Face-to-face with Eshkolot

Simon Parizhsky speaks at the Eshkolot Festival about Jewish thought in Russia.

Simon Parizhsky (photo credit: Courtesy)
Simon Parizhsky
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Simon Parizhsky, the program director of Avi Chai’s Eshkolot initiative, has been involved in Jewish studies in Russia since the early ’90s.
“I was always involved in extracurricular intellectual studies, and eventually I decided I wanted to bring the ideas I accumulated in Jewish studies to a wider public, since I believe the idea is interesting when it becomes embodied in cultural practices and it is being tested,” says Parizhsky, who has an MA in Hebrew and Jewish Literature, another MA in Social Philosophy, and a PhD from St. Petersburg State University for his thesis on medieval Hebrew prose.
“Jewish ideas are not being tested in academic articles, but by how these ideas can change lives, influence people and influence their minds,” he continues.
“For me, the real interesting thing about Jewish studies is not academic pursuit per se, but the pursuit of Jewish culture.”
Parizhsky, who also teaches medieval Jewish literature, rabbinic literature and Hebrew at the St. Petersburg and Moscow State Universities, spent two years in Israel at the Mandel Institute as a Jerusalem Fellow, which gave him “time and space to think about many things from a distance.”
With a fresh perspective on Jews and Judaism, he returned to Russia. He discovered that the problem with his vision was that the Jewish revival taking place in post-Soviet countries lacked substance, Jewish ideas and Jewish knowledge – not just abstract knowledge, but ideas that could influence education and cultural growth.
Due to historical circumstances, most of the people involved in Jewish revival didn’t have any formal or informal Jewish education. The only things that guided the educational activities were foreign models from Israel or the US, and often they did not fit the cultural profile and the Russian way of thinking.
For example, the American model of a community with a JCC at its center and the definition of the Jew as one who is active in some social environment, belongs to some community and expresses this belonging by going to the synagogue was totally foreign to post-Soviet Jews. Due to the trauma of collectivism brought on by decades of Communism, post-Soviet Jews wanted to define themselves as individuals before they were ready to belong to a collective.
“When the Zionist ideology became the guiding force of [Jewish Agency for Israel] activities, it was counter-productive for post-Soviet Jews. There was a common joke that the red scarf of the Communist ideology became the blueand- white kippa of Zionism, which, to many, symbolized brainwashing,” says Parizhsky.
“My aim was to try and articulate the voice of post-Soviet Jewry, to try and search for some authentic aspirations and voice of the people in the way they want to be Jewish, or they think can envision some way of being Jewish in Russia in a way that can be authentic without being imposed from abroad,” he goes on. “To accomplish this, one needs to learn the language of Jewish civilization, to bring Jewish ideas and Jewish texts, to become saturated with these. Then the thinking will become substantive. So I became involved in Jewish cultural and educational projects to infuse people with great Jewish ideas.”
In 2003, he recalls, he helped establish a network of academic camps for teenagers.
“We thought teenagers in Jewish and non-Jewish high schools have an intellectual attitude to define culture the way physics, history or mathematics are defined. We tried to frame Jewish civilization as something that smart kids would be interested to learn – not in the way it is presented in youth movements, but in a more serious way, a way that these smart kids could connect [to]. These were informal camps to which we had university professors coming to teach everything from linguistics to folklore.”
He says he often considered doing something “not just for kids, but...
with more general cultural life.”
“By 2008, for example, we had an analysis of the situation in Moscow, and we saw that 90 percent of the Jewish population is unaffiliated and not connected to any Jewish framework....
Most were people in their 30s or 40s with kids, [with] careers and families, and were therefore not involved in youth movements, nor were they in the elderly, senior stage in life. So they were in the middle and disconnected.
Even if they were interested in learning about Judaism, there was no framework for them. They could not study Judaism in universities or synagogues.
There was no open, comfortable framework to encounter Jewish ideas. So we started this project, Eshkolot, which is based on two main approaches – ‘taste of ideas’ and the ‘Tzipori’ approach.”
