By Anshel Pfeffer
Haaretz Jewish World Correspondent
“If you ask me what I personally believe,” says the leader of one of the major Jewish organizations at Limmud, “of course I think that what happened ninety years ago in Armenia was a genocide, but I’m never going to say that on record.”
The massacre of one and a half million Armenians during the First World War at the hands of the Turks isn’t the subject of any of the lectures or workshops here at Limmud but it is relevant to quite a few of the discussions on the lessons of the Holocaust, the responsibility of Jews to respond to disaster befalling other nations and the challenges facing Israel today.
“It’s an awful decision to make and very hard for a Jew dedicated to understanding the lessons of the Holocaust but ultimately my first and foremost consideration has to be ensuring the survival of the Jewish people in Israel and at the present time when Israel is facing a deadly threat from Iran and Turkey, who is a vital strategic ally, cannot be angered in such a way.”
But the Jewish world’s recognition of the Armenian genocide, yes or no is not the only issue here. There is also the use the Turkish government is trying to make of its relationship with Israel to influence the decision-making process in Washington, most recently the vote on this issue in Congress two weeks ago.
Should President Shimon Peres, who is the conduit most favored by the Turks for this mission, oblige them as he apparently has? Isn’t he just perpetuating the anti-Semitic myth of the all-powerful Jews who control Washington?
“I think Shimon should have found a diplomatic way of turning them down and not taken any part in this,” said the nameless Jewish leader, naturally on first-name terms with the President, “but I wouldn’t have liked to be in his shoes when the call from Ankara came through.”
Even here in the Pokrovskoe resort, these concerns are never far away. Just about every journalist here has tried to prise some detail on the Olmert-Putin surprise meeting that took place as Limmud was opening from Israel?s ambassador in Moscow Anna Azari (here accompanied by her husband, Rabbi Meir Azari), but were rewarded only with enigmatic smiles.
But all talk of current politics has to stay off-record. In a group interview with five twenty-something Limmud participants, I asked them if the curtailment of democracy in Russia might be a factor in deciding to leave the country.
I was answered with embarrassed looks. “The walls have ears,” one of them muttered. An answer I wasn’t expecting to receive almost two decades after Glasnost started. A Jewish renaissance might be on its way here in Russia but its proponents must still tread carefully.
Four years ago, Chaim Chesler lost his job as the Jewish Agency Treasurer, effectively the organization’s number two position, through a combination of political intrigue and personal rivalry.
Many of the grandees of the Jewish world didn’t appreciate his maverick ways and blunt views, and so ended 28 years of service in the agency which spanned jobs such as head of the Aliyah department to head of the missions in North America and the former Soviet Union. In the intervening years, Chesler dedicaed himself to establishing Limmud FSU, which he began in humble venues with small groups.
Now, as we reach the grand finale of the four-day 800-strong Limmud in Pokrovskoe, it proves to have been Chesler’s grand comeback. What he has done is much more than organize a complex event.
The dissonance between the numerous foreign Jewish VIPs staying in the main building and participating in only a handful of the events and the hundreds of lively, young Russian Jews interacting in the lecture halls and dachas around the grounds reached its most obvious last night.
The best farewell parties were for locals only, while the dignitaries remained distant. A nascent grassroots leadership clearly emerged, which will gradually displant the paternalism of international organizations and oligarchic movements that have controlled Jewish life since the end of communism.
Most of the credit for this goes obviously to ambitious young leaders like the head of the organizing committee, Alexander Pyatigorskiy, but Chesler played a pivotal role in making this happen, giving the local forces as much space as possible and forcing the heads of the big organizations to come and pay tribute.
If Limmud FSU 2007 does indeed prove to be a turning point in the establishment of an independent Russian Jewish community with a future generation of leadership, Chaim Chesler will be remembered as a founding father of this October Revolution.
There was a choice of five different styles of Shabbat prayers at Limmud. Reform, Orthodox, Lubavitch for men, Lubavitch for women and something called “family prayer”.
I tried them all.
