Moscow’s Yiddish Center: An Interview with Lyubov Lavrova and Olga Vinogradova

Tova Benjamin

Almost a century ago, Dovid Bergelson wrote scornfully that the United States was too full of “moneyed Jews” with a “self-interested tendency towards assimilation” to become a true Yiddish cultural center. In his 1926 essay “Three centers,” Bergelson similarly dismissed Poland, the second hub of modern Yiddish culture, as too “conservative religious.” Of the three potential centers he identified, the Yiddish writer only held out hope for the Soviet Union. The Jewish future of the Soviet Union, Bergelson declared, was “bright and glowing.” In his view, it was the “only country” that gave Jews equality “not solely on paper, but with an iron hand.” For Bergelson, the effect of this was a “new Jewish artist,” which, he predicted, would lead to a slow but steady renewal of Yiddish culture. 1 1 Bergelson, David, “Three Centres (Characteristics),” pp. 345-355, trans. Joseph Sherman, in Bergelson’s Literary Theory, ed.

Three decades after Bergelson proclaimed his high hopes for Soviet Yiddish culture, the Soviet state murdered him along with many other Yiddish poets, writers, and members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. In the postwar period, Moscow’s hopeful Yiddish culture was reduced to Sovetish Heymland, the single surviving Yiddish journal in the late Soviet period, edited by the poet, journalist, and publicist, Aron Vergelis. Now, almost thirty years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, one can find Vergelis’ papers in the Jewish Museum of Moscow’s library collections. The Jewish Museum was built in 2011 right near Moscow’s center, in the former Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage, one of the early Soviet examples of an avant-garde architectural design for an industrial space. The museum first made headlines when Putin donated a month of his salary to its construction, and then again when the Schneersohn Library archive was transferred there, and Chabad in the U.S. sued Russia for $44 million, demanding a return of the materials. In the early Soviet period, Bergelson envisioned Jewish farming villages and workshops filled with Jewish craftsmen, built on the ruins of the shtetlekh. Post-Soviet Jewish life, however, has a more religious tone. The complex of the old bus garage is like a little shtetl in itself: the museum sits beside a kosher supermarket, a Jewish hospital, and a yeshiva.

Jewish life in 21st century Moscow attracts an amount of attention disproportionate to the number of Jews actually living there today, both because of the large Jewish population Russia had before the war and the Soviet Union’s collapse, and because of the long, painful history of Jewish life in Russia. The Jewish Museum of Moscow is one example of “Jewish life” that has been held up as an instance of “Jewish renewal” in the post-Soviet landscape. For many American Jews, the idea of “Jewish life” in Moscow is something of a wonder. This American Jewish fascination with Russia both reflects a limited definition of what Jewishness is (Soviet Jewishness being more secular and cultural in tone), and also speaks to the tangled history of American and Soviet Jews. 2 2 For more on the secular and cultural tone of Soviet Jewishness, see the work of Anna Shternshis, including Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939. During the decades of the Cold War, Jewish culture became a central part of U.S.-Soviet relations: thousands of American Jews employed the anti-Soviet rhetoric of the Cold War to demand their government pressure the Soviet Union to ensure “freedom of religious practice” and “Jewish cultural freedom.” These efforts were not always synchronous with the reality for Soviet Jews on the ground, but found supporters in senators and conservative presidents like Ronald Reagan.

This past fall, I traveled to Russia as part of the Jewish Museum of Moscow’s newly established fellowship program, where I had the chance to explore the museum’s exhibitions and libraries. The museum’s entrance features a 4-D video of “Jewish history” that begins with the biblical story, complete with a small drizzle from the slick movie theatre ceiling during the tale of Noah and the ark. Notwithstanding this religiously inflected and ahistorical introduction, the museum’s collections are incredible: a New York-based firm designed the innovative, interpretive exhibits, and a team of scholars advised on the museum’s narrative, which tells a story of Jewish and Soviet history that most Russians—let alone Americans—simply wouldn’t be familiar with. 3 3 For more about the scholarly debate surrounding the museum, see: Olga Gershenson, “The Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow: Judaism for the Masses,” East European Jewish Affairs 45, nos 2–3 (2015): 158–73; and Benjamin Nathans (2016) “Benjamin Nathans responds to Olga Gershenson’s “The Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow: Judaism for the masses,” East European Jewish Affairs, 46:2, 213-216, and Oleg Budnitskii (2016) “Oleg Budnitskii responds to Olga Gershenson’s “The Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow: Judaism for the masses,” East European Jewish Affairs, 46:2, 211-213. It was there I met one of the museum’s librarians, Lyubov Lavrova, who, together with Olga Vinogradova, a Moscow-based PhD student of Soviet-Yiddish literature, pioneered their own spin on the classic Yiddish reading group: a leyen krayz where participants not only read Yiddish literature together, but are invited to bring their family letters in handwritten Yiddish for collective decoding. The Museum’s research institute (currently headed by Svetlana Amosova) is in the process of putting together an archive of such Yiddish letters, collected and donated from Russian Jews’ family belongings.

