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April 20, 2014 / 20 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Former Soviet Union’

What Would Stalin Say?

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

Originally published at Chabad.org.

By Rabbi Berel Lazar

My relationship with Reb Shmuel Rohr started about twenty years ago, in the early 1990s. He was visiting Russia on a business trip, looking for investment opportunities.

Truth to tell, I looked at him kind of quizzically: “Investment? In Russia!?” This was a country that everyone was trying to get out of, figuring that it had no future. A dank and dreary place, where the store shelves were empty and there was nothing to eat; the only kind of economic activity was that of émigrés selling their goods and leaving the country with the little money they had gotten for them. Now this man is coming to invest? When does he ever expect to see any profits from this?

So I asked him, “Reb Shmuel, what are you doing?”

“I myself may not see any profit from it,” he replied, “but my children and grandchildren will. I’m investing for their sake. Now, when everything is collapsing here, when no one sees a future for the country—that’s the time to enter the market here. It’s a window of opportunity that opens only once in many decades. So, yes, it’s unlikely that in the near future I’ll see any benefits from this investment, but my grandchildren will see it.

“And this is just as true in spiritual matters, in matters of Judaism, as it is in business,” he continued. “On the face of it, there seems to be no future here: everyone is getting out as fast as possible, going to Israel, or America, or Western Europe. But I do foresee a future here—a bright future. Again, I may not get to see it, but my grandchildren most definitely will. Time will come when Russia gets back firmly on its feet, both economically and Jewishly!”

As Reb Shmuel spoke, I saw before me a Jew with great vision, a person with enormous foresight. He envisioned a revolution—and he took a leading role in making it happen. He was the Nachshon ben Aminadav who jumped into the swirling waves, into a sea where no firm footing could be seen—yet he walked into it with head held high and eyes affixed ahead, toward the future.

He encouraged, cajoled, pushed and worked on having shluchim sent to Russia. He not only talked the talk, but walked the walk—supporting them financially from the start.

In the many conversations I had with him, he’d often refer to his underlying inspiration. What indeed motivated him to spend such a fortune on behalf of Russian Jewry? His yardstick, he said, was simply this: “If Stalin could see this, he’d roll over in his grave!”

This idea was expressed in the wide variety of activities he funded, in each of which he saw the ultimate revenge against Stalin. A few come to mind now:

Return of Synagogues

Whenever Reb Shmuel would hear about a synagogue that had been nationalized by the Communist government and that there was a chance to have it returned to the Jewish community—he’d exert all possible efforts to make it happen.

That was his sweet revenge. A building that was seized by Stalin’s goons en route to ensuring the ultimate defeat of the Jews—to think that in that same building Judaism would be rebuilt and blossom anew—that would definitely make Stalin roll over in his grave, if he could only see it. So it must be done!

Bris Milah (Circumcision)

During that early period of Jewish awakening after seventy years of communism, there was a particularly urgent need to find mohalim who could arrange circumcisions in an orderly fashion.

One day I approached Reb Shmuel excitedly and told him that we identified an expert mohel, who was also a credentialed surgeon, who would be perfectly suited for performing adult milah.

After committing certain funding, Reb Shmuel told me, “The real revolution, the real Jewish victory, is performing a bris on an eight-day-old infant, a bris in its proper time. That’s what will make Stalin roll over in his grave.

“You see,” he continued, sounding like a sagacious chassid, “Stalin wanted to break the Jews’ intrinsic connection to G‑d. When an adult undergoes a bris milah, that’s on his own initiative: he’s weighed the pros and cons, and decided rationally that he needs to be circumcised. He’s taken Stalin’s view into consideration and ended up rejecting it.

Kiev Hosting First-Ever Hebrew Song Contest in Former Soviet Union

Friday, June 28th, 2013

Twelve talented candidates from around the former Soviet Union competed in Kiev, Ukraine, this week in the “Hallelujah” contest, a global Hebrew singing competition for Jewish talent.

For the first time, the international competition, an initiative of the World Forum of Russian-speaking Jews, the World Zionist Organization and the Hallelujah Organization, was held in the former Soviet Union.

The songs in the competition were by prominent Hebrew poets, including Chaim Nachman Bialik, Shaul Tchernichovsky, Natan Yonatan, Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, and Rachel Bluwstein.

The winner was Maria Katzav Mikaterenberg, who’s studying voice in a local College in the Ukraine. In second and third place were Yelena Geleckson from Voronezh and Elana Levine from Penza.

WFRJ was established in January 2012 during the United Nations conference marking International Holocaust Day by a group of Jewish businessmen and philanthropists from the Former Soviet Union, all of whom served as community leaders of Russian-speaking Jews in the United States, Canada, Germany and the Ukraine.

The organization works to strengthen the bond of Russian-speaking Jews in the Diaspora with Israel. The president is Alexander Levin, an American-Ukrainian businessman and philanthropist who is also head of the Jewish community of Kiev.

Survey Says: Israeli Jews Becoming More Religious

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

A study published Thursday by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) and the AVI CHAI Foundation has found that Israeli Jews are becoming more religious.

The results of the survey, titled “A Portrait of Israeli Jews: Beliefs, Observance, and Values of Israeli Jews,” contrast significantly with the last survey undertaken in the 1990s, and suggest that the orthodox and ultra-orthodox communities are growing in demographic influence.

An overwhelming majority (85%) of Israeli Jews believe that it is “important to celebrate Jewish festivals in the traditional manner,” with 90% celebrating the Pesach Seder. The study also found that both the orthodox and ultra-orthodox communities “observe religious precepts more stringently than they did in the past.”