I won’t say which I liked the most but I do have a couple of observations. I don’t think that many more than a quarter of the participants actually took part in the prayers and many of those who did weren’t locals. Does that mean that Jewish revival in the FSU won’t be on a religious basis? All the groups here claim they have established vibrant communities across the land, but if an event attended by hundreds of young people hungry for Jewish culture only draws a handful for prayers then they must be doing something wrong.
Most interestingly, perhaps, was the meager number who showed up at the Lubavitch service. This morning they didn?t even have a minyan. (A fact that visibly cheered a rival rabbi who will remain nameless).
“Lubavitch has a serious problem now in affluent areas like Moscow,” a local educator told me. “When they first came here, there was almost nothing in the way of Jewish culture, so they did very well. Now there are so many organizations with buildings and fancy centers, people have much more choice and it’s not so easy for them anymore. They are doing well especially in far-flung isolated communities, but wherever there’s a variety, things are different.”
My childhood hearo as a ten year-old was Prisoner of Zion Yossef Bigun. I used to stick posters of his face on billboards in Jerusalem, calling for his release from the Gulag.
Last night in the lobby, I was introduced to the great man, who at age 75 remains as active as ever in Jewish education. However now he’s doing it in the open in what’s left of the evil empire he helped overthrow.
He told me that when he came to Israel in January 1988 “I was sure that this was all over, the gates were going to open and the chapter of Jewish life in Russia would end. Now I know there are those who will stay on, the most important thing is keeping them connected to the Jewish world. Friends of mine like Nathan Sharansky believe that everyone should make aliyah, because there is no Jewish future here, but I think that the reality around us here proves differently. I fought to live in Israel but obviously it’s not for everyone.”
There are “Russian” lectures at Limmud and there are non-Russian lectures. For example there is an elderly gentleman with a full white beard and piercing blue eyes who speaks to packed rooms but I haven’t yet worked out what he’s talking about but he’s obviously very popular with the local crowd. There is also a large proportion of lecturers from Israel and the US, speaking to mixed audiences of Russians and visitors. Sometimes the interaction yields surprising results.
At a lecture given by World Jewish Congress Secretary General, Michael Schneider on the subject of “Tikkun Olam ? Helping non-Jewish Neighbors” Anna, a young woman for St Petersburg put up her hand and asked “Don?t you think that sometimes the people you want to help don’t thank you for it and even hate you?”. She gave the example of shipments of wheat sent by the JDC to her city during the brief period of food shortages in Russia in the early 1990s. Apparently the recipients of the west’s munificence were perfectly capable of consuming the foodstuffs while cursing the donors’ paternalism. Another question coming from a Russian participant was “Isn?t there something humiliating about offering Muslim countries aid in the hope that it will improve their attitude to Israel and the Jews?”
These questions were greeted by quiet incredulity by the non-Russian participants though of course they were all much too polite to say anything about it. The Russians on the other hand all thought it was a very plausible question.
“That just like the Americans,” said Anna to me afterwards. “They always think that whatever they do is good and will be accepted by everyone else in the same way.” Said by anyone else, such a sentence could have only sounded like a standard anti-American remark, but made here in Limmud, it’s another example of how varied the Jewish world is and how one cannot take anything as guaranteed.
I’m now off to a lecture by another non-Russian, Haaretz Editor David Landau, and I have to make sure he gets heckled.
I’d like to be able to explain how the philosophy of Karl Popper can help us understand the relationship between Halakha and medicine, but five minutes into the lecture, my eyes drooping and my head still reeling from the unofficial drinks session after last night’s Limmud opening event, I beat a swift exit. But thirty earnest participants sat there, following what must have been a difficult translation through their simulcast headphones. Towards the end of the lecture I went in again just to make sure, they were all still paying attention.
There’s something about these young Russia Jews, a kind of inner core of intellectual seriousness, which doesn?t seem to affect them outside the lectures, where there is nothing dorkish or square about their behavior. They bring this intensity to everything do even if it’s a havdala candle-making workshop. “These kids are nothing like we see elsewhere,” said one of the Birthright project executives, “the maturity of these twenty year-olds is of a totally different level from what we see with their American contemporaries.”
