L.A.’s Russians recapture their Jewish soul


In March, Svetlana Rapoport became a bat mitzvah.

Raised in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union, where practicing religion was discouraged and anti-Semitism was rampant, Rapoport hadn’t had the chance to celebrate this rite of passage.

Finally, at 34, Rapoport had her moment on the bimah.

“This day symbolizes a new beginning … a new level of devotion and dedication to our people,” she said in her speech to her family and friends gathered for the occasion at Kehillat Ma’arav in Santa Monica.

Rapoport had come to this point because of the Russian Jewish B’nai Mitzvah Project, an initiative designed to strengthen Jewish identity among young adults of Russian heritage. It is sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Genesis Philanthropy Group. Some of the participants are immigrants from Russia and its neighbors, including Ukraine, Belarus and other former Soviet countries. Others are first-generation Russian-Americans. All have roots in a land and culture where religion was spurned, and, as a result, many of them were once a blank slate with regard to their Judaism.

 “What’s unique about Russian Jews is they feel Judaism very differently than the rest of Jews,” said Jenny Gitkis Vainstein, a regional representative in Los Angeles for the Jewish Agency for Israel. Gitkis Vainstein’s job is to increase interest in Judaism among Russian Jews, and she has been working with Federation toward that goal since 2010.

Institutional engagement with this community is not new. In fact, it dates back to at least the 1970s, when the Soviet Union still existed and its government was making life miserable for Jews there. Even as Soviet leaders placed restrictions on education, arts and culture, and religious practice, they denied Jews the right to emigrate, fearing if the Jews left, they would reveal Soviet secrets to the international community. 

The refusal to issue exit visas to Jews led to the popularization of the name refusenik, The refuseniks were, in essence, trapped inside the Soviet Union, as author and Jewish Daily Forward journalist Gal Beckerman described them in his award-winning book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry.” And, in the 1970s and ’80s, their plight prompted a swell of activism among American Jews.

When the Soviets eventually allowed a mass exodus of the Jews, it was largely in response to international pressure and the fact that the Soviet Union itself was dissolving.

[Related: Everybody has a story]

Andrew Cushnir, executive vice president and chief program officer at Federation, said approximately 25,000 Russian Jews eventually settled in Los Angeles as a result of the multiple immigration waves out of the former Soviet Union that took place between the 1970s and ’90s. Federation and other organizations actively assisted those Russian immigrants with their transition to life in the United States. And along the way, many of the activists who had advocated on the immigrants’ behalf recognized that the Russians often were not engaged religiously. This was troubling to them, Beckerman said in a phone interview with the Journal from his office in New York, adding that there were too many other immediate needs at the time to focus on giving this serious attention.

“For people who just arrived, for them the most important thing is to get bread on the table, to have jobs, to have their kids in school,” Maya Segal, an L.A. community member who ran Federation’s resettlement efforts for Russians and Iranians from 1997 to 2013, said in an interview. “The spiritual part, the religious part, comes later.”

That time is now, apparently.

Today, approximately 80,000 Russian Jews live in Los Angeles, Gitkis Vainstein estimates. And they don’t all live in West Hollywood. Sure, Russians playing dominoes is a common sight in the neighborhood’s Plummer Park on a Saturday morning, and Russian eateries, grocery stores and businesses line the stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard that runs through West Hollywood. 

Today, however, Russian Jews are dispersed throughout L.A. — especially the first-generation Russian-Americans, the 20- and 30-somethings born in America, as well as those young adults who arrived here as children with their families. They live all over Los Angeles, including the Westside, but also Studio City, West Los Angeles, Santa Monica and other neighborhoods. Gitkis Vainstein described them as a hip crowd of college degree-carrying professionals. “They’re very cool; they’re very educated. They are lawyers, they are doctors, they are involved in computer science. They are very successful in life, very warm, very funny,” she said.

Among them is Alex Grager, a managing partner at family-law firm Lopez and Grager and co-founder of Ru-Ju-LA, the Los Angeles Russian Jewish Network, a group that got started as a grass-roots effort propelled by Grager’s vision to unite this cohort. 

“When I first started thinking about this — there are a bunch of Russian-Jewish young adults in town, and all of their friends are Russian Jews, and they hang out … so they certainly have something in common, but they don’t really … do anything about it,” Grager said. He has been making a big push to change that. 

Today, Ru-Ju-LA has come under the auspices of The Jewish Federation and it has a steering committee of young Russian-speaking Jews. However, among its members, familiarity with Jewish life runs the full gamut. Some come from families who practiced Judaism, at least somewhat. Others learned they were Jewish in their teens.

“The majority have very few Jewish stories to share from Russia, and there are those with deeply embedded Jewish experiences,” Tal Gozani, Federation’s senior vice president of young adult engagement and leadership development, told the Journal.

What unites them is their interest in negotiating the role Judaism will play in their lives and spreading their passion for this journey to other Russian young adults.

Ru-Ju-LA is similar to some other young adults groups, such as ATID at Sinai Temple and the Federation’s Young Adults of Los Angeles (YALA). Its events are usually connected to Jewish holidays and often feel a bit like singles’ parties. 

And because they are meant to offer introductions to Judaism, without being particularly learning-bound, they are generally low-key in their Jewish content, so as not to discourage their observance-averse target audience from showing up. 

Last December, for example, dozens of young adults met for drinks at a West Hollywood bar for a Ru-Ju-LA Chanukah party. During the event, Grager sat down for an interview even as a stream of friends kept coming up to say hello. 

It was late in the evening when Gitkis Vanstein interrupted all the shmoozing to demonstrate how to light Chanukah candles. 

“We do this so they will celebrate it in their homes,” Gitkis Vainstein explained later. Otherwise, she said, “they wouldn’t.” 

Another Ru-Ju-LA party a few months later, this one for Purim, was in the same vein — heavy on socializing, light on Jewish content. But a recent Passover seder was an exception. Approximately 70 young adults gathered for the Ru-Ju-LA seder at Maxim, a restaurant in the Fairfax District, and their seder followed a haggadah specially created by Ru-Ju-LA.

“This Haggadah has been designed to integrate the modern miracle of the freedom attained by Soviet Jews with the beauty and excitement of a modern Passover Seder,” the haggadah reads. 

The attendees sat at long, banquet-style tables covered in white tablecloths complete with ceremonial seder plates, and, throughout, they drank the ritual wine, but also vodka in the tradition of their homeland — in fact, they were instructed that if they ran out of wine for the service, they could drink as much vodka as they wanted, which, as a part of the evening’s celebratory mood, they took to heart. 

Toward the end of the night, a DJ spun pop hits, including Robin Thicke’s 2013 smash “Blurred Lines.” In response, the crowd left their seats and turned the empty space between the tables and the restaurant’s stage into a joyous dance floor.

 

Another project at Federation to engage the Russian-Jewish community falls under its Community Leadership Institute (CLI). In terms of its organizational Russian-Jewish engagement and outreach, CLI might seem the brainy older brother of Ru-Ju-LA. The Russian program is just one of four leadership development programs, or “tracks,” as  Federation refers to them, for cohorts of young professionals ages 25 to 45. Currently, CLI’s Russian track is in its second year. 

Of course, CLI, like Ru-Ju-LA, wouldn’t be possible without funding. Genesis Philanthropy Group, founded by several wealthy Russian Jews with offices in North America, Israel and Russia, provides much of the resources driving Federation’s Russian programs, paid for through two grants totaling $140,000. Ilia Salita, the nonprofit’s executive director, believes it is essential to partner with organizations such as Federation on this work.

“This is extremely important in this day and age — community-building programs for Russian-speaking Jewish communities around the world,” he said.

Cushnir agrees, describing the Russian Jews as “a dynamic space in the community. Everyone is defining what it means to be Jewish differently.”

Genesis money must be used only for the engagement of Russian Jews. It also pays the salary of a Federation staff person — an assistant director focused exclusively on working with the Russian-Jewish community. Sasha Zlobina, who had worked previously in Jewish organizational life, both inside Russia and out, was hired for this position. She recently moved to Los Angeles from Odessa, in Ukraine, where she worked for a Hillel.

She has also worked as an executive assistant at Jewlicious, the youth engagement nonprofit led by Rabbi Yonah Bookstein. 

Unlike many of her peers, Zlobina came to the United States in her 20s. Now 27, she moved here at 23 to marry her husband, George Gromovoy, who owns a moving company; she met him during a retreat for Hillels in the former Soviet Union. Zlobina said she did not know she was Jewish until she was 16. A family friend in Odessa invited her to an event at a Hillel, which, in former Soviet Union countries, is open to all Jews and not affiliated with universities as they are in the United States. She was surprised by the invitation.

 “She said, ‘You’re totally Jewish,’ ” Zlobina told the Journal. “And I went to my mom and asked if that was true, and my mom said ‘yes,’ and she started telling me about our history and my grandmother and my [great-] grandmother, and that’s how I realized that I am. That’s how my Jewish journey begins.”

After the revelation, Zlobina became heavily involved with Hillel. 

“I went there and started to learn about Judaism and the history of Israel and all kinds of Jewish stuff. I decided to consider myself Jewish and tell everybody that I am Jewish, and then it became kind of a big deal for me,” she said.

Hillel offered her a job in outreach, which eventually led her to become its deputy director. 

She said she loves her work now at Federation in Los Angeles; her oversight of CLI allows her to draw upon work she did in Odessa. 

CLI’s first cohort attempted to create a Soviet Jewish film archive, and asked participants to interview their parents and grandparents about their lives in the Soviet Union. The plan was to translate the interviews into English, edit them together and hold a screening. But so far, the project has not proceeded beyond the filming stage. 

Grager, a graduate of the first CLI cohort and current co-chair of the second, takes such shortcomings in stride. Any attempts at creating engagement with a new immigrant community can have setbacks, he said. “I think the key here is small steps, and I sometimes get frustrated, because I think we are moving too slowly, but then I recognize this is how this community is going to develop,” he said.

Grager’s own ambitious plans include opening a center for the Russian-Jewish community, “a space for [the] Russian-Jewish community both to get together and enjoy each other’s company. In other words, what we are trying to accomplish is [to allow] members of the Russian community to be a resource for each other — be it social, educational, professional, whatever you want it to be.”

Meanwhile, Federation is considering creating a Birthright trip to Israel exclusively targeted to the Russian community. 

“We’ve had one conversation about it; we’re just trying to explore it,” Gozani told the Journal. “We think there might be interest.”

Gozani already has led one trip to Israel for the Russian participants of the inaugural CLI. She was new to the job at the time, but she was ready for the challenge. Gozani, who isn’t Russian, said she was moved by the experience of traveling with Russians who have such unique personal stories. 

“A week after [I started] the job, we spent 10 days in Israel,” she said. “I had an amazing experience with them and have been close with them since.”

 

At Kehillat Ma’arav last March, Svetlana Rapoport was one of 13 young adults from that first CLI cohort celebrating their b’nai mitzvah. She had been chosen from among the group to give her interpretation of the week’s Torah portion on behalf of all the celebrants. As Rapoport spoke, her 4-year-old daughter, Alena, left her seat and walked up to join her mother on the bimah.

