The Human Spirit: Russian paradigm

Despite the long silence of Russian Jewry, as the psalmists would say, the soul will sing and not be silent.

Discussion 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Discussion 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Let’s say you want to engage career-minded young people – economists, architects, linguists who until now haven’t expressed any interest in Judaism. Despite strenuous and creative attempts by other Jewish organizations, these fast-track young adults have thus far proven to be beyond the reach of outreach.
Here’s a new approach: Instead of offering a beginners course, say Shabbat 101, ask these non-affiliated workaholics to first read 50 pages of ponderous text, then take vacation days from work so they can spend four days, eight hours a day, studying obscure liturgical poetry.
This isn’t a joke; it’s the surprisingly winning formula that an organization called Eshkolot has been employing. The result? So many talented young men and women apply for the program that half need to be turned away.
Have I mentioned that Eshkolot is based in Moscow? On a rare sun-drenched stretch of June days in the Russian capital, 75 young adults who have graduated from Russia’s equivalent of the Ivy League gather at a low-frills resort, 32 kilometers south of the city.
They’re listening to a 90-minute lecture about the structure of Hebrew poetry. No one is fidgeting, even though few can read or speak Hebrew, let alone quote Hebrew poetry. An Israeli musician illustrates the difference between the Egyptian and Iraqi versions of the Friday night hymn “Yedid Nefesh.” They take notes and follow the words in the 288-page source material book they carry with them everywhere, even though they don’t go to synagogue services on Friday night.
In addition to these plenary lectures, there are four study tracks. The most popular sign-up is Psalms. Another track focuses on the religious and secular poetry of 11thcentury Yehuda Halevi, using ideas from the Kuzari. The third concentrates on the structure and allusions in the modern Hebrew poetry of Leah Goldberg. The last choice is the work of Itzik Manger, who was (dear readers, how many of you know?) a 20th-century Yiddish poet and playwright.
Eshkolot’s inspired name plays on the Hebrew expression ish eshkolot for a person of high intellectual achievement and the Russian word skola for school/academy.
Eshkolot is sponsored by the Avi Chai Foundation and this four-day retreat – called the Festival of Jewish Texts and Sounds – also receives funds from the Rothschild Foundation Europe.
Participant Yana Reyvikh grew up in Chelyabinsk, a city near the Ural Mountains.
Her mother is Jewish but the family wasn’t observant. Acquaintances frequently asked her what nationality she was. In the former Soviet Union, where the infamous Paragraph 5 stating nationality is no longer on an identity card, that’s the politically correct way of asking if she was Jewish. She was always aware who was Jewish. Her opera teacher included Yiddish songs in her singing repertoire. At university, she knew her German teacher was Jewish, too. “I could tell by his name and the way he treated text as sacred,” says Reyvikh.
When she moved to Moscow for graduate school, she decided to explore Judaism but wasn’t attracted to anything that seemed to be coercive. She visited Avi Chai’s popular website (which gets 800,000 hits a month), and attended an Eshkolot café lecture on French Jewish philosophers.
Eshkolot specializes in these highbrow lectures.
Other recent topics were Jewish Women in Renaissance Italy, Freud, Fromm, Strauss and Buber read the Bible, and China in the Creative Work of 20th Century Yiddish Avant-Garde Poets.
“I was a Jewish girl with no roots. Knowing that, I realized there was a big precious culture out there,” says Reyvikh. “The lectures are open to everyone and they’re not intimidating.”
Reyvikh signed up for the Eshkolot e-mail list to hear about future events.
She was surprised and pleased that she was one of the 800 young people (out of a database of 4,500) invited to apply to take part in the festival. “What could be more fun than studying for study’s sake, [rather than] striving to pass a qualifying exam or prove yourself?” She was accepted, and with her background in literature and opera, she said, the “Psalms track was an obvious choice.”
For Asya Fruman, 24, a translator from the Skovoroda Kharkiv National Pedagogical University, the thought that she could delve into the works of Itzik Manger in Yiddish with an expert was “thrilling.”
“I love Manger’s personality and poetry,” she says. She earns her living translating English, French and Polish into Russian, and she learned Yiddish so she could read Manger in the original. Vyacheslav Zlatopolsky, 32, a scriptwriter who is “making a Jewish film and looking for himself,” signed up for the Yehuda Halevi track, in which the medieval poetry is analyzed using “prism methodology” of illuminating each facet of each word.
RUSSIANS ARE skeptical of emotional presentations, explains Eshkolot programming director Simon Parizhsky, PhD, who planned the Festival of Jewish Texts and Sounds. He holds advanced degrees in Jewish literature and social philosophy. When he spent two years in Jerusalem with other educators, he often disagreed with his colleagues about whether the more popular models of education they were promoting would work for everyone.
