A Russian Storybook Romance


It’s the Saturday ritual of Vladimir Kozlov and his granddaughter, Nomi, to snuggle up with a book, but only after Kozlov has gone through it with a dictionary close at hand. That’s because while the two love to read together, they are also study partners.

He is a Russian émigré, and 4-year-old Nomi speaks Russian at home. With picture books, they are helping each other learn English.

About 10 months ago, their Jewish literacy got an extra boost when they were among the first Russian-speaking families to become subscribers to the PJ Library, a program that gives free Jewish books and music to children up to age 8, like “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” and “Dear Tree.”

“In the Soviet Union, we didn’t have access to Judaism or traditions. We’re secular, but the books give us a push,” Kozlov said through an interpreter, adding that when the family celebrated Chanukah this year, they chanted both the blessings and the holiday poems — one for each candle — from a PJ Library book.

Along with the Genesis Philanthropy Group, which funds projects that aim to build Jewish identity among Russian speakers, PJ is conducting a pilot in the heavily Russian Jewish South Brooklyn. The hope is to expand the program to Russians in other cities and even in the former Soviet Union, said Tamar Remz, who runs The Grinspoon Foundation’s New York office.

When the PJ pilot launched last January, 1,500 subscriptions were available, but by June, there was a waiting list of over 800 families. A $54,000 donation from a PJ Library family in Westchester supplied the Brooklyn families on the list with subscriptions. By next month, 2,302 South Brooklyn families will be receiving PJ materials in the mail.

The demand demonstrated a desire for Jewish connection on the part of New York City’s Russian Jews, but for decades, the organized Jewish community and the Russians have struggled to reach other, said Lilly Wajnberg, who runs the Russian Division at the UJA-Federation of New York. After escaping an authoritarian regime, Russians distrusted organizations in any form. The concept of tzedakah was foreign to them as well, because no independent philanthropic sector existed in the former Soviet Union.

Russians are “a demographic that can’t be addressed like any other demographic,” Remz said. They’re also a huge group. The community accounts for about a quarter of the Jews living in metropolitan New York, said Wajnberg.

Russians especially tend to shy away from synagogues, a natural PJ Library partner.

“For Russians, synagogue implies membership and ritual, and these are two things to which they cannot relate,” said Leonard Petlakh, director of the Kings Bay Y, one of the three community organizations that are the PJ Library’s local partners in the Russian community.

That’s where the Kings Bay Y and two other, similar community agencies — the Shorefront Y and the Edith and Carl Marks Jewish Community House — came in.

Kozlov, for example, found out about the PJ Library because he takes English classes at the Marks JCH.

The PJ Library’s emphasis on books also turned out to be a great fit for Russian Jews, said Ilia Salita, executive director of the Genesis Philanthropy Group: “Libraries were always a point of pride for Russian families.”

So now “Beautiful Yetta: The Yiddish Chicken” and “Estie the Mensch” are sitting next to Dr. Zhivago on the Kozlov’s bookshelf, but getting junior Jewish classics into Nomi’s little hands is not the end of the story.

The Kings Bay Y hosted a Chanukah program for PJ families, is expanding ongoing programs to make room for interested PJ families and is using PJ books to start an entirely new program featuring an Israeli educator who sings, reads and puts on puppet shows.

“We have thousands of kids who come swimming [at the Y]; what’s the next step?” said Petlakh. “The book is the entry portal and that enables us to use it as a marketing tool, as an opportunity to get them engaged.”