Odessa Corner of Bialik

Limmud FSU Odessa : Larisaby Mordehai Haimowich and Yossi Aloni

More than 600 people from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova paid good money in order to learn about Chaim Nachman Bialik. This was in a Limmud FSU Conference in Odessa marking 140 years since his birth. After several days of “Judaism Lite” – lectures on Jewish roots and rock and reggae performances in Hebrew, there is only one conclusion: the National Poet also liked to wander.

Cheburshka is a teddy bear with rounded ears and brown fur. In 2004, he was the mascot of the Russian team at the Olympic Games in Athens. Today he is the hero of an animated TV series for children. To the musical strains of the teddy bear, a kindergarten teacher tries to interest the kids in another hero. “Have you heard of Chaima Nachmana Bialika?” Anastasia: “He was a King of Israel.” The teacher: “Which king?” Emelia: “He fought them.” The teacher: “Who did he fight?” Emelia; “People who wanted to conquer us.” Anastasia: “Israel and Bialika didn’t allow them to conquer us and defeated them.”

Yesterday, the children of “Gan Limmud” heard the story of the Maccabees and made Hanukah candles. Today they are listening to Yuval Hamevulbal (ed. “Yuval the Confused” – an Israeli children’s entertainer). While the parents are in the lecture rooms, their children are in the hotel’s fitness center which has been transformed into a kindergarten. Balloons on the floor and on the walls; Zionist collages with appropriate captions: Nativ shelanu le’Israel (“Our path to Israel”) or Israel rachok meha’ayin karov lelev (“Israel – far from sight but close to the heart.”)

140 years after his birth, Bialik is close to the heart of the participants in Limmud FSU (Former Soviet Union) in Odessa. More than 600 people from Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Moldova, have paid in order to learn about him, but not only about him: Limmud festivals are a pluralistic celebration of “Judaism Lite.”

Limmud for English speakers was founded over 32 years ago in Great Britain and has conquered the Jewish world. The founders of Limmud for Russian speakers are Chaim Chesler from Israel and Sandra Cahn from the United States. Its president and one of its main financial supporters is Aaron Frenkel who lives in Monaco. The American businessman, Matthew Bronfman, is chair of the International Steering Committee. The original target audience was participants in the highly successful Taglit and Masa programs for young people who come to Israel with the two organizations and in the words of Chesler, receive an injection of Zionism, but afterwards find no one to take it further. Chesler emphasizes that the main aim of Limmud FSU is to build up a world-wide family of Russian speakers concentrating on bringing young Jews back to Judaism after decades of Communist indoctrination. More than 150,000 people have participated in Limmud activities up until now – more than a third of them being graduates of the Taglit and Masa programs. The idea is to inject new life into Russian-speaking communities. But it is not intended as a one-way street. And that is where the difference lies: If other organizations bring the law from Sinai, at Limmud, this is a two-way joint operation.

“Every time I present a topic at Limmud I don’t know how it will end up,” says Dima Zicer, 46, who is one of Limmud FSU’s ideologists. The evening before our meeting, he had given a talk about Jewish organizations. At the beginning of the talk he told his listeners that he didn’t really know how to tackle the subject. “Let us construct something together,” he suggested. Zicer conducts the audience on an uncharted journey hoping to jointly discover new horizons.

Is Limmud a guerilla force among Jewish organizations?

“I don’t operate with guerilla forces.”

A cooperative venture as opposed to traditional Jewish organizations?

“That is a better description but still not entirely accurate. We are something totally separate. We combine forces to state clearly that we want to study together.”

