How the Russian Library was saved

After a tumultuous battle, the city's literary gem may have found a permanent home.

Russian Library 224.88 (photo credit: David Stromberg)
Russian Library 224.88
(photo credit: David Stromberg)
Jerusalem's Russian Library has always had to fight for its right to exist. Last week, it raged its fiercest battle yet, culminating in a promise from the municipality to move it to the Clal Building. After 15 years at the Zuckerman building on Rehov Ha'or behind the Central Bus Station, by September 1 the building stood to be vacated to make way for its new owners. And though the city had almost a year to plan the move, there was still no ready location into which the collection could be transferred and the library resume its activities. The Russian Library is the largest and most visited municipal library, of which there are 25 throughout the city. Over the years, with the support of the right-wing Israel Beiteinu Party, the library continued to be supported by the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, the municipality and a short-lived NGO created through a donation to the library. Though the library has repeatedly proven its significance to the Russian Jewish community and the cultural-historical value of its growing collection, its status in the city is still debated. "The 'problem' of the [Russian] library has been discussed many times over my five years in the municipality," says city councilor Lydia Belotsky, who is part of a committee of officials fighting for the rights of the library. Belotsky, a member of mayoral hopeful and opposition leader Nir Barkat's faction, adds that "The municipality would be perfectly happy for it [the library] to disappear." She admits that the municipality is indeed stretched thin by the size and activity of the Russian Library. One suggestion has been to upgrade the library's status to that of a national library, but this would involve moving the library under the auspices of the Culture Ministry, a long and complicated process, and wouldn't address the immediate matter of vacating the Zuckerman building. According to Belotsky, the municipal Library Department had first planned to transfer the contents of the three-and-a-half-story Zuckerman building into a not-yet-renovated supermarket warehouse in the Shukanyon on Rehov Agrippas. In that scenario, the books would not have been on display and the building would have served as a storage facility. At one stage, the municipality was even asking the library's members to take home 20 books each, which would have effectively dispersed the collection. At the end of October, Bank Discount was supposed to vacate the adjoining premises (with the right to extend to the end of November). This additional area was then supposed to become the library's main space. The municipality issued a statement on Sunday that read: "It is not nor has it ever been the municipality's intention to close the Russian Library. The library was established in the Nineties by the Zionist Forum, and its ownership was transferred to the municipality in 2000. "The rental contract for the library's building was for 10 years until 2010, with an option to extend. The municipality met with library representatives, including the manager of the library and the manager of the Library Department, and determined that the new location for the library in the Shukanyon was most suitable for transferring the Russian Library. The move is slated to take place at the start of September," read the statement. "The municipality will ask the owners of the [Zuckerman] building to extend by a few months the rental contract in order to best prepare for the transfer of the library to its new location. The library's new location will be adapted to suit all the library's needs." But no contract had been signed for any space in the Shukanyon. HOLDING SOME 100,000 books, Jerusalem's Municipal Russian Library is the largest public Russian-language library outside the former Soviet Union, and the world's largest library of books translated from Hebrew to Russian. It holds in its basement the only archive of Russian-language newspapers published in Israel since 1990. The library includes collections brought by Russian Jews at the beginning of the 20th century, including out-of-print books that were destroyed during the Revolution and Stalin's era, as well as a specific section of Soviet books translated from Yiddish to Russian. There are entire bookcases of Russian-language books written in Israel, sections and departments dedicated to literature (Russian, translated and genre), theater, art, music, mathematics, philosophy, history, the occult, Israeli and Jewish history, Judaism and Kabbala. The entire personal library of world-famous mathematician Isaak Yaglom was donated to the Jerusalem library by his children. There's an area dedicated to Yiddish theater director Solomon Mikhoels, who performed Shakespeare for Stalin and was murdered by the KGB. There's a rare books collection of 5,000 items, including a book signed by Isaac Babel and a book on Jewish history with the stamp of Hitler's office. There are self-help books for everything from learning languages to using computer programs and entire collections of rare Soviet journals from Stalin's time. There is even a section of anti-Semitic Soviet books from the 1970s, most of which were written by Jews. Aside from lending books, the library hosts a multitude of clubs and events. Israeli writers like Aharon Appelfeld, Amos Oz and Uri Milstein have presented translations of their books; roundtable discussions have been held, opening academic and theoretical questions about literature and language to the general public; groups such as the Bibliophiles and the Veteran Jewish Dissidents hold monthly club meetings at the library; and numerous Russian-language writers visiting Jerusalem from across