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Ansky, Pushkin’s Nanny and the Revival Of Jewish Life in St. Petersburg

The roomful of stunning photographs currently on display in Russia at the European University at St. Petersburg is dedicated to the theme of “Jewish Children.” It is triply wondrous: first, on account of the European University itself, one of several funded by George Soros in the former Soviet empire; second, on account of the artistic quality of the photos taken by 20-year-old Samuel Yudovin, who was hired in 1911 by his uncle, Shloyme-Zanvl Rapoport — alias S. Ansky — as staff photographer of the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition, and third, because of the exhibit’s overall conception. Each black-and-white panel not only illustrates another aspect of the life of Jewish children in the Ukrainian (or southeastern) part of the Pale of Settlement, but is also accompanied by colorful and imaginative artwork done by children currently enrolled in one of St. Petersburg’s seven Jewish schools.

Halfway through the exhibit, one comes upon what appear to be mug shots of contrasting Jewish women: one, an old crone with a traditional head covering; the other, a smiling young woman in a nurse’s cap. Going well beyond his mandate, Ansky — best known as the author of “The Dybbuk” and as revolutionary ethnographer nonpareil — had commissioned these photos for a specific purpose: He believed that the Russian-speaking haute bourgeoisie of St. Petersburg, cut off as they were from their rich Jewish heritage, ought to consider hiring Jewish nannies for their children. Pushkin, after all, had imbibed Russian folk culture not from his French-speaking mother but from his Russian-speaking nanny, the famed Arina Rodionovna. By the same token, Ansky urged the members of the thoroughly acculturated St. Petersburg Jewish elite to “import” a Yiddish-speaking nanny from the Ukrainian outback. Properly employed, who knew what modern-but-authentic Jewish folk culture these women might nurture in the next generation of Russian-speaking youth!

Although nothing came of this cockamamie plan; although Ansky himself was never fated to have any children, Russian-speaking or otherwise, and although he was forced to abandon St. Petersburg, the city of his dreams, after the Bolshevik seizure of power, a handful of his spiritual heirs have resuscitated Ansky’s romantic nationalism — his idea of a secular Jewish culture rooted in the idiom of the folk.

Back in the 1980s, they called themselves “Kulturniks” (as distinct from “Refuseniks,” those who risked all to immigrate to Israel), and their formative group activities were expeditions during the summer months to former shtetls in Ukraine. Once so redolent of Jewish and mystical lore, these were the very towns and townlets that Ansky and his team had mined for their folk tales, folk songs, Purim plays, folk beliefs, manuscripts and material culture. What was left to excavate after the multiple devastations of the First World War, the Civil War, the forced collectivization, the Great Famine and the mobile killing units of the German army, whose job it was to murder the entire Jewish civilian population? More than anyone expected. By interviewing local Ukrainians and Jews, by studying the surviving tombstones and synagogue ruins, by mapping the topography, by literally leaving no stone unturned, these young university graduates from Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was then known) began piecing together the history, architecture and ethnography of town after town after town. When not in the field, our latter-day Anskys studied Hebrew and Yiddish as best they could. By the time I met one of their number, Valery Dymshits, in 1999 at the Oxford Institute for Yiddish Studies, he proudly displayed a Russian-language guidebook to the first crop of Ukrainian shtetls. The second volume would document another hundred.

In addition to reclaiming the lost Ukrainian shtetl, a powerful source of group identity was pride of place. Those Kulturniks who chose not to immigrate to Israel or America were intent on restoring the cultural pre-eminence of St. Petersburg over its upstart, brash and powerful rival — Moscow. Precisely because Moscow was home to the oligarchs, the Russian Jewish Congress and the flagship Chabad Center; because 80% of the money and 100% of the intrigue were centered there, St. Petersburg could be rebuilt at a much slower pace, from the bottom up. Yes, Moscow had the Kremlin and the “White House,” but St. Petersburg had the Hermitage, the incomparable Russian Museum, Pushkin and Dostoevsky, Blok and Brodsky, the canals, the Bronze Horseman and the White Nights.

Exactly 10 years ago, Alek Frenkel, leading Kulturnik, promoter of modern art and founder-director of the Jewish Community Center of St. Petersburg, came up with the idea of a klezmer revival. Michael (Meyshke) Alpert of Kapelye fame was invited to teach a master class to a select group of trained musicians who had never heard, or even heard of, klezmer music before. The class culminated in the first-ever public performance of klezmer music, a revelatory event. All this was done — and repeated, year after year — on a shoestring, and Klezfest is now a permanent feature of St. Petersburg’s cultural calendar. Not to be outdone, the Russian Jewish Congress has just funded a klezmer extravaganza for Moscow. No more will Alpert sleep on the couch in Alla Sokolova’s midtown apartment, in a building where Tchaikovsky, Moussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov once lived. Instead, he will be put up in a luxury hotel — he and every other klezmer musician and performer that money can buy. But as Frenkel will tell you, bigger won’t be better.

