Purim is a time when we play with identities, dress in disguises and revel in deceptions. There is an aspect of great fun to this holiday, and there are lessons that are deeply serious.
One of the timeless aspects of the Jewish calendar is that, while the dates and texts may remain the same – Purim again will start the night of 13 Adar and the Megillah will not have changed – we, the readers, are different than we were last year and the circumstances of the world we live in have changed since our last reading.
As with many Jewish holidays, Purim includes a lesson about the importance of continuity and survival against existential enemies. This is, sadly, an enduring reality.
Just this week, at the annual conference on international security policy, in Munich, Germany, Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reiterated the danger posed by Iran’s nuclear program and warned that regime not to underestimate Israel’s resolve in confronting it.
There are other threats, as well, in the form of growing antisemitism among far-right parties in Europe and in the British Labour Party, online and in the number of antisemitic incidents reported in North America and elsewhere.
We are still trying to uncover whether antisemitism played a role in the mass murder of 17 students and teachers at a Parkland, Fla., school last week. The tragedy led a white supremacist group to claim the perpetrator was one of theirs, but, despite being widely reported, this claim has been debunked.
Five of the 17 victims were Jewish – the high school is in an area with a significant Jewish population – and the murderer’s online rantings were teeming with hatred of African-Americans and Jews. In one online chat, he claimed that his birth mother was Jewish and that he was glad he never met her. Per usual, we are engaged in debating what motivated the perpetrator – easy access to guns, mental illness, pure evil or various combinations of these. As usual, we will engage in a nearly identical cycle of shock, grief, argument and ultimate apathy the next time this occurs, and the next time.
Threats of another kind are also top news right now, with charges recently laid against a number of Russian individuals and groups who are alleged to have interfered with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The deception appears to have involved creating and stealing social media identities, as well as starting fake political pages intended to divide Americans. A rally against Islam, in Houston, Tex., in May 2016, was met with a counter-rally against Islamophobia. Both rallies, it now appears, were incited by Russian troublemakers.
More seriously still, the allegation is that deceptive and outright false statements were made in online posts and advertisements, which had the apparent impact of suppressing support for Hillary Clinton in key swing states, thus electing Donald Trump president. As each new allegation and example of proof has arisen, Trump has misrepresented reality, deflecting charges that his campaign (including members of his family) was engaged in collusion with the Russians, and claiming vindication at every turn.
A better president would pledge to get to the bottom of whatever is (or isn’t) real in the matter. Instead, this president plays partisan games and, unlike King Ahasuerus, does not take wise counsel willingly.
So, identity, disguises and deception are not only central to our Purimspiels, but woven through our news cycles and sensibilities every day, demonstrating again the eternal relevance of our narratives. Each year, on this holiday as on other days, we recognize and gird ourselves against the threats to our identity and existence. But we also celebrate our survival and rejoice in our not insignificant good fortune.
Alexandra Gerson, centre, says a few words at a Jewish talent show put on by Radio VERA last year. (photo from Radio VERA)
“I have a dream: I want to bring together Russian-speaking and English-speaking Jews in Canada, to unite them into one seamless whole. All I do, my Radio VERA included, is serving that goal,” said Alexandra Gerson, a co-owner of VERA.
This year, VERA celebrates its 10th anniversary. Timed to coincide with that milestone, the radio station is helping bring the concert Le Chaim to Richmond’s Gateway Theatre on Feb. 3.
“VERA is an acronym of the words Vancouver Jewish Russian Association, in Russian,” Gerson explained. She said VERA’s roots lie in her previous radio program, Russian Voice, a pre-taped one-hour weekly show in Russian, which launched in 2001 with the financial support of David Stevens. The program had mostly Jewish content, but it didn’t last long. From its inception, Gerson said she received multiple antisemitic threats and her car was vandalized. Home-grown Russian extremists were not happy with a Jewish program called Russian Voice, she said, and they kept harassing her. Concerned for her young daughter’s safety, with the police urging caution, Gerson eventually closed the program, but she didn’t give up her love for radio. “You can listen to the radio anywhere, in your car, in your home or office, working or resting,” she mused.
Her radio work brought her into the midst of the Zionist movement in Canada. “I’ve lived in Canada for 24 years,” she said. “My father was a Zionist, and Jewish ideas are dear to me. I’ve always liked being a Jew. I work for the Jews of Canada. I’m an official representative of the World Zionist Organization in Canada, and my Radio VERA is an integral part of my work. It promotes Jewish ideas and is a pro-Israel station. I come to the studio every morning, turn on the microphone, and say, ‘Hello, Jews!’ And feel proud.”
