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Across the Former Soviet Union Russian Jewish Teen Samples Torah Studies and Spins Techno

May 24, 2006
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Just two weeks before Russia’s recent May 9 Victory Day celebrations, the Russian city of Volgograd was awash in preparations. As crews hung up posters of World War II soldiers and veterans, stringing red banners across streets and adorning lampposts with Russian flags, Alexander Chizhikov, a student at Volgograd’s Jewish day school, is making preparations of his own.

Alexander is clutching a CD case and reviewing his notes of the songs in his DJ mix in preparation for his graduation from Volgograd’s first DJ school.

At just 15, he is the school’s youngest student, but like everyone else he is expected to perform to a packed audience at one of Volgograd’s premier dance clubs situated on the Volga River.

Alexander’s life has revolved around the Jewish community since he was 8 years old when his older brother first started attending Volgograd’s synagogue. His mother, Inna Chizhikova, has long been an editor at Volgograd’s Jewish newspaper — and he is now a student at Volgograd’s Chabad-run Jewish school.

Around the Jewish community, he is known by his Hebrew name, Josif. But Alexander is not particularly observant. The custom of taking on a Hebrew name is a common practice in Jewish communities formed around Chabad-sponsored Jewish institutions.

But aside from his interests in his Jewish identity, Alexander is trying to find himself as an individual as well — and his struggles with his Jewish and secular identities are similar to those faced by young Russian Jews in cities far from the Jewish centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Broad shouldered and tall — his lack of facial hair is the only thing that gives away his real age — Alexander talks with a measured assurance uncommon for a teenager. .

He entered the world of electronic music less than a year ago after attending a local dance party.

“I come to a club to dance. I do not come there to drink alcohol or take drugs. I dance all night and come out with a smile on my face,” he says.

Alexander explained that he entered the world of being a DJ, or spinning, through his earlier interest in rap and hip-hop cultures.

Until a few months ago he figured prominently in Volgograd’s youth hip-hop circles, composing his own lyrics and performing them around the city’s venues since he was 13. He even was ranked one of the top 10 artists at Volgograd’s StreetArt city festival.

But Alexander’s interest in rap culture began to wane as he realized that people’s lyrics touched on mostly destructive themes.

“People never said anything smart,” he complains.

That is when he began to drift more toward electronic music, which according to him, promotes a more positive message. He now dreams of becoming a professional DJ.

I’m just glad that my son can find the right balance of secular and religious identity, his mother said. “He is not an extreme Chasid, but he is not alone either,” she says, referring to the morals that her son’s Jewish identity instill in him.

She believes that Judaism will help guide Alexander to make the right decisions in life.

Alexander is trying to bridge his Jewish identity to his everyday secular life, but it isn’t easy.

Volgograd, with a population of slightly more than 1 million people, has a Jewish community of only 5,000.

None of his friends in the electronic music scene are Jewish and many have no clue as to what being Jewish means.

Nonetheless, he prides himself on his Torah studies as well as his musical achievements. “In school I enjoy the reputation as one who you can ask” about Torah studies, Alexander says.

Although Russia has seen a rise in hate crimes — with Volgograd believed to have one of most visible neo-Nazi skinhead presences nationwide — Alexander does not see any anti-Semitism in his social circles and does not believe that his openness about his Jewish identity hinders his ability fit into secular Russian life.

“I can walk around in a T-shirt that says ‘Born to be wild in Israel’ and not have any problems,” Alexander told JTA.

Inna Chizhikova pointed out that it is very hard to grow up in a provincial city such as Volgograd. Defeatism, stagnation and drug abuse — mainly stemming from a lack of opportunities and jobs — are a staple in virtually any provincial Russian town.

Many young people, including a few of those attending Alexander’s graduation party, strive to leave Volgograd for a metropolitan center.

For non-Jewish Russians, Moscow is the only logical destination. And Alexander isn’t turned off to the idea of leaving for Israel after finishing school either, especially now that he has learned of a DJ school in Tel Aviv run by trance duo Infected Mushroom. His older brother already made aliyah a few years ago.

But if that doesn’t work out, Alexander is content on staying in Volgograd and continuing his DJ aspirations while studying medicine.

It is not unusual for a 15-year-old kid to have aspirations that reach to the sky. But then it might not be a coincidence that Exodus — which, in part, chronicles the Jews’ fleeing Egypt — is Alexander’s favorite book in the Torah.

“I like it for the message that it gives; that nothing is impossible to achieve,” he said.

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