At the first meeting I attended, a decent group of Yiddish speakers gathered, and, at the second meeting (advertised on Facebook), a middle-aged man with no knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet showed up. He came, he said, because his ancestors spoke Yiddish, and he listened to the conversation with a quiet bewilderment. In the several months since, the krayz has regularly hosted “handwriting labs,” reading circles, and visiting scholars, like Mikhail Krutikov from the University of Michigan.

When I asked Olga and Lyuba to do an interview with me for In geveb about their leyen krayz these two subtexts were at play: the history of Bergelson’s “new Jewish artist” and the subsequent suppression of Jewish culture in Moscow, and the significance of Yiddish in a post-Soviet space. The conversation, however, took many turns: from the similarities in structure between Russian and Yiddish, to first encounters with the Yiddish language, to Moscow-St. Petersburg rivalries. Though Yiddish has always been a transnational language, regional differences still play a role. A North American reference point may be Chaim Grade, Sholem Asch, or the Singer brothers, while in Russia it may be Moyshe Kulbak. Of course Sholem Aleichem transcends any Yiddish regionalism. Since my leaving Moscow in December, we’ve continued some points of discussion over email, edited and condensed below.

Tova Benjamin: Let’s start with Olga. Can you tell me a bit about yourself, where you’re from, and the kind of work you are doing now around Yiddish?

Olga Vinogradova: Sure. I teach at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow and I currently study Soviet culture and literature. It was definitely an unexpected decision to do my [comparative literature masters’] degree in Yiddish literature, because [Yiddish literature] was something that was here [in Russia] and connected to Soviet culture, but it’s not very visible. There are people [writers] who are usually considered to be a part of Soviet Russian-language culture, but their Yiddish cultural background is not widely known or taken into account. Or, if it is known, it’s not explored. That is the case of the Soviet poet I study named Shike Driz (known in Russian as Ovsei Driz). He became very popular in the USSR in the 1960s when he himself was already in his fifties. Everybody knows the poetry he wrote for children, [but only] in Russian translations. His children’s books were printed—hundreds of thousands of copies—and these translations are a part of Soviet children’s culture. But he had been writing in Yiddish since the 1930s and he had strong connections with pre-war Yiddish modernist literature, such as the Kultur-Lige. In my research, I try to see what exactly the role of Yiddish was in all of this, and what he and his translators had to do with his works and his literary image to make the texts thrive in Soviet mass culture.

Tova Benjamin: Lyuba, can you tell me about yourself?

Lyuba Lavrova: I’ve been the librarian here for about a year and a half, since May of 2018. I started studying Hebrew first, on my own, around 2015, and then I joined the Israeli cultural center in Moscow to improve my knowledge. After that I did a series of online seminars with the online university Sefer. About two years ago, I began to study Yiddish with Alexandra (Sasha) Polyan, who is involved with the Institute of Asian and African Studies (IAAS) After I completed the course with her I started to think, Okay, well, what next? What now? and I fortuitously saw the vacancy for a position as a librarian for the Jewish Museum in Moscow.

TB: Can you tell us a little bit about the library?

LL: At the moment we have about 4,500 editions, which is not a lot. About a quarter of that is Aaron Verglis’ collection, which was donated to us by his widow Yevgeniya after his death. The rest of the books came from different sources, like the Jewish community center in Moscow, some yeshivas in Moscow, and some private donations. We’ve also made some purchases. The main theme the library is organized around is the history of Jews in Russia, in the Russian Empire, and in the former USSR.

TB: The Schneersohn collection is also housed here on the museum site—does your library have any relationship to this collection? What are the differences between your library and this collection?