Audience members laughed, delighted by the sight of the little girl so charmingly oblivious to social norms. Rapoport herself, however, was a little embarrassed. She apologized, picked up her daughter, and continued her speech: “We should always strive to be better, wiser, stronger and happier,” she said, holding the girl in her arms. 

Perhaps, in retrospect, it was apt that Alena had joined her mother on the bimah. After all, it was Alena who inspired Rapoport to undertake the long hours of preparation for her bat mitzvah. Benjamin Rapoport, Svetlana’s husband, told the Journal how this all came to be: “We want to make sure we can pass on something to our daughter,” he said. “So that she will know more about where we came from, and make sure she grows up understanding our religion, our tradition. And, hopefully, continues that legacy.”

Ru-Ju-LA founder Grager points to the Russian b’nai mitzvah project as one of the biggest successes of local engagement for this community effort to date. 

“The whole idea behind this program was to return the Russian-speaking Jewish adults to their Judaism one way or another, and this adult b’nai mitzvah class really kind of exemplifies everything this [CLI] leadership class, and Ru-Ju-LA for that matter, stands for,” Grager told the Journal on the day of the ceremony. “It’s an opportunity, it’s a reminder, and it allowed them to do something they wouldn’t have done otherwise.”

L.A. Russian Jewish Young Adult Network: Everybody has a story


FINDING HERSELF

When Viktoriya Kernes was just 13, her mother sent her to a Jewish social event. Kernes had no idea why. 

At the time, she did not know she was Jewish. 

“I really didn’t know what to make of it,” Kernes, now 29, said recently of the discovery she made while growing up in Moscow. 

She didn’t fully embrace the mensch life in the beginning, however. In an interview, Kernes said she spent her youth in Russia partying and hanging out with the wrong people. 

But after moving to Los Angeles at the age of 16, Kernes began to embrace Jewish life more fully. She attended American Jewish University, where she “found a passion for doing things Jewishly with purpose,” she said.

While she considers herself more culturally Jewish than anything, she is much less ambivalent about her Judaism than she was before. Part of the reason, she said, is her involvement with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Community Leadership Institute for Russian Jews. She is a graduate of the program’s first group and is serving as a co-chair of the current cohort. She is also an information technology manager at Warner Bros.

Ultimately, Kernes said, she hopes her Jewish involvement will help her find herself.

[Related: L.A.’s Russians recapture their Jewish soul]

“I think going back in history, and understanding our parents, and understanding the culture, and understanding the circumstances, is a way for you to reconcile and understand and recognize patterns of how you behave and why you do certain things,” she said.

JEWISH FIRST

Eric Fihman, 29, said Judaism comes first in his three-fold identity. 

“I am a Jewish American Russian; that’s how I see myself,” the CPA at NBCUniversal said in an interview. 

Born in the United States to Russian parents, Fihman is different from his peers on the L.A. Russian Jewish Young Adult Network’s (Ru-Ju-LA) steering committee, many of whose members immigrated to the States during their teens. 

He is also more observant than many of L.A.’s Russian Jews. 

“It’s tough. Some of it bothered me. I wanted a full-on seder, but some of these people wouldn’t have come,” he said of the April Ru-Ju-LA seder he helped organize. “In my heart, it’s a struggle. Is it perfect? No. Is it a stepping stone? Hopefully.”

ACCULTURATION

When Polyna Berlin’s family moved to the United States from Ukraine and settled in West Hollywood, Berlin, age 10 at the time, enrolled in elementary school there.

She and her family, however, did not stay in the heavily Russian community of West Hollywood for long.

“My family didn’t want us growing up in a Russian ghetto atmosphere,” she said. “They saw life for us as less Russian and more American.”

The family relocated to Tarzana and with financial assistance from The Jewish Federation, Berlin was able to attend Kadima Day School in the San Fernando Valley. Berlin, who is 32 now and works in public relations, is a graduate of University of California, Irvine. Today, as a member of the Ru-Ju-LA steering committee and a graduate of Federation’s Community Leadership Institute for Russians, she is actively involved with programs for Russian-speaking young adult Jews. 

Part of the reason, she said, is to repay the American-Jewish community that helped her family with their acculturation process.

“The Jewish Federation did a lot for my family. … I want to give back someday.”

A LEADER

Alex Grager founded Ru-Ju-LA as a way to unify his peers, he said.

Perhaps his interest stems from his lifelong connection to Judaism. Unlike many others in the community, Grager knew he was Jewish all of his life. Even in Moldova, the small country wedged between Romania and Ukraine where he grew up, his family practiced Judaism. He had a bar mitzvah and attended programs at a Jewish community center. 

“My parents were not on anybody’s watch list … we were just another Jewish family,” he said in an interview.

Still, the family did not dare “parade” their Judaism, Grager said. And, finding few opportunities for professional advancement, the Grager family packed up and departed for the United States during the early 1990s.

The family’s future was uncertain, but Grager’s folks told their son not to worry. 

“ ‘The less you know, the better you’ll sleep,’ ” Grager said, recalling what his parents told him prior to the move.

Everything ended up OK. Grager attended Valley Torah High School, where he was one of the few non-Orthodox students but still found a welcoming environment. He went on to college at the University of Southern California. 

Now a family-law attorney by day and a leader in the Russian-speaking young adult community by night, Grager somehow also finds time to play keyboard in a band that plays songs in Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish. They have even been featured at Ru-Ju-LA events. 

Valley congregation debuts Russian-language program


Congregation Beth Meier will debut a religious school program in Russian for children ages 6 to 8 at its Studio City campus starting Sept. 9. Citing a limited number of local Russian-language programs for elementary students, Rabbi Aaron Benson said the Sunday morning classes at the Conservative synagogue will help students build their Russian-language skills while learning about Judaism and Jewish culture.

The Russian-language class will mirror the English- and Hebrew-language Jewish studies classes at Beth Meier, with “Jewish studies taught in Russian, with the topics presented used as a means by which [students] would improve their [Russian] vocabulary and grammar skills,” Benson said.

Educator Anastasia Smirnova will teach the new class.

“We know families who have expressed that the options for their children to continue the study of the Russian language formally become fewer and fewer as their kids get past preschool age — and certainly to be able to do so in a Jewish environment there are hardly any programs like that at all,” Benson said.

Of Beth Meier’s approximately 100 member families, about a dozen are Russian-speaking, according to Benson, who hopes the new program will appeal to the Russian Jewish communities of the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood and elsewhere.

Demographer Pini Herman, research coordinator for the 1997 L.A. Jewish population survey, said that there were 24,500 Jews from Russia and the Former Soviet Union in Los Angeles at the time of the survey. However, he estimates that number is likely lower today.

“I would imagine that it is smaller now as it was an aging population probably with a rather modest birthrate,” Herman said.

If the Beth Meier program takes off, Benson hopes to add a class for 9- to 10-year-olds in 2013.

“We’re very interested to hear feedback and suggestions, and really make the program something that will be a meaningful addition to Jewish life in Los Angeles,” he said.

For more information, call (818) 769-0515 or visit bethmeier.org.

Homs shelled as Syria demands ‘neutral’ U.N. mission


Syria challenged the United Nations chief over the size and scope of a U.N. truce monitoring mission on Wednesday, resisting a larger presence as its army shelled targets in the city of Homs in violation of the ceasefire.

Despite the seven-day-old truce agreement between government and rebel forces, explosions rocked the battered Khalidiyah quarter of Homs as the army resumed what has become a daily barrage of heavy mortar shelling, and plumes of black smoke drifted over the rooftops.

In northern Idlib province, six members of the security forces were killed by a bomb placed by an “armed terrorist group”, state news agency SANA said. It was the second such attack in two days.

While the truce has held in some parts of Syria since President Bashar al-Assad pledged to enforce it last week, in strong opposition areas such as Homs, Hama, Idlib and Deraa, the army has kept up attacks on rebels, using heavy weapons in violation of the pledge by Damascus to pull back.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told a news conference in Beijing that no more than 250 truce monitors were needed, and they should come from what he called “neutral” countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, all of which have been more sympathetic to Assad than the West and the Arab League states.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was due to present proposals for the next phase of the mission on Wednesday to the Security Council. He says more monitors are needed for credible supervision of the truce in a country the size of Syria in the 13th month of a conflict marked by extreme violence and over 10,000 deaths.

An advance party of a half a dozen U.N. peacekeepers in blue berets, led by Colonel Ahmed Himmiche of Morocco, toured towns near Damascus on Wednesday in two white U.N. Land Cruisers with a Syrian police escort.

In Erbin their convoy was mobbed by anti-government protesters who chanted demands to arm the rebel Free Syrian Army. A banner was plastered on one U.N. car reading: “The butcher continues killings. The observers continue observing, and the people continue with their revolution. We only bow to God.”

With the flashpoint cities in Syria scattered over several hundred kilometers, Ban said he had asked the European Union if it can supply helicopters and planes to make the proposed monitoring mission rapidly and independently mobile, but Moualem said Syria would supply air transport if necessary.

A political source in neighboring Lebanon said Damascus has already refused the use of U.N. helicopters.

The West has shown no desire to intervene militarily or push for the sort of robust peacekeeping mission that might require 50,000 troops or more. Russia and China, Syria’s powerful friends on the Security Council, have made clear they would block a U.N. mandate to use force. They are likely to back Damascus as the terms of the mission are thrashed out later this week.

Assad says Syria is under attack by foreign-backed terrorist and that for their own safety, the unarmed observers would have to coordinate every step of their operation with Syrian security to protect them from “armed gangs”.

STILL NO PULLBACK

The rebel Free Syrian Army fighting to topple Assad says it will stop shooting if he keeps his pledge to U.N. peace envoy Kofi Annan to withdraw tanks, heavy weapons and troops from urban areas, which critics say he clearly has not done since the truce took effect a week ago.

Apart from the shelling of targets in Homs, the city at the heart of the revolt, troops have swept towns and villages in raids to arrest suspected opponents of Assad. Activists say scores of people have been killed since the ceasefire officially came into force last Thursday.

Syria’s official news agency SANA reported that four law enforcement members and a civilian were killed on Tuesday when “an armed terrorist group threw a bomb at a bus” in Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city after the capital, Damascus.

It said terrorists were attacking and killing loyalist troops in their homes and kidnapping judges.

Internet video showed what anti-Assad activists said was renewed shelling of Homs shortly after dawn on Wednesday. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based group opposed to Assad, reported explosions and heavy gunfire in the southern city of Deraa early on Wednesday. It confirmed the five killed by a bomb in Aleppo.

ADVANCE PARTY

Ban said on Tuesday that the ceasefire was being “generally observed”, though there was still violence. He said the 250 observers Assad will accept would be “not enough, considering the current situation and the vastness of the country”.

Annan delivered a status report to Arab League ministers, who called on Assad to let the U.N. observers do their job.

