Limmud in St. Petersburg: The Passion to Learn

by Yoram Dori

When I arrived to speak at the Limmud FSU conference in St. Petersburg, I thought there was nothing new I could learn about the Jews of the Former Soviet Union today. But as usual, I was mistaken and the St. Petersburg event shed light for me on a new aspect of the local Jews.

This time the Limmud FSU festival took place in a holiday resort some 60 kilometers outside St. Petersburg, deep in the woods and surrounded by dachas belonging to some of the city’s more substantial citizens. The place had been refurbished and seemed to be of a high standard, which did not prevent the more cynical Israelis among us joking about the possibility that in the previous Communist incarnation it had served as a reformatory for rebellious youth.

As in every Limmud FSU event the program was packed. From the opening on Friday evening at 8.00, until Sunday morning at 10.00, the formal and informal events followed each other almost without a break through the daylight hours and a “white night.”

Some 350 young Jews from St. Petersburg and the surrounding area participated in the festival. The organizers had no option but to double the participation fee because of budgetary restraints and it was fortunate that the philanthropist Mikhail Mirilashvilli stepped in at the last moment with a donation that eased the situation somewhat. A participant sharing a room with two others paid 120 dollars, while those looking for a little more comfort paid between 150 and 200 dollars – a considerable sum in the light of the average salary of the local youngsters.

Already on Friday evening I learned something new. In room adjacent to the resort’s bar a lecture was given by Leonid Rosengaus on “Kabbalat Shabbat – with an Israeli Flavor.” I decided to forego a session in the bar in favor of listening to the lecture which was given in Russian, a language in which I am fluent in about three words. Despite my total lack of linguistic prowess, I understood the message – or at least I clearly felt it. Dozens of young people passed up the chance to listen to a singer who was presenting a rich repertoire of western pop and rock in the bar, and preferred to cram into the lecture room and listen to examples of “the Israeli flavor.”

Immediately at the beginning, seeing that we were talking about Kabbalat Shabbat, the speaker passed round to everyone small pieces of freshly baked challa. I quietly asked my neighbor in English what was so special about this and she explained that for many of the participants, this was probably the first time they had been exposed to this particular delicacy. The reactions of the crowd to this event, which is commonplace on every Israeli table on Erev Shabbat, taught me that after 70 years of communism, this was a rare and privileged encounter. From the challa, a propos Rosh Hashana, we moved to honey. Once again the audience was delighted at the idea of dipping the challa in the honey. And so on and so on. The taste of Israel and the taste of Shabbat. At the same time the local rabbi was holding an orthodox Kabbalat Shabbat for the Shabbat observers among the participants.

I stepped outside for a moment in order to find a wi-fi connection (an attempt which failed of course) and happened to notice a young local couple who were not Limmud participants but were also evidently staying at the hotel. The extremely attractive young blonde woman in an orange sleeveless blouse and with an elegant plait, flirted and danced in an attempt to gain her beau’s attention. He, however, was more interested in the contents of his glass and ignored her. I was immediately impressed by the difference between this couple and the Limmud participants of the same age who had paid a fortune by their standards to learn the taste of challa and Shabbat, and the local couple. Not that I have any objection to drinking in bars, dancing or flirtation, but the dissonance in this case struck me as remarkable.

The lectures and presentations continued without a break from that Kabbalat Shabbat: six presentations taking place simultaneously, each of them packed with an overflow audience. Several of the young people had no alternative but to listen standing up as no more seats were available. That is the way it was with Dima Zicer, a theater and arts figure who has returned to live in St. Petersburg and has set up a Jewish educational and cultural center. That is how it was when Sandra Cahn from New York, the co-founder of Limmud FSU told her life story, and Moshe Vigdor, the new chairman of the Mandel Educational Foundation and Gideon Meir, Deputy Director General of Israel’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs addressed the crowd.

I was even more surprised during a panel discussion in which I participated on the topic of Russia-Israel relations. I had assumed that the large audience was interested because many of them had relations in Israel and that the worries of Israelis were important to them too – but that was not the case. During my presentation, which attempted to explain the influence of mass communications on politics, it was difficult to find a single vacant seat. After my talk, I was inundated by remarks and questions which emphasized that this was an unusually intelligent and informed audience. A member of the audience subsequently asked me if I would be prepared to give a guest lecture at Moscow University. After the lecture was over, I tried to explain the phenomenon to myself and found it difficult. What is so special about these young Russian Jews and those of St. Petersburg in particular?

A colleague, Natan Roi, brought to my attention his conclusion which seemed to me to be correct and which I utilized in later encounters. The Jews of St. Petersburg have an overwhelming appetite for learning. A type of thirst for anything new which cannot be satiated. This passion for knowledge can be found in all young Jews throughout the Former Soviet Union, but amongst the young people of St. Petersburg, it is a special intellectual passion aimed at enhancing them as citizens of the world and within their chosen professions.

Life in these parts is not easy. There are economic difficulties and unemployment and possibly even sparks of anti-Semitism. Above everything it is the Jewish gene that drives them. This is evidently in our people’s DNA. I know this seems pompous, even patronizing with overtones of racism, but it was difficult for me to ignore the taste of the challa on the one hand and the girl in the orange blouse dancing on the other side of the bar.

This time I learned about the almost irrational impulse of thee young Jews from St. Petersburg to acquire knowledge. To learn, to learn and then to learn more. To understand the Jewish past so as to contend with the Jewish present. That was the strength of Limmud FSU in St. Petersburg. And for that, the organizers and volunteers who made it happen, deserve every praise.

Yoram Dori is Senior Advisor to the President of Israel, Shimon Peres.

images courtesy Nathan Roi