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Across the Former Soviet Union He’s No Geraldo Rivera, but Jewish Anchor is Ukrainian Star

January 15, 2004
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Oleg Rostovtsev is a local celebrity. Strangers approach him on the street here to talk, and when he walked into a local cafe recently, many heads quickly turned in his direction.

Not bad for the anchor of a Jewish television show in Ukraine.

For almost 10 seasons, Rostovtsev, a 38-year-old bearded man who resembles Theodor Herzl, has appeared every week on local television anchoring his show, “Alef: In Our Times.”

In addition to local Jewish news, the program is about Jewish holidays and tradition and devotes much of its air time to international Jewish subjects. Recently, Rosevtsev, who holds hard-line views on Israel, focused on the “Geneva accord” Middle East peace proposal.

The show may be the longest running and most successful Jewish TV project in the former Soviet Union.

“When the show went on air for the first time, it was a shock for many Jews and non-Jews,” he recalls.

His popularity in this industrial city of 1.3 million in eastern Ukraine may come as a surprise to some, given Rostovtsev’s decade-long career as a Jewish journalist.

State-sponsored anti-Semitism in Ukraine is gone now, but many Jews, convinced that deep-seated antipathy toward Jews still exists, remain shy about their roots.

Indeed, Rostovtsev’s father, who emigrated to Israel in the early 1990s, did not approve of his career.

“My father would call me from Israel telling me that I wasn’t fully aware” of what I was doing and where I was doing it, he says.

Rostovtsev holds two university degrees in biology and psychology and hardly ever dreamed of becoming a Jewish journalist. He had wanted to study Russian literature, but his family talked him out of it, believing that as a Jew he would never be admitted to his dream school in what was then Leningrad.

In the 1980s, he got involved in the pro-democracy movement in his native Dnepropetrovsk and later developed a keen interest in Judaism.

After the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine became independent in 1991, Rostovtsev started a Jewish radio program on a local station, the precursor to his current show. He says he wanted to show to both Jews and non-Jews that Judaism is not something to be embarrassed about.

“Little by little people got used to it,” he says.

“If in this city the level of anti-Semitism has decreased, then my program has contributed its small share to this. You may not like nor understand Jews very much, but at least you are not scared of them anymore,” he says.

With just Rostovtsev and his production team of four people, the 30-minute program became one of the most successful locally produced shows, with a weekly audience of 200,000 viewers — roughly 15 times the size of the city’s Jewish community.

The show’s team finds it difficult to explain why non-Jews make up the majority of their audience.

“Whatever we tell about we do it with a close personal attention to those whom we are showing,” offers Irina Polous, the director of Alef. “People certainly like this.”

Rostovtsev himself might be part of the reason for the show’s success — on air, he’s both charismatic and sincere.

Curiosity about Jews — both among ordinary citizens, some of whom may have some Jewish roots, and among anti- Semites — may also account for part of the audience, he says.

Almost every week, the show has some commentary on Israeli news, done by Rostovtsev, and he often goes on air without any accompanying television footage from Israel. The show has only a local cameraman on staff, and it can’t afford to purchase live footage from other companies.

Kirill Danilov, the non-Jewish general manager of Privat TV, the company that releases the program, says over the years the Jewish show has become one of the biggest assets of his company.

“Making this program does make a lot of sense to us, especially in our region where every second person seems to have some Jewish connection,” he says, echoing a popular belief here apparently stemming from a high profile the local Jewish community has maintained in recent years.

The program’s budget, $2,000 a month, is covered by the city Jewish community and other Jewish sources, including local chapters of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Rostovtsev says he is pursuing multiple goals with his program.

“I want this show to help Jews feel connected to the community. This is a community program, and we are participants in the process of building the community,” he says.

He says there are a few things he avoids showing in his program.

“Probably the most important thing is not to stir any conflicts, not to cause anti-Semitism with what we do. I would hardly tell anything about internal Jewish conflicts, should there be any.”

Rostovtsev, who also works as the press secretary of the local Jewish community, added, “Strictly speaking, this isn’t journalism, but I like creating this image of a unified, strong and open Jewish community. My ultimate goal is to help create this positive image of Judaism.”

This openness comes with a price. Although Rostovtsev says the show generates little anti-Semitic feedback, twice he has been personally confronted with violent reactions to his work.

Once he was attacked near his home by a group of Palestinian students who attend college in Dnepropetrovsk and apparently didn’t like the idea of a Jewish television show.

Another time, he had to fight with a local Muslim man who came to get revenge on Rostovtsev for his personal troubles.

“He says he came to kill me. He told me he was married to a Jewish woman — she began to watch my program, divorced him and sent their daughter to a Jewish day school.”

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