“We fully support Mr Annan and his six-point plan, but sadly, the killing still goes on,” Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim bin Jabr al-Thani told reporters after the meeting. “We are fearful that the regime is playing for time. We expressed this to Mr Annan.”

Equipment for the mission, including vehicles, is already being transported to Syria via Beirut from a U.N. logistics base in Brindisi, Italy.

Diplomats say Annan’s main aim is to get a U.N. mission on the ground backed by Syria’s supporters Russia and China, even if it is not big enough at first to do the job.

TIME TO ARM THE REBELS?

The mission must have Syrian consent, and Moualem said “this commitment does not cancel out the right to self defense and appropriate response against any attack on government forces, infrastructure, civilians and private or state property”.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia say it is time to arm the Free Syrian Army with weapons to combat Syria’s powerful, Russian-armed forces, but other Arab League states say this would tip the crisis into all-out civil war, threatening the wider region.

Russia is also critical of Western and Arab states backing the Syrian opposition-in-exile in the “Friends of Syria” group.

France said it would host a foreign ministers meeting of the group on Thursday in Paris, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to discuss the fragile ceasefire.

Western sanctions have halved Syria’s foreign reserves and should be stepped up to force Damascus to comply with the U.N.-backed peace plan, France’s Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told officials from 57 countries meeting in Paris.

Additional reporting by Ayat Basma and Mariam Karouny in Beirut; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Will Waterman

Mike Wallace: A dissent


Praise for Mike Wallace as a probing investigative reporter saturated news media immediately after his death April 7 at age 93. Virtually all tributes omitted the fact that when it came to anti-Israeli tyrants, terrorists and oppressors of Jewish minorities, Wallace son of Russian Jewish immigrants usually pitched softballs and parroted propaganda.

Wallace spent parts or all of seven decades in journalism, 38 as a correspondent on CBS Televisions 60 Minutes. He won 21 Emmys. This makes his record of failure when it came to covering Israel and Jews noteworthy and peculiar. Among the many examples:

* In a 1975 segment on a terrorized minority in Syria, Wallace reported that today, life for Syrias Jews is better than it was in years past. He described Syrias brutal dictator, Hafez al-Assad, as cool, strong, austere and independent.

* In 1984, a Wallace 60 Minutes segment rehearsed Syrias line about its regional interests. One thing Syria wants in Lebanon is a government representative of all the peoples of that country, he intoned, as if Damascus then recognized Lebanese sovereignty and sought a multi-party democracy there rather than imposed a police state occupation. Regarding Israel, Wallace said Syria wanted the Golan Heights back. He did not explain that Israel gained the Golan in self-defense in 1967 and retained it similarly in 1973.

* In 1987, Wallace glossed over oppression of Russian Jewry the way he had Syrias treatment of its Jews. He reported that the fact remains that one and a-half million Soviets identified as Jews apparently live more or less satisfying lives there. And theirs has been a story largely untold. This just before, under Mikhail Gorbachev, hundreds of thousands of Jews would emigrate, most going to Israel. In this segment Wallace suggested that the Jewish Siberian region of Birobidzhan where Jews were a small minority could be home for Soviets seeking a life of Jewish culture.

* In 1988, 60 Minutes examined pro-Israel activism in the United States, focusing on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Wallace claimed there are many who charge that AIPAC, with its sights set only on Israel, is just too demanding of U.S. politicians. Among other tilts in the segment, Wallace quoted George Ball, a former undersecretary of state known for his anti-Israel stance, but not George Shultz, the incumbent secretary of state. This even though Shultz had said that U.S. support for Israel shouldnt be called foreign aid because this money goes for our security first of all. It helps us that Israel is strong.

* In a 1989 interview of Yasser Arafat, Wallace failed to challenge, among other things, the Palestine Liberation Organization leaders misrepresentation of terrorism as resistance or his insistence that a PLO group intercepted by Israeli forces in southern Lebanon had been on its way to attack troops, not civilians. The late David Bar-Illan, then executive editor of The Jerusalem Post, wrote of the interview that had he treated America politicians this way, [Wallace] would have been drummed out of the profession.

* In 1990, Wallace probed an outbreak of violence on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. He aired interviews with seven Arab eyewitnesses but only one Jew, and cast doubt on the latters statements; skipped over the cause of the fighting efforts by Fatah and Hamas to reignite the first intifada; and did not interview the main Israeli investigators. Wallace referred to Temple Mount as Islams third most holy place but did not mention it is Judaisms most holy site.

* In 1992, Wallace returned for a 60 Minutes segment on Israels absorption of the 400,000-plus Soviet Jews who had arrived in the previous three years. Their unemployment rate was 11 percent and many worked at jobs beneath their level of education and training. Prominent refusenik immigrant Natan Sharansky painted a more positive picture, but his comments were cut. Wallace wrongly implied that a U.S. loan guarantee to assist Israel absorb the immigrant wave was a grant and that it would help Israel annex the West Bank, something the government did not plan.

* In 2006, Wallace fawned over another dictator, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Boston Globes Jeff Jacoby summarized the interview this way: Wallace let Ahmadinejad brush him off with inanities and lies he would have pounced on had they been uttered by a business executive or an American politician.

The lionizing of Mike Wallace epitomizes news media refusal to describe accurately, warts and all, those they hold out as journalistic exemplars.


The author is Washington director of CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. 

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.”

U.S. airs concerns on Chabad-Russia feud over texts


American officials have weighed in for the first time on a Chabad court victory over the ownership of Chasidic texts, reportedly saying it could jeopardize Russia-U.S. cultural ties.

The Associated Press reported that the U.S. Justice Department’s response Monday to the Chabad-Lubavitch victory about the dangers to cultural relations between the two countries underlines the importance attached to the case by the government.

In 2010, a U.S. District Court had compelled Russia to return two major collections of Judaica seized by early Soviet governments after a lawsuit filed by the Chabad movement. The Russian Federation ignored the judgment, having pulled out of the case in 2009 on the grounds of sovereign immunity.

Russia responded to Chabad’s court victory by putting all art loans to the United States on hold.

In January, it canceled loans to major American institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery in Washington, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Houston Museum of Natural Science, saying it feared the artifacts would be similarly “seized.”

The Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Mass., was forced to shutter its only major show of the year after the Russian government in March called back 37 lent objects. Museum curator Kent Russell told AP that the museum had spent about $300,000 promoting the show when it had to be closed.

“It’s all such a nightmare,” said Russell. “We had a lot riding on this. We had a lot of tours that had to be canceled. The catalog is of absolutely no value to us whatsoever.”

Chabad attorneys submitted a statement and letter to the State Department declaring that it will not try to enforce last year’s judgment by seizing cultural objects lent by Russia to American museums.

Russia’s Ministry of Culture did not respond to AP inquiries.

Legal experts in the United States said Russian fears of their art being seized while on loan in this country were “far-fetched.”

In 1991, Soviet officials agreed to return the “Schneerson Collection” to Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y. The collection, now being held in Russian state repositories, includes thousands of handwritten texts dating back to 1772 and the movement’s founder, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi.

The Russian Federation has refused to honor the 1991 agreement, and has resisted Chabad claims since that time, stating that the documents are part of Russia’s cultural heritage. The U.S. State Department has worked the case on behalf of Chabad since the 1990s.

Report: Iran nuclear plant fully operational within weeks


Iran’s Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant will be fully operational within weeks, local news agencies quoted a senior Russian diplomat as saying on Thursday.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov spoke two days after the company that built the plant, a politically charged project that faced repeated delays, said the reactor had begun operating at a low level for tests before bringing it on line.

Ryabkov said that “the final launch of Bushehr is a matter of the coming weeks,” according to state-run news agency RIA, adding “this is a longstanding project and so I would refrain from naming concrete dates—but we are already on the threshold of the final launch of the reactor.”

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Hiding in Beverly Hills


Why would a wealthy Russian businessman with ties to his country’s notorious ultranationalist party known for its anti-American and anti-Semitic positions flee to Beverly Hills?

Ashot Egiazaryan, the fugitive Russian who can afford to go just about anywhere, isn’t talking. 

Last November, the Duma, Russia’s parliament, stripped him of his immunity, and state prosecutors opened a criminal case against him on charges that he defrauded business partners in a multimillion-dollar real estate deal that went south.

Egiazaryan has been placed on the Russian federal and international wanted list, according to Forbes’ Russian edition, which reported that he is wanted for fraud and is traveling on an invalid Russian passport. He faces up to 10 years in prison.

Egiazaryan’s attempts to compare his case to that of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of Yukos Oil Co., are flat wrong, according to prominent Russian human rights watchdogs, including the Memorial Human Rights Center and the Moscow Helsinki Group, as well as lawyers for Khodorkovsky, who is widely believed to have been jailed for his outspoken criticism of the Putin government.

Egiazaryan claims he is fleeing persecution, but the real reason appears to be that he is fleeing prosecution. His lawyers are reportedly seeking political asylum for their client.

In a recent piece published on the Web site of Russia’s only remaining independent radio station, Ekho Moskvy, a number of prominent Russian opposition leaders and civil society activists have rejected political motivation as a reason for Egiazaryan’s criminal prosecution.

Boris Nemtsov, an outspoken critic of the Kremlin who recently spent two weeks in jail for organizing an anti-government protest, said, “I have never heard about Egiazaryan ever being involved in politics. … I think he will have a very hard time proving his political refugee’s credentials.” Yuri Shmidt, a prominent human rights lawyer who represented Khodorkovsky, expressed his incredulity at the parallels that have been drawn between the plight of his client and that of Egiazaryan, calling them “blasphemous.”

To be eligible for asylum, an applicant must be able to demonstrate that he has suffered persecution in the past or could fear future persecution by the Russian government or by a group Moscow is either unwilling or unable to control, because of his political opinion, race, nationality, religion or membership in a particular social group.

None of those conditions appears to apply to Egiazaryan. Since 1999, he has been a prominent financial backer and member of the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), headed by his friend Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Zhirinovsky, who is infamous for his outspoken anti-American and anti-Semitic attacks, faces no such risk of persecution for his reprehensible views. In fact, he remains the vice chair of the Duma and continues to speak out freely on any and all subjects — often repugnant — without threat of retribution by the state. 

Under U.S. law, escaping prosecution for a felony or convictions and arrests for serious crimes would likely render an application statutorily ineligible for asylum.

Jewish groups in American and Russia have repeatedly condemned the LDPR and its leader as anti-Semitic and have urged Americans, as a form of protest, to avoid any meetings with members of Zhirinovsky’s party who may visit the United States.

Zhirinovsky denies his party is anti-Semitic, while blaming the Jews for sparking both the Bolshevik revolution and World War II, provoking the Holocaust and masterminding 9/11. 

The Zhirinovsky-Egiazaryan party’s racism and bigotry has contributed significantly to Russia’s growing climate of ethnically based intolerance and xenophobia. Anti-Semitism remains pernicious and insidious, as the recent scandal with Christian Dior’s John Galliano has demonstrated so vividly. The fashion label must be commended for the swiftness with which it condemned its bigoted designer’s rant and distanced itself from him. The U.S. government must likewise put anti-Semites worldwide on notice:  You are not welcome in this country.

