Russia’s Jewish educational spring

In 2011, a quiet triumph of Jewish academic, cultural, religious life was achieved with opening of city’s first Jewish studies department.

Rozenson_521 (photo credit: Nikolai Busygin)
(photo credit: Nikolai Busygin)
A kind of Jewish spring has enveloped St. Petersburg. With the new Department of Jewish Culture at St. Petersburg State University, Russian Jewish life in this sprawling metropolis of close to five million will get a shot in the arm.
To the outside, detached observer, the development of Jewish cultural and religious life might not seem like a major tectonic shift. However, in the wake of the radical atheism of the now-defunct Soviet regime, the birth of the Department for Jewish Culture is a sea change.
After all, St. Petersburg – renamed Leningrad during the Soviet period – was home to the former Soviet Museum of Scientific Atheism, which worked overtime to dissolve all forms of religion.
David Rozenson, the executive director of the AVI CHAI Foundation in the former Soviet Union – which has helped provide the crucial funding to jump-start the department – explained to me that the “dream of opening a department was unimaginable just a few years ago and has actually been a dream for many for hundreds of years.”
He added that “my own relatives were denied entry into this prestigious university because they were Jews.”
Rozenson noted that “in terms of Jewish life, there is a renaissance that is occurring in this country,” citing the Department for Jewish Culture’s formation as well as many other events. Speaking about the despotic Soviet era, he said that for 70 years Jews had lived under a system of fear, in which rabbis were murdered, Jewish leaders were sent to the gulag, and Jewish life was limited in every way possible by the authorities. His own father was jailed, then released and allowed to leave the country within a span of two weeks.
Rozenson, a native of St. Petersburg who emigrated to the United States with his parents and older sister in 1978, returned to Moscow in 2000 to initiate and then oversee AVI CHAI’s philanthropic activities in the FSU, which is home to the third-largest Jewish community outside of Israel. He estimates that between 60,000 and 100,000 Jews still live in St. Petersburg.
The city was founded by Peter the Great with a view toward rapidly modernizing Russia and creating a showcase of the West on the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland. Toward that end, in 1724, Czar Peter established the St. Petersburg University.
“Academic Jewish studies provides legitimacy to Jewish life and scholarship in Russia and serves as a critical gateway for university students and Russian academics to learn about modern-day Israel. Many students spend a summer or a semester in Israel, enabling them to enter Israeli life and society in a way that speaks to them and their interests,” the 39-year-old Rozenson said.
AVI CHAI – Hebrew for the biblical quote “My father is alive” – is an Israeli- American foundation that seeks to reconnect Jews to their heritage, study and way of life, as well as to make Israel a central part of the activities and thinking of Diaspora Jewry. The organization’s innovative programs crisscross North America, the former Soviet Union and Israel.
It has introduced, for example, the literary project – an online portal that focuses on Jewish and Israeli literature, ideas and culture – to broad swaths of Russian Jewry. Eshkolot, a project that takes place in Moscow’s literary clubs and cafes, is focused on bringing the study of Jewish texts and ideas to the city’s intellectual but largely unaffiliated Jewish audience.
AVI CHAI’s work is bolstered by local and international partners who also seek to return Russian Jews to their heritage – and to the State of Israel.
Fluent in Hebrew, English and Russian, Rozenson, who received rabbinical ordination while studying and living in Israel, told me that the notion of AVI CHAI was based on the biblical story of Joseph meeting his brothers – the source of the the quote for which the group is named.
SEATED IN his office at St. Petersburg State University (SPSU), Dr. Igor Tantlevskij, the 49-year-old director of the Department of Jewish Culture, explained how Jewish studies moved from the sidelines of the university into all walks of city and academic life, and recounted the historical barriers to such studies.
”It is really a miracle that our department has been established,” said Tantlevskij, who is Jewish. A leading international expert in the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, he served as head of the previous Jewish studies program at the university – the Center for Biblical and Jewish Studies – before it was upgraded to a full-blown academic department.
To highlight the miracle, Tantlevskij provided a window into Jewish academic life in Soviet times.
“Even to study Hebrew before Gorbachev was dangerous, it was a crime,” he said. The former Soviet president ushered in the glasnost (openness) period in the second half of the 1980s.