“Russians start with their heads. They want to understand the philosophy first and are more comfortable with an academic approach. They want to know why you light Shabbat candles before they consider ever lighting them,” he says.
He feels confident that the richness of Jewish heritage will come through cerebral investigation of Jewish culture. Likewise, he believes the centrality of Israel in Judaism will be transmitted. “There is no viable Diaspora community detached from Israel,” says Parizhsky. Most of the lecturers he imports are Israelis, many of them former Russian professors who live in Israel and teach at Israeli universities.
At 44, Parizhsky is old enough to have been involved in underground Jewish activism before the Soviet Union unraveled in 1991.
“These young people are post-Soviet and never encountered the old restrictions on being Jews. They have many choices,” he says. “Every night in Moscow there are 50 different activities in the city. I want to make Jewish subjects one of the choices in venues like coffee shops, parks and museums where the most intellectual Jews live.”
Eshkolot activities are open to all. No mention is made that they are for Jews. Paradoxically, not restricting programs to Jews is important in attracting unaffiliated Jews who would never see themselves attending a “Jews-only” activity. The openness means that among the participants are non-Jews and others who describe themselves as being “of Jewish descent.”
The wonder to me is that despite 70 years of communism, intermarriage and assimilation, something attracts them enough to spend four days delving into Jewish sources. When I ask about it, they talk of feelings, not logic. Says Alexi Maslov, for instance, who teaches at the Department of Oriental Studies at the Higher School of Economics: “Both of my grandfathers are Jewish. I know that according to Jewish law I’m not Jewish. But I suppose that in a global society, ultimately we’re all looking for identity. I must have absorbed something from those grandfathers that resonates for me enough so that I would like a Jewish home.”
Because of the Russian veneration for music, Parizhsky wanted to show that Jewish musical tradition goes “beyond ‘Hava Nagila’ and [the Russian Yiddish love song] ‘Tumbalalaika.’” He has invited four of Israel’s toptier musicians to be involved in the revival of the liturgical poetry called piyutim: rabbi/cantor David Menachem, piyutim musician Yair Harel and oriental music composers and musicians Peretz Eliahu and Mark Eliahu.
In Israel, Russian Jews dominate many of the stages.
Here, the Israelis teach, lecture, sing and perform to a rapt audience. On Shabbat, the musical instruments are put away, but the students forgo Shabbat naps in favor of choral practice. They spend hours practicing piyutim and Hebrew songs for a post- Shabbat concert.
Shabbat ends after midnight. Gaval, tar and kamancha – ancient tambourines and string instruments – reappear for a festive havdala. The Itzik Manger track has prepared four songs in Yiddish; the singers sound as though they grew up with Yiddish as their native tongue. The Leah Goldberg group sounds as authentic as a pioneering choir from the Jezreel Valley. It’s near impossible to discern that before they came, few of them had ever pronounced Yiddish or Hebrew words.
In dozens of interviews with participants, I don’t hear a single complaint – not about the classes, the institutionalized kosher food or even the forest mosquitoes.
Over and over, the interviewees say the same thing: the festival is “great, great great,” and “way beyond their highest expectations.”
So I’m starting to think, maybe it’s us non-Russians who have the wrong paradigm.
Instead of offering beginners’ courses and watering down material, maybe we should try the Russian method of raising the bar high, taking on tough subjects, squeeze a semester of lectures and study sessions into a few days.
As the seminar draws to a close, I notice the comments are evolving. The group is still ebullient about the texts, but what makes participants’ eyes glow even brighter is the transition from text to sound: the music.
What did they like best? “The Israeli musicians.
They’re inspirational,” says Manger enthusiast Asya Fruman. Elena Orlova, 44, a TV personality who is studying in the Leah Goldberg track, says the modern poetry and music “makes her feel as if she belongs to something much bigger.” Israel musician Yair Harel, a protagonist in the revival of piyutim, advises them: “The secret of the multi-voiced tradition of Judaism is that the only limits are the limits of your own heart.”
So indeed it is. When the lessons are over, the participants group and regroup, singing and playing instruments, mixing snippets of Jewish songs and Russian melodies, Yiddish lullabies and Hebrew rock, new songs and old. They sing all night long, pausing only when dawn breaks in the Russian countryside. Despite the long silence of Russian Jewry, as the psalmists would say, the soul will sing and not be silent.

The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.