Kazan, Russia — When the six members of the Simcha klezmer band hauled their instruments into a dilapidated rehearsal space, no one suspected they were about to hijack a government building in this large, clean city some 450 miles east of Moscow.
But that’s exactly what happened in 1995 when this popular ensemble — founded in 1989 by Jewish musicians during the Soviet Union’s twilight years — entered the Teacher’s House, a government-controlled building that had once been a synagogue. For three years, city officials had pledged to return the structure to the Jewish community.
But the band’s members had had enough of empty promises. Determined to hold the mayor to his word, the players remained barricaded inside for three days as police prepared to storm in.
The standoff ended with the city giving up the synagogue, which it signed over to its 8,000-member Jewish community the following year.
In this part of Russia, near the Ural Mountains that divide Europe from Asia, Simcha has been the linchpin of the Jewish community’s growth and strength and a symbol of the Jews’ determination to maintain their religious and cultural identity amid persecution.
“Many Russian Jewish communities grew to include klezmer bands,” Eduard Tumansky, the band’s current leader, told JTA after a performance in September celebrating the synagogue’s centennial. “But I know of no other klezmer bands besides ours that grew into a Jewish community.”
Violinist Leonid Sonts, who founded Simcha, “used musical activities as a vehicle for building a Jewish community long before open worship became tolerated again in Kazan,” said the city’s Chabad rabbi, Yitzhak Gorelick.
Sonts, who opened a Jewish cultural center, Menorah, in 1987, “used the band to turn musical events into cultural-religious events,” Tumansky recalled. “We performed during the holidays. Before [Kazan’s] Jewish people had a synagogue, they got together at Simcha concerts. Simcha became the engine for Jewish life.
“Simcha was the Jewish community’s main lobbying platform and face,” he said. “So when the Soviet Union collapsed, we already had strong partnerships. Everybody in Kazan knew Simcha.”
Later the community hired a rabbi for its synagogue and built a Jewish school – institutions that took over the task of serving as an axis for Jewish life here. Sonts became the president of Kazan’s Jewish community – a role he maintained until his passing in 2001.
After returning the Teacher’s House, authorities in Kazan have done more than give the Jews a synagogue: They turned it and the community into tourist attractions.
Since 2012, the city has held an annual Jewish music festival around Rosh Hashanah. And last year, the city held a series of Jewish-themed events outside the synagogue, including Kazan’s first Limmud FSU Jewish learning conference and a gathering by Chabad rabbis from across the former Soviet Union.
The events attracted an unlikely mix of secular and religious Jews, who flooded the spacious, red-cobble pedestrian streets of Kazan’s old city, with its mosques and gold-spired Russian Orthodox churches.
Local Jews say they feel safe among the Sunni Muslim majority in the Russian state of Tatarstan, of which Kazan is the capital.
“I regularly put my tefillin on while waiting for the subway in the morning,” said Gershon Ilianski, 16, a student at the Jewish high school here. “I know they have problems with Muslims in Western Europe, but I never worried anyone would bother me here.”
Thirty years ago, however, when Russia was still communist, Jews, Muslims and Christians all needed a non-religious alibi to worship.
“Simcha performed at Purim and Hanukkah parties while camouflaging the religious and communal nature of these events,” Tumansky said. “To the community, the concerts were [seen] as a Jewish event. To authorities, just a musical one.”
Even so, such musical gatherings were not allowed elsewhere in the Soviet Union, where Communist government sought to blur ethnic identities. This policy was less strictly enforced in Kazan, as its population was deeply attached to Islam and its heritage.
“Moscow realized it couldn’t restrict the locals too much on religion and tradition, because there’d be too much alienation,” said Chaim Chesler, founder of the Limmud FSU organization. “The result is an inspiring example of coexistence.”
This atmosphere of relative tolerance in Kazan during the Soviet era attracted hundreds of Jews from other parts of the Soviet Union. At a time when some universities nearer to Moscow barred Jews, they were accepted without problem at Kazan’s institutions of higher education, the Ukraine-born Sonts said in an interview he gave to local media before his death.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Kazan already had a functioning Jewish community — something that would take years to grow in other Russian cities.
This head start has meant that Jewish lay leaders have been able to have a more hands-on approach to developing their community. For example, unlike most other Jewish Russian communities, Kazan employs its Chabad rabbi, Gorelick, full time. Elsewhere in Russia, rabbis often work independently of the community, sometimes competing with its lay leaders for donations from local philanthropists.
Last September, the community celebrated its strength alongside its synagogue’s centennial by rededicating the shul following renovations. Tumansky, wearing his trademark black hat, performed with Simcha’s other five musicians before a crowd of several thousand outside the synagogue.
“It’s true that we are now the sideshow of the community we used to run,” he said of the band. “But then again, that was exactly what we fought for: to have a normal community.”
