St. Petersburg teacher hears strains of rebirth

Now, as one of St. Petersburg's first university-trained Jewish educators, Petcherskaya is using those same Yiddish melodies to bring life to the Jewish renewal in the former Soviet city.

"My grandmother would stop on important words to make commentary, to explain Jewish values, holidays, the Yiddish language. All she knew about Judaism she taught me in connection to those songs," said Petcherskaya, in town to meet with Jewish educators.

"You should hear her sing. That's how she teaches. She's helping to invigorate that community," said Eva Seligman-Kennard, acting director of the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal, the organization that sponsored Petcherskaya's visit.

St. Petersburg is San Francisco's sister city, she added. The two Jewish communities have been working together for years, mostly in secret until the Communist thaw made it possible to operate above ground.

A specialist in Yiddish folklore, Petcherskaya's curriculum uses Yiddish music to teach classical Jewish texts, Talmud and history.

The young teacher was one of the first to graduate from the Jewish University of St. Petersburg. She also attended the state school for teachers and says the combination was ideal to help create lesson plans for students, from toddlers to seniors.

Adain Lo, a Jewish supplementary school with 130 families, opened in 1992. Before that, Jewish classes could only be held in relative secrecy. Now, the school is part of a Jewish rebirth that includes a Jewish association, a Jewish community center, university, Holocaust research group, an association of Jewish war veterans, a welfare center and a newspaper.

St. Petersburg's Jewish community of more than 100,000 is "a very spiritual and cultural community," according to Petcherskaya.

Things have changed a lot since the teacher tried to improve her own Yiddish as a teen. She had no textbooks. Instead, she would ferret out a copy of the Yiddish newspaper of the Communist Party in Israel, and nervously ask for the publication at the few Russian newsstands that carried it.

"It was very expensive," she recalled. "But I learned."

Why stay in a country with a history of intense anti-Semitism? Petcherskaya says she and other Soviet Jews "have a deep connection to Russian culture, family roots. May of us prefer to stay now that we have the opportunity to be Jewish, to educate our children, to be strong and together against anti-Semitism."

For her, it's not just the changes in society that keep her rooted in St. Petersburg. More than growing religious freedom for Jews, it's Petcherskaya's sense of duty that keeps her there.

"I do very important work. For my students, I'm like a grandmother."