Dec 14, 2018
On the second floor of the Stanton Street Shul, Himl un Erd [Heaven and Earth], the multi-disciplinary art exhibition by Moscow-born, New York-based artist Yevgeniy Fiks, was celebrating its opening night. Climbing the stairs of the shul, I heard a buzz of voices conversing in Russian, English and, Yiddish. In hosting Fiks’ exhibit, the Stanton Street Shul, a hundred-year-old landmark of Lower East Side Jewish history and culture, functions as a gallery for the very first time. This choice of venue for Himl un Erd, a project that boldly probes the connections between Russian-Jewish history and the Soviet space-exploration projects, struck me as particularly appropriate to the space and its history: Fiks’ exhibition is displayed on the second-floor balcony of the shul, with photographs, objects, and posters hanging above the beautifully preserved sanctuary below, imbuing the exhibit with a sense of mid-air suspension. Though the exhibit opened on a cold and damp Sunday evening, it drew an impressive crowd. Attendees were treated to a lively performance by New York-based Yiddish singer Miryem-Khaye Seigel and accordionist Ilya Shneyveys, featuring some rather obscure Yiddish songs about sputniks and outer space.
Fiks’ Himl un Erd interlaces fact and fiction, as well as artifact and imagination, to create an alternative picture of Russian-Jewish pasts and futures. This reimagining of history relies on an impressive amount of archival research, resulting in a textured and cerebral exhibit. 1 1 Fiks credits Oksana Rosenblum with research for this project. With its arrangement of objects from space suits to doctored photographs, Himl un Erd offers a heady narrative, interweaving Soviet-Jewish culture and identity in the post-WWII period, real and imagined utopias, the Soviet Space Program, and the relationship between natural and artificial languages. The exhibition is conceptually and physically partitioned into three “chapters/narratives,” as Fiks calls them, each structured around a different (male — Soviet Jewish women do not appear in this story) persona from the annals of Soviet-Jewish history. The first chapter, “Cosmopolitans in Space,” is comprised of a series of multilingual propaganda-like posters. It creatively explores the obscure history of AO, a futuristic language of universal communication invented and developed in the 1920s by the Russian-Jewish anarchist, Volf Gordin. The next chapter, “Rootless Cosmonautics”—a play on the antisemitic term “rootless cosmopolitans,” which was used in the Soviet Union to portray Jews as unreliable enemies of the state—is inspired by the life and work of Soviet émigré Ari Sternfeld, a Jewish scientist whose pioneering contributions to the field of astronautics had important implications for the Soviet Space Program. In his memoirs, Sternfeld remembers first pondering the notion of space exploration as a child, during the kiddush levone, the blessing over the new moon, which is traditionally recited outdoors. The final chapter, “Sovetish Cosmos,” centers around the Soviet cosmonaut Boris Volynov, the first Jew to enter space. By bringing these three personages together, as well as the different chapters of Jewish history they reflect, Fiks is attempting, in his own words, to “forge one narrative of futurism based on ideas of universality, secularity, and scientific progress.”
Photographs comprise a significant part of the exhibit, with a row of nine framed pictures lining the wall on one side of the balcony. Some of the photographs are doctored in comical ways. For instance, in one of the photographs, we find Boris Volynov wearing his space suit, his helmet stamped with the Russian acronym of the Soviet Union, CCCP, over which the Yiddish equivalent is superimposed. This reminded me of the scene in Annie Hall, where Alvy Singer imagines how he appears in the mind of Annie’s mother, with a beard and sidelocks. I wondered if Volynov experienced this kind of anxiety of others mentally replacing the CCCP on his helmet with the Yiddish equivalent. In fact, the artist statement mentions that it is widely believed that Volynov’s ethnicity prevented him from becoming the first Soviet citizen cosmonaut to reach space. This was anxiety about Jews in high places at its most literal. But of all the photographs, I was most perplexed by one titled “Gagarin-Aleichem,” featuring a composite face, half Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (who was not Jewish), and half Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. I imagined Tevye (in Chaim Topol’s voice) racking his brain: “what does a Sholem Aleichem have to do with a Yuri Gagarin?” In a similarly confounding juxtaposition, a heartwarming photograph of Rabbi Yehuda Levin (1894–1971), of the Moscow Choral Synagogue, flanked on both sides by two young girls, presumably his daughters, is contrasted with a picture of Yuri Gagarin similarly surrounded by children. By pairing Gagarin with a rabbi and a Yiddish writer, Fiks seems to be asking viewers to theorize the metaphoric Jewishness of the Soviet Space Program itself, rather than the relationship between Jewish cosmonauts and Jewish culture.
