Salted Fish and the Jewish Genius

Limmud Belarusby Yoram Dori

Limmud FSU, the first ever in Belarus, took place in Vitebsk, the hometown of the artist Marc Chagall. It was devoted almost in its entirety to the subject of the arts. Both Jewish and Israeli arts were presented here from different aspects. Shmuel Atzmon presented an excerpt from Shalom Aleichem’s “Tuvia the Milkman” in the original Yiddish interspersed with some of his own spontaneous translations into Russian, Sassi Keshet sang (mainly in Yiddish), his son, Ariel, accompanied him on the keyboards. Gal de la Paz, known as Goldie, Ariel’s wife, sang rock, all of this accompanied by lectures on Jewish fashion by Reuven Landsberg, on Jewish humor with Marc Galesnik, Jana Brook on the dances of the 1920s, and much more.

As always with Limmud, the lecture rooms were packed with young people listening raptly and carrying on a dialogue with the speakers. It was clear that arts and culture concerned them deeply. As usual, the topics were very varied and there were some that were not strictly concerned with arts and culture, even though the fascinating lecture by Prof. Raphael Walden of Israel’s Tel Hashomer Hospital demonstrated to my mind, another aspect of culture – that of medicine and research. The halls were also packed for talks of a more political nature such as “Belarus – Israel Relations,” in which I participated, discussions on the Jews of Belarus, and another on the attempts to identify and restore plundered Jewish property, given by Israel Peleg, director of the company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets.

Events at the opening ceremony included a concert given in the local concert hall. Appearing with Shmuel Atzmon, Sassi and Ariel Keshet and Goldie, was a klezmer group from Moscow that even managed to get me on my feet dancing between the seats. Two young jazz groups and a troupe of drummers gave a performance which would not have disgraced the new Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv.

On the eve of Shabbat, in accordance with the prevailing atmosphere, we sat around after the dinner for an informal sing-along session and Gil Hovav – noted in Israel for his culinary activities and incidentally, the great-grandson of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, reviver of the Hebrew language, who was also born in Belarus, demonstrated impressive vocal powers, enthusiastically joined by Peleg, broadcaster Yaakov Achimeir, Shira Danish from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Society, Sandra Cahn the American philanthropist and joint founder of Limmud FSU, Dan Eisenbud of The Jerusalem Post, my wife Batya and myself. Such an evening had not been seen in Belarus for the last 70 years – if ever!

Parallel to the cultural events, I, with a great deal of experience of Limmud FSU events, looked for something new to learn. Often I learn from tours, or even from my own presentations – by listening and responding to the questions posed by the audiences.

This time, my quest was met by a tour of Vitebsk, or to be more precise, to the house where Marc Chagall was born, which is today the Chagall Museum. Chagall is best known to me for his stunning tapestries in the Chagall Hall of the Knesset in Jerusalem. I have participated in many events in that hall, usually accompanying President Shimon Peres, with whom I have worked as a strategic advisor for many years. Usually I was more concerned with the refreshments, sometimes – either for good or for bad – by the words of the speakers. Chagall did not concern me.

But on arriving at the Chagall Museum in Vitebsk, I began to immerse myself in the atmosphere of the great artist. I studied the works on display and was impressed by the exceptional quality. Sometimes I felt that I was myself part of the composition – as if the picture was addressing me personally. I tried to understand how such an artist could evolve: what conditions were necessary. In today’s materialistic and over-indulged world – it would seem that a prerequisite would be wealthy and educated parents;, such creative abilities could only be nurtured given living conditions and space allowing for the child’s creativity, and so on.

In the Chagall Home I was exposed to the conditions in which this genius was born and lived. The house in which Chagall grew up and gave his imagination freedom, is small and quite depressing. The wooden portico is no more than a meter or a meter and a half, and served as the parents’ grocery store. Pickled fish were sold here in abundance and there is little doubt that the smell of the matjes herring would have been overpowering. Incidentally, Chagall’s father was killed when barrels of salted fish fell on him when he was loading a wagon.

From the portico, we enter the children’s room. According to our guide, Chagall and his brothers slept here in the same bed (not surprising: there is no room for another…). From there to the living room. Some four meters square with a coal-fired fireplace which served as the cooking stove. A tiny table and a kitchen. But the Chagall family did have an attractive Hanuka menorah. And then finally, another small room full of books – for what is a Jewish home without books? The whole apartment measures less than one room in any standard apartment in North Tel Aviv.

It would seem, however, that the difficult conditions did not prevent the child Marc Chagall from flourishing. A teacher, Yehuda (Yuri) Pen, an important Jewish artist in his own right, provided the inspiration that made Chagall what he was to become – perhaps the greatest Jewish artist of all time – and all of this from Vitebsk.

The Chagall House reinforced for me the notion that the Jewish compulsion for learning – the ultimate desire to better oneself – reflects what Shimon Peres describes as the consistent state of Jewish un-satisfaction and striving for more, that is a hundredfold more important than the physical conditions. However, someone who interpolates from this that I prefer sickly and poor, to healthy and rich – is mistaken. However, qualitative wealth is much more important than quantitive. Limmud VSU Vitebsk proved additional confirmation of that simple fact.

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

photo courtesy Limmud FSU