Peter Zalmayev is director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative, a U.S.-based international nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism and xenophobia and to promoting democracy and rule of law in post-communist transitional societies of Eastern and Central Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

31 dead, 130 hurt in suicide bomb at Moscow’s busiest airport


At least 31 people were killed and 130 wounded Monday in a suicide blast at Domodedovo airport in Moscow, Russian Health Ministry officials said.

Smoke wafted out of the baggage claim area and people were seen running out of the emergency exits at Russia’s busiest airport, local media reported.

Russian officials branded the bombing a terrorist attack and President Dmitry Medvedev vowed Monday that those behind the explosion would be “tracked down and punished.”

Read more at HAARETZ.com.

Russian president nixes Israel visit over strike


Russian President Dmitry Medvedev canceled a planned visit to Israel due to a strike by Foreign Ministry employees.

The striking workers had threatened to embarrass the Russian leader during his visit, which was scheduled for the middle of January. The workers gave interviews in Israel’s Russian-language media, closely monitored by the Russian government, saying that they would not assist in preparations for the visit, Haaretz reported.

The visit, scheduled several months ago, was to include a delegation of 500 people, including businesspeople, lawmakers and senior officials, according to Ynet.
The Foreign Ministry workers are protesting low wages.

Following the cancellation, the Foreign Ministry workers’ committee said in a statement Monday, “Regretfully, the stupidity and negligence of the Finance Minister and his deputies are harming the national interests and foreign relations of the country. We call upon the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister to take responsibility and act immediately to save Israel’s Foreign Ministry.”

The Foreign Ministry is expected to issue its own statement in the evening.

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.

Madoff scheme deals new hit to FSU Jews


MOSCOW (JTA) — The Ponzi scheme perpetrated by Bernard Madoff is the latest in a string of financial blows to Jewish aid programs in the former Soviet Union, wiping out a major foundation that was the primary funder of Jewish higher education in Russia.

The Chais Family Foundation, a $178 million philanthropy forced to close after investing all its money in Madoff’s fraudulent fund, gave away more than $12 million per year to Jewish causes. About $2.5 million of that focused on the former Soviet Union, where the foundation funded at least 12 cultural and educational programs.

Even before the foundation’s collapse, several organizations — including the Jewish Agency for Israel, Chabad-Lubavitch and the American Jewish Joint Complete Madoff CoverageDistribution Committee — had announced in recent months that they would be reducing support for programming in the region, fueling doubt and fear among Russian Jewish communal leaders.

“Many of my colleagues and others think that 2009 could be the hardest year for the Jewish community of the former Soviet Union,” Mikhail Chlenov, the general secretary of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, who also sits on the board of a program that was funded by Chais, told JTA. “Education is the first sphere of work that is already suffering, but social welfare programs could be next.”

Re-creating a Jewish community in the former Soviet Union following the collapse of communism has been an intense project undertaken by the broader Jewish community, drawing hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years from the Jewish Agency, Chabad and the JDC. The Chais Foundation’s annual $2.5 million contribution was the driving force behind creating a sustainable and self-sufficient piece of infrastructure in the region — a higher education system equipped to train Jewish professionals and teachers.

Chais funded the Center for Biblical and Jewish Studies in St. Petersburg, the Jewish studies department at Moscow State University and the Chais Center for Jewish Studies in Russia, which it founded. The Chais Center brings professors from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem to the region to create accredited programs. Hundreds of Jewish professionals have been trained through the center.

In addition, the foundation was a major funder of the Open University of Israel, which transmits online curricula to the former Soviet Union.

Those programs are now in danger.

Arkady Kovelman, the head of the Jewish studies program at Moscow State, said his program could definitely expect to lose some opportunities for grant money.

The Moscow program relies on academics from the Chais Center at Hebrew University who conduct courses in Hebrew and Russian. Kovelman says it is too early to tell if the program will continue or what the loss of Chais money will do to his program.

“I am hoping that it will not have an immediate impact,” Kovelman said. “They are telling us that everything is more or less OK.”

Even if programs in Russia weather the loss of Chais, the foundation’s closing is only the latest in a half-year of calamity for programs in the region pinched by the downturn in the global economy.

The Heftziba system — a network of 41 state-sponsored schools that offer Jewish curricula, which is is administered by the Jewish Agency — is in peril. The system, which was set up by Russian municipalities in conjunction with the Israeli Ministry of Education immediately after the fall of communism, has seen its finances gutted by $40.5 million in cuts to the Jewish Agency’s overall budget.

The agency, which pays to have some 11,000 students bused to the schools, is reducing its funding for the system from $12.7 million in 2008 to just over $5 million for 2009, with the hope that local philanthropists will help pick up the slack.

Alan Hoffmann, the director of the Jewish Agency’s education department, estimates that the Heftziba budget now has a $5 million hole.

“It could really be a mortal blow” to the school system, he told JTA Sunday.

The Jewish Agency already had been forced to adjust after Russian-Israeli philanthropist Arcadi Gaydamak pledged $50 million in 2006 to help establish programming in the former Soviet Union, but then froze the gift after giving only $10 million.

The two other Jewish-run school networks in the region — the secular ORT system and the Orthodox Shma Yisrael — have suffered from cutbacks undertaken by the Jewish Agency. Shma Yisrael has lost $200,000 in funding and the ORT schools are struggling through a budget cut of $1.2 million in recent months, according to ORT officials, JTA reported in November.

In the past three months, the largest Jewish educational network in the region, Chabad’s Or Avner system, has been forced to make significant cutbacks as its main benefactor, Lev Leviev, withdrew a substantial portion of his funding in the face of the financial crisis.

On top of these cuts, the Joint Distribution Committee, which provides social services to the frail and elderly in the region, is cutting its $100 million-plus 2009 budget in the region by about $5 million.

“You put those factors together in one six-month period from June 2008 until January of 2009 and you have some serious dynamite there for some institutions,” Hoffmann said. “I think it is a serious body blow to Jewish life in the FSU.”

The survival of Jewish programming, he said, “will depend on how quickly the world economy improves and the philanthropy world improves.”

U.S. Jewish leaders and Israeli officials have long hoped that the creation of new Jewish wealth in the region would lead ultimately to the formation of a home-grown Jewish philanthropy class that one day could pick up the mantle. But that had been slow in coming, even before the financial crisis and the drop in the price of oil wiped out huge swaths of Jewish wealth in the region.

For a system still largely dependant on outside money, the disappearance of Chais could really hurt.

Outside of higher education, the foundation funneled tens of millions of dollars into several programs aimed at promoting Jewish identity among youth.

Hillel in the former Soviet Union relied on the Chais Foundation for 23 percent of its budget and the ripples of the Madoff scheme have forced its operations “to the edge,” said Hillel FSU director Osik Akselrud.

“Now I don’t know how to find the exit from this situation because we have to cut programs and reduce salaries,” he told JTA at a Hillel staff conference in Baltimore. “I just don’t know what to do.”

Akselrud, like others whose organizations received funding from Chais, received a letter last week saying that he could no longer expect any support from the now-defunct foundation. The letter, which arrived just as he was to fly to the United States, set off a frenzy of meetings to determine how Hillel FSU could stay afloat.

Akselrud is also the chairman for Limmud FSU, an increasingly popular series of educational conferences that began last year. Limmud has plans for two conferences next year, in Belarus and Ukraine, and the Chais Foundation was expected to be a major underwriter of both.

The Sefer Center, an umbrella group that holds conferences and brings together students in Jewish studies from across the region, had relied on the Chais Foundation for 50 percent of its budget, said its director, Victoria Mochalova. She also learned in a terse message last week that her organization would need to look elsewhere for support.

In the face of the bad news, Mochalova predicted that the older generation of Jewish community activists in the former Soviet Union who had built the network from scratch would find a way to get through a decrease in funding.

“We never had a great situation and we have learned how to live in a hard situation,” she said. “For the young it is a big blow to take.”

In the United States, at least one Jewish organizational leader is holding out hope.

“I am not going to predict the future, but today if you go to our JCCs or to Yesod in St. Petersburg, they are full and active and Jewish life is vibrant,” said Steven Schwager, the CEO of the JDC. “They are critical links in building a Jewish community, and some way or other they will find a solution to continue them.”

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.

Israeli women gymnasts train long and hard for Beijing games


NETANYA (JTA) — On one side of a cavernous gym in Netanya, halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa, six members of Israel’s first Olympic rhythmic gymnastics team warm up in a circle, chatting softly in a mix of Russian and Hebrew while stretching their legs in effortless splits on the mat.

Nearby, Irina Risenzon, a fellow gymnast competing in the individual category, is trying to master a leap in which her head must tilt backward to meet a bent leg.

It’s late afternoon, and the young gymnasts, ranging in age from 17 to 22, have been practicing for much of the day. In black T-shirts and black shorts, they appear to be in uniform, reinforcing a feeling of discipline and order that marks their training and routines.

“There are harder workouts and easier ones,” says Risenzon, 20, her auburn hair pulled into a bun. She sits on a wooden bench on the edge of the gym, watching the team begin its routine. The gymnasts practice about 10 hours a day.

“But you know why you are here,” she says. “For me, it’s my goal: the Olympics.”

Like every Olympian, her ultimate goal is the gold.

“That’s the dream,” Risenzon says, breaking into a smile, a marked contrast from the grimace she’s been wearing for the past two hours while trying to perfect her leaps and pivots before her hard-driving coach, Ira Vigdorchik.

Risenzon has been training with Vigdorchik since she was 9, the same year she and her family immigrated to Israel from Ukraine.

The language in the hall is predominately Russian. Six of the eight rhythmic gymnasts are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The two Israeli natives are the daughters of immigrants, including Neta Rivkin, who at 17 is the youngest member of the Israeli Olympic team.

This large contingent of rhythmic gymnasts is why the Israeli squad has nearly as many women as men this year in its 39-member delegation to the Olympics in China.

The sport combines ballet, theatrical dance and gymnastics and is divided into individual, pair and team event categories. Ropes, hoops, balls, clubs and ribbons are used in the routines.

About 3,000 girls are training in gyms across the country, according to Rachel Vigdorchik, who oversees 300 of them at the gym she runs in Holon and at another branch in Jaffa for Arab girls.

Vigdorchik, who moved to Israel in 1979, was scheduled to perform in the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, her hometown, but she stayed home when the Israeli team boycotted, along with other countries, in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Looking around the gym at the team members she has coached, most of them since they were little girls, Vigdorchik says they’re like family. She says this year’s Olympic Games are “closing a circle.”

Vigdorchik says she’s proud that rhythmic gymnastics, a sport brought to Israel by Russian immigrants in the early 1970s, has caught on.

“It’s very popular, but we need more government investment and more sponsors,” she says, echoing a common complaint of Israel’s sporting community.

For those who grew up in the Soviet system, where cultivating sports and athletes was a top national priority, the contrast in Israel can be jarring.

