St. Petersburg will hold first Jewish arts fair this month

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At one time, Jews in the former Soviet Union were the cause du jour for American Jews. Today, says Eugenia Lvova of St. Petersburg, that cause is considered "old-fashioned."

But while many Jews who wanted to leave the former Soviet Union have succeeded in doing so, the exodus is not yet complete, Lvova notes.

"We're in a period of spiritual exodus," says the chair of the Jewish Association of St. Petersburg, an umbrella organization for the Russian city's Jewish groups. "For decades, we were in slavery."

Lvova, who is the principal of three St. Petersburg Jewish schools, visited the Bay Area last week with Alexander Frenkel, director of the Russian city's new Jewish Community Center.

Their trip was sponsored and organized by the S.F.-based Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal, which supports the St. Petersburg Jewish community financially and otherwise through its Yad l'Yad (Hand to Hand) program.

Between meetings with local Jewish leaders and visits to Jewish schools, Lvova and Frenkel detailed the dramatic changes Russian Jewish life has seen since the fall of Communism.

In St. Petersburg alone, they pointed out, the recent political upheaval is having visible effects. Jewish schools in the city now enroll some 900 pupils; a Jewish welfare organization aids the elderly, the needy and infirm through such programs as Meals on Wheels. A biweekly Jewish newspaper maintains a circulation of 10,000 throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States, and a Jewish community center serves as a meeting place and programming venue, housing a Jewish library and music center.

Even more significant than these developments, however, is the sea change in Jewish self-identification. Over the last six or seven years, many Jews are coming out of the closet about their Judaism.

"There's a positive Jewish self-identification," Lvova says. "Children are proud and happy to be Jewish. More and more adults attend programs. They're less afraid to be Jewish."

While some Jews are still denied exit from the former Soviet Union — in most cases either because they are accused of knowing state secrets or for complex family reasons — others stay because it is their home.

Lvova, a 38-year-old former computer programmer and mother of three with an impressive command of English, remains in Russia because "Russian culture, very simply, is part of our soul. It's our background."

Frenkel, 35 and a former hydraulics engineer, stays in his homeland for similar reasons, and because being Jewish there is a "challenge."

At the same time, Frenkel doesn't rule out the possibility that one day he may be forced to leave. "The situation is unstable," he points out, alluding to the June 16 Russian elections in which Communists and ultranationalists are expected to make a strong showing.

While a sense of uncertainty underlies life for Russian Jews, "we don't live on suitcases," Lvova says. "It's a full life. We teach our children. We build our communities."

Later this month, St. Petersburg will hold its first Jewish arts and music festival. Timed to coincide with Jerusalem 3000, a celebration of the Israeli city's spiritual and cultural legacy, the Russian festival will feature Jewish musicians, artists and poets, all of whom will contribute their talents free of charge.

Lvova, who is helping to coordinate the event, hopes it will attract the Russian Jewish intelligentsia, including those in a position to contribute financially to the Jewish community. Currently, she says, such individuals provide only a minuscule part of the St. Petersburg Jewish community's total budget, most of which currently comes from abroad.

Lvova acknowledges that engaging the intelligentsia financially — and spiritually — continues to be a challenge. Many, she says, cling to the idea that being Jewish means being less a part of Russian society.

That is understandable, she says, given the fact that Jews in the former Soviet Union "have decades of negative feelings."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.