LL: That’s actually a different library—it is the most famous one, but we just share a building with them. They are our neighbors and colleagues, but [they’re] not connected to this library; we are separate collections.

The Schneersohn library is the collection of the famous Rabbi Schneerson, and Svetlana Amosova is in charge of some of the projects there. But in general, the Schneersohn collection is comprised of books as well as archives. One of the projects we collaborate on is deciphering the archival documents, and then some of the findings are published on the museum’s research center webpage. Currently this collection is undergoing renovations, but before the renovation they used to have a lot of Hasidic delegations that would come and do excursions. The financing for this collection comes from a sponsor who also sponsors the museum and the museum’s research projects, so that’s what we have in common. As for the library here, we are still developing, and we are trying to attract a bit of a bigger audience. It helps to have fellowships and researchers who come here and use the collection.

TB: How did the two of you come into contact to organize this leyen krayz? Where did the idea of starting a Yiddish reading circle at the museum come from?

LL: Alexandra Polyan actually recommended Olga to us—because we are both her former students. I wanted to start a reading group in Yiddish and develop Yiddish programming here at the museum.

TB: Growing up in Russia and living in Moscow now—how did you first hear about Yiddish, and how did people talk about it? What were your first interactions with the language before studying it?

OV: None [laughs]. Actually, people in Russia don’t often know the difference between Hebrew and Yiddish. When I say “Yiddish” they think I mean Hebrew.

TB: People are often shocked when I say Yiddish is of Germanic origin. It’s probably because the letters are the same as Hebrew characters.

OV: But all Russian speakers have some knowledge of Yiddish without realizing it, because of some [Yiddish] words and some phrases in Russian—

TB: Do you want to give some examples?

LL: Some of them are quite obscene [laughs].

OV: Like shlimazel, which you can hear in certain circles, but it isn’t very widespread. There should be some criminal jargon—I can email you those when I think of them later. 4 4 From Olga over email: My latest discovery is хо́хма—it is quite a common synonym of a ‘joke’ (шутка), just a bit more specific and colloquial. I had an insight that it is the same with חכמה just a week ago, [but I] never thought to look for non-Russian origin before.” And from Lyuba: A number of examples pertain to jail jargon and according to some versions are derived from Yiddish. For example, “shmon”—a check-up of inmates’ belongings and, in a broader sense, a sudden check up anywhere, is derived from “shmone”—8, when standard check-ups were conducted in jail. Clearly it’s Hebraic borrowed into Yiddish and then into Russian. Then “ksiva” which stands for a document, sometimes false, sometimes real but used pejoratively, is derived from “ksav”, again with the same etymology. In fact, there are a number of articles specifically on how Yiddish words were borrowed into Russian jail jargon and afterwards general usage. Then there is the swear word “pots,” to speak pejoratively of a person. I am not sure how much it is understood by most Russians, though. Another example is the word “nishtyak”. Recently I have read that it may be derived from Yiddish “nisht”. It has several meanings. One of them is innocent and is used in contemporary Russian for nice or tasty things or bonuses, etc. Sometimes it is a rather meaningless interjection like “wow.” But in jail jargon it had a coarse physiological meaning and was used to name the space or body part between anus and vagina. I hadn’t known the latter meaning but read about it in a post of a shocked priest who came across it in an ad for a chain restaurant which clearly advertised tasty things. One more verb is “shmukovat,” clearly coming from “shmuk,” the male organ. It means to cheat on someone or steal something. Again, it was largely used in my family but I’m not sure to what extent Russians outside Jewish families will understand that. Then there is “shakher-makher” meaning some cheating, some underground unfair dealings, etc. Not a word, but a popular word formation model is the one like in “umer-shmumer” — a repetition of the same root with a shm- added to the second. It gives an ironical touch to the speech. Some culinary words like “tsimes” about something tasty, good, the essence of something, or some pleasure. And “ryba-fish” or “gefilte fish” which directly means the dish and is understood by everyone. Exclamatory words like “oy-vey” and “azokhnvey” expressing shock, sadness, etc., sometimes ironically. I think they are understood also outside Jewish circles, even if they may be not broadly used. [Ed. note: Olga, as well as Lyuba, emailed an extensive list, which you can read in the footnote above.]

LL: Gesheft, maybe.