Buttressing their pride of place is pride of origin. For while the vast majority of Moscow Jews traced their roots to the shtetls of Ukraine, the Jews of St. Petersburg, then as now, are Litvaks, hailing from one of two northeastern gubernias (provinces) in the former Pale: Vitebsk and Mogilev. (Everyone knows that Litvaks are superior beings, while Ukraine is a nice place to go slumming but you wouldn’t want to live there.) A generation later, Anatoli Kaplan (1902-1980) carried on the Litvak connection exemplified by Vitebsk-born Ansky. Kaplan’s second retrospective at the Russian Museum in 2005 revealed a world-class artist of extraordinary range. He was born and raised in the Belorussian shtetl of Rogachov, where his father was a butcher. Following in the footsteps of all ambitious young Jews from the Belorussian shtetl, 20-year-old Kaplan arrived in St. Petersburg, renamed Petrograd, where he entered the Academy of Sciences’ Faculty of Painting. Each week, the class was taken to the Hermitage to study the French masters, even as Kaplan’s teachers encouraged experimentation in different styles and media. A decade later Leningrad became the experimental center for lithography, Kaplan’s medium of choice. But every summer he returned to Rogachov to sketch the houses, the marketplace with its modest memorial to the Civil War, the synagogue, the goats, the young lovers, the old timers — even the furniture. “The sun was always shining in Rogachov,” Dymshits explained to us of a Saturday afternoon as he took us through some of the 7,000 works of Kaplan that are now in private hands: a vast collection of paintings, graphics, ceramics, glassware and sculpture that took Dymshits and two assistants a full year to catalog.

Most of what Kaplan is known for was produced — miraculously — during the final 30 years of his life, and Rogachov informs all of it, whether called by its name or re-cloaked as Sholom Aleichem’s “Kasrilevke” or “Anatevka.” The sun is always shining there because, as Dymshits explained, the shtetl became for Kaplan a symbol of the eternal past. However, if you scratch the sentimental surface and look more carefully at Kaplan’s neoprimitivist landscapes and illustrations to Yiddish folksongs, what you also see are animals copulating, a little boy pissing into a potty and tombstone inscriptions that read (in Yiddish) Bloodsucker, Schnorrer, Beggar. The zany color combinations of Kaplan’s mature work signal an artistic sensibility at once reverential and subversive; in short, a true heir of Ansky.

Thus the Jewish cultural revival in St. Petersburg is built on a triptych of shtetl lore, high art and Yiddish that do Ansky proud.

It was Yiddish that brought me back to St. Petersburg for winter break. St. Petersburg Judaica, as the Jewish studies program at the European University calls itself, invited me to teach a master class in American Yiddish poetry. And so I did, for three hours — in Yiddish — in the poetry of Zishe Landau (1889-1937), a founder of Di Yunge, the Yiddish Aestheticists. My students were especially fond of this group for two reasons: because they transformed modern Yiddish poetry in the spirit of Russian Symbolism, and because they had a special affinity for Yiddish folksong and for Hasidism. Landau believed that the only untainted poetic language was the language of Yiddish folk lyric and of Yiddish petitionary prayers for women.

The next day, Friday, I delivered a public lecture in English on the revival of Jewish folk arts in the 20th century. I called it “the art of creative betrayal.” This was followed by the blessings over wine and challah, a do-it-yourself meal, an unending supply of Ukranian Nemiroff vodka (seasoned with red pepper) and four hours of Yiddish song. Although I was cast in the role of Rebbe-for-the-Night, the songfest was actually led by Nastia Smetanina and her choral group, who work out of Frenkel’s JCC. Not all the members are Jewish, but could they ever sing. And what a repertoire! Everything from a Ukrainian-Hebrew-Yiddish Cantonist song of the 1830s to a new Yiddish love song composed by New Yorker Josh Waletzky. The mixed-language song from the Cantonist era, which, it turns out, they had learned from Michael Alpert, especially intrigued me. He had heard it on a CD, which was recently released in Kiev and transposed from fieldwork recordings made on wax cylinders circa 1914 by Joel Engel, another member of Ansky’s brilliant team. In my lecture just a few hours before, I had made the case that Ansky and other “first-generation rebels” of his time had taken a circuitous route home, back to the sources of their own culture. So, too, I now realized, had the Yiddish folk singers and Kulturniks of St. Petersburg.

Dymshits and his colleagues have many ambitious plans: to issue the 300 Yudovin photographs in a bilingual catalog; to send Kaplan’s private collection on a traveling exhibition; to issue a Yiddish CD; to publish new Russian translations of Yiddish poetry; to complete the ethnographic guide to Jewish Ukraine. There is fervent hope of uniting all the ethnographic holdings in St. Petersburg in a Jewish museum, the very museum that Ansky had envisioned.

The revival of Jewish life in St. Petersburg began in the early years of Glasnost and has proceeded apace. As in Ansky’s day, political, social and demographic upheaval are the coin of the realm. Inspired by his example, the committed few are rebuilding a Jewish cultural life — around social service agencies, schools, choirs, klezfests, exhibits, field trips, lectures, publications and scholarly research — in the hope that someday, Russia will become truly free.

David G. Roskies, a Litvak, teaches literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Recently he completed “The Last Yiddish Novel: A Memoir,” which is fervently looking for a publisher.

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