrating to Siberia from all over the continent for several centuries, lured by Siberia’s relative isolation and, sometimes, the promise of wealth. Today, that same isolation is a hindrance to a revival of Jewish life in Siberia, where it has been slower to arrive than elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.

During the Soviet era, not everything was slow to arrive in Siberia. On the night of June 14, 1941, Moishe Kiselevskiy was sound asleep in his Baltic home when Soviet troops barged into his living room and gave him 20 minutes to get up and cram into a railroad freight car bound for Siberia.

His family was one of several Jewish families with successful private businesses that the Soviet state had deemed “dangerous social elements.” Fortuitously, the terrifying evacuation saved Kiselevskiy and his family from the Nazis: Hitler’s forces arrived two weeks later and, with the help of local collaborators, slaughtered more than 90 percent of the Jews of Latvia and Lithuania.

Jews first arrived in Siberia in the late 17th century, seeking gold and fur. In the 19th century, the Russian government offered free land plots and relocation allowances to pioneers willing to move to the untouched region. A small portion of those who went to Siberia were Jews looking to escape anti-Semitism in the Pale of Settlement, the swath of land in western Russia, where Jews generally were forced to live after 1835.

Early in the 20th century, when tens of thousands of Jews were fleeing to the United States to escape the hunger, university quotas and anti-Semitism in the Pale, Jacob Schniderman, 72, was among the few who opted for Siberia. Today he owns a bakery in Birobidzhan.

Schniderman is atypical; most Jews did not really choose to go to Siberia. In the 18th and 19th centuries, czarist exiles, including many political prisoners and criminals, were sent there. Among them were Jews, whose descendants managed to thrive as merchants. In 1898, there were 44,000 registered Jews in 26 Siberian communities.

Others Jews went to Siberia because there was no other place they could go to escape anti-Semitism at home. The family of Elena Uvarovskaya, head of the Jewish community center in the Siberian city of Ulan Ude, fled there to escape the 1915 pogroms in Lithuania.

The Jewish population of Siberia swelled during World War I, when Czar Nicholas II sent to the region Jewish soldiers, whom he feared were German spies.

Synagogues and Jewish schools began to be built in Siberia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Local officials were split between implementing czarist anti-Semitic policies and creating a comfortable environment for an ethnic group that was helping fuel the local economy.

As Jews got comfortable in their adopted home, religious observances fell by the wayside. Many worked on the Sabbath and attended synagogue only on the High Holidays. During the Soviet era, intermarriage was the norm, largely because relatively few Jewish women could be found in Russia’s Far East.

The Soviet state culled highly educated and skilled workers from western Russia to fill posts in military-related and scientific fields. Consequently, most of the Jewish workers who headed east were male — as many as 90 percent, according to some.

“There were no Jewish girls over here,” said Zelick Shniederman, a Jew from Krasnoyarsk, explaining the region’s high intermarriage rate.

“Siberia was the worst place to be Jewish during Soviet times,” said Zev Vagner, a Moscow-based rabbi and author of the Russian Jewish Encyclopedia. “The KGB was much more strict than in Moscow, which made a show for tourists and visitors. In Siberia, you couldn’t make a move.”

Others disagreed, arguing that Siberia’s distance from Moscow allowed for limited religious freedoms in Russia’s Far East.

Today, Siberia’s Jews are free to practice their religion as they see fit, but few are interested in the Jewish tradition, local Jewish officials said.

Russia’s Jews Rediscover Roots


Lev Entin, a 90-year-old resident of St. Petersburg, has spent the past year relearning something he spent most of his life trying to forget: his Judaism.

Entin’s father was a shochet (ritual slaughterer), and until Entin was 12, he attended a cheder (Jewish school). But after that, Entin, "a product of the Bolshevik Revolution," as he puts it, did not pay attention to his religion.

But in the past year, Entin has reintroduced himself to his tradition by reading books and brochures he receives from his local Hesed welfare center.

"Only this year did I become a Jew again," he said.

Roughly 175,000 Jewish elderly in Russia are now served by the 88 Heseds across the former Soviet Union. These centers, run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), account for about one-half of all Jewish social and welfare organizations in the former Soviet Union.