Gerson’s pride in her Jewishness pushed her towards attending seminars and workshops on Jewish leadership. During one of them, in 2003, she met Dmitry Shiglik, an American businessman and a dynamic figure in the Russian-Jewish world. He became a steady backer of her then-new endeavor, Radio VERA, which broadcasted its first show in 2008.
“VERA broadcasts live five days a week, Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.,” Gerson said. “It’s the most expensive time, when everyone is in their cars, heading for work. We exist because of our generous donors: Yosef Wosk, Alex Kivritsky of the HiFi Centre and, of course, Dmitry Shiglik, my co-owner.”
She stressed that VERA is not, and hasn’t been for a long time, a Russian radio broadcast. “It stopped being ethnic years ago. We do interviews about what is of interest to everyone. For example, North Korea is on people’s mind these days, so we did an interview with the editor of the Russian newspaper in Seoul.”
Every morning, listeners of VERA can expect relevant and time-sensitive interviews in two languages: Russian and English. “We do interviews in whatever language our guest prefers,” said Gerson. “Our hosts switch languages fluidly, as the situation demands. We’re the only radio station in Canada, maybe in the world, with such an approach. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Russian- and English-speaking people often have different mentalities, born in different cultures, so we have to use different techniques of conducting interviews.”
VERA, which is part of Fairchild Radio 96.1 FM, has interviewed most Canadian politicians, top people from the Russian and Israeli governments, international performing artists and athletes, writers and musicians. They usually conduct two interviews each show.
“At first, our listeners were almost exclusively local Russian pensioners, listening for the language,” said Gerson. “As we continued our bilingual policy, a middle-aged group joined in for content in both languages. Then we added overseas and non-Russian speakers, who regularly tune in to our programs. In a way, they know us better in the U.S.A. than in Canada. We have listeners in Israel, Russia and Europe. There are two ways to access our programs: live on the radio during the broadcast or online through our website, where we keep the archives of all the programs we’ve done in 10 years. Our site has up to 15,000 visitors a day.”
Despite the large amount of traffic and the work needed to produce a two-hour program five days a week, VERA has only three employees. “Pavel Manugevich and Denis Manzar are both my co-hosts, and Alex Kivritsky is our CEO,” Gerson said. Manugevich “has been with VERA since the beginning; he is a professional journalist. Denis Manzar has been co-hosting VERA programs for two years; outside the studio, he is a lawyer and a documentary filmmaker.”
Through her work on VERA, Gerson personifies a cosmopolitan blend of Jewish, Russian and Canadian. In 2014, she was named Russian-American Person of the Year in the media category. According to its website, the honour is presented by Universal Awards Management and the World Forum of Russian-Speaking Jewry, with support from the American Council for World Jewry. Gerson – the only Canadian to have received the honour – shared her award with American-Russian journalist Victor Topaller, who is also Jewish.
But Gerson isn’t resting on her accomplishments. She is always looking for ways to bring the Jews of Canada together, no matter their points of origin. As an example, three years ago, VERA started a new multi-faceted platform that goes beyond the radio.
“We have our annual sports day,” Gerson explained. “We organize the annual festival of Jewish children’s art and various Jewish holidays. Every year, we take 40 of our listeners on a trip to Israel, and we frequently promote concerts of Jewish performers.” It is in the latter regard that VERA is sponsoring the upcoming gala concert Le Chaim, which is the brainchild of Mikhail Gluz, artistic director of the Solomon Mikhoels Cultural Centre in Moscow.
“I’ve known Mikhail Gluz for several years,” said Gerson. “We first met in Moscow and, afterwards, regularly exchanged emails and swapped ideas. He told me about his new project, Le Chaim, a traveling show of Russian-Jewish performers from Russia, Israel and North America. He wanted to tour Le Chaim across Canada and the U.S., performing in any major city that would offer a venue, to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the state of Israel. It is the first such project in Canada organized by Russian Jews in celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut.”
In addition to celebrating Israel’s Independence Day, the concert, which will also feature a documentary and historical footage, commemorates the 20th anniversary of the International Solomon Mikhoels Festival of Arts and is dedicated to International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“When I heard about Le Chaim, I wanted to bring it to Vancouver, to coincide with the 10th birthday of Radio VERA,” said Gerson. “Mikhail was not eager at first. He said it wasn’t a commercially viable suggestion, the Vancouver Jewish community being much smaller than the other cities on their itinerary. But Yosef Wosk supported the idea and donated the money to make it possible.”