The former refers to short seminars that the program offers to introduce Jewish topics and texts, while in the latter, educators go out to meet their target audiences, giving lectures in cafes and other local venues. These “tastes” left people interested in more, so Eshkolot developed “main courses” as well, offering more regular, in-depth programs that were usually text-oriented.
“We tell people, ‘If you are interested to learn more about a certain subject, we have a mini-course of three or four seminars, and you can enroll,’” he says.
Some of the people who become hooked on a certain subject register for many other courses and study with the professor.
“We also developed this format of slow reading of Jewish books,” he adds, “and this was our biggest surprise among all of our formats, because we thought that this practice of collective, in-depth reading of Jewish texts would be difficult to promote, since people today like to read fast and devour books. People are unaccustomed to slow reading in a group. In Russia, there is no culture of reading together with other people. The practice of reading books here is a solitary practice – a dialogue between the reader and the book.”
Eshkolot announced that it was offering a course in Ecclesiastes and that the group would read it slowly in five sessions, with commentary from scholars.
They invited biblical scholars and philosophers who offered their commentaries.
“We hoped that 15 people would enroll, and on the second day of enrollment we had 75 people enrolled in this course,” he recalls. “We thought to ourselves, ‘What are we going to do?’ This format was so popular, and more people started hearing about it and attending, [so] we had to create parallel tracks to accommodate the numbers. This kickstarted the whole format of study groups, which we continued for a couple of years.”
ONCE THEY discovered that there was an entire community of people interested in such study groups, including people from outside Moscow who had heard of the initiative, they realized that there was potential to spread the idea to other cities, he says.
“We started these multi-day events to offer an opportunity to engage in slow, in-depth reading in a group, led by scholars. This way, people can get immersed in the text and have informal contact with the teachers. You can see the questions and answers, and exploration into the texts sometimes continue into the night. So it is a whole different stage of development of this idea of slow reading, and it also gives us the opportunity to bring people from other cities, such as St. Petersburg.”
He notes that each of the Eshkolot festivals – of which this most recent one is the third – has an overall theme.
“The theme of the last festival [in June] was poetry and music, with readings of classical Jewish poetry starting from the Bible, Psalms, [and going on] to medieval and modern Israeli poetry.
We chose those texts that are connected to some musical tradition, and we had musical workshops which complemented the textual workshops. This fit our philosophy, since it is the way people can experience the text in an aesthetic, more embodied way. It also showed us that these festivals create a real community because the element of music brings something more emotional, social and communal to the event.”
Following the last festival, he says, “there was an effervescence – people became excited. We saw that these festivals offer follow-up results. For example, after the first festival, people came to us and said, ‘We want to study languages.’ One of the conclusions we arrived at was that it is very difficult to study Jewish texts in translation, and we wanted to connect to the original and try somehow to be at least able to read the original text. So after the first festival, we started groups for biblical Hebrew and Yiddish. This was initiated by the participants.
“After the second festival, there was a group of people who wanted to continue studying the texts online, so we organized an online seminar with the teachers from the festival, and people from all over the world participated in translating and studying Jewish and Yiddish poetry online. After the festivals, we have a kind of learning community forming around the festival, and it also accumulates through the festival, so we have a kind of movement.”
Still, he says, this is only the beginning, and Eshkolot is trying out different ideas.
“With this festival [in November], we experimented with parallel readings of Jewish and non-Jewish texts [each taught by a different lecturer]. I think it is very important to open this way of reading, not just to make it one more Jewish seminar or camp, but to have this in dialogue and connection with all that is happening intellectually in Russia with the best scholars in medieval studies or modern literature. I was very much surprised in this festival by the response from these scholars, because we turned to the most distinguished scholars in these fields, and I was afraid they wouldn’t be interested.
