EXTRAORDINARILY, IT SEEMS THAT WE OLD-TIMER ISRAELIS ARE MORE FAMILIAR WITH THE MELODIES THAN THE RUSSIAN SPEAKERS THEMSELVES.
Photo by: BATYA DRORI
It was at 1:30 in the morning in one of the lecture rooms in the Sheraton Parsippany Hotel in New Jersey when I made what was, for me, a fascinating discovery about the young Russian-speaking Jews who grew up in the former Soviet Union.
Many dozens of the hundreds of participants in a just-concluded Limmud FSU festival sat in a circle and enthusiastically joined in a spontaneous singalong in the center of which was a young singer, Iryna Rosenfeld. The 24-year-old from Kiev had won second place in the local version of A Star is Born. She was accompanied by a virtuoso accordionist, Ronen Hoffman, who is better-known to Israelis as a Knesset member for the Yesh Atid political party. Iryna sang in Russian, Yiddish, English, and notably, in Hebrew.
Iryna’s singing in Hebrew caused me to learn something new – as I always do at the Limmud events where I speak. Learning something new, by the way, is a fundamental feature of Limmud: all the participants come away having learned something new – the youngsters from the presenters; the presenters from the audiences. To my surprise, most of the young people seated around Irena knew all the words of the Israeli songs. They sang “Hallelujah” from the Eurovision song contest, “Kan noladeti,” “Adon olam” and “Kol ha’olam gesher tsar meod.” Their familiarity with the Hebrew lyrics underlined in my mind what I had heard a few hours before in a lecture by Prof.
Dov Waxman on American Jewry. He posited an interesting theory that closeness to and support for Israel among some American Jews is a substitute for a religious tie with Judaism. Singing in Hebrew could replace praying in Hebrew for many in the American Russian-speaking Jewish community.
The performance of the Rosenfeld-Hoffman “duo” emphasized the feeling of togetherness that lies at the center of the Limmud FSU encounters, especially when Matthew Bronfman, chair of the Limmud FSU international steering committee, Chaim Chesler, founder of Limmud FSU, and co-founder Sandra Cahn enthusiastically joined in the singing.
On the fringes of the meeting, I discovered something else that amused me. My generation grew up with the Hebrew lyrics of Russian melodies that arrived in the Land of Israel with the pioneers of the first aliyot – waves of immigration in the early years of the 20th century. It turns out that today’s young generation born in Russia, Ukraine or Belarus, are familiar with only a few of these iconic songs. Extraordinarily, it seems that we old-timer Israelis are more familiar with the melodies than the Russian speakers themselves.
It was not only the singing that marked out this Limmud. Most of the presentations were on the subject of scientific and hi-tech initiatives and dealt with why Israel is referred to as the “Start-Up Nation.” It appears that entrepreneurship and initiation are the themes that unite and concern young Jews both in Israel and the United States and they were a central and unifying feature of the three-day event.
But hi-tech or not, Limmud without a touch of Israeli history would be incomplete. In New Jersey, there were two special exhibits, one marking the centennial of the birth of prime minister Menachem Begin, and another, celebrating 90 years of President Shimon Peres. Both he and Begin were born in Belorussia – today’s Belarus.
The writer is a senior advisor to President Shimon Peres.