MOSCOW, April 11 (JTA) Olga, a 15-year-old high school student from Kiev, led a Passover seder for her family for the first time this year.
Introducing her two younger brothers to Passover, she sang Hebrew and Yiddish melodies she had learned at Jewish choir classes in Kiev.
“My non-Jewish friends keep wondering what is drawing me to Jewish choir classes in the evenings instead of going to a disco with them. I can’t tell exactly, but probably it is the feeling of being at home and with your own people,” says Olga, who was one of 500 participants from the former Soviet Union and Israel at last week’s Fifth International Jewish Children’s and Youth Art Festival in Moscow.
The three-day event, sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, included performances by choirs, folk dance troupes and theater groups, and a painting exhibition.
Russian civilization always has placed a high value on the arts.
For Russian Jews, this has been doubly true: In addition to imbibing the importance of culture from the general society, they have used the arts as a way of ethnic self-identification, particularly under the Soviet regime, when they faced persecution if they tried to express Jewish identity in religious or national ways.
The famous Moscow State Jewish Theater, headed in the 1930s and 1940s by the great Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels, was the real focus of Russian Jewish life under Stalin. The theater attracted masses of people and served as a kind of Jewish community center.
Stalin’s secret police understood the role of the theater only too well. As a wave of anti-Semitism swept through the Soviet Union in 1948, Mikhoels was killed in a staged road accident, and his theater was closed.
At the beginning of the 1990s, the JDC realized that one way to rebuild Russian Jewish life was through the arts.
Ralph Goldman, now JDC’s honorary vice president, began sponsoring concerts of Jewish music and founded a synagogue choir in Moscow. The choir quickly expanded into today’s Academy of Cantorial Art, headed by Vladimir Pliss, who was the chief organizer of last week’s festival.
Barukh Finkelshtein, chief cantor of St. Petersburg’s Choral Synagogue, says he meets Jews from across the former Soviet Union who ask him where they can study cantorial singing or other arts in order to reconnect with their Jewish roots.
Some of the participants at last week’s festival said efforts to promote Jewish culture can serve to unite Jews across the former Soviet Union.
“Jewish art is not dead,” said Vladimir Neimer, an orchestra conductor from the city of Tashkent, Uzbekistan. “We have to give it an extra impetus, and the potential here is gigantic.”