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Across the Former Soviet Union Interviews with Adin Steinsaltz, Talmudic Scholar, Published in Russi

March 10, 2003
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A collection of interviews with a Jerusalem-based talmudic scholar has hit Russian bookstores.

“Conversations With Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz” contains 40 interviews that Moscow-based journalist Mikhail Gorelik conducted with the rabbi. The newspaper columns that the book is based on are published across the former Soviet Union, making Steinsaltz arguably the best-known representative of Judaism to Russians.

The project began in early 1997 when a Moscow newsweekly, Novoe Vremya, agreed to run a column of conversations with a rabbi.

The decision stirred a controversy among the editorial staff of the magazine, known primarily for its strong political analysis, said Alexander Pumpyansky, the magazine’s editor in chief.

“This was a risky project,” he told JTA.

“Some insisted that we should rather give the floor to an Orthodox priest if we decided to run a column by a religious leader.”

Gorelik said he would have preferred to have the rabbi’s column come after a similar column by a cleric from the Christian or Muslim faith, because both of those religions enjoy a much larger following in Russia than Judaism.

But a search for a non-Jewish cleric willing to contribute a regular column that would match the editor’s journalistic criteria was unsuccessful.

The project, originally planned to last for a year, is still running, with several dozen interviews published and reprinted — mostly by Jewish newspapers — across the former Soviet Union.

“To a wide non-Jewish audience, this column is exotic stuff,” says Alexander Frenkel, a leading Russian Jewish bibliographer based in St. Petersburg. “Yet it can be of interest to anyone who is open and has at least some interest in Judaism.”

Steinsaltz, 66, best known for his translations of the Talmud into modern Hebrew, English and Russian, has served as a spiritual leader for Jews in the former Soviet Union since 1995.

He said the goal of the interviews and ultimately of the book was to offer the readers a glimpse into how Judaism sees the world.

“I wanted to have people try to look at the world around them through Jewish eyes, ” he told the guests that attended last Tuesday’s book party at the Moscow Institute for Jewish Studies, the center for Steinsaltz-led educational projects in the former Soviet Union.

The book has it all: conversations about women, money, soccer and wine.

Gorelik said the only thing he avoided was asking direct questions about Judaism, since he assumed that is what Steinsaltz is typically asked about by interviewers.

Despite the nonspiritual choice of topics, the book abounds in biblical and talmudic references as well as historical anecdotes and literary allusions.

Pumpyansky noted that the column, which has become his magazine’s signature style, has generated very little negative or anti-Semitic feedback from the readers — much to the surprise of many observers.

One expert explained the success of the project as stemming from Steinsaltz himself.

“There is hardly any other Jewish writer in Russia today whose spiritual authority and ability to address a general audience would match that of Steinsaltz,” said Semyon Charny, a Moscow journalist covering Jewish topics for both the general and Jewish media.

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