On the opposite side of the balcony, a series of seven large posters lines the wall, apparently in dialogue with the photographs. The posters, which are uniform in size and color, contain statements and declarations about (and in) the invented language AO. The letters of AO are a combination of numbers and other symbols. The slogans in each poster are written in a combination of AO and Yiddish, beneath which is a translation provided in Russian and English This arrangement suggests a hierarchy of tongues, with Yiddish and AO positioned“higher” than Russian and English. The Yiddish on the posters is rendered in Soviet-Yiddish orthography, which spells Hebraic words phonetically. The contents of the texts are infused with the irreverent spirit of Russian anarchism and the utopianism of Italian Futurism. Together with his brother Abba, Volf Gordin, the founder of AO, played an important role in organizing anarchist resistance to the Bolsheviks in the years following the October Revolution. One poster instructs that “Students who study and speak the language ‘AO’ are cosmopolites (citizens of the universe) who have expressed the desire to embark on interplanetary travels, similar to how citizens of a country took a risk to ride for the first time ever a steamship, train, hot air balloon, or an airplane.” AO, in both form and content, “should be in accordance with more universal things” and “ in accordance with the world.” Another poster implores: “Boycott natural and nature-derived languages: national, state, and international.” The ethos of AO is derived from a belief about human plasticity (“Create humankind”) and the desirability of global communication (“Speak human, speak AO”). To reflect in language the kind of utopian world he envisioned, Gordin’s AO has no gendered nouns or pronouns; it also dispenses with the genitive case, which answers the question “whose?” 2 2 Michael G. Smith, Rockets and Revolution: A Cultural History of Early Spaceflight (University of Nebraska Press, 2014): 130-131.
While drawing our attention to Boris Volynov and Ari Sternfeld, two Soviet Jews who played significant roles in the Soviet Space Program, Fiks also explores the Jewishness of the Soviet Space Program in other ways. As the artist statement explains, essays written about the Space program appeared in the pages of Sovetish Heymland, the only state-sanctioned Yiddish journal to appear in the USSR in the post-Stalin period. In a glass box stationed alongside the row of photographs, we find an issue of Sovetish Heymland resting atop a book by Ari Sternfeld, as well as a paper satellite made from its Yiddish pages. The assumption here seems to be a characteristically Soviet one: merely describing a phenomenon using a Jewish language imbues it with a kind of ethnic particularism. Fiks offers another variation on this theme in a diagram of a Soviet spacecraft with numbered arrows, explanations of its parts given in Yiddish. Walking through this Soviet Yiddishland, it is easy to forget that most of the Jews involved in the Soviet space program, like most Jews in the USSR in the 1960s, did not read Yiddish and would only have been able to read Sholem Aleichem in Russian translation. And therefore that Sovetish Heymland, which never had a very large readership, would have been similarly unintelligible.
I wondered what purpose this revisionist history serves. One way of answering this question is by shifting the focus to the present. After the collapse of the USSR, massive numbers of Jews left their homes in search of a better, more secure and prosperous future. Most emigrated to Israel, Germany, or the United States. In the decades since they began to put down roots in these new countries, many of these immigrants are renegotiating their post-Soviet Jewish identities. Aspects of this process can be seen in the work of journalist Masha Gessen (who wrote a book about Birobidzhan) as well as the short stories of the Canadian fiction writer David Bezmozgis, Lara Vapnyar’s novels and stories of Russian immigrants trying to make their way in New York, and Gary Shteyngart’s novels and stories. Jewish identity for many Soviet Jews who made Aliyah (which literally translates to “ascent,” and therefore has some ironic significance in the context of Himl un Erd) has become tied up with an aggressive form of Israeli nationalism, embodied in the platform of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. Still others have gravitated towards Orthodox Jewish life. For others, being Jewish is a matter of ethnicity and genetics. Being Jewish for some means prioritizing and valuing higher education and professional achievement.
Situated within this broader conversation, Himl un Erd envisions an alternative post-Soviet Jewish identity, one which is both humanistic and cosmopolitan. The language of this new identity is AO, the anarchist language of interplanetary communication, of freedom from all forms of exploitation and oppression. The identity Fiks presents in his visually captivating exhibit looks forward to a world that is perhaps more like the cosmos, open and borderless, “in accordance with more universal things.” When it looks in the mirror, this identity sees traces of Sholem Aleichem and Yuri Gagarin and Chief Rabbi Levin. It takes inspiration from figures like Boris Volynov and Ari Sternfeld, persons who did not let arbitrary discrimination on earth hinder their desire to reach heaven.