One of the performers in Le Chaim, Jewish jazz singer Alla Reed, has visited Vancouver before. “I loved it,” she said on the telephone from Russia. “Other cities have clean air or beautiful nature or thriving culture or receptive audience, but Vancouver has it all together. And it also has wonderful people, like Sasha [Gerson] and her Radio VERA. I look forward to meeting my friends and singing in Vancouver again.”
For more information on VERA, visit veracanada.fm. Tickets for Le Chaim on Feb. 3, 7 p.m., can be purchased via VERA or from Gateway Theatre at 604-270-1812 or gatewaytheatre.com.
Olga Livshinis a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
Left to right, Lilia Apelbaum, Olga Livshin and Tanya Kogan, during their reunion in Vancouver. (photo by Tanya Kogan)
For two weeks this August, my apartment was unusually crowded. Friends from Haifa and Los Angeles were staying with me. We talked almost nonstop the entire time they were here. While they have already left for their respective homes, the memory of their presence still lingers in my house, in the photographs and in my fond recollections.
In 1973, the three of us, three Jewish girls, high school graduates from different Moscow schools, lived in the Soviet Union. We met for the first time when we enrolled in the Moscow Institute of Economics and Statistics. For five student years, we were inseparable. We studied in the same groups and partied with the same friends but, after graduation in 1978, we parted ways. This year, 39 years later, the three of us met for the first time since then, at my place in Vancouver.
Many things have changed in our lives, of course, but, despite the grown-up children, deteriorating health and multiple wrinkles, all three of us have stayed basically the same: the same personalities, the same interpersonal dynamics, the same feeling of closeness as friends. And our relationship with our Jewishness also has stayed basically the same.
At the time of our youth, all observance of Jewish traditions in the Soviet Union was suppressed. Not banned, per se, but not encouraged. There was one synagogue in Moscow and, I have to admit, I never visited it. My parents tried to blend in with mainstream society, so they never visited it either. We didn’t celebrate Jewish holidays, and I didn’t even know about most of them. Only my grandfather went to synagogue on most Saturdays and some Jewish holidays. He tried to instil some sense of Jewish identity in our household (as he lived with us) but, unsupported by my parents, he was unsuccessful. I was never interested in anything Jewish when I was young.
The situation was a bit different with my two friends. Tanya Kogan (née Schneiderman) lived in a similar household to mine. Her parents’ one ardent desire was to blend in. Being “the same,” not sticking out, was safer in Communist Russia but, after her high school graduation, Tanya broke away from the “blend-in” mold.
“I wanted to know who I was,” she told me. She immersed herself not only in her academic studies at the institute but also in Jewish customs and traditions, to the extent they existed in Moscow of that time.
“I tried to learn Yiddish from my grandmother, even though she was ashamed to speak it. I went to synagogue for some Jewish holidays and, every year, for Simchat Torah. It’s such a fun holiday. Lots of students from our institute were there. Not many colleges and universities in Russia accepted Jewish students, but ours did, and there were many of us. We danced in the streets together,” she remembered. “I bought matzos every year and fasted on Yom Kippur.”
My other visiting friend, Lilia Apelbaum, was also part of the group of students that danced in the streets outside the Moscow synagogue on Simchat Torah. Her father came from a family where tradition was paramount.
“We bought matzos every year when I was a schoolgirl,” Lilia said. “We would travel on the Moscow Metro with the big packs of matzos wrapped in brown paper, to a seder in some relative’s home, and I would think: ‘I’m special. I’m better than all the people around me. I know something they don’t.’ I felt very proud.”
In 1996, Lilia, her parents and her young son immigrated to Israel. She still lives there, in Haifa.
“My father went to synagogue often when we lived in Moscow, but he stopped going after we immigrated,” said Lilia. “In Moscow, he needed it to prop his Jewish identity but, after we settled in Israel, he said he didn’t need it anymore. He felt Jewish and happy without the support of religion.”
Lilia herself doesn’t follow any Jewish tradition, doesn’t keep kosher and doesn’t attend synagogue, but she is still, as in her childhood, intensely proud to be a Jew and an Israeli. “I love Israel,” she said. “It’s a wonderful country, very humane.”