The concert was unorthodox; while Simcha primarily played klezmer, there were notable electric guitar and country music influences. After each solo, the crowd, a mix of Jews and non-Jews, waved blue and white balloons emblazoned with a Star of David, enthusiastically reacting with whistles and yelps.
“Tell me,” Tumansky told a reporter after the show. “Have you ever seen a Jewish community built on rock and roll?”
Chess isn’t what you’d call a blood sport. Unless, of course, it’s 1972 and your name is Bobby Fischer.
At the time, the face-off between the chess-prodigy from Brooklyn and Russian champ Boris Spassky had the world riveted. And soon, you’ll be able to relive the whole thing on the big screen. Tobey Maguire and Liev Schrieber will star as Fischer and Spassky (respectively) in “Pawn Sacrifice,” a biopic set to hit theaters on September 18.
Directed by Ed Zwick, the film shows the long road leading up to the match, but also seems like it will explore Fischer’s struggle with his inner demons and his mental illness. Though born to a Jewish mother, he was famously obsessed with Hitler and the Third Reich and was outspoken in his hatred for Jews.
Speaking to a radio talk show host in Baguio, the Philippines after the 9/11 attacks, he said: “[I hope] the country will be taken over by the military, they’ll close down all the synagogues, arrest all the Jews, execute hundreds of thousands of Jewish ringleaders”
Fischer died in Iceland — where he moved after renouncing his American citizenship — in 2008.
Watch the trailer below:
Alina Voronina from Moscow poses for the contest
Last week, Vocativ reported that VKontakte, essentially Russia’s version of Facebook, was hosting a Miss Hitler Pageant.
As one would expect, people got a little upset about it.
Hosted on the site’s Adolf Hitler page, the Miss Ostland pageant, as it’s officially known, called on women “who hate Jews” to share their most “sexy Nazi pics” of themselves. Admirers of all things Hitler (the page had 7,000 followers) would then vote for the most beautiful anti-Semite in all the land (to see pictures of the main contenders, click here).
Fortunately, people seemed to have regained their sanity, and the contest has been cancelled. Vocativ reports that the page has been taken down. VKontakte’s head of public relations George Lobushkin told Vocativ that “loading, storing, publishing, disseminating, making available or otherwise using any information which: propagandizes and/or contributes to racial, religious, ethnic hatred or hostility, propagandizes fascism or racial superiority,” violates the site’s Terms of Service.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest Aryan of them all? I guess we’ll never know.
Mikhail Fridman sings Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ in effort to make record books / Russian Jewish Congress
(JTA) — If time really is money, then the song that producer Igor Sandler recorded on Tuesday at his Moscow studio not only will be the longest tune ever released, but may be among the costliest to make.
That’s because the people singing in Sandler’s bid to enter the Guinness Book of World Records database include Russian Jewish billionaires whose time is a pretty expensive commodity.
Still, they convened on Tuesday at the request of the Russian Jewish Congress to record a three-hour-long cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which organizers plan to submit to the editors of the record book under the category: “Longest Officially Released Song.”
Among the vocalists were numerous occupants of the top slots on Forbes’ list of Russian billionaires, including Mikhail Fridman, co-owner of the Alfa Group — the biggest financial and industrial investment group in Russia. Forbes ranked him Russia’s second-richest man last year, when his fortune was estimated at $16.5 billion. Since then, that figure has climbed to $18.5 billion.
Also singing was Boris Mints, the owner of investment company O1 Properties as well as wealthy Jewish businessmen like German Zakharyan; Yuri Kokush and RJC President Yuri Kanner — himself no pauper.
Titled “Musical Marathon 5775,” the project is expected to generate a final product in time for Rosh Hashanah. It will feature the voices of more than 150 Russian Jewish celebrities, such as actress Klara Novikova, composer Alexander Zhurbin, actor Leonid Kanevsky and political scientist Igor Bunin. In total, RJC and Igor Sandler Productions plan to integrate the voices of 5,775 singers in the tune — enough, the organization says, to break the world record for number of vocalists on a single track.
Spotted: A mannequin dressed as a Holocaust victim on display at L.A. Jock in West Hollywood, California. Oy.
But there’s more to the striped uniform and yellow star than meets the eye.
The display is meant as a symbol of protest ahead of a rally tomorrow against Russian president Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay policies, according to Racked.com.
“Putin’s Russia is Hitler’s Germany,” the store manager told Racked.
Nir Zilberman, the store’s Israeli owner who decided to put up the mannequin, is reportedly the descendant of survivors; his great grandparents were killed in the Holocaust.
“This isn’t supposed to be offensive, this is part of our history, and it sends a very clear message to stop the hate,” Zilberman was quoted saying.
The Russian government has been the target of harsh criticism in recent years for its anti-gay policies, with some arguing that the Sochi Olympics, held this month in Russia, should be boycotted. Hate crimes directed against gays have surged in recent years.
Some, however, found the mannequin display offensive, Racked reported.
“[It’s] more shocking and in poor taste” a reader told racked. “I’m just puzzled why a visual merchandiser would go that route.”
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