Israel and the world present newly published books. "This library is the symbol of 100 years of Russian-Jewish life," explains Dina Kazhdan of Shatil, the New Israel Fund's empowerment and training center for NGOs. Shatil worked with the Coalition for the Survival of the Russian Library, a group of cultural organizations and figures fighting for the library's proper relocation. "Russian Jewry didn't bring out gold when it left Russia, it brought its libraries. Without them, there's no way for us to understand the core of Russian Jewry," she adds. The library was established by Clara Elbert with her 300 personal books, and was built on donations from private individuals as well as Yad Vashem, the National Library and the Joint Distribution Committee. Though many people told her they had tried and failed to open a Russian-language library, Elbert, who made aliya in 1990 and is still the library's director, fought to establish a library and literary center like the one she worked at in Moscow, a gathering place for artists and writers. "For a project like this to succeed, you have to find someone like Clara, who's meshuga la'inyan [crazy for the idea]," says Natan Sharansky, who worked with her for many years. For many of its readers, the library is a cultural and spiritual home. According to Zhana Bornstein, 61, a dancer and theater worker from Leningrad, "The library helps the Russian aliya create a link to their Jewish identity. I can access to books here that I never had access to in Russia, and [now] I don't just know I'm Jewish, I am actually starting to learn what that means. There are people who have started with books about Judaism here and eventually sought out yeshivot." A religiously observant man in his 60s, who preferred to remain anonymous, also spoke on a religious theme, but from the opposite angle: "I'm not a typical religious person because I'm also interested in secular and even anti-religious books. For a few months I've been here looking at such literature, and preparing to write about the topic. Just as I'm ready to start writing, the library is about to move." SO MANY people bring books now that the library sends duplicates to the Russian government's cultural center in Tel Aviv, as well as Russian libraries in the US and Russia. Because books have been saved in Israel that no longer exist in Russia, Moscow's Lenin and foreign libraries have established loan programs with the Jerusalem Soviet Jewry House. Before arriving at the Zuckerman building, the library moved often. While on King George Avenue, Elbert helped establish 15 different after-school activities, bringing 500 children to the library. In 1993, with Sharansky's help, the library moved onto the first floor of the Zuckerman building. The handsomely columned building, nestled between Romema and Jaffa Road, then housed the Zionist Forum, an umbrella organization of ex-Soviet activists of which Sharansky was then president. "Clara is a legendary personage," says Sharansky. "Without her energy and enthusiasm, this library wouldn't exist." Indeed, Elbert has been so involved in the library that in 1992, when the first threat of closure at King George Avenue came, she fell ill. A case of the flu turned into meningitis, and after leaking brain fluid, she was pronounced clinically dead for a short time and lay in a coma for three weeks. In 1995, Sharansky left the forum, and over time the Zionist Forum closed, leaving the building to the quickly expanding library. In 2000, with the help of then-mayor Ehud Olmert, the library gained status as a municipal library. At that time, the staff were paid the wage of part-time working students, NIS 17 an hour for a maximum of four hours a day (everyone mostly worked full time). A 10-year contract to lease the building was signed, which included the right to build whatever was necessary for the library, with an option to extend. But according to Sharansky, this term was cut short when Zuckerman became involved in archeological projects to unearth the Jerusalem tunnels, and decided to sell the building. "Zuckerman has done everything to help the situation, including dragging out the sale of the building for a year," says Sharansky. "He even agreed to pay for half of the renovation of the new location." THE PROPOSED MOVE has provoked outrage in the Knesset and city council and made headlines in the Russian and Hebrew press, including Vesti and Ha'aretz, a spot on Radio Reka and TV coverage on Israel Plus, RTR and RTVi. And at the gathering of the World Congress of Russian Jewry in Jerusalem in May, the fate of the library topped the agenda. According to library staff, rumor has it that even Moscow is keeping an eye on the situation. Meanwhile, the city's Library Department instructed the library to post a sign on Sunday, August 3, announcing it was closed. The library staff, which was told to expect a moving company, did as it was told, until MK David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu) arrived that morning and tore the sign down. Belotsky had already been at the site keeping vigil since 8:30 a.m. She and Rotem sat at the entrance to prevent the expected moving company from entering the library. The movers never showed up. "As I understand it," said Rotem, "the municipality has now engaged the new owners, and as of this morning, they are willing to give another period of time as long as the municipality obliges itself to find a new place within two to three months." Belotsky was less optimistic. "They [the municipality] figure we'll sit here for a few days until we get sick of it. Then they'll send in the movers." On that afternoon, two municipal officials - Library Department head Roxana Petlarskaya, and Arik Katan, acting head of the Culture Department - came to check whether the library had been closed as instructed. When they saw the open door, they began to reprimand the