They provide basic services, such as food and health care, to the large numbers of elderly who were impoverished both by the chaos of post-Communist Russia and by last August’s economic collapse. But the Heseds, which mean "charitable deed," also play a role that is just as important in creating a Jewish community for the Russian elderly.

When the JDC began opening Heseds in the former Soviet Union earlier this decade, the organizers were afraid of two things: that the centers would be overwhelmed by requests from non-Jewish clients, and that the centers would lead to an anti-Semitic backlash. None of the fears has come true.

Indeed, in some places Hesed centers serve as a model for similar state-run organizations. In St. Petersburg, for example, Hesed Avraham is among the most successful welfare organizations in the city of 4 million. Last year, Hesed Avraham started a joint project with a local government-funded welfare organization, where one of the Hesed dining rooms is now feeding 100 non-Jewish needy elderly.

The success of the Hesed program has led to some problems. Indeed, in some cities, local authorities ignore the needs of Jewish clients because there are other organizations to take care of them.

"The state sometimes wants to lay its responsibility onto the Heseds. But Jews are citizens of this country just like non-Jews and the state has certain obligations toward them," says Benjamin Haller, director of the JDC’s William Rosenwald Institute for Communal and Welfare Workers in St. Petersburg, which trains Jewish social workers and conducts sociological research of the Jewish elderly in the former Soviet Union.

But there is one aspect of the Hesed activities where the state welfare system cannot help: reconnecting people to their Judaism.

"People are coming to Heseds not only to get a piece of bread. They come to taste the spirit which makes us unique, distinct from other similar organizations. This is the spirit of belonging to the Jewish people," Haller said.

For example, in the city of Tula, some 190 miles south of Moscow, about 50 elderly Jews gathered on a recent Friday night at the Hasdei Neshama center. A concert by a local klezmer band was followed by a Shabbat service and a meal conducted by a Moscow rabbi who comes to the city every weekend.

In St. Petersburg, Hesed Avraham publishes Hesed Shalom, a bimonthly newspaper with a print run of 15,000.

This process of creating a community extends beyond the clients served by the Hesed centers to the volunteers who assist.

Last year, about 7,000 volunteers participated in the provision of welfare and other social services in the centers.

"Any program we run involves people helping other people. Even a bedridden person can call another bedridden [person] so that they will not feel lonely," Haller said.

In most communities, youths and students of Jewish schools occasionally volunteer in some social programs. But the average volunteer is recently retired and is in his early 60s. These people deliver food to the homebound, do home repair or work once or twice a week as hairdressers, shoemakers, electricians. Medical doctors conduct regular free consultations for Jewish elderly in almost every Hesed center.

Despite all the good work they are doing, the future of the Heseds is not entirely rosy. With the ongoing economic crisis and the depreciation of pensions, money is becoming rare, particularly to supply medicines.

The multimillion-dollar annual budget of the Heseds comes from several sources. Most Russian Heseds operate with the money channeled by JDC from funds raised by the joint campaign of the United Jewish Appeal and local federations in the United States. These funds go primarily to support the most fund-consuming part of the Hesed operations — food programs, including monthly and holiday food packages and distribution of hot meals through community dining rooms and meals-on-wheels programs.

While the activities are operated by the JDC in conjunction with local groups, including the Russian Jewish Congress, a majority of the funds for the multimillion-dollar project are provided by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany — particularly in Ukraine and Belarus, which were under Nazi rule during World War II.

Most observers say Hesed programs have been the most successful — in their scope and outreach — of all similar projects supported with local and foreign funds.

They appear to be successful for Sofia Shapiro, an 80-year-old retired engineer who receives several services from her local Hesed in Yekaterinburg. The homebound Shapiro and her bedridden blind sister, Vera Brook, have no relatives and a caretaker from Hesed visits them daily. The center also gave Shapiro a walker made by some of the eight staff workers and 39 volunteers who assemble a total of 2,500 wheelchairs, walkers, walking canes and crutches a month at a plant in St. Petersburg.

"There is a sticker here," Shapiro says, pointing at the bottom part of the walker. "It says, ‘Live with Hope.’ So I do."