She told me a story about her neighbour and friend. “She is very sick. Once, we walked outside together, and she fell. Her legs wouldn’t support her and I couldn’t help her – she is a big woman, much bigger than myself. I panicked; didn’t know what to do. Suddenly, a couple cars passing along the street stopped. Totally unknown men climbed out of those cars, lifted her, helped her to a bench, and then drove away. Where else would a car stop just to help a strange woman on the sidewalk? Only in Israel.”
She talked about the urban improvements being undertaken in Haifa, about Israeli healthcare and technology, about her fellow Israelis, and her eyes shined with love for her country.
Tanya also left Russia. In 1996, she and her family immigrated to America and settled in Los Angeles. “I almost never go to a synagogue here,” she said. “But I do keep kosher. Mostly. In my own way. During Passover, we don’t eat bread. I make so many interesting dishes with matzos, my family always anticipates the holiday. They don’t want bread – they remember that torte and this pie for years after and always ask if I would make them again. It’s a game we play. It’s easy and fun to be a Jew in America.”
Like my friends, I left Russia, too, at about the same time. In 1994, I came to Vancouver. Unlike my friends, though, I didn’t get in touch with my Jewish roots right away. It took me some time to become a part of the Vancouver Jewish community. At first, I was busy with my computer programmer job, raising children as a single mother, and generally integrating into the Canadian society. But life has a wicked sense of humour. It pushed me toward my Jewishness in a roundabout way.
In 2002, I got very sick. My illness altered my worldview and induced me to change my priorities. In 2003, I started writing fiction. A few years later, I quit my computer job to dedicate myself fully to my writing career. At that time, I tried to find a writing gig. I took a course on a mentored job search, and one of the assignments was to find a mentor.
I scoured the internet for some Vancouver writing professional to approach, to ask to be my mentor, and came up with the name Katharine Hamer. At that time, she was the editor of the Jewish Independent, a newspaper I had never heard about before. I sent her an email and, to my amazement, she replied. She said she didn’t have time to mentor me, but she offered to add my name to the list of her newspaper contributors. I grabbed the opportunity.
My first article for the Jewish Independent was published 10 years ago, in July 2007. I write about Jewish artists and writers, teachers and musicians. I love my subjects, every one of them, but I have never written about myself before. This is the first time and my 301st article for the paper.
Three friends from Moscow, three Jewish women from around the world, spent a wonderful week together during their reunion in Vancouver. We are planning to meet again soon. We are not going to wait another 39 years.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
Jewish Genealogical Society of British Columbia member Danny Gelmon, left, speaks with Hal Bookbinder. (photo Stephen Falk)
Why Did Our Ancestors Leave a Nice Place Like the Pale? That was the title of Hal Bookbinder’s March 14 talk at Temple Sholom.
Bookbinder was hosted in Vancouver by the Jewish Genealogical Society of British Columbia (JGenBC). He is involved with JewishGen, JewishGen Ukraine and the Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles. He has published numerous articles on research techniques, Jewish history, and border changes; the latter a matter of particular import to Ashkenazi Jews researching their families’ histories in Eastern Europe. A former president of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, Bookbinder was honoured in 2010 with the association’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
On March 14, Bookbinder gave a detailed and insightful presentation, all without using notes. “Pale comes from the Latin palus for a stake, the stakes which were used to mark off an area.” he explained. “It was also used for the English Pale, a territory within Ireland controlled by the English. The Pale of Jewish Settlement in western Russia was a territory within the borders of Czarist Russia where Jews were allowed to live.”
Bookbinder said, “Limits on the area in which Jews could live came into being when Russia attempted to integrate Jews into the expanding country, from which Jews had been excluded since the end of the 15th century.” From 1791 until 1915, he said, the majority of Jews living in Eastern Europe were confined by the czars of Russia within the “Pale of Settlement.”
Bookbinder broke up the history of the Pale into six periods, each approximately 25 years long: creation, confinement, oppression, enlightenment, pogroms and chaos. The first era, that of creation, arose from Russia’s westward march to seize new territories in Belarus, Poland and Ukraine, he explained. Russia didn’t want Jews within its borders, but, as it expanded its empire westward, it came to be responsible for millions of them, creating a “Jewish question” for itself.