During Joseph Stalin’s rule, the authorities pulled the plug on Hebrew studies in 1948-1949. Tantlevskij explained that the Stalinists believed “if you study biblical Hebrew, you are a Zionist,” and blocking Hebrew studies was part of the “fight against cosmopolitanism.”
After the Soviet Union swiftly recognized the State of Israel in 1948, Stalin’s initial pro-Israel policies morphed into a repressive domestic campaign – cosmopolitanism – against Russian Jewry and support for Israel. According to Tantlevskij, cosmopolitanism meant “Jewish self-determination” in Soviet terminology, and was simply a “euphemism for an anti-Jewish policy.” The Hitler movement made lethal anti-Semitism targeting Jews into a kind of opprobrium in the Soviet Union. This helps to explain why the Soviet authorities cleverly disguised their bias and loathing of Jews in the form of anti-Zionism, a phenomenon that would later gain enormous traction in contemporary Western Europe.
In light of the ubiquitous repression of Jewish studies and manifestations of Jewish life, how was it possible to study ancient biblical texts during the Soviet period? Tantlevskij, whose early interest in the history of Jewish theism sparked his academic career, explained that “the Soviets only allowed the Dead Sea Scrolls to be examined.”
Asked why, he said that “it is a riddle.
Maybe because they thought the Dead Sea Scrolls would shed light on Christianity” and help the Soviet atheism campaign to debunk it.
Tantlevskij remained one of approximately five scholars who could study Hebrew during the Soviet era. In fact, he was ostensibly the only post-graduate student in Hebrew studies during the Gorbachev period (1985-1991) at the St.
Petersburg branch of the Institute of the Oriental Studies of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, which is not affiliated with the university.
He cautiously surmised that the Soviets might have retained the inquiry into the Dead Sea Scrolls to pursue the idea of Friedrich Engels, the 19th-century German philosopher and co-founder of modern socialism who argued that “to overcome Christianity, one needs to know its origins.”
Following Engels’s line of reasoning, if the Dead Sea Scrolls could prove that Christian ideas dated from the pre-Christian Hellenistic Greek period, the “communists believed this will help their struggle against religion,” suggested Tantlevskij.
THE BLUEPRINT for a Jewish studies department at St. Petersburg State University began 11 years ago with a special agreement between the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the former center for Biblical and Jewish Studies at SPSU. St.
Petersburg is home to over 9,000 Jewish and Aramaic manuscripts. As a result, Rozenson and Tantlevskij say the city is an unrealized bundle of potential for Jewish studies, largely because its massive collection – one of the world’s largest – of Jewish texts, manuscripts and artifacts warrants systematic study.
Take the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg, which houses the original Leningrad Codex manuscript, as well as a priceless trove of ancient Hebrew-language documents. The Leningrad Codex is the oldest complete collection of the Hebrew Bible, and its 490 sheets are believed to be dated to 1008 CE. Fractured USSR-Israeli diplomatic relations because of Soviet hostility toward the Jewish state did not allow for scholarly access to the codex between 1967 and 1991. With the establishment of the Department for Jewish Culture, the National Library’s substantial Hebrew oeuvre will now be available to students.
Another bastion of Judaica is lodged at the State Museum of the History of Religion – the former Museum of Atheism.
Alla Sokolova, a Jewish archivist at the museum, said there were 400 Torahs, mezuzot, circumcision kits and paintings of Jewish life in pre- and post-Bolshevik revolution times. She is doggedly reconstructing the material to present to a wider audience.
THE MAIN academic thrust of the Department for Jewish Culture will take place along three tracks: the history of ancient Jewry, medieval Jewish studies, and courses on modern Jewish history, Israel and Russian Jewry.
A mere 20 to 25 years ago, said Tantlevskij, it was impossible to publish and read Jewish literature. His students can now enjoy the works of world-class literary geniuses like Saul Bellow, Franz Kafka and Yiddish-language writer Isaac Bashevis Singer.
ANASTASIA KOZULEVA’S intellectual appetite led her to the study of Yiddish in modern times. She is a fourth-year student in the new department, and absorbs some of her academic research by engaging in “interviews with elderly people in Yiddish.”
In one of the large, yet humble, university conference rooms, she and 11 of her fellow students talked about their studies.
