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Profiles of Russian Jews

Avraham Cohen visits his former Moscow artist's studio on Aug. 17. (Lev Krichevsky)

Avraham Cohen visits his former Moscow artist’s studio on Aug. 17. (Lev Krichevsky)

MOSCOW, Aug. 20 (JTA) — Until 1991, more than seven decades of Communist rule had all but smothered Jewish practice in Russia. In the 12 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, however, a return to Judaism in Russia has begun. Today, community leaders estimate that about 5 percent of the country´s estimated 500,000 to 1 million Jews are religiously observant. How exactly, they got from there to here, are what these stories are about. * * * Anya Sorokina, a graduate student at the Russian State Humanities University, has been teaching Yiddish at her university for five years. "I realized this is what I want to do professionally when I was in my third year of school," Sorokina, 26, says. Her doctoral thesis is devoted to Slavic influences on Yiddish. Her husband, Andrei Andrianov, is a classically trained tenor who earns his living as a private voice teacher and sound engineer. As one of Moscow´s best-known cantors, Andrianov, 34, sings at holiday services at the Choral Synagogue. The couple first met eight years ago at a Hillel seminar in Moscow and married not long thereafter. Six months ago, they had their first son. "I think we are a Jewish family," Sorokina says. "If you define a Jewish family as one that strictly follows the letter of the tradition, then we don´t qualify. Yet, we had our boy circumcised, we are trying to observe Shabbat." Sorokina´s interest in Judaism became serious when she was a junior in college majoring in Jewish studies. "I began to distinguish the days of the week, and to realize that I wasn´t doing something I should probably be doing on Shabbat. That´s when I had this sense of some harmony missing in my life," she says. Now, she says, "If I know that I will have to use transportation on a Shabbat, I would rather not light candles on Friday night at all than to profane this day." "I don´t know where we are going to be as Jews in a few years time, but we are gradually moving to more observance in our family," Sorokina says. The couple says the most important step they have made so far as a Jewish family was to give their son a Jewish name. The boy´s birth certificate lists the name Fayvl, and at his brit milah, or circumcision, he received his double name, Yisroel Fayvl, in memory of two of his great-grandfathers, Andrianov says. The couple believes that by giving their son an undeniably Jewish name they helped perpetuate a religious tradition that was interrupted by communism. Yet they admit this was not an easy step to make. "Of course, this choice of a name was a certain challenge," Sorokina says. "Our own parents and relatives haven´t quite gotten used to it." Their family members keep asking, "What will he be called when he grows up?" Andrianov says. "I hope unlike his grandparents he won´t have this tough dilemma about his Jewish name when he grows up." * * * Alexander Chernov takes special pride in his deep Moscow Jewish roots. He is able to trace his ancestry back to the late 19th century, when only wealthy merchants, skilled craftsmen and retired servicemen were allowed to take up residence in Russia´s capital city. His grandfathers on both sides were merchants, and most of his relatives immigrated to the United States before the Communist Revolution of 1917. Chernov has a degree in Russian language and literature, and while he would have preferred to stay in the teaching profession — perhaps lecturing on Judaism — he works as general manager at a large clothing warehouse in a Moscow suburb. Teaching doesn´t pay very well. Born and raised in an assimilated Jewish family on the outskirts of southern Moscow, he said some of his early memories are Jewish ones. "My very first childhood memory: I´m terribly bored to stand with my grandmother in a long line at the synagogue to get some matzahs," he says. When, the firm Soviet grip on religious life loosened in 1985 for the first time in decades — thanks to the glasnost, or openness, introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev — Chernov, who previously had no interest in Judaism, joined some of his friends in studying Jewish matter. "I started with Hebrew and Yiddish, then went deeper. I´m a curious man, so I began to read a lot on the subject," he says. Later, he attended classes at a Moscow yeshiva. He has been maintaining Orthodox observance of Jewish tradition for eight years now. He keeps a kosher