Enjoying the best of all worlds

A slogan of Limmud is intellectual pluralism and in Odessa this was clearly evident. Jewish organizations, that at the beginning perhaps greeted Limmud with a certain degree of skepticism or even stomach ache, had representatives there. I saw Ofer Glanz, head of the FSU Department of the Joint (Jewish American Joint Distribution Committee), his opposite number Roman Polonsky from the Jewish Agency, Yaakov Feitelson, the Agency’s representative in Ukraine and Daniel Tabakov, senior advisor to the chairman of the Jewish National Fund. Tabakov was in Ukraine with three members of his staff to discuss cooperation on forestry. What cooperation, I ask? “They tend to the trees, we chop them down.” Evidently, because of climate change, both Ukraine and Israel suffer from the process of trees drying out and they are together discussing potential remedies. Interestingly, Yona Kreminetsky, the first chairman of the JNF, was himself born in Odessa. There is a street named after him in Tel Aviv.

Ayelet Bitan-Shlonsky, the director and curator of Bialik House in Tel Aviv has also come to Limmud. The name struck home and a circle was closed in my mind: could it be that a relation of Avraham Shlonsky (ed: leading Israeli writer, poet and translator, 1900-1973), who was a severe critic of Bialik, is actually head of Beit Bialik? But there was a disappointment in store. It transpires that Ayelet only married a Shlonsky. Avraham was the uncle of Tuvia, her father in-law. However, Shlonsky or not, she gave a fascinating lecture.

Bialik and Dizengoff ; Odessa and Tel Aviv. As a Tel Avivian, I recognize the similarity between the two cities. Both are modern port cities with a similar liberal outlook, but a closer look reveals a certain longing. A feeling of identity with the first Hebrew city even if you don’t live there. I would love now to be able to go and get a coffee in Masaryk Square, visit my grandson Tom who lives on Chen Boulevard (ed: acronym for Chaim Nahman Bialik) corner of Netzach Israel Street (ed. “Eternal Israel” – a Zionist organization in which Bialik was active).

The lectures and workshops take place in an atmosphere marked by a certain happy lack of discipline and with commendable mobility. No session begins and ends with exactly the same audience. People come in, listen, leave and come back but they are not voting with their feet. Many sessions are taking place simultaneously and people want to taste a little bit of everything that is going on in the halls named Dizengoff, Ravnitzky, Tchernikhovsky, Sheinkin, Bialik and Jabotinsky. Sampling a little bit here, a little bit there, and moving on. The presenters are all volunteers and there is no VIP treatment – the same rooms, same restaurant, same modest food. And the bustling corridors are no less interesting than the lecture rooms.

The subject of a lecture by Professor Dvora Hacohen is, “The social and cultural absorption of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.” But, in addition to the fact that she is a researcher at Bar Ilan University, her family tree goes back to the Besht (ed. Baal Shem Tov) and his grandson R. Baruch of Medzhybizh. The town lost its Hassidic population in 1780 when the disciples of the Besht left for Safed in Eretz Israel. But a problem arose. In Safed there were only two schools. The Hassidim would not send their children to either. When Esther, Dvora’s mother reached the age of six, her mother decided to send her and her sister to a secular school – to get an education at any price. Esther admired her teachers – pioneers with a strong appreciation of literature. Once in school, she even met Bialik. The poet was invited to the classroom and she recited some of his poems to him. From the age of three or four, Dvora HaCohen remembers her mother quoting from Bialik’s poems. “Together we would recite “To the Bird.” (ed. One of Bialik’s most famous poems.)

Dvora HaCohen’s husband, Rabbi Menachem HaCohen, had just finished his own lecture, “Where was God During the Holocaust?” HaCohen is a vice president of the Conference for Material Claims against Germany and for many years was Chief Rabbi of Romania. In 1982, when he was a member of the Knesset, he visited the Soviet Union for the first time. It was ostensibly a parliamentary visit, but in fact, HaCohen represented Nativ, then a clandestine unit (ed: In the Prime Minister’s Office dealing with the Jews in the USSR.) Before leaving Israel, HaCohen put on a belt filled with dollars for the Jewish activists. In his luggage were tefillin, tallitot and Israeli flags. He found Moscow both freezing and threatening and he lost his way in the dark. Finally he met up with a young man in a fur hat who led him to a tiny apartment. His name was Yuli Edelstein. HaCohen sat with the refuseniks until three in the morning. A couple complained that they wanted to have a Jewish wedding but it was not allowed. HaCohen fashioned a huppa from his tallit, wrote out a ketuba on the spot and married the couple. Before leaving, he promised them all, “When I marry off my children in Jerusalem, you are all invited.” A few years later he conducted the marriage of his son, Aviad, at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus. As he was about to perform the ceremony he noticed someone approaching. It was Yuli Edelstein who had landed in Israel two days before. Dr Aviad HaCohen is now dean of the Sha’arei Mishpat law college and at Limmud he presented a session on coexistence between religion and state in modern Israel.