staff. A yelling match reportedly broke out between Petlarskaya and Katan and Belotsky and Rotem, along with several other concerned individuals. The scene ended with Petlarskaya and Katan leaving and telling the staff to keep the library operational until a decision was made. On Tuesday, Barkat and Belotsky sent a letter to Mayor Uri Lupolianski, asking him to address the matter. "For almost a year, we have notified you of the expected closing of the municipal Russian library... In the framework of our efforts, we suggested a solution to the matter in a city council meeting on November 27, 2007, during which you declared that there was no need to worry, and that you would see to it that an alternative location for the library would be found," read the letter. "Over the last six months, the Knesset Public Services Committee has held three discussions on the matter, but despite repeated promises to find a solution, the library's status is still unclear. "It is clear to us that the municipality must act to find a more suitable location for the library, for example the Clal Center or the YMCA, which are more respectable and accessible locations, for the benefit of library attendees. To do so, the library's present rental contract must be extended by a few months, and in parallel, an alternative location must quickly be found and renovated to allow for a speedy and organized transfer of the library, without interrupting its services. "The uncertainty and absence of a clear stand on the matter by the mayor and the municipality to keep the Russian Library open, harms the library and the thousands of residents who enjoy its unique services." On Thursday the city council was scheduled to hold a public meeting, and Barkat made a special request to raise the issue of the library's relocation. In the letter he and Belotsky sent to Lupolianski on Tuesday, they outlined two aims for a discussion on the matter: "The city council requests that the mayor come to an agreement with the owners of the building where the Russian library is presently housed, and to allow the library to remain open there until an alternative and suitable solution for the complete transfer of the library is found. "The city council requests that the mayor allow the process of moving the library to take place in stages, one section at a time, so as to allow the library to remain open." A Coalition for the Survival of the Russian Library, made up of cultural workers and organizations, had been working in parallel under Shatil's consultancy, turning to both secular and religious cultural figures to communicate that the Russian Library is a national cultural issue. "We're creating a common front of members of Israeli society to promote Jewish culture not restricted to the haredi way of life," says Kazhdan. "This is not a Russian problem, it's a problem of Israeli culture, which needs to prevent the disappearance of its ethnic Jewish resources." On Tuesday, the Coalition also turned in an online petition signed by 300 individuals including David Grossman. Throughout the week, they had been organizing a demonstration in Kikar Safra, scheduled for August 11 at 5 p.m. The event, sponsored by the New Israel Fund, was to be hosted by Eretz Aheret founder and editor-in-chief Bambi Sheleg, and featured appearances included Sharansky, Ethiopian community leader Avraham Nagusa, writers and poets Mikhail Gendelev, Haim Guri, Dina Rubina, Igor Guberman and Almog Bahar, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, professors Ariel Hirschfeld, Leonid Greenfeld, Uri Simon and Ze'ev Geizel, Haredi Meretz candidate Tzvia Greenfeld, musical group Euroasia, the Tatantas Theatre Group, and violinist Moti Schmidt. At press time, a permit for the demonstration had yet to be issued, which the municipality said it was denying because the library isn't slated to close. ON MONDAY, rumors were heard that the Shukanyon idea had been abandoned. On Tuesday evening, apparently due to the combined pressure of the various cultural and political organizations working for the rights of the library, the municipality released a new statement announcing it had decided to move the library to the Clal Center. "The Jerusalem Municipality has found an appropriate solution for a new location for the Russian Library," the statement reads. "On the direction of Mayor Uri Lupolianski, the city considered dozens of properties in the city that would serve as a proper solution for the Russian Library. "After examining dozens of properties, a spacious and respectable place has been found in the Clal Building that will allow for the proper display of the Russian-language cultural treasures in the library as well as its 100,000 books." The rental agreement, though not yet signed, was approved on Tuesday by the Finance Committee. The press was quickly informed of the developments, though when In Jerusalem asked for a statement from the Coalition, its members were not aware of the city's new position. They later related this statement: "If a contract has in fact been signed for the relocation of the Russian Library to Binyan Clal, the Coalition for the Survival of the Russian Library will not hold the [planned] demonstration. The decision to move the library into Binyan Clal is a victory for the Russian-speaking community, which has fought for its cultural rights - and won. This common front represents the vast sector of Jerusalem citizens fighting for their right to culture." At press time, the library's staff still hadn't received word from the municipality about the new space. The library's director hadn't even been taken to inspect the site. "The most important thing is to make sure there is enough space for the library's collection," Elbert was reported to have said. "If they stick us in a place that's too small, they won't even have to officially close the library - it'll peter out by itself."