Readers who, like me, grew up in the West during the Cold War remember our fear
that the Russians were coming to get us. The 1966 movie, a comedy, The Russians
Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, about a Soviet submarine running aground in
my native New England, was funny because it resonated with our genuine
Back in Colchester, Connecticut, we had scary school bombing
drills for which we had to crouch under desks. I still recall the helpless
feeling I had as a young teen, working as a junior lifeguard at a lakeside day
camp, when a plane swooped low over us. I immediately assumed this civilian
plane was the Russians coming, and I couldn’t protect the guppy-level swimmers
in the water from attack.
By the end of high school, I was marching for
Soviet Jewry at the State Capital in Hartford. I never connected the Russians we
wanted to help leave with those we feared would come.
have no idea of the Let My People Go protests, of the twinning of bar mitzva
ceremonies, the Matza of Freedom and empty seats at our Seder tables. Nor do
they know of the courageous Russian Jewish side. In a recent post on his
Facebook page, Beit Avi Chai Foundation head David Rozenson wrote that a
reference to the Refusenik movement brought blank stares from young members of
the visiting General Assembly delegation. They simply didn’t know about the men
and women who withstood the faceless, ruthless Soviet regime to secure freedom
for themselves and those who came after them.
The freeing of Soviet Jewry
still thrills me. Even my recent displeasure at having to consult three
different technicians to reinstate my Jerusalem cable and Internet service was
ameliorated because the Hebrew-speaking techies were called Yevgeney, Alex and
Hence I followed with pleasure and interest the photos and
reports on Facebook of the recent International Book Fair in Siberia, which
included a large booth with rows of books on Jewish themes. Even back in
Colchester, we knew that “being sent to Siberia” was the penultimate Soviet
punishment (next to being shot). Now Jewish books are being sent to the freezing
hinterlands, shipping paid for by the Russian government and private donors. Who
would have believed it? Siberia means “Sleeping Land” in Tatar, and “The End” in
Ostyak, a local language. The strategy of exiling war prisoners and political
opponents there goes back to the 17th century. By the end of the 19th century,
some 34,000 Jews lived in Siberia. The number leapt up to 50,000 with the
opening of the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1904. Twentieth- century exiles
included Zionist activists, and the Siberian communities were hubs of political
discussion. Jews escaping Hitler also found their way to the isolated land where
the Nazi boot sank in the deep snow.
Novosibirsk is the largest city in
Siberia, and the third largest in Russia. But the book fair was in a smaller
city called Krasnoyarsk, one of the towns set up in the 18th century to take
advantage of the mineral resources that are so abundant in the frozen land.
Krasnoyarsk became a Jewish center for exiles and merchants, particularly in the
Today, about 2,000 Jews live there. A characteristic crack
from the cold marks local car windshields.
Business was brisk at the
fair, said Rozenson and Sveta Busygina, senior coordinator of Beit Avi Chai
projects in the former Soviet Union. The flight from her Moscow office to Israel
is shorter than her flight to Krasnoyarsk, which takes six to eight hours, and
is six time zones away from Moscow.
Seventy years of Communism eroded
Jewish knowledge and observance in Siberia, as it did throughout the Soviet
Union. The literary treasures of the Jewish people were unavailable – not basic
sources like the Bible and Talmud, and not Yiddish classics by Sholem Aleichem
and I.L. Peretz.
To bring Judaism back to the boondocks, the Moscow-based
Knizhniki Book Publishers is energetically translating juvenile and adult books
that reveal various aspects of modern and past Jewish life.
already waiting for us when we open our stand,” says Busygina.
“A book is
often shared by friends and neighbors, and readers will want more by the same
author.” Customers include Jews, non-Jews and “Russians,” who more than once
have revealed that they have Jewish grandmothers.
Prayer books, Bibles,
medieval Jewish commentary – exactly the books that had to be smuggled into the
Soviet Union share space with volumes of Jewish history, classics and modern
Knizhniki’s book catalogue (available online at
www.knizhniki.ru) offers a prose series which includes European classics,
Americans Cynthia Ozick and Arthur Miller, Israelis David Grossman and Etgar
Keret. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Slave is a popular choice, and so is
everything by Meir Shalev, though The Blue Mountain – called A Russian Novel in
Hebrew – is the Shalev top-seller. The Family Carnovsky, by Bashevis Singer’s
brother Israel Joshua Singer, is popular, and readers are stunned by the 1948
masterpiece The Family Mashber, by Soviet Yiddish writer Der Nister (Pinhas
Kahanovitz), the plot of which revolves around the meltdown of a prosperous
Modern readers are amazed that Der Nister could write with
humor and resilience of terrible events, with writings that are relevant and of
interest to contemporary Russian readers – who often identify and are motivated
to explore Jewish heritage further, Busygina explains.
A collection of
stories by Israeli-Russian writers is complemented by a collection of Jewish
stories by Russian writers. “Books on Jewish themes have become popular,” says
Busygina. “Even in their small apartments, former Soviet Jews are building
libraries on Jewish tradition and history.”
The fair began four years
ago, and has now been moved from a drafty auditorium to a large modern civic
hall. Posters of sunny Eilat stand out against the chilly
“Fifteen years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Russian
Jews were puzzled by the paucity of pro-Israel books,” says Rozenson. Given this
need, together with a team of publishers, marketing experts, authors from Israel
and Russia, Rozenson and a group of donors launched Knizhniki in 2005. He and
Busygina sit on the committee that recommends which books should be translated,
and the committee reads constantly to find fiction and non-fiction in which
Judaism is highlighted and Israel is positively portrayed. “Via this effort, our
goal is to display the richness and value of Jewish life, and to make Russian
readers aware and proud of their Jewish heritage and the State of
An encouraging sign is the popularity of children’s books. They
sell out first. There are holiday and Bible stories, of course. Joseph
Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback is a predicable hit.
But who would
have guessed the title of this year’s bestseller in Siberia? An Israeli kids’
book: And God Created… Ice Cream.