It was not only Aviad Hacohen who was in Odessa together with his parents. Asi Mandel is the son of Dorit Reuveni and Yankele Mandel. The elder Mandel gave a lecture on the Russian roots of Israeli culture and served as MC at a Tel Aviv-Odessa evening performance and Dorit conducted a workshop on Israeli vocal music. At heart she is still a kibbutznik from Sha’ar Ha’amakim after many years in Tel Aviv. In her workshop she tries to impart some musical basics to Antonina Mabeltz, a speech therapist from Moldova. The Moldovan was totally concentrated on Reuveni. “Take air into your stomach and expel it slowly: that way you are warming up your vocal chords.” Antonina asks Dorit if she has a connection with the group that had performed the night before. “My son was playing the keyboards,” was the answer.

I have no words

Limmud FSU Odessa : The ShukAsi Mandel and six friends created “Cosmo,” a rock and reggae group three years ago, performing in English and Hebrew. In the Tel Aviv-Odessa performance they even included Russian. Dorit Reuveni opened the show with a rendition of Bialik’s famous Hachnesini tachat knafach (ed. “Cover me with your wings”) and then joined in with the Cosmonauts. The combination, I admit, had me floating on air. Afterwards, when the more elderly amongst us went off for a cappuccino, Chesler went through the lobby shouting “Party, Party!” The Anna’s, the Nadia’s and the Sasha’s turned up in some trepidation. But when Cosmo turned up the volume the dance floor was exuding sweaty hormones. Boys tried out their hip swing, the girls let their bodies flow with the music.

Most of the encounters finished with a smile or a nod of the head. Often it continued with a coffee or a visit to the bar behind a chabdnik selling copies of a Meir Shalev children’s book in Russian. No one here has an attendance sheet; no one checks how many sessions you have attended and how long you stayed for. You can feel perfectly content after a three-day weekend all spent in an armchair in the hotel lobby.

In the lobby, opposite the bar, sits Larisa Popovskaya, one of the organizing committee. Blond and long-legged, in fluent English she describes her life as constant motion between Ukraine and Israel. 25 years old, born in Kiev, she is studying for a master’s degree in communications in Moscow. Her father, Ilia, is Jewish. Her mother, Irena, is Ukrainian: “Soviet people who raised their family according to Soviet culture.”

What do you mean by “Soviet Culture?”

“My parents have no religion. In the Communist period their nationality was recorded in their passports but in effect there was no nationality. When the Soviet Union broke up and religion began to return, parents told their children, ‘When the time comes you can choose what you want to be.’ Her father, Ilia, proudly declared himself Jewish, although his Judaism consisted of eating fish at Rosh Hashana and matzot at Pesach. “In our family I represented Jewish tradition.” At the age of 12, Israel entered her life. She went to a Jewish youth camp, took part in discussions on Israel-Diaspora relations – and lots of activities, she adds in Hebrew.

Popovskaya began to learn Hebrew in a school belonging to the Ort network. When she registered for university she stopped but then began again at the Israel Cultural Center in Kiev. Before coming to Odessa, she checked with the Cultural Center in Moscow if she could continue to learn there at a more advanced level. “At the moment I am able to speak but I lack vocabulary and I forget a lot.”

What are the key words you know in Hebrew?

