Behind the Headlines: Reading Jewish Literature in Russia No Longer Requires Acts of Espionage

Not long ago, reading and receiving Jewish books in the Soviet Union required an elaborate exercise in espionage.

Refuseniks would make clandestine contacts overseas, visitors would smuggle in the prohibited texts, and finally, in a secret spot, the dangerous and precious literature would be handed over.

Today, all that is required is a quick trip to the local library.

In a stunning turnaround, there are now more than 80 libraries throughout the former Soviet Union that have all or part of their collections devoted to Jewish books. Yiddish poetry, Russian-language Talmuds, Hebrew literature and stacks of information about modern-day Israel fill the bookshelves.

To celebrate this achievement and compare notes for the future, about 70 librarians from these institutions gathered here recently for the first Jewish library conference for the entire former Soviet Union.

The conference was sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which has put library development near the top of its agenda for reviving Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union.

“Jews here read a lot and we figured this was a very effective way of reaching them,” explained Sara Bogen, who oversees the JDC’s library program in the former Soviet Union.

She estimated that the JDC has provided about 250,000 books for libraries here. The philanthropy offers a basic collection of 600 Jewish books, and it also ha developed special collections of children’s books and academic literature.

Still, encouraging people to read Jewish books is only one of the goals of JDC’s library program, Bogen said. In the best of circumstances, libraries can turn into Jewish centers offering meeting places for Yiddish clubs, pensioners groups, theater performances and poetry readings.

In some cities they also serve as a place of worship. In Kiev, for example, the Reform congregation does not have a synagogue, so it holds its weekly Shabbat services in the reading room of one of the city’s Jewish libraries.

This transformation from a place of quiet to a place of community occurs with the help of the library staff, Bogen said.

“If they are friendly and talk to people, show interest, then people start talking,” she said. “If you go to the periphery, there are very few social and cultural opportunities, because things have become very expensive and people don’t go out the way they used to. Libraries can really become a viable place for this social and cultural life, especially for older people.”

This ambitious vision for Jewish libraries was welcomed by the conference participants, who came from Siberia, the Caucasus, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ukraine and elsewhere.

During the conference, participants heard lectures on topics such as Hebrew literature; Jewish holidays and traditions; working with children and school libraries; and the overall situation of Jews in the former Soviet Union.

And beyond the formal meetings were countless informal networking sessions, where the librarians exchanged information, ideas and telephone numbers.

“I traveled the whole country to meet with my colleagues, and it’s wonderful to know they have the same and other problems,” said Lena Yeigel, a district librarian from Birobidjan who oversees a Jewish collection that acquires only a handful of new books every year.

“I wanted to find out how to compile new books for the library,” Yeigel said. “It’s a real question. Now I know how to get books from the Joint and other organizations.”

“The most useful thing has been talking with other people,” added Ludmilla Rogova, who works in a school library with a Jewish books collection in Nalchik, a city in Caucasus region.

“We heard about new poetry and literature we hadn’t known about. This is a tool for working with children, who every day have a growing interest in Jewish studies.”

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