Catherine the Great (who reigned 1762-1796) responded by ruling that Jews should stay in the Pale. The confinement era intensified efforts to keep the Jews in the Pale, so as not to “infect our good Eastern Orthodox brethren,” explained Bookbinder. During this era, Catherine the Great’s son, Paul I, initiated a new program aimed at assimilating Jews into Christian culture by making their lives so miserable they would rather convert than remain as they were.
This led to the period of the cantonists, during which Jewish boys were drafted into the Russian army. Some did convert, though most did not. Large numbers died from mistreatment, neglect and malnourishment. The military schools provided army training as well as a rudimentary education. Discipline was maintained by the threat of starvation and corporal punishment. At the age of 18, pupils were drafted to regular army units, where they served for 25 years. Enlistment for the cantonist institutions, which originated in the 17th century, was most rigorously enforced during the reigns of Paul I’s son Alexander I (reigned 1801–1825) and Nicholas I (reigned 1825–1855), said Bookbinder. It is estimated that around 40,000 Jewish children were stolen from their families during this period. The practice was abolished in 1856 under Alexander II (reigned 1855-1881).
Czar Alexander II took a more “enlightened” approach, continuing to seek the conversion and assimilation of Jews through gentler methods. Czar Alexander III, a rabid antisemite like his grandfather, initiated the era of pogroms after he came to power in 1881.
Starting in 1905, with the ascension of Nicholas II, the chaos period began. “Russia was in ferment,” said Bookbinder, “and it was the era of assassination attempts, the Bolsheviks, fighting between the Red Army and the White Army, the Cossacks – creating a situation that was so unpleasant that it prompted many of our ancestors to leave.”
But, Bookbinder asked, “Why did they leave then? They had lived through so many horrors, and this was far from the worst they had seen. I think it is because, during the more enlightened era of Czar Alexander II, our ancestors got a taste of a more dignified, more secure existence and took courage. When things descended again into chaos, they had had enough, and many escaped Russia.”
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
Mykhailo Chomiak edited a Ukrainian-language Nazi newspaper in occupied Poland. It happens that Chomiak was the maternal grandfather of Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign minister.
This fact is a matter of historical record, but apparently Russian operatives were shopping the story around as if it were fresh – and as if they believe Canadians will hold Freeland, and perhaps by extension the Liberal government, responsible for Chomiak’s past.
A writer on the Canadian online media outlet rabble.ca went so far as to accuse Freeland of a cover-up, which is nonsense, since she was acknowledged for her help editing an article on the subject that was written 20 years ago by her uncle, John-Paul Himka, an historian.
Freeland called it “public knowledge that there have been efforts, as U.S. intelligence forces have said, by Russia to destabilize the U.S. political system.… I think that Canadians, and indeed other Western countries, should be prepared for similar efforts to be directed at us.” She is absolutely correct. Russia almost certainly was involved in the U.S. presidential election and may indeed be responsible for the fact that Donald Trump is now in the White House.
Nevertheless, it seemed like a missed opportunity for Freeland not to use the chance to acknowledge some of the complexities and complicities around her grandfather’s history.
Let’s step back for a moment and realize that Canadians are relatively fortunate that, whatever enormous sacrifices Canadian families made during the Second World War, the war itself never reached our shores. For families in Europe at the time, many of whose descendants are, through immigration, now Canadians, the war impacted every aspect of civilian life. Possibly millions of people are responsible for acts of heroism or betrayal that are lost to history. Had it not been for the writings of a member of her own family, Freeland’s grandfather’s story might have been another largely forgotten piece of that war’s far-encompassing awfulness.
Who can estimate how many Canadians have ancestors who engaged in complicity (or worse) with Hitler’s regime, or with Stalin’s, or with any number of less-renowned tyrants and bad ideologies worldwide? We do not rest from seeking redress for the worst crimes during history’s worst times, but behaviours that do not constitute war crimes have rarely received the full attention of the media and public that Chomiak’s case has garnered in the past days. And we certainly do not – and should not – place any blame at the feet of grandchildren for events that took place before they were born. Freeland has done absolutely nothing wrong.
Still … she could have done something better. She could have (and perhaps by the time you read this, she will have) turned this into a teaching moment for Canadians.
The parents or grandparents of some Canadians may have chosen to, or been forced to, engage in actions we see as abhorrent. We cannot change the past. But we can potentially make a better future by acknowledging it, openly identifying wrongs and committing ourselves to better actions than that exhibited by some of our forebears. As examples, present-day Canadians have begun a process of reconciliation around the genocide perpetrated against indigenous Canadians, and Canadian governments have apologized for actions against Japanese-Canadians and the passengers of the Komagata Maru and the MS St. Louis.
