29th May, 2012

” Maureen is the Head of Education at the London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS)….”

Pity Viktor, the Limmud volunteer who collected me in his car from Moscow airport. He wanted to smoke and I asked him not to. The journey was long and it must have been a real deprivation. But he took it well. Russians are used to disappointment.

Everyone seems to smoke in Moscow- it was strange being in a smoke-filled Limmud environment. When I asked Latvian-born Viktor, who came to Moscow “when they destroyed the USSR” why so many Muscovites smoked, he said with a wry smile: “we have very little happinesses.”

It was odd being in a Limmud environment where people don’t look happy, look through you, and hesitate to meet your gaze. And that’s when they are being helpful. Muscovites do not smile, theirs is a culture of seriousness, of suffering. As Lena my brilliant, delightful translator explained: “we value our suffering, we take suffering seriously.”

Yet, despite the cigarettes, and the rows of silent, impassive faces in sessions this was recognisably a Limmud event. The mix of people, the excited buzz around sessions, the intensity and seriousness applied to learning, partying and drinking vodka all made it Limmud. As did its uniqueness; it was understood there were conversations going on that somehow could not have taken place anywhere else. And a tremendous hunger to explore what being Jewish might be, a sense of excitement, a search for identity, and opportunity.

There were nearly a thousand Jews at the seventh Moscow Limmud this April, mostly in their twenties and thirties. Seventy percent were not Halachically Jewish according to an Orthodox definition. A common starting point for connecting to their Jewish identity is Taglit, the Birthright trip to Israel.

Taglit is offered free to those who can provide evidence of one Jewish grandparent. Whenever I praised the work of a keen and bright young Limmud volunteer to Mikhail Libkin, Moscow Limmud’s inspirational chair, he inevitably replied that he had been their Madrich for Taglit.

These young Jews are highly educated, and ambitious. Their Jewish knowledge is non-existent. But they want to learn about it, almost as much as they want to know about rock music. (Viktor dropped his voice a respectful octave or two when mentioning Freddy Mercury’s name.) The general feeling was that if the Soviets had forbidden Torah, it must be of value and worth a look.

It became clear to me how to spark passion for Torah – just ban it for a generation or two and then it will become the most desirable thing possible.

The Limmud sessions that were the most packed explored political realities and possibilities for the future. These were often devoid of Jewish content, and the presenters not necessarily Jewish. Yet the marketing expert who spoke about start-up companies struck a real chord, as did the academic who presented research on differing global perceptions of schizophrenia and the stigma of mental illness in the Communist era. Question time produced an outpouring of personal stories which were perhaps being aired for the first time in generations.

Anton Nosik, the Mark Zuckerberg of the FSU, attracted much attention in his session on the death of newsprint. Nosik is seen as the man who changed the way Moscow communicates. He is revered as the blog and twitter king who introduced the online media company SUP to Moscow. He knew from his years living in Israel that this was the way to mobilise the young. His Livejournal.com commands 50 million monthly readers, and his part in galvanising thousands of young people to demonstrate recently in Red Square is not to be underestimated.

The new generation of Jews are free from the official persecution that blighted the lives of their parents and grandparents. But they are disillusioned with Putin’s re-election and are restless, unsure.

Should they stay, should they go to Israel?

What does the future hold?

There are many young Jews active in the demonstrations. But their anger with the governments is as Russians rather than Jews, despite a collective memory of challenging those in power.

As Lena said: “it’s understandable:- when people have something to oppose, they feel united—so now this all makes us feel as a Russian nation struggling for our rights.”

The common bond on the streets is their youth, not their ethnic identity.

Russian sceptics call the opposition to the Putin government “two Jews in three rows.” They mean that the protesters are few in number, can’t agree on what they are doing- and the Jews had a reputation for being difficult but disorganised and ultimately failing.

Those sceptics say the young people are playing at this, enjoying their civic-minded freedom to demonstrate – but it is soft and not serious. On May 6th there was a demonstration called the March of the Millions in Moscow – in Russian this phrase sounds like Marshmillionov. Limmudnik Anya playfully posted on Facebook that this was as the “marshmallow” protest because so many people refuse to take it seriously. Russians love their wordplay.

One visiting Czech-born academic from Israel told me he had been coming to Moscow for 20 years to lecture. When he first came, wherever he went in Moscow, he was instantly recognised as a foreigner, even before he spoke, despite his Slavic features and locally bought clothes.

A student explained that it was obvious that he was not Russian born: “you don’t have dead eyes.”

The new generation of Russian Jews have lively, sparkling, searching eyes. Let’s hope Limmud can continue to inspire those eyes Jewishly too.