Ela Samotalov, the coach for the team event, came in 1991 from Minsk, where she helped coach the Belarus national team. She says she is still getting accustomed to Israel’s more spartan sports culture.

“There is no status to being a coach here in Israel,” she complains.

The Soviet-style training, with its strict discipline and demands, can seem off-putting to native-born Israelis, Samotalov says. This is part of what unites the Russian-born gymnasts — a shared understanding of the dedication needed to excel that comes from growing up in families versed in a more intense approach to sports.

“But the sabras are learning well; it will just take time,” Samotalov says of the Israelis. “Sports is not a miracle. It’s hard work.”

Samotalov is encouraged by the homegrown talent of one of her longtime charges, Neta, who has improved consistently at competitions this year.

“My goal is to do the best I can,” Neta says of Beijing. “It’s so special, going out there in front of that huge audience.”

Not far away, Risenzon laughs as she recalls her introduction to the sport when she was a little girl living near Kiev.

“I was considered sickly, always getting the flu,” she recalls. “So my parents were told that to strengthen my body, I should do sports, and the closest gym to our house was for rhythmic gymnastics.”

When she was 4, Risenzon’s Olympic career was nearly derailed by coaches who deemed her too pudgy to excel in the sport. Her baby fat long gone, she finished seventh last September in the World Championships.

Risenzon talks about the deep concentration she tries to maintain during her routines — tuning out the clapping crowds, the cameras and the competition. Relief and satisfaction come only after a successful routine is completed.

“Then I think about everything,” she says. “In the midst of it all, I’m focused on the next move.”

“But I love to perform,” Risenzon says, her deep-brown eyes shining as she describes her Olympic routines, which include a playful number set to Indian music and another with a samba tune.

Despite her immigrant origins, she has no identity dilemmas, she says. “I’ve felt deeply connected here,” Risenzon says, “and when I see the Israeli flag flying I get goose bumps.”

Paper pieces for peace


An ancient Japanese legend holds that anyone who folds 1,000 origami cranes will be granted a wish. If three L.A.-area day schools were to get one, it might be for peace and understanding.

Pasadena's Weizmann Jewish day school hosted an interfaith origami session on Tuesday, May 6, inviting students from the Muslim New Horizon School in Pasadena and the Episcopal St. Mark's School in Altadena to participate in the annual Origami Peace Tree Project, an international celebration of coexistence through the precise and relaxing practice of paper folding.

The three schools meet several times throughout the school year to participate in collective singing and cross-cultural activities. This latest project will be sent to Jerusalem, which is hosting the Peace Tree Project for the first time this year. The art will be displayed as a canopy resting atop the point, or crease, where the Jewish, Muslim and Christian quarters meet in the Old City.

The festival, which began in 2000 as a Russian family's demonstration of peace, has since become an international declaration of tolerance and friendship. This year, the project visits Italy in addition to Jerusalem, although Israel's hosting will specifically highlight the Jewish-Christian-Muslim relationship. In recent years, the project has visited Brazil, Poland and India.

“You don't need language to fold, just a folding language as you look at each other and smile,” said Miri Golan, manager of the Israeli Origami Center, the parent organization of the Folding Together Origami Project, a program that unites Israeli and Palestinian children and serves as the official host of the Peace Tree Project in Jerusalem.

Origami expert, author and community member Joel Stern helped organize the schools' cooperation alongside Lisa Feldman, head of school for Weizmann. Stern, a friend of Golan's, was searching for appropriate schools to work with when he was informed of the already progressive relationship among the three schools.

The gathering was essentially a microcosm for the larger festival, which will bring 800 children of the three faiths to the Old City for special origami workshops at the end of July.

Although the project has a religious focus, one of the main criteria for submitting origami is that the art bears no religious ideology. Organizers want to keep the display as secular as possible — no stars, crescents, crosses or angels.

One reason the Japanese art form works so well is because of its neutrality to the three religions, Golan explained.

The three schools' contribution will have a special place at the Peace Tree Project, said Golan, who was thrilled by Stern's unique approach.

“The goals are to actively and symbolically demonstrate that people, regardless of their ethnic origins, can find common grounds for friendship, ” Stern said.

Students from the three schools seemed to agree.

“It's a good experience I'll keep for a while,” said Yusef Trad, a New Horizon eighth-grader.

Robert Cartwright, a sixth-grader at St. Mark's, enjoyed the opportunity to interact with “kids who are so similar to us,” he said.

Weizmann sixth-grader Adam Latham said the event was “good for meeting new friends and learning about one another's religion.”

‘Pieces’ fall into place for Israeli actress


“I long for the loss of memory,” grieves Jakob, the central character in “Fugitive Pieces,” a sensitive, at times wrenching, film based on the best-selling novel by Canadian poet Anne Michaels and directed by her countryman, Jeremy Podeswa, the son of Holocaust survivors.

But he is fated to remember.

Now a successful young novelist in Canada, Jakob remembers the day in 1942 when he was 9 years old and Nazi soldiers burst into his house in Poland. Thrust into a hiding place by his parents, Jakob watches as the soldiers murder his parents and abduct his teenage sister, Bella.

When the soldiers leave, Jakob runs blindly into the woods, digs a hole and hides himself under layers of leaves.

He is discovered by a visiting Greek archaeologist, who smuggles the Jakob out of Poland and hides the boy on his native island of Zakynthos, also occupied by the Germans.

After the war, the archaeologist accepts a teaching position at a Canadian university and takes along Jakob, who, by the 1960s, has become a talented but tormented young man.

Jakob flashes back again and again to the killing fields of Poland, he hunts obsessively for his sister and he speaks to the dead. He marries a beautiful young woman who tries to “normalize” him through her love, but Jakob is emotionally too numbed to accept the gift.


The trailer

It is only when he meets Michaela, a Russian immigrant who understands and accepts his trauma and pain, that Jakob comes to terms with his past and rejoins the present.

The adult Jakob is played by Stephen Dillane, a classically trained British actor, while Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer portrays the intelligent, understanding Michaela.

It is a plum role for Zurer, one of the few Israeli thespians who have managed to combine solid careers in both Hollywood and her native land.

She was born and grew up as a self-described “shy girl” in Tel Aviv, got the acting bug when she accompanied a friend to an audition, went to drama school, and, after roles in various films, scored an Israeli Academy Award for the title role in “Nina’s Tragedies.”

In 1996, she arrived in America, but she returns to Israel frequently for acting stints, such as in the TV phenomenon, “BeTipul.” Her character, Na’ama, has been transformed into Laura in “In Treatment,” the current American version on HBO.

Zurer’s first English-speaking role was as the wife of the Mossad team leader in Steven Spielberg’s “Munich.” She is featured in the recently released “Vantage Point,” and has the lead female role in the upcoming “Adam Resurrected.”

“I would like a dual career in Israel and America, but it is not easy to manage,” Zurer said in a hotel poolside interview, speaking with a slight accent which she is trying to erase by studying with a speech coach.

For one, the 38-year-old actress, married to fellow Israeli Gilad Londovski, has a 3-year old son, Liad, and a sideline as a book illustrator.

Zurer is in a rare position to compare moviemaking in Israel and the United States from an actor’s perspective.

She applauds the professional advances made by Israeli filmmakers over the past decade and the wider opportunities to alternate between stage and film roles.

“The main difference between American and Israeli movies is the scale of money,” Zurer said. “On a $1 million to $2 million budget, including a government subsidy, not every movie has to be a hit to break even, so that takes some pressure off.

On the other hand, with a bare-bones budget, “you need to work faster in Israel,” she added. “You don’t have the luxury of reshooting a scene over and over, until you nail it just so.”

Like her American sisters in Hollywood, Zurer laments that there are few good scripts written for women, and she hopes, in the future, to perhaps work as a writer and director.

In the meanwhile, as she juggles motherhood, emotional ties and careers in two cities 8,000 miles apart, Zurer sighs, “I guess everything is a trade-off.”

“Fugitive Pieces” opens May 2 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, and Town Center 5 in Encino.

Ghost of holocaust haunts visitor exploring Germany


It took me more than a year to buy my ticket. My sister was living in Berlin, and I was supposed to visit her. What she didn’t know each time she asked me to come see her was how present the Holocaust was for me in my work.

I was unveiling the war’s history in my own writing while she was living, post-war, in Germany. To visit, I knew, would be to bring myself even closer to the traumas that had been passed to me through the thickness of blood.

In one week, three years of thoughts and feelings were opened up. They are leaking now that I have returned.

I had gone from partying with the people I love most in the world to the land of the Germans and the history. I shifted to the life of my sister, plus the emotions of myself. The land of many bike rides, swans in the Baltic Sea and the most beautiful river and coffee shops, all a little tainted with the stain of the past. It was a week that spanned years.

I did not want history lessons. I was full already, between the sirens that had the same sound as the pogrom sirens, the train tracks that carried us to vacation and my ancestors to their deaths and the forests, our bike riding and leisure domain despite once having served as the hiding place for so many.

My constant remembrance was irritating for my sister, but I couldn’t help it. Remembering in Germany and remembering in America are not so different, only one holds physical markers of the images that flash through my head anyway.

We went to synagogue the first night in Berlin, the shrouded shul. It was guarded by men and wrought iron and glass and walls. Inside was a small group of Jews, including Holocaust survivors.

Everything Jewish in Germany felt like the other side, as it is, to a war. It was clear that something happened, that this locale was not just a transition of space but actually held the history that haunts me even though I was not there and did not live it.

The morning after synagogue, we took the train to an island on the Baltic Sea, Insel Poehl. We biked like maniacs with Jessica the porcelain artist and met the Russian flea market people at the supermarket. It was barbecue and wine in a box for dinner and a drunken bike ride back to the guesthouse.

It was on the island in the German countryside that I understood that the war was over and had been for 60 years. I was Jewish, and they weren’t coming to get me, and I had a right to lie there and cry on a bench. A right to ride my bike. A right to vacation.

The next morning it was hippie brunch at an artist’s residence. After the Baltic Sea, it was Germany and the Gerson twins. I biked further than I thought my body could handle and sang Ricky Payton songs loudly — American loud — through the streets of Berlin.

We ate Moroccan hummus near the soccer game bars and Thai food with an Israeli DJ friend who lived on Ibiza. He and his Italian music partner had us to dinner, and we listened to trance and danced with a 6-month-old baby in one arm and wine in the other.

Then there were museums, and there were walks, and on those walks there were random memorials. Memory became a curse when concentration camps were remembered in shopping districts and Jews were given homage on street corners. I was a racialized other, despite their attempt to kindly honor 2,000 years of Jewish history. God explained on a placard, and Jews lumped together as a people; I question my name now.

And then I was stopped for having the wrong subway ticket for my bike. I cried when they took me off the train. I cried because they were rough. I cried because I hate police. I cried because I was in Germany, and I was wrong, and I didn’t listen to the blond angel with the diamond in her tooth who warned me about this.

The ticket for 40 euros somehow made me think of the $20 a month they sent my grandmother as a scant apology for the murder of her family.