home, prays three times a day and spends at least an hour each day studying traditional Jewish texts. Chernov and his religious friends represent a tiny minority of Russia´s Jewish community. Yet while their numbers are small, an increasing number of young Russian Jews are managing to combine traditional Jewish life with a career outside of the Jewish community. One might even call them modern Orthodox. One of Chernov´s religious Jewish friends is a real estate broker in Moscow, another is an oil executive in Siberia and a third is working for a telecommunications company, for which he commutes weekly between Moscow and southern Russia. "In Moscow or St. Petersburg you can lead a traditional Jewish life, earn enough to feed your family and remain a Jew," Chernov says. Some of Russia´s religious Jews say they have no problem walking the streets of Moscow or riding subways here wearing signs of their Jewishness. But sometimes wearing a yarmulke in public comes with a price tag. Chernov rolls up his pants to show a couple of deep cuts he received in a street fight. "These are the most recent, a month and a half ago," the 34-year-old says. Chernov, who wears a black velvet yarmulke on the street, says he is the subject of anti-Semitic remarks at least once a week. A former amateur weightlifter, he says he has no problem fighting back if necessary. "Those guys attacked me with a stick," he said of his most recent assailants. "It wasn´t the first time, so now I carry a baseball bat in my car." * * * When Alexander Chesakov went to Jerusalem 10 years ago, he visited the Western Wall. He recalls how an Orthodox man approached him and told him that at the wall he could ask for whatever he wanted. "I realized I have nothing to ask for," says the Moscow-born 40-year-old. "I had everything a man would want: money, an interesting job, and an attractive top model girlfriend. The only thing I could ask for was the sense of clarity: Does having all this mean I´m fine?" Chesakov, a successful artist turned television director, had little reason to complain about his life in post-Communist Russia. In the late 1980s, Chesakov, the son of well-known Moscow architects, quickly made a name for himself as an artist. After achieving financial success as an artist, he received a degree in filmmaking and took up a new career as a producer and director of music videos and television commercials. He always knew he was Jewish, but Judaism meant very little to him. During Soviet times, his grandfather was a shamash, or caretaker, in Moscow´s Central Synagogue, but, like most Jewish families at the time, his parents kept their children away from Judaism. Yet they agreed to perform one Jewish custom in memory of his grandfather. "My grandfather died 40 days before I was born, and before he did he asked my parents to get their son circumcised. They did, which was highly unusual for Moscow in 1963," he said. After his visit to Israel, Chesakov said he realized that he was missing one thing in life. "At 30, I came to understand I lacked something I felt I had in my genes: This something was a Jewish family." He said he decided to find out more about Jewish values and tradition. Ten years later, he splits his time between Russia and Jerusalem. He is married to a Russian-born Jewish woman with whom he fathered four children in as many years. Not only did he give up his old career and lifestyle, he changed his name to Avraham Cohen — after his father told him they belonged to the class of Jewish priests. "I moved to Israel with the express purpose of finding a Jewish girl I could marry. I thought I would get married and bring my wife to Moscow." But he was fascinated by life in Jerusalem. He said this fascination, combined with a few people he met there — among them Rabbi Yitzhok Zilber, a leader of the Russian-speaking fervently Orthodox community — made him change his mind. In Israel he learned how to apply his entrepreneurial skills to his new lifestyle. He started a network of evening classes that enlisted young Russian-born rabbinical graduates to teach Jewish tradition to Russian-speaking Jews. Three years later, Toldos Yeshurun, an educational network for Russian-speaking Jews in Israel, boasts about 20 evening schools all over Israel where 300 teachers work with some 1,000 students of all ages and walks of life." He said Judaism gave him harmony and confidence in the kind of future he always wanted to achieve. "When I was in the filmmaking business, I wanted to build a system that would allow my business to work smoothly by itself. As a Jew, I am now living a life that runs as smoothly."