OV: Oh, yeah, gesheft.

LL: It’s difficult to tell now because I’m in the circles where people are more likely to mix Yiddish with their Russian.

TB: Gesheft is interesting—does that suggest an association between business and Jews?

OV: I think gesheft in Russian is like khitrost [slyness or cunning], kind of dirty business. I don’t know if people realize that it is a Yiddish word. But it does have a kind of negative connotation.

TB: You say most Russians know Yiddish before they realize it, but then how did you, Olga, hear about it to the point that you’re now focusing on Yiddish literature for a PhD?

OV: Probably through my encounter with Soviet writers and going deep into that culture. Also seeing their literary circles, and through that discovering they wrote in other languages. I was studying a Moscow literary underground group of the 1960-70s known as the “Lianozovo group” and understood that a Jewish cultural background and the Yiddish language was important for most of its members (though for each writer in a different way).

TB: And what about you, Lyuba?

LL: My father is Jewish, but the family was totally assimilated. I barely remember my father’s grandparents because they died when I was two and a half. I have a few memories [of Yiddish]. My uncle on my father’s side was from a Jewish shtetl in Ukraine and he spoke Yiddish, but I remember just one situation and one phrase: when I was 12, we came to see him and my aunt, and he wrote something on a napkin that I couldn’t understand, and looking at me he said zi a sheyne, and he translated it for me. And I got interested [in this language he was speaking]. Much later, I found a letter in my father’s belongings. I think it was either my grandparents’ ketubah, or a statement from a marriage book, in Hebrew or Aramaic. I went to a rabbi, and he helped me decipher the names of my family, and even told me the names of my great-grandparents, which I didn’t know. That’s when I began to study Hebrew, and then my knowledge of German helped as well when I turned to Yiddish.

TB: Last week at the reading circle we were reading a story in Yiddish, but there were so many words everyone in the group was already familiar with, because they were similar to, or shared roots with, familiar Russian words. So often when I’m at a leyen krayz or Yiddish classroom it’s in a U.S. setting where people don’t usually have context for those words with Slavic language roots. As Russian speakers, what is it like to encounter the words transmuting or changing from Russian or Ukrainian into Yiddish? Also, do you think there are similarities of structure, at the sentence level, or grammatically, in Russian, that help you with Yiddish-language learning? As a point of comparison, when I started learning Russian, I found that I couldn’t use my English as a framework for speaking in Russian, but it’s so much easier to speak when I think in Yiddish.

OV: Because the structures are so similar!

TB: Yes! I think so. For a simple example, the Yiddish expression es gefelt mir being similar to the structure of the Russian mne nravitsya, or the cases of nouns. I also find that the word order you might use in Russian feels more intuitive when you’re thinking in Yiddish.

OV: Yiddish contains so many different language origins, and [that fact] makes it very beautiful and nice to learn. I’ve seen it so many times that when people start to learn the language they just can’t stop, and I think it is because of that—because it can be something completely different and [at the same time] it can be something you have known for ages. You meet everything there [in the language] and it sounds strange and nice in a good way. For example, I know this expression, di gutinke nakht [good night] from a wonderful song called Reb Motenyu (actually one of my favorite songs in Yiddish).

TB: Is that like meeting an old friend in a new context?

OV: A little bit, but it is also a linguistic adventure because you take a German word and add a Slavic diminutive suffix, which makes it sound (for Russian language speakers) very familiar and peculiar at the same time. Also, you wouldn’t use the same suffix in Russian, you don’t say “good night” like that with a diminutive suffix at the end—you wouldn’t say dobren’kaya noch. It’s something that is only possible in Yiddish.

LL: But you do say spokoynoy nochi [in Russian].

TB: I guess that would translate to sweet dreams, or literally, “a calm night.”

OV: Yes, but you wouldn’t say “spokoynen’koy”! In Yiddish you can take a Russian suffix and create this really tender expression. I really think it is a linguistic wonder. There’s also something about the language where you can see all these other languages—because actually they are not Russian words, more often there are words from Ukrainian and there are some Polish words…there is simply so much history in the language. It’s very interesting. I don’t have similar experiences with other languages I know, like English, and German.

LL: With verbs there are some similarities, like [the Yiddish] ibergeben, [and the Russian] Peredat

TB: Right, perfective and imperfective verbs in Russian can be super difficult for English speakers learning Russian. But if you understand the Yiddish verb system the Russian verb system is a little less complicated, and maybe vice versa. To access a Russian verb, I always think through the Yiddish one.