An Ethiopian woman advised me to forgive and forget, contrary to the advice “never forgive, never forget” from my upbringing. Who am I forgiving now? And how do I forget?

I am racializing to cope with my racialization.

And yet, I loved graveyards in Germany because they exhibited the privilege of a marked grave. I loved the candles burning in coffee shops and the bike paths. I loved the eggs and the Vietnamese food and the graffiti. And then the architecture and the art and the beautiful people and the thrift stores and the hot pink dress I never bought. I loved my afternoon with Anya, Russian girl of steel, and the immense seesaws and the 3D triangle lawn.

I loved Germany in the present and wasn’t sure what to do with Germany in the past, let alone America in the past, and then I was suddenly in South Africa and Israel and back after those trips, and again, I question the choices in the construction of my reality.

Another Holocaust survivor died this week. Memory is the question that remains. Selecting memory, discarding memory, finding a balance between retention of past and obsession with it.

When I returned home, there was a gift from the Holocaust Museum in the mailbox. They sent me a calendar with a different drawing of war for every month. Something about bearing witness, as if memory were not innately indelible.

If we stop bearing witness will it happen again? Or will we maybe get a chance to breathe in the present without being terrified of the resurgence of the past?

I am a grandchild of the Holocaust.

Briefs: Governator opens new Saban Free Clinic, Weisenthal Center pressures Swiss on Iran deal


Free Clinic Named in Honor of Sabans

The Los Angeles Free Clinic was renamed the Saban Free Clinic this week in honor of Cheryl and Haim Saban, who last month pledged a $10 million gift to the health care facility that treated Cheryl Saban some 25 years ago, when she was a divorced mother of two.

“This is what I call a match made in heaven,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said at the ceremonial unveiling Monday. “When you team up a great clinic like this with the extraordinary generosity and vision of Cheryl and Haim Saban, how can the people of California do anything else but win?”

The Free Clinic operates four facilities that handle 100,000 patient visits a year, providing physician services, disease testing, prescription filling and nutritional counseling. Co-CEO Abbe Land has said the Sabans’ unrestricted gift probably will be used to supplement decreased government funding.

Haim Saban is chair and CEO of Saban Capital Group and chair of Univision Communications; Cheryl Saban is the author of several books on parenting, marriage and child advocacy and founder of the nonprofit 50 Ways to Save Our Children.

“Our greatest wish is that this gift will create further awareness among the community and will drive additional contributions to support the long-term success of the clinic in providing health services to the uninsured in Los Angeles,” Haim Saban said.

— Brad A. Greenberg, Senior Writer

Wiesenthal Center Urges Swiss to Cancel $18 Billion Gas Deal With Iranians

The Simon Wiesenthal Center urged the Swiss government to cancel its $18 billion gas deal with Iran.

“This ill-conceived and ill-timed deal, signed in the presence of the Swiss foreign minister, bolsters the Iranian regime and weakens the international community’s efforts to use economic sanctions to force Iran to stop its nuclearization program,” said a statement by Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the L.A.-based Wiesenthal Center and Leo Adler of the Canadian-based Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center. The two released the statement following their meeting last week with Swiss State Secretary Michael Ambuhl in Bern, the Swedish capital.

“Further, press reports indicate that the bulk of the Iranian gas is destined for Italy and not, as was asserted, a way for Switzerland to lessen its reliance on Russian gas. So the question remains as to whose strategic and national interests are being served,” the statement said.

During their meeting with Ambuhl, Cooper and Adler also urged Switzerland to oppose the anti-Israel resolutions frequently approved by the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“Since the council’s inception, it has passed 20 resolutions — 19 against Israel and one on Burma — but nothing on the genocide in Darfur or the current crisis in Tibet,” Cooper and Adler noted.

â??- Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Chabad Hosts ‘Sober Seder’ — With Twists

Chabad offered a “Sober Seder” last Sunday that was traditional — with a couple of twists. For one, grape juice was used instead of wine. For another, every few minutes, someone shared his or her struggles with addiction.

During the service, a burly, middle-age man told the 100 participants: “I’m an alcoholic and drug addict.” As a result of his addictions, he said, he ended up “living in a cardboard box and pushing a shopping cart around. For food, sometimes I’d pull stuff out of garbage bins.” He now has his life back as a result of Chabad’s recovery program.

British-born Rabbi Mendel Cohen, 25, presided with an infectious energy, sense of fun and occasional moments of joyful dancing. Throughout, Cohen reminded the crowd — many of whom were graduates of Chabad’s residential addiction program — that recovery can be thought of as leaving Egypt.

One woman stood up to agree. Sobriety, she said, has released her from enslavement. A man in his mid-40s said the seder was “always a time to get drunk, from the age of 12. Chabad taught me how to live. I have freedom now, but inside I also have pain from my past, so I work through it every day.”

“Once I saw Judaism as the enemy,” he said. “Now I see it as my path to recovery.”

— Roberto Loiederman, Contributing Writer

UC Irvine Muslim Group Co-Sponsoring Talk by Strong Critic of Israeli Policy

Norman Finkelstein will speak at the UC Irvine student center on May 7 in an appearance co-sponsored by the Muslim Student Union. The former DePaul University professor is a vigorous critic of Israeli policy and author of “The Holocaust Industry” and “Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict.”

UC Irvine has been at the center of controversy over what some Jewish students allege to be repeated instances of harassment and anti-Semitic speech, which the university has refused to condemn. Other students say the situation at UC Irvine is now dramatically improved and that the administration has been responsive to Jewish concerns.

— JTA

Books: Leaving Russia behind — somewhat


When Perestroika came in 1985, anti-Jewish feeling in Russia became even more overt than it had been during the Soviet era.

There were flyers announcing threats to burn down Jews’ homes, and one night, on national TV, a nationalist leader announced they were planning a massive pogrom. “It was very matter of fact, and my parents freaked out and called a meeting. We didn’t feel safe anymore,” said Ellen Litman, the Russian-born author of “The Last Chicken in America” (W.W. Norton), a novel set in stories about the Russian Jewish immigrant experience. The book has been nominated for the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction as part of the Los Angeles Times 2008 Book Prizes to be awarded April 25 as part of the Times Festival of Books.

When she was 19, after two years of deliberations, Litman’s family decided to move to America. She and eight family members went to Pittsburgh, where her mother’s sister — and many other Russian Jews — lived.

“At first I was devastated. In Russia, you live in Moscow; you don’t move around that much, you expect your whole life to be in the same city with the same family and the same friends — then you leave the country and never see people again,” said Litman. “I was pretty devastated at first and gradually came to terms with it — but it was pretty disorienting and lonely.”

These tales of disorientation and loneliness are at the heart of “The Last Chicken in America,” which alternately focuses on a young new immigrant, Masha, and her family, as well as other Russian Jewish immigrants who live in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, the neighborhood where the Litmans lived.

So is this an autobiography? Not exactly. While Litman lived in Pittsburgh and completed her degree in computer programming at the University of Pittsburgh she took notes on the characters. “Some of the characters resemble the experiences of what we went through and things I’ve seen, and a lot of it is a hodgepodge of reality and imagination; some stories are triggered by a certain sentence,” she said. But it’s “very much fiction; I do associate with the main character, those experiences are the closest to mine.”

Masha is just out of high school, and her parents, former scientists who are unemployed as new immigrants, eventually get blue-collar jobs. She must serve as their translator and guide as they all navigate this new world of English classes, low-wage pay and beginning life anew.

“All the passengers stood and applauded their pilot and one another. They had arrived. It was the end of one struggle and the beginning of many others, though no one seemed to be thinking about that yet,” reads the story “What Do You Dream of, Cruiser Aurora?” about an old widower named Liberman who spends his time with Mira, another older lady, at the local JCC.

“In the lunchroom Russians seniors were clustered to the right. You could recognize them immediately: men in ill-fitting brown trousers, women in cotton dresses and knitted cardigans, all of it purchased a long time ago and altered repeatedly. Lips pursed sternly, faces stiff. Compared to them, the Americans (mostly women) looked like careless parakeets — bright, excessively painted and cheerful.”

Many immigrant novels have been written about America — including many immigrant Jewish novels. But “The Last Chicken in America” provides a modern, fresh take with its focus on the differences between Russians and Americans — how Russians see Americans.

Americans are “so goddamn joyful,” and live in a “soulless society,” while Russians are “sensitive, foolish, illogical” and “live in a state of turmoil, on the brink of being destroyed, steps away from next drunken bout,” says Victor Harlamov, a visiting Russian literary professor and crush of Masha’s in the story “Russian Club.”

American Jews and their practice of Judaism is also a mystery to the Russian immigrants, who lived without religion for decades.

“My grandparents were born right around the revolution — and all this time they were alive, they were living in society where religion was opiate for masses, and we believed that,” she said. But they all knew they were Jewish — they couldn’t forget it, being stamped on their passports, listed as their nationality.

“We weren’t Russian; we were Jews,” she said. But there was no connection to Jewish ritual, or to the Jews in America.

“American Jews had it easy. They all seemed well-off, and except for Chassids they weren’t too conspicuous; in the proverbial American melting pot, they could pass for Italians or Greeks. Not that they had any worries. They took pride in their Jewishness, they celebrated it by building community centers and synagogues and by sponsoring immigrants from Eastern Europe,” Masha observes.

Litman, who got her MFA at Syracuse University, working with mentor George Saunders, wanted to write about the immigrant experience from different perspectives: the passionate Harlamov, the older Liberman, the young Masha, her middle-aged parents.

“I wanted to create this immigrant community, and I wanted to show how the immigration process went,” she said. “I wanted people to know as many sides of the community and the experience,” she said in a phone interview.

She succeeds not only because she lived many of the experiences, but also because her worldview, and her language, is Russian and American. While Litman knew some English when she moved to America at 19, she had to really learn it when she left her parents’ home in 1995, and learn to write in it as well. She still speaks with a soft Russian accent.

“My accent will probably stay with me forever, but I’m comfortable with that,” she said, even as she comes to her 18th year in America.

“Most of my friends are Americans, I feel like an American. There is also part of me that is Russian — I remember where I came from,” she said. “There are two parts. I don’t want to completely blend in.”

Israeli invention could pave way for hydrogen cars


Everyone’s heard that old story about the scientist who invents a “magic pill” that turns water into gasoline — with the invention eventually getting into the hands of the oil companies that bury it, fearing they will be driven out of business when word gets out about their competition.

It sounds like science fiction, but believe it or not, that’s exactly what happened to Moshe Stern, head of C.En (Clean Energy), who said his company’s scientists have developed a revolutionary breakthrough that will enable automobile manufacturers to produce — and sell — cars that use hydrogen power. It’s a breakthrough that has been getting a lot of attention — and oil companies got wind of it, too, with one company allegedly offering him $50 million to shelve his project.

Stern didn’t take the money, though; he intends to see his hydrogen car project through. As a result, he said, for the first time the West has an opportunity to make a real dent in its dependence on OPEC oil.