The last study found that attachment to Jewish tradition and religion had declined sharply, but this has been mainly been attributed to the mass influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Taking The Diaspora’s Portrait

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

Lost Futures: Journeys into the Jewish Diaspora
Photographs by Chrystie Sherman
Through January 9, 2009
The Austrian Embassy
3524 International Court, NW,
Washington, D.C.
http://www.acfdc.org/

 

Walking through Chrystie Sherman’s solo show at the Austrian Embassy in Washington will almost inevitably make viewers rethink their notions not only of what it means to be a Jew, but also what Jews look like. Lost Futures: Journeys into the Jewish Diaspora is the product of six years of traveling, wherein Sherman photographed Jews in communities that are disappearing. Included are images of Jews from Krasnaya Sloboda, Batumi, Privolnoye, Oguz, and Tbilisi in Azerbaijan and Georgia; Santiago de Cuba and Old Havana in Cuba; Teplik and Vinnytsa in the Former Soviet Union, Berdichev, Kiev, Odessa, Shargarod; Aghbalou Village, Arazane Village, and Tunisia in North Africa; and Tashkent, Bombay, Kochin, Parur District, Kottareddipalem, and Alibag in Uzbekistan.


Many of the images are difficult to look at. “I cried a lot on these trips,” Sherman said at the exhibit opening. “No one is smiling on these trips, because it is counterintuitive.” Sherman also found mixed responses from her would-be subjects, ranging from “terror to pleasure to hostility.” Yet, Sherman said, she became friends with many of them and sent them the photographs she had taken after they were developed.

 

 


Chrystie Sherman. “Rabbi,” 2002. Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

 

However sad, she compares her photographic project with Oscar Wilde’s famous 1890 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which tells the coming-of-age story of Dorian, a very attractive young man who posed for the artist Basil Hallward. As Dorian discovers more about himself, he realizes to his horror that his own depravity and sins are visited not upon him but upon Basil’s painting. Despite his reprehensible life, Dorian remains forever young and beautiful, as his representation becomes more and more terrifying. Sherman sees her work as akin to Basil’s portrait of “past, present, and future” − but added that, “Lost Futures” is “ultimately a question of the future” − the future of the far-flung Jewish communities.


One of the most gripping portraits in the show is a white-bearded rabbi who sits on a bench with a Holy Book in his hand. He wears a dark coat over a white robe and has a large knit kippa on his head, which tilts to the right as he looks at the camera. His face is deeply wrinkled, and he appears to have been disturbed from his studies or prayer by the photographer’s sudden appearance. Behind him is a structure of some sort that seems liable to collapse at any minute – a dramatic touch deepened by the dark shadows of the black-and-white image. According to Sherman’s caption, the rabbi is the oldest member of the Orthodox synagogue in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and he sits in front of the construction of a new synagogue, which will probably never be finished.

 

 


Chrystie Sherman. “Shabbat,” 2002. Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

 

“Shabbat,” which shows a housewife in a doorway to her house in Bukhara, carries a very different tone. The woman, who wears a dress that both evokes a lizard’s scales and camouflages with the doorway, is preparing Friday night dinner, according to the caption. Sherman’s compositional move of capturing the anonymous woman in the doorway provides a second frame, wherein the woman is in a doorframe, which sits within a larger frame. The viewer is offered no glimpse of what is inside the home, and a bright white light shines from behind the figure, almost offering her a halo. Like the rabbi, this woman’s expression is tough to read, and she could easily be mistaken for a movie star posing for a glamorous photo rather than a Jewish woman preparing for the Sabbath.

 

 

 


Chrystie Sherman. “Holocaust Survivor,” 2000. Teplik, Former Soviet Union.

 

The woman who posed in Teplik in the Former Soviet Union for “Holocaust Survivor” cannot be mistaken for a movie star. Most of the woman’s family perished in the war, and she lives by herself in a small wooden house. Sherman shows the woman, who wears a flower-patterned shirt and a shawl over her head, standing in a field full of weeds. The woman carries a walking stick in her right hand, and it seems that her laundry is hanging behind her. This photograph could be a companion piece to the Tashkent rabbi in a diptych, as the survivor tilts her head in the opposite direction. Like the rabbi, she looks directly at the viewer.

 

 

 


Chrystie Sherman. “Challah,” 2001-2002. Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.

 

In “Challah,” a young boy carries a loaf of challah that his father baked to the synagogue. The boy wears a striped polo shirt and a large kippa, and he stands in front of a street and an alleyway where two Cuban children sit. Viewers can compare and contrast the boy with the two children and arrive at a lot of differences. They are black and wear no shoes. He is white, holds a Jewish ritual food, and is dressed nicely. In fact, many viewers might be comforted by the fact that, a loaf of challah is a loaf of challah is a loaf of challah − and they make it the same way in Cuba. But that does not seem to be the point. Sherman’s work is about gathering together − perhaps an antidote to the Diaspora that she represents − and about finding common bonds between Jews around the world, even as they are very different.


I think this is a touchy point for Jewish art. If Diaspora and losing the Temple is supposed to be our punishment for sin, and if we are spread out around the world just as the builders who created the Tower of Babel were, because we were deficient in our faith, then ought Jewish art celebrate those differences?


Is documenting Diaspora an appropriate project for a Jewish artist? I think there is a great risk in becoming enamored of Diaspora, since a multicultural world where people look different and act differently and have different customs sounds far more exciting than one where everyone is the same. Sherman agreed that the aim is to leave the Diaspora and return to Israel, but she was not particularly worried about the notion of memorializing Diaspora.


“As a photographer, to go around and see these really ancient communities that are really steeped in community and history that are drying up is very sad,” she said. “Maybe I just have a problem with things that end.”
    
MENACHEM WECKER welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/taking-the-diasporas-portrait/2008/10/15/

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