In Freeland’s case, she is right to warn Canadians that Russia is attempting to undermine the credibility of our country’s foreign minister. But she should go further and insist that no Canadian – whether the country’s top diplomat or a new Canadian who was sworn in as a citizen yesterday – is guilty of acts undertaken by their grandparents. A few words about the complexity of historical memory could also be helpful. And it would be valuable for the federal government to make a firm public declaration that blackmailing or smearing a Canadian based on the acts of an ancestor will fail in its mission.
Lauren Jackson as Olga Larin and Josh Epstein as Vladimir Lensky in Arts Club’s Onegin. (photo by David Cooper)
Generally, I don’t think background research is something that should be required in order to fully enjoy a performance; but every now and then a play really needs context, and the viewer becomes lost without it.
So, I would suggest – even to those with extensive Russian literature under your belts – if you have not read Alexander Pushkin’s dramatic poem, “Eugene Onegin,” start there before you see the musical Onegin. The poem contains descriptions of the characters, homes and countryside that add depth of interest that could simply not be communicated on stage.
That’s not to say that Onegin (pronounced “Onyegin”), the musical interpretation of the poem, can’t stand on its own. The singular creation by Veda Hille and Amiel Gladstone, combining the poetry of Pushkin and the opera of Tchaikovsky, is highly entertaining from start to finish.
The supremely talented group of seven performers, including the Jewish community’s own Josh Epstein, executes so many complex harmonies and moving solos, I certainly wasn’t walking out at intermission.
Set in 1819 St. Petersburg, the poem centres on four main characters: a self-proclaimed rakish womanizer, Eugene Onegin; Vladimir Lensky, a romantic poet; Vladimir’s love interest, Olga; and Tatyana, Olga’s sister, who’s in love with Onegin.
At first, Onegin rejects Tatyana, breaking her heart, and turns his attention to Olga, incurring Vladimir’s jealousy and bringing about a duel. Years later, after extensive traveling, Onegin returns to St. Petersburg and wants to be with Tatyana. But, by then, she’s already married, and Onegin realizes he’s wasted his life chasing women he doesn’t care about.
Taking place primarily in rural vacation homes, these well-to-do look for anything to “deal with the boredom of long winters” and come up with hunting, dancing, dueling and falling in and out of love.
The script includes quite a bit of play-by-play, where explanations of who’s who and what’s going on are interspersed with the action on stage. One by one, we’re introduced, in song, to the characters, with tongue-in-cheek descriptions. At one point, even the details of an impending pistol duel are sung to audience – just in case we were a little rough on the regulations.
These “asides” help with the background and also offer some great comedic breaks, often picking up on the satire that winds its way through Pushkin’s original work.
As an added bonus, guests are encouraged to bring their alcoholic drinks into the theatre and raise a glass for a sip every time someone says lebov (love in Russian). This is even facilitated by the cast handing out cups of vodka during the performance.
But there are also some bizarre non-sequiturs, such as when a singer in what looks like a boudoir is given a mic and electric guitar to continue her performance. Though it provided a chuckle, the reason for that choice went over my head.
While the script tries to provide the context I mentioned, it simply can’t make up for what’s lost from the poem, and I couldn’t help feeling “left out” of the framework.
For example, according to one translation of the poem, Onegin’s house is described: “All of the rooms were wide and lofty/ Silk wall paper embellished the drawing room/ And portraits of czars hung on the walls / The stoves were bright with ceramic tiles / There was no need for these things at all / Because he would yawn with equal distraction / At an ancient pile or a modern mansion.”
This paints such a great picture of the lifestyle and ennui of the main character, but not one that I caught onto in the musical.
Besides detailed description of scenery, the poem delves extensively into philosophical discussions, particularly about love, that would come across far better on stage as verbal jousting rather than a sing-song.
Onegin runs until April 10 at BMO Theatre Centre. Visit artsclub.com.
Baila Lazarusis a freelance writer and media trainer in Vancouver. Her consulting work can be seen at phase2coaching.com.