The Russian Club


What the Russian Jewish immigrants of Orange County lack in numbers they make up for in passion.

There are between 3,000-10,000 Russian Jewish immigrants in Orange County — no one is quite sure of the exact number.

Most of these newcomers have only a slight connection to the larger Jewish immigrant community. They may run into each other at the only Russian deli in Orange County or come to a concert at the Russian Club that meets once a month at the Jewish Community Center in Costa Mesa.

But other immigrants make a point to reach out and stay connected.

Some six decades ago, Olga Filatova was a 19-year-old medic in the Red Army, tending to wounded soldiers on the front lines. Later she finished medical school, had a successful career as a physician and eventually settled in Orange County. Ten years ago, she and a few others founded the Orange County organization of war veterans from the Soviet Union. “They voted me in as president 10 years ago and they keep re-electing me every year,” Filatova said. “I guess they like me.”

There is also, she acknowledges, a smaller pool from which to choose.

“We have about 300 members now,” Filatova said. “When we started there were 475, but so many have died. We are old.”

Filatova doesn’t sound old. Her voice is strong, energetic, full of life. She laughs readily, as she is now, when I ask her how old she is. “I spoke to a man in New York who had written a book about veterans organizations and he asked me the same question. I told him that I was 80. He said that I was just a kid, that he was 104 and writing books. You don’t get old when there are things to be done.”

The Red Army veterans are an integral part of the Russian Club — they provide much of the talent at the monthly meetings. There are skits, singers, poetry readings and, once in a while, a performance by an invited violinist or pianist.

“I am very happy in America,” Filatova told me. “We have a good organization. We have people in charge of artistic matters, of collecting dues or planning trips. And we have one person” — her voice lowered — “who takes care of the funerals. This too has to be done, you know.”

The Russian Club has 95 dues-paying members, according to club leader Olga Dubnikova. But, she said, many nonmembers come to the events, which include ballet performances by students who are taught at a nearby ballet school by non-Jewish former Soviet dancers. There is an English-language preschool at the Jewish Community Center, but only two immigrant children go there. From time to time there were efforts to create a facility to teach Russian to the children and grandchildren of immigrants but nothing really worked. Most kids speak very little Russian, even fewer are able to read or write it.

I told Dubnikova that Americans always like to tell me that their grandparents came from this or that Russian gubernia, an archaic term for a geographic division that has not been in use since the 1917 revolution. It is rare for them to know anything else about their heritage.

She laughed, sadly. “Yes, our children will also grow up knowing little about their background, where they came from. There is little we can do about it. We do what we can, but this is America, after all. It would be nice if we could have someone give lectures on the history of Russian Jews, on what was done for us so that we could emigrate. We know so little.”

The Russian Club makes an attempt to celebrate the Jewish holidays and will probably have a High Holidays service if a rabbi can be found to conduct it.

“Synagogues? I really don’t know how many of us have joined synagogues here. The Russian Club is mostly old people — the younger ones don’t really come here. I don’t know if they go to American synagogues.”

Dubnikova told me that they had Passover seders in Russian at the center, conducted by Chaim Marcus, a young American businessman from a rabbinical family who had spent several years in the Ukraine. He provided Russian haggadot, matzah and led the services.

“If we want to see a Jewish concert by a group from Russia that is touring California or go to a Jewish museum, we have to go to Los Angeles. Very few come to Orange County. And, of course, there is the question of money. We pay $2 a month in dues, but we also send packages to Russia and make contributions for Israel so that there is really no way we can rent a bus or pay for the tickets for our members.”

Dubnikova tells me that the club had placed an ad in the Jewish paper but that the response was very minimal.

“But what about your children? They are all working and making money, aren’t they?” I asked.

“Yes, they work, of course, they work, but they pay taxes, they have families, they have expenses, you know,” she said defensively.

“But so do the Americans, right? And they give to good causes. Why not the Russians? Why can’t a Russian doctor write a check for a thousand or so?” I ask.

“Who knows,” she said. “Our people just don’t. No one will write a check like that. I know the Armenians take care of their own and the Vietnamese, and even the Iranian Jews. But our people are less willing, they just aren’t used to it, I guess.”

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.”

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