S.F. activist says laughter in Russia as sparse as food

Earlier that day, 62-year-old Rosa Lvov had lucked out and scored the last bottle of oil at the near-empty grocery store. It cost about four times more than usual and about one-third of her monthly pension.

It was the beginning of September and the value of the ruble was dropping as fast as a skydiver without a parachute.

Russia's unstable recipe of economic collapse and political unrest blended with a severe shortage of staple items has been less than appetizing for its citizens, including the Jews who have chosen to remain there.

"There's a panic I can see in their faces," said Levermore, executive director of the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal. "They look ashen, lost. There's no laughter. There's a real concern where things are headed. They feel the randomness of living in a world where they can't trust anything."

The value of the ruble fluctuated daily, if not every few hours, during Levermore's Aug. 25 to Sept. 4 trip to Russia and Ukraine — her fourth visit in the past 18 months. This time, two other Bay Area Council activists accompanied her — Sue Klarreich of Los Altos and George Swift of Berkeley

On each trip, Levermore has assessed the conditions for individual Jews and specific Jewish communities. This time, she found the economic and social circumstances particularly disturbing.

Unemployment was pervasive, as was working without receiving a paycheck for six months or more.

Levermore's visit included a stop in Petrozavodsk, a town about nine hours by train northwest of St. Petersburg. Virtually "the whole town was unemployed," she discovered.

Petrozavodsk's two vast factories are idle, leaving at least 28,000 workers with no place to earn a living. Many homes are without running water and electricity.

"The workers who are getting paid, are paid in Vodka, headstones, shoes — whatever's available to barter. Those items say it all."

The Lvov home in St. Petersburg is like so many other apartments in Russia right now. The common areas of the characterless, five-story building, including the ground-floor lobby and foyer, are dark. The light bulbs burned out some time ago, but they haven't been replaced.

Levermore walked to the third-floor apartment with the Lvovs instead of taking the elevator because it reeked of urine.

Rosa Lvov volunteers at Fund Eva, a local Jewish welfare organization. Her husband, Leonid, is director of the Harold Light Jewish Center for Human Rights in St. Petersburg.

Lately, the Lvovs have been getting vegetables only sporadically from a small plot of land about two hours away by train.

"They go there every other weekend and spend the entire day collecting their food and maintaining the garden. It takes a lot of work and they're not so young anymore," Levermore said. "It's necessary for their survival, but it's like an albatross."

Levermore's hosts avoided wasting a single morsel of food, yet they kept offering her more of the cabbage concoction.

Rosa Lvov hadn't seen such tough times since the "bad old days" in 1991. "I never thought it would happen again," she told Levermore.

A couple of days later, Levermore went in search of meat and fresh produce to help out. She went to three markets before finding an expensive rump roast, a couple of eggplants, cabbage and tomatoes.

She brought it to Rosa Lvov. "The look on her face was worth a thousand words," said Levermore. "She spent the evening tenderizing and pounding the meat."

Some of Levermore's contacts compared the severe conditions to the way it was before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. "It's incredibly disturbing with the restlessness of the armed services, the lines to get food and the government actually suggesting that ration coupons may become necessary."

Even more disturbing is the not-so-subtle rise of anti-Semitism on the street and in the media.

Levermore watched a newscast with several other Jews. About 25 minutes were devoted to reporting on the political and economic crisis. The next story covered the lavish opening ceremony of an elaborate new Moscow synagogue. Russian President Boris Yeltsin was in attendance, as was Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who opened the proceedings with a "shalom."

The grand synagogue was funded by the Russian Jewish Congress and its president, businessman Vladimir Goussinsky, who contributed $16 million of his own money.

Levermore said the Jewish viewers had a queasy feeling while watching the broadcast. "We all looked at each other as if we were saying, `That's great' and `Oh my God, that's terrible' at the same time."

The mixed feelings stemmed from the reaction of non-Jews to the "pomp and circumstance" surrounding the opening of a new Jewish institution, juxtaposed with gritty footage chronicling the country's downward spiral.

"We wondered if people would think, `Where do the Jews get off with all this money for a new synagogue?'

"They know well that many of the country's wealthiest bankers and businessmen are Jewish, that many prominent people in government are Jewish and that many Russians are blaming Jews for their country's crisis," she said.

The hostility toward Jews can be felt on the street, added Levermore. Anti-Semitic literature was available at most kiosks.

"I didn't have to look far to see skinheads with swastika armbands distributing leaflets. They would say it's free because they want to get the word out."

Because of such conditions, Israel is anticipating a new wave of immigration. Many Jews who previously decided to remain in the former Soviet Union are seriously considering getting out now.

"They're feeling trapped," said Levermore.

For those like the Lvovs, it would be hard to leave the only culture, family, language, setting and identity they know. They may have had to wait 25 years to move into their meager apartment, just because its central location is in demand. But it is home.

Since Levermore returned to the Bay Area, the council has been trying to bolster its grassroots effort to help struggling Jewish communities in Russia and the Ukraine.

Temple Beth Torah of Fremont is the sister synagogue to the Jewish community in Borovichi; the partnership is spearheaded by congregant Lev Pevzner, a Russian emigre. Borovichi's Jews recently built an ark for the Torah with donations from the Fremont congregation.

"They don't ask for advice. They're kind of beyond that point," Levermore said. "They ask for help. We can't help everyone. But what I'm heartened by is the relationship developing with the Jewish community here."