OV: Yes, in Yiddish there’s also the “der,” for completing the action to the end.

TB: There’s vargn, to choke, and then dervargn, to choke until death or suffocate.

LL: Being a Russian speaker is helpful when learning Yiddish but sometimes it is also confusing because some of the roots are not the same. Like the Yiddish word for strange, modne, which in Russian means fashionable.

TB: You can say “mod” for fashion in Yiddish as well, but yeah, modne is just “strange.” Where is the word modne from? I’ve never thought about this word.

LL: In Russian it just means fashionable.

OV: And it’s not from German. Modne vort. [Laughs]

TB: We’ll have to ask a linguist.

LL: There are many such examples for Russian speakers. And then speaking German is sometimes helpful and not helpful. Sometimes I’ll try and insert the “frame” construction [from] and the syntax and put the verb in the last place like in German. In Yiddish you can’t do that. Sometimes I don’t understand these idiomatic things. I have this theory that there is some passive aggression in the language. Don’t take offense—

TB: [Laughing] Absolutely none taken.

LL: Sometimes I take for granted the parts of the language that are easily accessible through German, or Russian, say, but then there are times when it feels like the language [Yiddish] is playing a joke on you. Some proverbs are very difficult to understand without a teacher to explain the context or history.

TB: Do you want to talk about the field of Yiddish studies here as either of you see it?

OV: I went to a very wonderful summer school in Lviv, organized by The Center for Urban History of East Central Europe. It was focused on Jewish history but also on contemporary memory practices. We discussed Jewish heritage today and ways to display the past in modern museums. There were professors from all over the world and young scholars from Eastern Europe. One of the best things about learning Yiddish is that I meet so many people from Ukraine, from Poland, from America, from Belarus. Not all of them [are] working in Jewish Studies either. And then I did the Yiddish language program at Tel Aviv University—

TB: Oh, I did that program too!

OV: My Yiddish connections are more through these summer programs than from Moscow, specifically. I know Sasha Polyan and she’s a brilliant linguist, and there’s the Budnitski center here which deals with Jewish history. The Sefer center in Moscow is very important as well.

TB: It’s interesting that you say your Yiddish connections happen through summer programs, because I think that’s the case for a lot of people who are studying Yiddish or work in Yiddish/Jewish studies. Which isn’t the same for the other fields I’m in, for example. My Russian language programs are not the places where I meet my colleagues in Russian Jewish history (instead I meet people in the U.S. military). I’m thinking now about how important Yiddish summer programs can be for the field, especially for international students. Maybe Yiddish in Moscow isn’t the same as it is in New York, for instance, but the summer programs become these sort of international, floating academic centers.

LL: I don’t know much about official Yiddish studies in Moscow. Either I’m not well informed or they don’t exist. I started thinking about a degree but didn’t know where to start in Russia. When I started asking around, senior colleagues of mine were at a loss. Sefer webinars were really helpful for that reason. The Worker’s Circle is very helpful. It’s online, in the United States. The membership and participation is rather costly, but students from the former Soviet Union willing to attend are encouraged to do so for free. Other participants are from all over the world. The classes are online, but there are also in-person classes and cultural programs. The students receive materials for prior reading and quite active participation in the classes is required. I went to a seminar in St. Petersburg this month organized by the Workers Circle.

TB: I wanted to talk about speaking in Yiddish. Is it a priority for you to speak in Yiddish? If so, why is it a priority for you, and how do you practice speaking? Because Yiddish is so often a passive language for reading and research.