“Savlanut, Chutzpa, Ma Pitom.” However, even if she is not yet fluent in Hebrew, everything in her life is connected to Judaism. After the summer camp, she joined Hillel, the Jewish students organization. Afterwards she volunteered at the first Limmud conference in Moscow. “It was totally different to everything I had experienced up until then. The usual pattern was a lecture followed by questions, a coffee break, another lecture and questions and then lunch. Suddenly here everything could be chosen at random and I loved it.”

She came to Israel with Masa and stayed for four months in Ariel as a student. When she told people she was going to Ariel, they asked her why – and why there? Today she says it was the best four months of her life.

A small village called Israel

How does Larisa visualize her future life from now on? Will it involve Israel? Most of her friends are Jewish and have moved there. She can’t live without them she says. About once every two years she faces the question: maybe I should move to Israel? Apart from the fact that Israel is fun – all that warmth, the sand, the sun. But her parents caution her: there is a war on there in Israel. Then she moves into a rational mode which tells her No Entrance. “If I move I will need to begin my studies all over again and undergo conversion. And I don’t want to work in a supermarket where all the clerks are Russian.” Last year, on the eve of her birthday, she spent a week in Israel. “I had only just landed and said to myself, now I am home. At five o’clock in the morning I checked into a Tel Aviv hotel. Then I looked around and asked myself, do I really want to be here in these small houses? I am an urban girl; I am used to big cities. In Kiev, there are four million people; in Moscow more than ten million. In the whole of Israel there are only seven million. To me Israel seems like a small village.”

And there is the problem of language. With her English and basic Hebrew she will survive in Israel but she doesn’t feel comfortable in a place where Russian isn’t the dominant language. “It makes it difficult to understand people and their mentality, and I feel a bit uncomfortable with the sabras.”

It seems to me that you have more serious criticisms.

“See here; the sabras are a completely different breed – all that chutzpa. I am a European. A friend of mine who came to Israel met a guy on the beach. Stayed, got married, had a son. One day we went for lunch to the home of her husband’s parents. And it wasn’t a Shabbat meal but a constant shouting match. I felt drumming in my ears and then they started to argue – it was hell for me. I know that Israel is a melting pot but I am not certain I am able to melt in it.”

The biography of Margarita Lupatina is similar but also different. She and Larissa are both 25, both the offspring of mixed marriages, but Lupatina’s mother is Jewish which makes her Jewish as well. Her father is a retired army officer who served in Moscow where Margarita was born and then moved to Kiev, where she has lived ever since. She was a student of art, joined Hillel and became a tour guide. Among other things she deals with Jewish students who plan to visit Israel. She herself came to Israel with Taglit but she has no plans to emigrate. Certainly not now. “My work is here, my friends are here and in general I have a good life here.”

Lupatina considers herself to be addicted to Limmud. This is the fourth time she has participated in a Limmud conference She heard about Bialik for the first time only during her guiding course, ”Before that I knew nothing about him – not even a hint.”

What do you know about him now?

“I understand that he grew up in in his grandfather’s house and lived here in Odessa.”

Do you know any of his poems?

“That one about a bird.”

Both Here and There

Yulia Dor, the representative of Nativ in Odessa discovered Bialik when her three children went to kindergarten in Israel. In preparing for her job as an emissary, she traced his path between Zhitomer and Odessa. She sees him as a major adventurer – he leaves the religious home of his grandfather and reaches secular Odessa. He wrote in Hebrew when it had no status as an official language. “The organization where I work offers young people the same option that faced Bialik at the beginning of the last century: the Land of Israel. Six months ago I ran a program called ‘Bialik’s Days in Odessa.’ It was a huge festival at the end of which the mayor told me – you have restored Bialik to us!”

We are talking in “Dacha,” a restaurant in the middle of a small wood, where we are served solyanka, a wonderful soup in which five types of sausage are sailing. Fortifies the soul from the bitter cold outside. On the walls are posters from the days of the hammer and sickle. The place was then a rest home for Red Army pilots. Dor’s father was a soldier who served in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, where Yulia was born. He was then posted to the island of Sakhalin, where Chekhov lived. Dor’s remembers that the Jews lived in a state of total assimilation in Sakhalin, the largest island in Russia. At the age of 16, she decided to immigrate on her own to Israel. It was the immediate post-Soviet era and she decided that she wanted to live in Israel. She met her husband, Alex, on the flight to Israel, so gained both a homeland and a family.