The group’s diverse majors range from medieval biblical exegesis to the Jewish philosophical giant Moses Maimonides to the interface between Jews and Christians based on textual analysis.
Dina Podolnaya, a fifth-year student majoring in medieval Jewish studies with a concentration on the educational philosophy of Maimonides and other medieval Jewish thinkers, neatly captured the level of Russian Jewish history in St. Petersburg: “The center of Jewish life was here.” She added that the “Zionist movement” also flourished there in its nascent phase.
Podolnaya, who is Jewish and attended the University of Haifa in a study-abroad program for a year, said that “our department is a good example that Jewish life is alive.”
Her academic training at SPSU resulted in her slated participation in the University of Oxford’s Tikvah Summer Institute on Religion and Politics this August.
The SPSU department is “a good opportunity to study Hebrew,” said Konstantin Timashev, a fifth-year student examining the relations between Jewish and Christian medieval biblical exegesis. He teaches biblical Hebrew at the Jewish community center.
There is a strong interplay between the SPSU department and Israel. Four of the 12 students have been to Israel. There are between 10 and 12 Israeli professors from the Hebrew University who are working with SPSU’s Jewish culture department. A slated master’s course covering modern culture in Israel will be introduced within two years.
Jana Brook, a fifth-year Jewish student who studied at the Hebrew University last year, works in the St. Petersburg Jewish community. She said SPSU was a “natural place to study”; her own studies are devoted to the Book of Ruth.
According to Tantlevskij, 30 percent of the students in the department are not Jewish. The Jewish studies program originally attracted 15 students each year, but that has mushroomed to 45 students since the upgrade to an academic department.
Eight Jewish graduates have made aliya, and a number of students with degrees in Jewish studies from SPSU are employed by Jewish organizations and charity groups.
Tantlevskij expects that enrollment will reach 100 students over the next five years.
ALL THOSE who contributed to laying the foundation for the department say the sine qua non for its crystallization was Nikolay M. Kropachev, the university’s rector and a well-known professor of criminal law. The 52-year-old Kropachev – widely viewed as charismatically pragmatic – green-lighted the department in a March administrative decree.
In an interview in his office at SPSU, Kropachev explained to me that “without the study of both Israeli and Jewish culture, one cannot understand philosophy and law.” Jewish studies, he said, are “part of world civilization.”
Kropachev was featured recently on the cover of a Russian Jewish magazine, Lechaim, which quoted him as saying that “it is impossible to teach a course on history without teaching Jewish history.”
The opening of the department is a “reflection of freedom of thought at the university,” he noted.
Asked if there had been institutional resistance against the move, he said that “no one tried to contradict the decision I made.”
The Department of Jewish Culture is a sign that “what was closed in the past” is now ingrained into university life, continued Kropachev, adding that “what should be fundamental in Russian society is the spreading of Jewish culture alongside and on an equal basis with all other cultures that are part of Russia’s multicultural society.”
He did not sweep the anti-Semitism of the former Soviet Union under the rug. “Feelings of anti-Semitism” existed in the academy during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, said Kropachev – but, he added, “it will pass” and “take some time, a generation,” and the creation of the department will assist in ushering in an open attitude.
The word “open” in all of its variations was the common thread running through the interview. He suggested that his childhood experiences with Jewish pupils and friends helped shape his view of acceptance and openness. He sees enlightened progress unfolding in the academy, particularly at SPSU because of its deep commitment to transparency. But he warned that “if there is a crisis” in Russian society, then scapegoats could be targeted because they have a “different nationality or color.”
Kropachev stressed that he views both the study of Jewish culture and a closer relationship with academic institutions in Israel and the West as of paramount importance to the development of Russian society.
Shortly before my departure from St. Petersburg, I asked AVI CHAI’s Rozenson about the meaning and role of the biblical story of Joseph in his tireless work to revitalize Russian Jewry. According to the Torah, after Joseph is sold into bondage and separated from his family, he rises to the zenith of power in ancient Egypt and reveals himself to his brothers with the question, “Is my father still alive?” This tale of reconnection and family unification has a larger meaning for Diaspora Jewry. “Undoubtedly our brothers are alive in the former Soviet Union, and the Department of Jewish Culture at SPSU is one example,” asserts Rozenson.