“For example, the professor teaching [Argentinean writer Jorge Luis] Borges is the greatest translator of Borges into Russian and the greatest expert on Borges in Russia who exists. He is a great sociologist, philosopher and author of a lot of books, and very much venerated. He became so interested in this opportunity... he said, ‘I never had the opportunity to sit and study Borges with people in this way.’ In all these fields, we found people who are high-level and open to these new kinds of experiments.”
For Parizhsky, this response was “the biggest surprise and satisfaction from this program,” and he believes that “the echoes of this festival will spread not only inside the Jewish community, but also in the academic community and intellectual circles. I think our approach, which is an ‘out of the ghetto’ approach, is the best way to connect to Jews who are not interested in closed Jewish networks or to Jewish life which is [self-contained]. They are interested in Jewish ideas that are part of their intellectual environment.”
He acknowledges, of course, that “there are a lot of questions and unknowns here, since people usually ask, ‘Well, we encountered Jewish ideas, and now what do we do with them? Do we light Shabbat candles? What is the next step?’ And we usually say that this first important encounter with Jewish ideas is like an impulse people get, and then they take it wherever they like. We are not here to bring end results and to give people answers such as ‘This is the way to be Jewish’ or ‘This is how you have to be Jewish.’ “People bring these ideas to all sorts of places. Some go to Israel, and while I don’t say we are the only factor encouraging them to move there, I would say they go in a more conscious way and not just for economic reasons.
Some people become religious – very few, but there are some that do. Some people become agents of Jewish culture.
They organize Jewish concerts or become producers of Jewish bands.
Others simply adopt regular Jewish study. There are lots of non-Jews and people who are not connected to Judaism in a personal way, but rather in a family way, genealogically. Many of them bring Jewish ideas into their intellectual environment wherever they are. They are scholars in different fields, and they enrich their professional life with Jewish ideas.”
He says he believes it is good that “Jewish ideas are being spread and are becoming a normal part of the environment.
The more Jewish ideas we spread, the better the chance that people will encounter them and get a positive taste of Judaism.”
URI GERSHOVITCH is a scholar of Jewish thought. He has a PhD in the history of Jewish philosophy and is assistant professor at the Open University and the Hebrew University’s Chais Center of Jewish Studies in Russian. At last month’s festival, he lectured on Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed – the parallel text being Thierry of Chartres’s Six Days of Creation, which scholar Oleg Voskoboinikov taught. Gershovitch also screened Drowning by Numbers, an award-winning movie by British director Peter Greenaway. The purpose of the screening was to compare the film’s characters to personalities in the Tanach (Hebrew Bible).
“The participants here do not just want information, since they can access much of it online,” he says of the Eshkolot program. “Clearly they desire a certain interaction with experts and educators, and this may be one of the reasons they attend such programs.”
He adds that “I grew up here, so I understand the students here more than Israeli professors would. It is interesting to see how students here are so dedicated to spending time studying texts in-depth.”
Editor and journalist Anastasia Artse-va, who has an MA in journalism, says she finds it interesting to discover her Jewish roots, so she has attended other, similar programs in the past. Eshkolot’s academic approach intrigues her, and she tries to attend as many of its programs as possible.
“I’ve always been interested in comparative literature, and I often read books by different authors from different cultures, so Eshkolot’s programming appeals to me,” she says, adding, “I enjoy the longer, multi-day festivals.
I studied the [kabbalistic work] Sefer Yetzira at one of the Eshkolot festivals earlier this year, and based on my knowledge, I taught a class on Sefer Yetzira at St. Petersburg University.”
Valery Shubinsky, an author, translator and scholar of literature, lives in St.
Petersburg. He studied Yiddish in Poland 10 years ago and is the author of a literary biography of Daniel Kharms, a Russian writer who died in 1942. The parallel text is Hanoch Levin, taught by Asya Waisman – a scholar of Jewish enlightenment, contemporary Jewish and Israeli literature, and an assistant professor in the department of Jewish Studies at Moscow State University’s Institute of Asian and African Studies.
According to Shubinsky, the parallels between Kharms and Levin are most fascinating, since the writers likely did not read each other’s material.