Hydrogen has long been the great green hope for governments and environmentalists, as well as the ideal opportunity to lessen oil imports for Western countries — since hydrogen can be manufactured from water.

President Bush has set aside billions for development of the technology, and hydrogen is the preferred alternative fuel for public vehicles, like buses, in many cities. Among the cities with at least some public buses fueled by hydrogen are London; Reykjavik, Iceland; Perth, Australia, and Santa Monica — where nearly three-quarters of all municipal vehicles of all types are powered by the fuel.

Instead of producing carbon monoxide or other harmful pollutants, hydrogen fuel emits water vapor, which is certainly better for the environment than fossil fuel emissions — even though some scientists believe it should be considered a greenhouse gas.

Lower pollution and less money for OPEC — hydrogen sounds tailo rmade for the fuel problems that ail us. While Bill Gates of Microsoft fame may have been right when he said, “If GM kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25 cars that got 1,000 miles per gallon,” the fact is that the industry says that hydrogen is still not ready for prime time.

While producing the hydrogen is easy enough, getting the fuel into the car and storing it in a fuel tank are some of the biggest obstacles for the technology. This, industry experts say, has traditionally been the deal-breaker for increased hydrogen use.

Most hydrogen vehicles on the road use a liquid form of the material, which requires a super strong and super heavy storage tank. Liquid hydrogen is unstable and needs to be insulated from the excess shocks of bumps and potholes that are a part of everyday driving, so the tanks themselves are large and heavy, and hold about five gallons of fuel — enough for barely 160 miles of driving.

Then there’s the issue of integrating the fuel into internal combustion vehicles that, for better or worse, are unlikely to be phased out anytime soon — as well as the question of where drivers are supposed to fill up, because hydrogen stations are rare.

All these are legitimate concerns that have kept hydrogen development restricted more or less to the laboratory, Stern said, and all concerns that are addressed and solved with C.En’s hydrogen storage and supply solution.

The difference? C.En’s tank uses hydrogen gas collected from the environment (i.e., not produced from fossil fuels) and enclosed in a thin but leak-proof glass container. The best part: Drivers will be able to buy “gas” at automotive or discount stores, fueling up approximately every 370 miles.

Stern said they can build a 16-gallon tank that weighs no more than 100 pounds,unlike tanks currently used for liquid hydrogen that weigh several hundred pounds.

“Our company’s breakthrough is in accumulating hydrogen in a glass material that is very small, only a few microns,” said Stern, who is also president of Environmental Energy Resources (EER), a waste treatment company. “You don’t need to transport hydrogen to fuel stations, and you don’t need pipelines. The tanks will be like a battery that can be replaced, and you can carry a reserve in the car.”

When you run out of hydrogen in one tank, according to Stern, you just pull out the empty cell and put in the fresh one, which will be good for another 370 miles.

The cells, in fact, will act just like batteries in electric or hybrid cars and fit right in with the standard internal combustion engine — which means that Detroit or Japan don’t have to retool their factories or production lines to build cars with the capacity for hydrogen cells. The know-how and means of production are in use right now, in fact, as almost every car manufacturer is already producing hybrids or straight electric cars.

George Sverdrup, technology manager for the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s hydrogen, fuel cells and infrastructure technologies program, said that once the storage problem is solved, there is no reason hydrogen cannot be used as the premiere fuel to power cars.

“We can use hydrogen to decrease our dependence on imported petroleum, because it can be produced by a variety of domestic resources, including water and biomass,” he said, adding that his group has made a great deal of progress in recent years figuring out ways to store hydrogen more safely — a problem solved by C.En’s invention.

Stern is coordinator of the project and chief investor. Among the others are Israeli, as well as Korean, Japanese and Russian investors. The head researcher is professor Dan Eliezer of Ben-Gurion University, an expert in hydrogen who has done work for NASA and security organizations in Israel and the United States.

The team has conducted more than 100 tests over the past several years and is going to be conducting field tests in Germany, where the company will seek approval by BAM (the Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing).

‘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.

Americans don’t forget Eastern Europe’s survivors


Galina Isakovna’s life has never been easy.

She was 3 months old in 1922 when a pogrom broke out in her Belarusian village. As a band of anti-Semitic thugs stormed her family’s home, her mother quickly stashed her under a bed. When the intruders entered the room, cutting up the feather pillows with bayonets, her mother prayed that her baby wouldn’t cry. Miraculously, the entire family survived.

During World War II, Galina served as one of the Russian army’s first women aerial gunners and as a bombardier mechanic. She fought on the Second Ukrainian Front, and when her arm was mangled in an attack, part of a bone was replaced with a metal plate.

Today she’s confined to a wheelchair, disabled with multiple ailments, and she rarely leaves her apartment in Brest, Belarus, because she can’t navigate the staircase.

Despite her infirmities, she has cared for her bedridden husband — feeding, washing and repositioning him; changing his linens; and reading to him from Jewish newspapers — for the last 13 years. She is ill herself, yet she cried to God to stay alive so she could continue tending to him.

But when she received $300 and was able to buy a washing machine, her life improved; she was no longer exhausted from washing all her husband’s clothing and soiled bed sheets by hand. And when he died last August, after languishing in a coma from a second stroke, she got another $600, enough to pay for his burial and tombstone.

“I didn’t think I could survive it, but now I want to live a little,” she said.

Galina’s renewed sense of hope for her future — for the chance to relax and to read and memorize her beloved poems about Victory Day — comes as a result of the work of comedy director/producer Zane Buzby and the Survivor Mitzvah Project, a nonprofit humanitarian organization that brings direct financial assistance to about 700 elderly and ill Holocaust survivors in Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and Lithuania.

“These are people who have fallen through the cracks and have nowhere to turn,” said Buzby, who is determined to drastically improve as many lives as she can.

Buzby is accomplishing her goal with the help of philanthropist and fellow Angeleno S. Chic Wolk, with whom she co-founded the Survivor Mitzvah Project in 2004, and with Russian translator Sonia Kovitz, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, who joined them in 2005. All are volunteers.

The three malokhim fun Amerike (angels from America), as the survivors call them, assist not only by sending money but also, and even more critically, by providing friendship and hope to people who are among Eastern Europe’s poorest, loneliest and most forsaken Jews.

Additionally, they are helped by Ludmila M., a Belarusian non-Jewish English teacher “with a heart of gold,” according to Buzby, as well as an aging survivor in Moldova, who is destitute himself and asked not to have his identity revealed.

Many of the survivors, currently ages 70 to 100, are ill with such ailments as heart disease, diabetes, digestive disorders and thyroid cancer. Many never married, others have outlived their spouses and children and some are caring for disabled or mentally ill offspring.

Additionally, many have limited or no vision, and most have no teeth. And almost all experience numbing loneliness, some because they are immobile and confined to a walk-up apartment, and some because they are the sole surviving Jew in their family or village.

Since they are not officially Holocaust survivors — they were not imprisoned in ghettos or concentration camps — they are not eligible for reparations from the German government. Nonetheless, they were forced to flee their homes and lost everything, often including parents, siblings, a spouse or fianc�(c), children and all personal belongings, even photographs.

“I don’t remember what my mother looked like. I don’t remember her face,” Taya S. of Ukraine told Buzby.

Whatever pensions or savings accounts they had accumulated were obliterated when the communist regimes of the former Soviet Union collapsed. Prior to that time, depending on their ages, they also suffered through the Russian Revolution, World War I, the famines of the 1930s, World War II, Stalin and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

“These people have not gotten one break since the day they were born,” Buzby said.

What the Survivor Mitzvah Project does for these survivors — and what other Jewish social service organizations, such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), cannot do because monetary gifts are taxable, according to JDC CEO Steven Schwager — is provide direct cash allotments, enabling them to supplement their meager pensions, often as low as $16 a month, to purchase essential and specific foods, medications and services.

For Raza S., the money covered a $400 eye operation that returned her sight. For Hirsh P., the funds provided three new, well-fitting windows in his 80-year-old apartment that now protect him and his wife from the icy winds of winters past. And Nina B., who suffers from diabetes and kidney problems, can now receive insulin and other vital medications.

“A dollar or $1.50 a day can make a substantial difference to these people,” said Buzby, who would ideally like to provide each one with $50 to $100 per month. But with about 700 individuals needing help, and with limited resources, this is not possible.

While Buzby is always doing triage, making critical decisions about how the funds are distributed, she stresses that all the monies go directly to the survivors, whose economic situation has been carefully vetted beforehand. There is no paid staff, and any expenses, such as postage, are covered by her or Wolk.

Buzby disperses funds through a complicated and secure network, either as checks or cash sent through registered mail or money wired to local couriers. And this past August, she herself took an emotional 16-day whirlwind trip to Lithuania and Belarus, distributing $25,000, as well as mezuzahs, Stars of David and other small gifts such as magnifying glasses and compact mirrors, to about 100 survivors, whom she met in person for the first time.

“For me to go there and for them to know someone came to see them was so astounding,” Buzby said.

Israeli, Iranian and Russian immigrants learn the American way of giving


When the Los Angeles Jewish community staged a rally to show support for Israel during the conflict with Lebanon last year, Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch was pleased by the numbers, but bothered by the fact that there were not many Israelis there.

“You would have thought 30,000 Israelis would have been on the streets,” he said. “I thought to myself that there is no correlation between the number of Israelis that live in Los Angeles and the actions that are being taken by them.”

One of the reasons Israelis didn’t turn out in droves to the rally — aside from the excuse they gave him of the sweltering heat — is that Israelis aren’t used to being involved here: in politics, in philanthropy, in volunteering.

“The Israelis here are Israeli; it’s clear to them that they are Israeli. They watch the Israeli news, the Israeli sports,” Danoch said, explaining why they don’t feel the need to be pro-active. “It’s like Israel’s TV slogan: Chayim B’America, Margishim Yisrael. (“Living in America, Feeling Israel.”)

Danoch decided then and there to start an organization to bring together successful Israelis to encourage leadership and philanthropy for the community here and tie it back to the community in Israel. The Israeli Leadership Club (ILC) met for the first time last week to discuss how to mobilize Israelis here.

Israelis aren’t the only ones living in America who feel like they are somewhere else.

Indeed, immigrant communities often struggle with loyalties to the social mores of their old country and their new one. In the world of philanthropy and volunteerism, many Jewish leaders have learned that immigrant Jewish communities also have attitudes different from their American-born Jewish brothers and sisters. Those attitudes stem from the political systems and types of communities from which they came and what was expected of them in their native lands.

In Russia, for example, there was no real word for charity, said Si Frumkin, chairman of the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews.

“There is a word, but it means giving away,” he said. “In general, people don’t give.”

Coming from a communist regime, where one was discouraged from doing anything for the community, he said, working for the individual was the only way to survive. This is an attitude they bring with them to America.

“The Russian immigrants come here and think you have to build a new life for yourself,” he said. “It’s not a question of being bad or good — it’s a different attitude.”

Israelis also come from a socialist country, where the government takes care of its people’s needs. Similarly, they are not used to a capitalist country where many of those needs must be funded by charity. But in Israel, unlike the former Soviet Union, there is an additional barrier to charity and volunteerism: army service.

