by Lea Zeltserman
For two-and-a-half days, nearly every conversation begins with a geography lesson. “Where are you from?” “No, I meant today. But yes, and where are you from originally?”
An icebreaker quickly reveals that of 60-some people in the room, only one has been born and raised in the same country (the US). The phrase “rootless cosmopolitans” somehow comes to mind. Except, we are very rooted indeed. To our languages, new and old. To our traditions, our family histories, and our identities, confused as we may sometimes be about them. Which is what has brought us all here.
It’s been over a week since the first ever Platforma conference wrapped up, and the giddy excitement and enthusiasm shows no signs of abating. The weekend conference, a Schusterman Connection Point, sponsored by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation in partnership with Genesis Philanthropy Group,* brought together nearly 60 Russian-Jewish “community initiators” in upstate New York. We flew in from Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Israel, Canada and across the US.
Platforma is the brainchild of Anna Vainer and Alexandra Belinski, two Russian émigrés living in Israel. They realized that many Russian-Jewish community organizers, activists, educators and creative professionals struggle to build a community that hadn’t existed a few short decades ago. They wanted a place for people to connect, learn new skills, share ideas and come away with new collaborations and projects. The result, Platforma, is a weekend gathering for “the doers,” as one participant put it. And indeed, while many participants have never worked within the formal Jewish community, they’ve been busy starting their own grassroots organizations or incorporating their Russian-Jewish identities into their music or art.
These “doers” included actors, musicians, community organizers, educators, who brought powerful and diverse skills with them – facilitators for many sessions were participants themselves. Sessions included everything from practical skill-building like social media and grant-writing, to discussions about mapping Russian-Jewish family history and creating performance art based on Jewish texts.
After the initial introductory formalities to open Friday night, everyone quickly relaxed into the instantly comfortable and intimate patterns of Russian gatherings. A stranger might have been forgiven for thinking this was a gathering of old and dear friends. With the exception of geography, small talk was non-existent; passionate discussions followed every session. People reference Soviet-Jewish history – the evacuations during WWII, for instance – with little preamble or explanation needed. Here, we are the norm, the mainstream.
Unique to any Russian-Jewish conference, language hangs over every session and conversation – in what language shall we proceed? At one point in the weekend, Russian was hailed as “an emerging Jewish language!” Here, it is as much a matter of practicality as of identity. The Shabbat songbook which was handed around after candle-lighting included songs and prayers in Hebrew, Russian and English. With every shift in language, some voices fell silent and others joined in. In those moments, the entirety of the post-Soviet Jewish story fell into place. All the different countries and communities we had gone to once we crossed the border. Who had grown up in a more traditionally religious environment, who in an English-speaking country, who in Hebrew, who had been taught the old Soviet ballads and whose home had been emptied of those memories. And even, in a few cases, who had stayed behind to rebuild Jewish life “in the old country.” Through it all, a thread of wonder that other people with the same interests and passions exist.
And as to the cosmopolitans? As we moved between languages, between songs, between religious practices (for Shabbat, a tray of tea lights was set up and people approached individually to light as they wished), I realized that as natural as this all felt, it’s not. To think of the first immigrant waves in the 1970s venturing into an utterly unknown world, and continuing all the way through to the 2000s, it was amazing to see what’s come out of it – the ill-fitting Soviet clothes, the stress, the awkwardness, have been shed, and we speak new languages that we were never supposed to know.
In a lecture on Sunday morning, Zvi Gitelman, one of the foremost academic experts on Russian/Soviet Jewry, announced, “You’re not supposed to be here.” It’s easy to forget, but it’s an amazing reality. And now that we are here, what next?
That’s for the Platforma cohort of 2014 to figure out. Stay tuned.
*Full Disclosure – I’ve received a grant from Genesis Philanthropy Group for an oral history project on Soviet Jews who immigrated to Toronto in the 1970s.
Lea Zeltserman is a Toronto-based writer focusing on the Soviet-Jewish immigration, and publisher of the Soviet Samovar, a monthly round-up of Russian-Jewish news, culture and events. Her Twitter feed is @zeltserman.