A scene from filmmaker Reuven Brodsky’s documentary Home Movie. (photo by Yevgeny Spivak)
In 1989, the USSR’s emigration gates opened. Responsible for prying them open was a small group of tremendously courageous and patient Soviet Jews (called refusenikim for their denied exit permits) who had fought long and hard for their religious and cultural freedom, with thousands of Western Jews and non-Jewish people of conscience. The Soviet Jewry movement, which began in the United States in the 1960s and spread from there to other countries, including Canada, eventually witnessed 1.6 million Jews and their non-Jewish relations leave for Israel and the West. A thrilling climax, but then what happened?
While it is hard to say how many Jews live in Russia today, estimates are between 400,000-700,000, approximately 0.27%-0.48% of the total Russian population. Since the early 1990s, efforts to revitalize Jewish life in Russia and other former Soviet Union (FSU) countries have been ongoing.
After the dissolution of the USSR, different denominations within world Jewry started operating openly in Russia. Of all the different Jewish religious groups on the scene today, Chabad has probably worked the hardest to bring Jewish awareness to the unaffiliated. It sends its emissaries (usually a couple consisting of a male rabbi and his teacher wife) to Russia and numerous other FSU centres.
After so many years of not being able to publicly run Jewish institutions, Russian Jewish communities now have 17 day schools, 11 preschools and 81 supplementary schools with about 7,000 students. There are also four Jewish universities. The major towns have a Jewish presence, with synagogues and rabbis. In the past few years, a state-of-the-art Jewish museum even opened in Moscow and a deluxe Jewish community centre containing a small movie theatre, synagogue, mikvah, kosher gourmet restaurant and guest rooms for Sabbath observers was inaugurated in December 2015 in Zhukovka, near Moscow.
Yet the picture is far from rosy. In an introductory essay to An Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature: Two Centuries of Dual Identity in Prose and Poetry (2007), book editor Maxim Shrayer critically views Jewish cultural life in post-Soviet Russia: “… my preliminary conclusion is that Jewish-Russian writers whose careers were formed during the Soviet years continue to address Jewish topics in their work, some due to a renewed personal interest as well as the freedom to write about it, others out of cultural inertia. At the same time, younger authors of Jewish origin in today’s Russia have tended to be assimilated and Russianized, resulting in a dearth of Jewish consciousness in their writing.
“Jewish-Russian literature in the former USSR might have found a temporary domain in the pages of such periodicals as the Moscow-based magazine Lekhaim … [one of the] attempts to consolidate, perhaps artificially, a critical mass of writers and readers even as Jewish-Russian culture itself spirals toward disappearance.”
In Jewish Life After the USSR (Indiana University Press, 2003), Prof. Zvi Gitelman claims that, following the breakup, Russian Jews have become increasingly less concerned about intermarriage. Ethnic identity as such seems to be based on antisemitism – even if it is unofficial, popular antisemitism rather than state-sanctioned antisemitism.
Looking to the future, the offspring of these intermarriages are likely to feel less tied to Judaism. Speculatively, they are likely to remain so unless Russian-based Jewish institutions are willing to “reach out” to people who, according to the strict reading of Jewish law, are not considered members of the “tribe,” he argues.
Since 2000, immigration to Israel and/or to the West has slowed down. But, based on past experience, immigration – provided the doors to Israel and/or the West remain open – will likely pick up if antisemitism flares up, if the Russian economy takes a real and prolonged nose-dive or if political-military strife developed in Russia as it has in the Ukraine. As Lee Yaron recently reported in Haaretz, the situation is already changing: in 2015, “15,000 immigrants … came from the former Soviet Union … an increase of over 20% from last year’s figure.”
In the post-USSR age, Jewish culture in Israel and Russia mix in unexpected ways. Gone is my grandparents’ generation who, once out of Russia, never again saw “left behind” family members. Today, many former Russian Jews living in Israel (and vice versa) frequently fly four hours to visit relatives who did not leave. According to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, there were 60 weekly flights from Russia to Israel, as of the end of December 2015.
But the exchange is beyond familial ties. Here are four examples – two from the arts and two from the sciences.
Israeli filmmakers who left the USSR as children have begun making at least part of their films in Russia. Seven Days in St. Petersburg, written, directed and produced by Reuven Brodsky, is one case in point. Significantly, the protagonists speak both Hebrew and Russian. A few years earlier, Brodsky made the documentary Home Movie, described as, “The final chapter in the breakdown of the director’s family – one of many who did not survive the trials of immigration.”
