June 28, 2009

Briefing from Asher Ostrin, Executive Director of Former Soviet Union Programs

Dear all,

The story that follows is quintessentially Jewish. It involves a world superpower, the Jewish People, the Joint, and books. And it touches on one of the most monumental events in Jewish History, and in the history of the 20th century.

We'll begin at the end. There was a festive opening in Moscow last week of the "House of Jewish Books" (HJB) in its new home in the Russian State Library of Foreign Literature. HJB is a library of Jewish books that also publishes contemporary Jewish books in Russian and of interest to the Russian speaking Jewish population, and sponsors all kinds of programs that feature Jewish literature of all types. The event was attended by government officials, and ambassadors, as this library is part of Russia's prestigious Lenin Library, the equivalent of the Library of Congress. HJB, founded by the JDC about 10 years ago, now carries with it official government sanction as the Judaica section of that library. The opening became an opportunity to reflect on the role of books in 20th century Soviet and post Soviet Jewish history, which brings us back to the first sentence in this piece.

In the decades after the 1917 revolution, the Soviet authorities did all that they could to stamp out stimuli for ethnic identification. For Jews, this meant the closing of schools and synagogues, clamping down on Jewish culture by shuttering Yiddish theaters, outlawing the teaching of Hebrew. To get an idea of the lengths to which they went- they even created a new Yiddish orthography in the hope that new generations of Yiddish speakers would not be able to use Yiddish to correspond with Jews elsewhere!

On the pre Revolutionary territory of the USSR there were a number of Jewish publishing houses- in both Yiddish and local languages. All of these were forcibly closed.

With the establishment of the State of Israel, and especially after the Jewish awakening in the USSR in the aftermath of the 6 Day War, there was a desire on the part of World Jewry to reconnect to Soviet Jews. There was a hunger on their part for Jewish knowledge and to find avenues for Jewish expression. Many applied to emigrate, but this was not an option for all, and during prolonged periods, very few could leave.

How to slake this thirst for things Jewish? One way was through books. Jews from the West were sent into the USSR as tourists, carrying (smuggling) books and articles of Judaica (tapes, games with Jewish themes, picture albums of Israel) to be deposited with local Jews. The books were then passed on by hand from one Jew to another. You were admonished to read it quickly and then to pass it on, and so it went until the books literally fell apart. There were no copy machines available- in major cities the first stop of the book was to typists, who literally worked through long nights laboriously hand typing manuscripts based on books that were then circulated among those interested.

Speak to people who experienced this and you will hear extraordinarily moving stories of the powerful impact of these books. Leon Uris' Exodus was a favorite. It's hardly great literature. But for a people who were culturally deprived for generations, and who were exposed repeatedly to anti Semitic stereotypes from a young age, to suddenly encounter Jewish heroes, and even Jewish power, even if only on the pages of a book, and in a novel at that, was stunning. To read of Jewish pride, while previous associations with that identity were uniformly negative, was transformative.

Books were a perfect tool. They were (and those of you who now only read on the internet will be interested to learn that they still are) lightweight, easily transportable, and one can "engage in private". That is, you do not need to risk gathering in a group to learn, which would put these people at risk in Soviet times. You can learn at your own pace. And so on.

Several years ago, I spent a weekend with a woman who at the time headed a major international operation on behalf of FSU Jewry. She made Aliyah from one of the Baltic States. I asked how she got involved in the Aliyah movement. She told me of a visit a friend made with her at age 17 to the friend's cousin's home to return something she had borrowed. This woman waited in the anteroom while the friend exchanged some pleasantries with her cousin. Bored, she picked up a book that was lying on the table and started to read. After nine pages, she was so engrossed in the book, Mila 18 (also by Uris) that she asked to borrow the book. She had to swear to keep it secret and to finish and return it in 48 hours as there was a long list of people waiting to read it. She finished in 7 hours and returned it. She traces the launching of her interest in things Jewish to that singular event. Before that, her Jewish identity was minimal, and negative.

The call on these books was enormous. The Jews being a resourceful people, the problems that arose were resolved, often quickly. For example- where would these books come from? There was no market for Russian language Judaica for several generations, so few such books existed. No problem- set up a publishing house in Israel- call it the "Aliyah Library" (the ideology underpinning it is evident from the name) and start translating and publishing anything that will educate, entertain, and inspire.