Naty Saidoff “The Israeli community has been trained to be able to possibly sacrifice their lives for the community,” said Naty Saidoff (photo), a real estate investor on the board of the newly formed ILC. “They have to give in the way of survival. They give their children as cannon fodder, to protect the country through military service.”

“The Israeli community that came here, in a way, turned its back on the Zionistic dream, and they came here to chase the golden calf and some came to hide,” he said. “In my head I know that every Israeli that lives here really cares about Israel; they just need an outlet to make that energy come out.”

Saidoff didn’t let his own son serve in the Israel Defense Forces “for selfish reasons,” but had him volunteer in community service here instead.

The Iranian Jewish community, while also an insulated immigrant group, is different from the Israeli and the Russian-speaking communities.

“The Persians had a community in Iran, and giving was done — they are traditional, they feel an obligation of Jewish values to give in their community,” said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles. So the notion of charity and community organization is as familiar to them as it is to many American Jews, he said, especially within their own community.

“You can see [it in] the nature of the proliferation of causes, programming and things that are related to members of their own community.”

Organized giving outside their own community, though, is a different story.

“They were involved within themselves … their synagogues and organizations, and their own people,” said Jimmy Delshad, the mayor of Beverly Hills and a leader in the Iranian Jewish community. “As time has passed, they really became more charitable toward Israel.”

In fact, Fishel said, the cause of Israel has inspired all three immigrant communities — Russian-speaking, Israeli and Iranian — to be more involved in charity. Whether for advocacy on behalf of Israel, donations to Israeli organizations or emergency fund relief for specific causes like the war, in the past few years all the Jewish organizations have stepped up.

“The Russian-speaking community picked up the issue of Israel and terror attacks,” said Eugene Levin, of Panorama Media Group, which owns six Russian newspapers, some of which ran ads for the gala to support Israel. This year the gala raised more than $250,000, he said.

“It’s a new culture [for Russian-speaking Jews] and they assimilated to a certain degree, and they understand this is a need for Israel and they donate money.”

They feel connected to Israel especially because of the influx of immigrants there from the former Soviet Union.

The Iranian community has also come together on behalf of Israel. “The Persian Jews are more Zionist-oriented and like to help Israel a lot,” Delshad said.

For example, Magbit, an Iranian Jewish charity in Los Angeles, was founded 18 years ago to donate money to Israel. Today, more than $10 million in interest-free loans are given to students in Israel.

“They started becoming successful in their businesses and it’s a way not to forget their brothers in Israel,” said Delshad, who was the president and now is the chairman of the board. Other Iranian Jewish organizations and synagogues with a heavy Iranian Jewish concentration have rallied around Israel to send missions and donate large sums of money.

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.”

Jews laud Boris Yeltsin’s legacy


Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first popularly elected president, made a lasting impact on Russian Jewry, though his legacy included its share of controversy and tragic failures.

Russian Jewish leaders agree that the community should remember Yeltsin, who died Monday at age 76, primarily as the man who ended decades of state-sanctioned anti-Semitism in Russia.

“With Yeltsin’s passing, a page is closed for the Jewish community, that of revolutionary changes in the life of Soviet and Russian Jewry,” said Borukh Gorin, spokesman for the Federations of Jewish Communities, Russia’s largest Jewish group.

“Yeltsin was an important figure” for the Jewish community, said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ, a Washington-based group that works on behalf of Jews in the former Soviet Union.

“His opening of the country allowed for the development of Jewish communities throughout Russia. His willingness to create a more open, democratic country certainly had an impact on the Jewish community.”

Both of Russia’s chief rabbis offered their condolences Monday to Yeltsin’s wife, Naina, and daughter, Tatyana.

Mikhail Chlenov, who established Russia’s first legal Jewish group in the early years of Yeltsin’s rule, said Jews should remember Yeltsin as a great figure.

“It was his great achievement that the new Russia came to life without that evil called state anti-Semitism,” said Chlenov, president of the Va’ad of Russia.

Others credit Yeltsin for allowing Jewish life to develop freely in Russia to an extent that was hard to imagine even under his predecessor, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

With American Jewish activists marking the 40th anniversary this year of the movement to free Soviet Jewry, it is notable that meaningful Jewish emigration began under Gorbachev, but it was Yeltsin who really opened the floodgates.

“While Gorbachev made freedom of emigration a reality for Soviet Jews, it was Yeltsin who made possible an unprecedented freedom of Jewish life in the country,” Gorin said. “Jewish schools and new synagogues were opened — it was he who made the impossible possible.”

Yeltsin was much criticized for economic policies that left millions of Russians below the poverty line, but he was the “ultimate Russian president with a very Russian character,” Gorin said. “It’s no exaggeration to say we were blessed to have Yeltsin as president.”

Another leading figure of the Russian Jewish renaissance during Yeltsin’s presidency noted the fundamental changes in civil liberties and economic freedom that Yeltsin helped establish in Russia — changes that ultimately benefited Jews.

“I won’t make a direct connection between Yeltsin’s rule and Jewish life in Russia unless we take into account the maxim that the more freedom there is, the better it is for Jews,” said Alexander Osovtsov, who served as executive vice president of the Russian Jewish Congress from 1996 to 2000.

But Yeltsin’s legacy also was filled with controversy.

“His resignation did not mean an immediate return of the things he demolished, but I cannot consider it accidental that during his rule, many people with anti-Semitic views came to power,” Osovtsov said.

Osovtsov noted in particular Boris Mironov, an anti-Semitic publicist now on trial for hate speech who served as press minister early in Yeltsin’s tenure.

“This only underscores the controversies of this gigantic figure,” said Osovtsov, who is now a liberal opposition activist.

At the same time, some observers said that controversial policies in the second half of Yeltsin’s presidency — such as the escalating war in Chechnya and his decision to appoint a successor rather than have one elected — paved the rise to power for Vladimir Putin and the slide back toward authoritarianism that has been associated with his rule.

Yet Osovtsov said Yeltsin’s legacy cannot be underestimated, since some of the fundamental changes associated with his reign — including the end of state-sponsored anti-Semitism — have continued long after he left the office.

Chlenov agreed that Yeltsin was a controversial and even tragic figure, which has become even more evident since he stepped down in December 1999 in favor of Putin.

Yeltsin successfully fought the predominance of communist ideology, but was unsuccessful in overcoming the influence of bureaucracy and powerful apparatchiks. Many of the negative trends in Russian political and public life since his resignation are a direct result of the unfinished struggle Yeltsin led, Chlenov said.

“These are these bureaucratic circles who are taking their revenge now,” Chlenov said.

Swingin’ Chanukah with Kenny Ellis; The Klezmatics at the Disney; Three More Tenors


Saturday the 16th

To our knowledge, only one man can claim all of the following titles: writer, director, actor, comedian and Dixieland jazz clarinetist. Artist of all trades Woody Allen focuses tonight on that latter occupation. He and his crew, a.k.a. Woody Allen and his New Orleans Jazz Band, perform in a rare large venue appearance at UCLA’s Royce Hall as part of their first North American tour.

8 p.m. $25-$125. Royce Hall, UCLA, Westwood. www.uclalive.org.

Sunday the 17th

” target = “_blank”>www.kennyellis.com

Thursday the 21st

The Subbotniks: an Armenian community on the fringe of extinction


A community of rural residents in the former Soviet Union, descended from Russian peasants who converted to Judaism two centuries ago, may soon be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Mikhail Zharkov, the 76-year-old leader of Armenia’s tiny Subbotnik community, said only 13 of the 30,000 people living in his small alpine town of Sevan are Subbotniks. There are three men and 10 women, and all are nearing the age of 80.
The community in Sevan is part of an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Subbotniks spread across the former Soviet Union. Zharkov, a retired welder who is wiry and full of energy, estimated that about 2,000 Subbotniks lived in Sevan during the community’s zenith in the 1930s.

Located at an altitude of 6,000 feet, Lake Sevan’s turquoise waters were seen as a vast exploitable natural resource. After Armenia became a Soviet republic in the 1930s, the lake fell victim to disastrous Soviet planning and industrial expansion.

During Soviet rule, the Subbotniks’ religious freedom, which had helped preserve their identity for almost two centuries, vanished, along with their prime waterfront real estate.

According to Zharkov, Soviet authorities confiscated the Subbotnik synagogue in the mid-1930s. It has since been privatized, and the building no longer belongs to the community.

An unknown number of Subbotniks from elsewhere in the region immigrated to Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union, but community members in Sevan never dreamed of leaving for Israel. In Sevan, Soviet repression, combined with Armenia’s difficult economic conditions after the fall of communism 15 years ago, tore into the fabric of the community.

“My son, who is 48, and daughter, who is 36, are in Moldova. And of course, they have been baptized,” Zharkov said. “They did it without consulting me or my wife. My daughter had to. She married a Russian Orthodox man.”

Zharkov’s family situation is mirrored in the rest of the community. Sevan’s Subbotniks have dispersed all over the former Soviet Union and offer no financial assistance to their parents, Zharkov said.

“We lead a simple life, but life has become very expensive. Without the aid of the Jewish community, we would have a very tough time,” he said. “Our pensions are meager, not even enough to cover utilities.”

The Armenian office of Hesed Avraham, a welfare center sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, periodically provides the Subbotniks with food packages.

The Subbotniks’ mysterious 19th century conversion to Judaism, strict adherence to the Torah and staunch refusal to convert back to Christianity exposed them to repression and persecution. During the rule of Czar Alexander I in the first quarter of the 19th century, Subbotniks were deported en masse to remote parts of the Russian empire.

According to Michael Freund, founder of Shavei Israel, an Israel-based organization that reaches out to “lost Jews,” the Subbotniks are spread out in small pockets across remote corners of the former Soviet Union. Sevan’s Subbotniks do not know what part of Russia their ancestors came from or what prompted them to convert to Judaism.

“Maybe they thought it a purer form of religion,” Zharkov speculated.
Subbotniks derived their name from their observance of the Sabbath on Saturday — Subbota in Russian — rather than Sunday. Most Subbotnik communities practice circumcision, but otherwise, the Subbotniks do not differ in outward appearance from other Russian peasants.

The women wear head scarves and long skirts; the men dress in simple slacks and shirts. They do not observe kashrut or Jewish dietary laws, and their melodic Shabbat prayers, chanted in Russian, could be mistaken for Russian folksongs.
According to Gersh-Meir Burshtein, who heads a small Chabad-sponsored synagogue in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, the fact that the community owned two Torah scrolls is proof that Sevan’s Subbotniks once were well-versed in Hebrew.

Some years ago, one of the old Torah scrolls was taken to the Yerevan synagogue, where it remains to this day. The other was stolen from the small community. Sevan’s Subbotniks now sing and read out of their own Torah-based Russian-language prayer book.

“Maybe at some point one of their elders realized that the community was losing its Hebrew knowledge and adapted the Torah into a Russian-language prayer book that they use now,” Burshtein said.

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

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.