Also in the film world, just a few months ago, Vladi Antonevicz released Credit for Murder, a documentary dealing with the topic of Russia’s neo-Nazis. As if the subject in and of itself is not dangerous enough to undertake, Antonevicz’s film apparently exposes a connection between the Russian administration and these hate groups. Antonevicz claims that certain Russian politicians are manipulating neo-Nazi activity to further their own political needs. To make this film, Antonevicz infiltrated Russian neo-Nazi groups, secretly investigating an unsolved double murder. He succeeded, but some say his small film crew has had to lay low after completing the film.
Former Russian Jews in Israel (and in the West) have likewise forged profitable positions in the start-up world. Moscow-born Prof. Eugene Kandel, outgoing head of Israel’s National Economic Council, analyzes this phenomenon. In a July 29, 2015, Forbes blog by Scott Tobin, the professor is quoted as saying, “Many Russian-born techies now working in Israel are especially innovative because the Soviet state traditionally under-invested in computer hardware and other technology, even as the state was scrambling to develop weapons and related technology to win the Cold War. That left engineers to fend for themselves and develop creative workarounds in many businesses.”
Finally, medical tourism from Russia has blossomed. Many well-to-do Russians come to Israel to be treated by Russian- and Hebrew-speaking doctors, nurses, technicians and medical secretaries (see imta.co.il).
A cause for hope and promise? Stay tuned.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
New Home, New Hope edutains on aliya and the Soviet Union.
With the themes of Passover still reverberating, I read Aliza Ziv’s book New Home, New Hope (Contento de Semrik, 2014). About a single mother making aliya from the Soviet Union with her two young children, the book is about freedom, being strangers in a new land, becoming part of a community, respecting the past while trying to create a more promising future.
The story centres on Marina, Boris, 9, and Tanya, 4, and their experiences integrating into Israel from 1985 through 1995. It is both a specific and universal tale about immigration, and the challenges and opportunities new immigrants face anywhere in the world. However, the specificity is what most intrigued me. Ziv writes with authority and in detail about both the absorption process in Israel at the time and the political situation there and in Russia during that decade.
“This book was written on the basis of my vast experience teaching new immigrants who came to Israel (olim hadashim),” wrote Ziv in an email to the Independent. “These immigrants had to face a new culture, language, values, and had to adapt themselves to their new homeland.”
Ziv explained that she first published the novel in Hebrew in 2002 with the title Difficulty Beyond Words. “Later on, my husband Joe and I decided to translate it into English. It was published in October 2014, with a new name, New Home, New Hope.”
“The book is also based on what we had to face when we and our three children made our aliya in 1967,” added her husband in a separate email. “Aliza was a shlicha, sent to teach modern Hebrew using the ulpan method. She taught in Halifax, Toronto and, finally, in Vancouver at the Talmud Torah.”
While Aliza was born in Jerusalem, Joe grew up in Vancouver, went to VTT and King Edward High School, and graduated from the University of Alberta. “I was active in Young Judaea, one of the first organizers of Habonim, and one of the founders of Camp Miriam,” he said of his local connections.
The Zivs’ personal experience with immigration comes through in Aliza’s writing. She doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulties of leaving an established life, family and longtime friends and integrating into a new country, having to learn another language, find a home, (re)start a career, build relationships, etc., etc., all the while worrying about those you’ve left behind. And your new fellow citizens must also get used to your presence in their country – immigrants seem threatening to some people, to their job security, their traditional way of life, and Ziv also tackles these issues in her novel.
One particularly interesting scene is a party on a moshav at which the more established Israelis are playing old Russian songs, wondering why the new immigrants aren’t joining in. One of the Israelis explains how the chalutzim (pioneers) “came to build the Jewish homeland, and within them was an integration of socialist and even communist values and concepts. And so they established cooperatives, kibbutzim and moshavim…. We grew up with lots of love of the Russian culture, its music and especially its songs. It is really in our blood.” The new immigrants are not convinced, and one points out that many of these songs “not only have a romantic base but also have an antisemitic and militaristic, murderous one. About Bogdan Khmelnsiky, Simon Petliura, have you heard of them?” The debate continues, and it is these parts of New Home, New Hope that I found the most compelling. (I have since looked up both of these men online.)
From a literary perspective, New Home, New Hope is not one of the best books I’ve ever read, and the formatting and editing is not as clean as it would be if it had been put out by a conventional publishing house, but it is one of the more interesting books I have ever read. Ziv is a good writer and she is a fount of knowledge on topics that many readers would profit from – and enjoy – learning about.
New Home, New Hope is available in both digital (Kindle) and printed formats through Amazon.