Moscow Jews Celebrate Purim with Gala in Famous Theater

Moscow Jews celebrated Purim with a gala evening of comedy and song in the capital’s Taganka Theater, on the eve of what promised to be another stormy session of the Russian Congress of People’s Deputies.

But few see the latest showdown between President Boris Yeltsin and his archrival, conservative Parliament speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, as threatening to Russian Jews.

“There is no Haman in the Russian drama,” said Roman Spektor, a top figure in the Vaad, the umbrella body that represents some 200 Jewish communities across Russia. “The political crisis has no Jewish dimension,” he said.

The Purim concert Saturday evening represented in some respects a maturation of Moscow’s Jewish community. It was the first time a Jewish holiday has been marked in one of the capital’s most famous theaters, and it drew hundreds of largely secular Jews, perhaps attracted to the prestige of the venue.

The Taganka Theater gained notoriety for the politically daring productions of its director, Yuri Lubimov, during the Perestroika period.

Lubimov emigrated and settled in Israel a few years ago, but returned last year to renew his leadership of the theater. He now divides his time between Israel and Russia.

The city authorities also recognized the Jewish holiday. Banners declaring “Purim 5753–Svitka (Megillat) Esther!” were hung above several Moscow streets where but a few years ago only Communist slogans were allowed to appear.

The largely non-Zionist program also marked a change from past holiday gatherings. The usual Israeli songs were absent. Instead, the program featured some of Russia’s best-known Jewish entertainers, such as comedian Yefim Shefrin and theater director Mark Rozovski, who performed comedy routines centered around the problems of being Jewish in Russia.

Shefrin’s routine, for example, was about the angst of a Jew whose identity card lists him as an ethnic Russian. Another routine, performed by actors from the Shalom Theater, Moscow’s main Jewish theater, lampooned the bygone era of Communist boss Leonid Brezhnev.

In one exchange, a Jew tells another: “The authorities are banning the show at that theater over there.”

“Really?” comes the eager reply. “Is there anything there to ban?”

The Purim celebration evidenced signs of an emerging maturity, but it also underscored the continued dependence of Russian Jews on foreign financing for community activities. The concert itself was organized and financed by the Jewish Agency for Israel.

The local Jewish Agency representative opened the evening with a strongly Zionist appeal, which was received with polite applause but none of the enthusiasm reserved for the comedy acts.

Of the Jewish Agency officials, one Jewish activist complained. “They don’t treat us like people; they treat us like emigration statistics.”

The activist was expressing a widely felt resentment toward the Jewish Agency’s stress on emigration over Jewish community-building.

“But for the moment, we need them,” sighed the activist, adding in heavily Russian-accented Hebrew, “Chag sameach!”

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