Palo Alto JCC stages Russian culture retrospective

Twenty years ago, not long after she emigrated from Russia, Roza Lysaya came to the fledgling Russian programs division at Palo Alto’s JCC with an idea.

At the time, the unit provided mostly social services, and Lysaya — who had been a top choreographer in Russia — wanted to teach the children of Russian Jewish immigrants to dance.

“When the kids started to perform for the first time they felt so proud,” said Lysaya’s daughter, Lota Burton. “It was beautiful and charming and important.”

On July 14, the Firebird Dance Studio, which Lysaya started and which Burton has run since her mother’s death 13 years ago, will perform at the 20th anniversary celebration of the Russian department of the Oshman Family JCC, along with 15 or so other groups. The celebration will also include an exhibition of the works of 14 Russian Bay Area artists that will remain on display through Aug. 30.

“Soaring Through the Flame” by Dmitry Yanushkevich

The four-hour show will be composed of 15-minute performances and will be entirely in Russian. Performers include Fantasy Dance Studio; Baby Boomers & Company Theatre Company; Peninsula Song and Poetry Club; Roman Fukshansky, principal clarinetist of the Berkeley Symphony; and designer Natasha Foucault, who will stage a fashion show. The JCC expects between 400 and 600 attendees at the celebration on its Jessica Saal Town Square.

The evening will also include Russian foods and activities for children, and Firebird Dance Studio will feature two generations of performers. Vera Fishman, the JCC’s Russian cultural coordinator, highlighted the night’s intergenerational connections.

“I think the key word is ‘retrospective,’” said Fishman. “We are inviting people and programs who have been the heart of the Russian department over the past 20 years.”

This intergenerational aspect will also be reflected in the art exhibit through the works of Alla Viksne and her son Dmitry Yanushkevich, who is mostly blind and creates images using graphic software.

He believes his limited vision actually helps him as an artist because it allows him to see only the things that are relevant to the creation of his artwork. Five of his pieces will be on display.

“Solo on Cello” by Alla Viksne

Alla Viksne will display four pieces, including a California landscape and a painting of Moscow, both of which she says are inspired by her emigration.

As it had aided Lysaya 20 years ago, the Russian division helped Viksne continue her career in the arts by displaying her work and enabling her to teach art classes.

“It is a wonderful, wonderful community that helped a lot of people,” she said “It’s a center of culture.”

Over time, the division has evolved into more of a cultural institution as the Russian Jewish population became more established and social services such as English classes and legal aid became less needed, according to Fishman.

Burton is pleased that the division has helped preserve Russian culture in the community.

“Our kids are happy Americans, but they’re still very involved in keeping their roots and they know who their grandparents are,” she said. “And that is great. If you know your roots, then you know who you are.”

Celebrating 20 Years of Russian Programming
will take place 6 p.m. July 14 at the Oshman Family JCC’s Jessica Saal Town Square, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. Free. The art exhibit runs through Aug. 30 in the gym lobby and the Cultural Arts Hall. www.paloaltojcc.org.

George Altshuler
George Altshuler

George Altshuler is the rabbinic intern at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. He is on track to be ordained from Hebrew Union College in 2023. In 2012 and 2013, he worked as a calendar editor and staff writer in J.’s newsroom.