When books couldn't be smuggled in fast enough, the Jews there started their own operations. Get Jewish writers, poets and historians, etc to start writing on Jewish issues, and do self-publishing there (called "samizdat". Remember this is pre desktop publishing- so it is arduous work, but ultimately rewarding. You were not only writing for people to read- you were assisting them in their efforts to change their lives, and to mold their own newly discovered Jewish identities).

Someday when the history of this effort is fully documented, JDC's role will be clear. The contribution of books to the Jewish revival is beyond question. This was a reading public, and they took full advantage of this tool. Many historians see the Jewish revival as one of the key factors in the downfall on the USSR, for reasons too numerous to recount here. It inspired other nationalist movements, it put the Soviets on the defensive in international fora, it helped expose the ideological rot at the heart of the system, and much, much more. And if the Jewish movement is to be partially credited for the change, a major component of the Jewish revival has to be assigned to the role of books. It is an amazing claim, but rooted in reality. As outlandish as it seems, books (and Jewish books prominent among them) helped nudge the mighty USSR into the dustbin of history!

(If you remain skeptical about the power of books (ideas) to impact history- think about the impact of the book written by a German Jew sitting in the British Library in the 19th century, on the entire 20th century. The book was Das Kapital, the author Karl Marx. The rest, as they say, is history!)

In the meantime, we fast forward to 1990 and the opening up of the USSR to JDC. We were confronted with an opportunity- to travel relatively freely in the USSR and to meet with Jews. But then what? What kinds of programs to begin? What would our added value be?

In what turned out to be an inspired move, the decision was taken to use libraries as a calling card. Our people would come in to a community and meet with Jews who represented fledgling Jewish organizations in each place. We would promise to send in a library with a full complement of Russian language Judaica. In return, local Jews had to do the following:

1. They had to provide space. That space could be the room in someone's apartment, or a room in the local synagogue.

2. They had to appoint a librarian, whom we would train.

3. The decisions on one and two (above) had to be made by all of the city's Jewish organizations sitting together. We refused to supply a library to each organization separately. Instead, we wanted to use the libraries as a way of getting everyone to sit around the table to make joint decisions- the very beginning of communal decision making.

Using these libraries as a calling card, we eventually sent them to well over 100 communities. Some of them still exist today. The appeal remained as it was for books in Soviet times- it was a private and tentative way to be begin to confront one's Jewish identity, and you could choose to do so through your own particular interest- books on history, language, culture, etc.

There were some memorable moments. In 1992, I was summoned by the KGB in Leningrad for a meeting during a visit there. They took me by car out to the airport- with no explanation- and then drove me to a warehouse on the edge of the airport. The person in charge of the grounds opened a large warehouse door and I saw several thousand books. On closer inspection, it was clear they were Jewish books. The KGB agent told me that these books had "come into their possession" and they wanted to donate them to the library the JDC had set up with the community in the Leningrad synagogue. After perusing a few volumes, it became clear what had happened- these were books that had been confiscated through the years. The KGB was no longer in that business, and the books were taking up precious space that they now needed for other things. So the KGB made its contribution to the Leningrad Jewish Library in the Great Chorale Synagogue.

Five years ago, I met a young man in Birobidjan, Stalin's idea of a homeland for the Jewish People [in southeast Russia, near the Chinese border]. He proudly showed me five notebooks he had, in a very small script of his handwriting. He had been to the Jewish library in the local synagogue, and was so taken by a contemporary Russian translation of the Pentateuch, that he transcribed it word for word in his own handwriting so that he could have a copy at home. He assumed that they were only available as reference books in libraries. (It didn't cost me very much to be a real hero in his eyes- I sent him a printed volume!)

So now we return to the introduction of this briefing- about the opening of the House of Jewish Books in Moscow last week. For some, the importance of the event came from the prestige of the location. But for those who have been involved in the Soviet Jewry movement for many years, it was far more that that. It was the closing of a circle. It was a kind of an exclamation point on a statement about the importance of the book, for this particular segment of the "People of the Book".

Shabbat shalom,

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for bringing up some vivid memories. My parents' home in Moscow was always filled with those smuggled books. Moscow Jews were particularly impressed with books and journals published overseas by recent emigres whom they had known back in Russia, which made them feel involved in a global conversation before the age of internet. (One such emigre journal that was a big hit among Moscow intelligentsia and is now undeservedly forgotten was Vremya i my [Time and Us], published by the late Viktor Perelman first in Tel-Aviv and later in New York.)

Dmitri Glinski, NYC