“We might not like to admit it,” one Jewish Agency operative told me, “but this is just the kind of intellectualism that many of the young Russians who made Aliyah have lost in Israel. Almost all of them have parents with academic backgrounds but in Israel they assimilate into the local culture which doesn?t appreciate knowledge for its own value, and many of them drop out.”
I met a few Israelis here who are planning the first Israeli Limmud, which is scheduled to take place in a few months in Ashkelon. I’d like to be proven wrong, but I have my doubts that a similar experience can be recreated back home. Certainly not with people as young as the great majority of the Limmud participants here in Russia.
The official Limmud opening ceremony was an amusing mix of schmaltzy American speeches, old Soviet formality and a sense of irreverence that the under-30 organizers bring to it all. The scene which shows it best was the speech of the JDC boss Steven Schwager who said, in a typical display of paternalism, “We always dreamed of the day when the community in Russia would take its rightful place in the Jewish world,” or something to that effect.
Sasha Pyatigorsky, the chairman of the Limmud organizing committee, who was the master of ceremonies in jeans and a three-day beard thanked him and said with a sly smile, “It’s good to see that what the Joint can only dream about, we are here doing.”
It’s interesting to see these senior leaders of organized Jewry interact with the young Russians here with a look of perplexity on their faces, as if they don’t really fit into a labelled box in their Jewish specimen box. They’re well educated Russian Jews, but they haven’t left Russia for other shores and despite living here from choice, they are still connected enough to their roots to spend time and money on this four-day event. Who are these people. Interestingly, the great majority don’t seem to be especially religious, at least not in an overt way. When you see the local holy men, you get an idea why organized religion might not be that attractive to young Russian Jews.
The last two official speakers shared the same title on the program, both apparently are the Chief Rabbis of Russia. (For those of you not familiar with this particular situation, this is not because one is the Ashkenazi and the other the Sephardi rabbi, I don’t think they’re many Sephardim in Moscow).
I’d heard before of the intense rivalry between the two competitors for the rabbinical crown of Russia, Adolf Chayevitz and Berel Lazar, but I only realized the depth of it last night seeing the both perform one after each other. Chayevitz finished his message of greeting and then walked quickly off the stage which seemed extremely rude as the translator was reading out his final remarks in English.
Actually he was already striding up the aisle to the exit before the poor girl had finished. A minute later I realized why, Lazar was already waiting in the wings and Chayevitz wasn’t going to be caught together with him.
October 18, 2007
I’ve never been to Limmud before in Britain or at any of its other venues but many of my friends have told me about the experience of learning in a totally open and non-hierarchal atmosphere. So naturally this blog on the Limmud FSU should be about all the exciting cultural events taking place at the largest gathering of Jewish learning ever to take place in the former Soviet Union. Hopefully the next posts will be.
So far after three hours here at the Pokrovskoe resort west of Moscow I’ve spent almost all my time hobnobbing with the big beasts of the Jewish world. I know that somewhere in the conference rooms people are connecting with their roots but meanwhile, for a Jewish World correspondent this is the best opportunity to hear the latest on just about everything from the local politics in the most obscure community to the scandals of Holocaust restitution. Just about every chairman and executive director of every major Jewish organization is here trying to get his or her piece of the action.
Every time I’m about to go into a classroom I meet someone usually unreachable over the phone and suddenly they’re willing to answer my most inquisitive questions and anxious to act the gracious host, even if they have next to nothing to do with organizing the event.
But leaving cynicism aside for a moment, the fact that so many of the Jewish world’s great and good and many others have traveled here from three continents just goes to show what an incredible event this is. Hundreds of young Jews come here of their own accord to learn something new about their culture.
Anyone over the age of thirty can well remember a time not that long ago when all this would have been unimaginable.
And even today it’s not that simple. Some people have come from as away as Khabarovsk in the far Russian east, nine hours’ flight, which is longer that it takes to fly here from New York.
I’ll try and keep my journalistic instinct in check for a few minutes at least so I’ll have something to write about in the next post.