Love at first sight?

“He says so.”

Like her father, Alex was a soldier. He is with her in Odessa and runs a non-formal educational program. Dor joined Nativ when it was no longer a secret organization. She is director of the Israel Cultural Center in the city. Other than the consular services provided by the Center, Nativ promotes the link with Israel through educational and cultural activities. Clubs for Jewish youth are now to be found along the length and breadth of the former Soviet Union. In the framework of a program called “Building a Future,” talented children are offered the chance of attending educational institutions in Israel. The program is meant to help them to decide where to continue their studies. They are offered a ten month study course and most of them accept it.

Igor Schupak gained his doctorate not in Israel but in Toronto. Aged 51, he was born in Zaporozhye in Ukraine. For the last eight years he has lived in Dniepropopetovsk, the non-official Jewish capital of Ukraine . Schupak is director of “Tekumah,” a center for Holocaust studies. The Holocaust is, in his opinion, reflects the history of nearly every Jewish family. He himself lost some 20 family members in the Holocaust. One of them, Yulia Naftulin, was killed in Berlin moments before the end of the war. I ask him if there is still anti-Semitism in Ukraine today. Schupak confirms that there is. “In many ways anti-Semitism is part of the European national identity. In the streets, Jews in traditional costume attract special attention. Sparks of anti-Semitism are also flying about Internet forums. It can ever show up in talks about football, not necessarily on politics.” At the same time he emphasizes that there is no overt government anti-Semitism. “The Jewish issue is not central to Ukraine. In politics it is really marginal, although the Svoboda (“Freedom”) political party sometimes makes anti-Semitic noises, though the people who voted for it are not necessarily anti-Semitic. It was more of a protest vote in which even some Jews participated.”

Schupak hopes that after joining the European Union, there will be a change in the social atmosphere. He learnt about Ukrainian society also through Bialik: “He did not only relate to Jewish culture but to Ukrainian culture in general.” Schupak first heard about Bialik from his grandfather, Michael Naftulin, During the Communist period, the works of Bialik were not banned but it was healthier to read them in secret. Today too, Schupak sometimes finds time to return to them.

Do your children know about Bialik?

“My son lives in Toronto. He is mostly interested in computer literature.”

Larisa Patrishov and her husband Igor returned to Ukraine after ten years in Israel. Now they live in Kerch on the Crimean Peninsula. We meet in the forecourt of the hotel where Limmud is taking place. Larissa is holding her small daughter, Diana, who is not in the Limmud kindergarten and who have emerged from the hotel to breathe in the air at two degrees Celsius. “They don’t know how to cope with children in Ukraine,” she whispers to me.

So why did you return?”

“I don’t even know how to explain it. We landed in Ze’elim, moved to Ariel and then to Rishon Lezion, and then decided to leave. We felt we had reached our limit and that we were not able to improve our lives.” They left behind in Israel their 25 year-old daughter Anna and now Larisa is dying to return; anyway, that is what she says. ”But the cost of an apartment is holding us back.”

What is not good for you here?

“I am not happy with the people. People here are not open as they are in Israel. The Israeli mentality suits me one hundred percent. If only the cost of an appointment would fall, I would be on my way back.”

Can you point to one thing that is good here?

“You can live here without working.”

Really? The state helps out?

“Of course not. We invested in a business which provides us with an income.”

Have you been attending lectures on Bialik at Limmud FSU?

“Indeed. I didn’t come because of Bialik but now I will read more and more about him on the Internet. I heard some new stuff which really interested me.”

Before that, did you know anything at all about him?

“I knew there was a Bialik Street.”

What do you like about him now?

“I have a great deal of respect for him. He is like me. Here and There; There and Here. Always searching…

Originally published in Hebrew by Maariv; translated and edited by Asher Weill.