“It is very interesting to discuss comparative literature,” he says. “Most students study the humanities, philosophy, the arts, and it is interesting because the parallel approach looks at different texts that are similar.”
He notes that “the level of knowledge among students tends to vary. This is normal, since they are not philologists and specialists. Here, there is a high level of interest on the part of students to learn and understand more.”
Understanding these texts, he says, requires students “to know a lot of information about the cultural context.
For example, I teach a small sample of Kharms, but I encourage them to read further and gain knowledge and context in order to understand the material better.”
Reuven Kiperwasser has a PhD from Bar-Ilan University’s Talmud Department, with a particular focus on the study of midrashim on Kohelet (Ecclesiastes).
He is preparing critical editions of Kohelet Raba and Kohelet Zuta.
“I have been involved with Eshkolot for a few years since I was a visiting professor at Moscow State University,” he says. “My topic is ‘rabbinic literature,’ sometimes referred to as ‘Second Temple period,’ but mostly in the light of rabbinic literature.”
He hopes the material he provides through these programs will help students “build their cultural universe.”
“I support this program as compared to university, since in university it is a formal education,” he adds. “Here there is a wide selection of participants.
There are very intellectual people here who have a lot of breadth to know, to explore, and it is quite rare. Students ask on every point. Sometimes, when I teach in the university, I do not know if the students are following or not, since they do not engage in asking a lot of questions. I try to be provocative, to provoke questions. Here, I do not need to be provocative, since the students are active and involved, and ask many questions.”
VOSKOBOINIKOV, WHO has a PhD in medieval history, is a professor at the Department of Social History and senior research fellow at the Laboratory of Medieval Studies of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
“I very much like the idea of discussing texts in parallel, since I feel it is very much part of the Jewish tradition.
This tradition of analyzing texts is helpful and dear to me as a medievalist. For me, this is a chance to examine my beloved text Six Days of Creation by Thierry of Chartres with a very large and interested public, even though they are not professional medievalists and are from varied backgrounds,” he says.
“I feel a bit like a 12th-century intellectual who is now opening a treasure he uses,” he adds. “It is not my creation – these are not my ideas. I transmit them. This is a treasure of the past on which I comment. This is a wonderful, positive dialogue with the past.”
Regarding the language, he says, “Some of my students understand a bit of Latin but do not know the syntax and rely on my Russian translation.
During the slow reading, we realized that translation is always an interpretation.
Here at Eshkolot, I have the opportunity to read through the texts slowly and analyze just a small part more in depth.”
Asked about growing Russian interest in Jewish texts, Voskoboinikov says, “It’s not a secret that the Russian Jewish community is still very strong even after years of emigration. I personally am a quarter Jewish. This interest in Jewish texts is partly also due to the cultural activity of Israel and the Diaspora, and partly to the fact that Hebrew is not as difficult as Arabic, for example, and if you want to study Semitic languages, Hebrew is a good language to start with.
“I am not a Hebraist, but when I read Maimonides’ Moreh Nevuchim [Guide for the Perplexed] in French, I felt a sort of congeniality, a friendly feeling, between him and me. Jews today are also studying medieval Jews and their relationships with Christians and Arabs, and it is a very passionate topic to study these contexts from the past in order to construct a better world today.”
Voskoboinikov says he also deals with anti-Semitism toward Jews in medieval times – a well-studied subject.
“It’s not a scientific mentality to study the Holocaust and persecution of Jews. It is a traumatic subject, but I try to show people constructive dialogue on the level of sciences, biblical exegesis and normal human contact between different religions,” he says.
“We live in a violent world, and by reading and offering different texts, we show the construction of dialogue during the Crusades,” he continues. “Here, it is not about dialogue with Jews in itself, but it is a dialogue, since it is a Christian reading of a Jewish text, the beginning of bereishit, the creation.
Even if I am not sermonizing the necessity of constructing a better world, I discuss precise historical elements from the text. It is still suggestive to show people that today in the 21st century, being mathematicians, businessmen etc.... by reading through boring old texts, they can become better people.”