LL: For me it is very important to speak in it. Not only in Yiddish, but with other languages as well.. It’s part of the heritage and it’s good to revive the language—to make it lively, make it real. I remember the Workers Circle offered a chance to talk with a native speaker volunteer, and once Maria Kaspina, Dov-Ber Kerler, and others made expeditions to Transnistria and Moldova, around the project with the Rybnister Rebbe. 5 5From Lyuba over email: The project on the Rybnitser rebbe is conducted by Maria Kaspina, Dov-Ber Kerler and a group of colleagues. Maria works for the MIEVR - the other Jewish museum in Moscow. The project was started two or three years ago. It is conducted mainly in Transnistria, a debated territory in Moldova, as well as Israel and the USA, in Monsey, New York. The key figure in the project is Chaim Zanvl Abramovich (1902-1995) who used to be a rabbi in Soviet times from pre-war period until 1972 in the Transnistrian town of Rybnitsa on the river Dnestr, then emigrated for a couple of years to Israel and then to the Jewish community in Monsey. He had two wives; the first, Surka, died in Israel, the second was with him in Monsey. They had no children. He is known for his ascetic lifestyle and miracles. Within the project, researchers conducted interviews with contemporaries and eye witnesses of the rebbe, many of whom were children in his time in Rybnitsa. There is a community of the rebbe’s spiritual children and he is revered by Hasids in Monsey. The interviews were given in Russian and partially in Yiddish. The aim of the project was to study the rebbe’s biography and its reflection in memories and to research some ethnographic features of his commemoration. I had the chance to do some deciphering of the interviews—most of these interviews were in Russian with Yiddish mixed in. But still, it was very precious and interesting work. It is of course difficult to find native speakers, but when we speak [the language] it’s like a renaissance—people give it a new life.

OV: When I started studying Yiddish I considered it like any other language. I wanted to read in it, to speak in it. But then I encountered the problem that there are some complications around speaking it. There were periods when I knew it very well, like after some time spent with Sasha Polyan and after Tel Aviv’s program. Then the year passes and I’m very busy and I lose it. And that’s why I’m happy we started this reading group.

TB: Do you think there is institutional support in St. Petersburg for Yiddish in a way that doesn’t exist in Moscow?

OV: In St. Petersburg, there are more things happening around Yiddish because there is the European University and the department of Jewish studies and Valery Dymshits who has done a lot of activity with Yiddish literature and is translating Yiddish literature into Russian. He has made several literary translations of poets like Mani Leyb and other poets from the 1920’s and 30’s, and the [project is to] show how they are in conversation with Russian symbolism.

There was a [Yiddish] seminar there [in St. Petersburg] and there were some people [who tried to] create an infrastructure. Here we are trying to create it by ourselves…

LL: I think there’s a little competition between our cities too [laughs]. Muscovites are not loved much in St. Petersburg.

But there are so many scholars of Yiddish globally and I don’t think it is such a thing to be from Moscow or not. They just happen to have more [Yiddish] materials in St. Petersburg, in the archives. That’s the heritage of the Russian Empire, that they’re stored there.

TB: Who are some of your favorite Yiddish writers that you’ve read, either in the original or translation?

LL: It’s a bit difficult for a librarian to have a favorite author… I feel a bit lost [laughs].

TB: I said some of your favorites!

LL: I definitely love Sholem Aleichem from childhood. It was really unusual for me to study Moyshe Kulbak because he wrote about Soviet things. I also found it interesting to learn about Aaron Vergelis’ circle and how the writers cooperated and communicated.

TB: From Sovetish Heymland?

LL: Yes, exactly, just to learn how much Jewishness was there, in those editions, and the fact that there was this Yiddish language magazine [in the Soviet period]. I also enjoy reading memoirs.

OV: I like Shike Driz, of course, who is part of my research, and also a tragic and mysterious figure. He wrote really brilliantly for children. As always with Soviet writers there is a little bit of official stuff that he thinks he should do, and then there are the really interesting things he slips into his poetry. Then there is Rokhel Boymbaum, which is why we were reading her [in the first leyen krayz meeting]. I like short genres and she was writing short stories, and poems, as well as prose. I also have a favorite book that I’ve read in Russian first, and now I’m reading in Yiddish, which was [Dovid] Bergelson’s Nokh Alemen. It is an astounding work of literature, written in the 1920s. Generally, I work on the late Soviet period when it’s hard to find things you love [in Yiddish], because there was really only Sovetish Heymland.

LL: We have a few copies of Sovetish Heymland here but not many, surprisingly.

TB: Have you met people who knew or read Sovetish Heymland while it was in circulation?

LL: The way it sounds, it sounds like it was not widely read, but I don’t know. But I see it a lot in people’s memoirs. They talk about relatives who spoke Yiddish and subscribed to it. They read whatever there was in Yiddish.

OV: I once saw it in a home library where someone was giving away books.

TB: In New York the Jewish Studies events I attend are skewed a bit more towards the elderly, but there are a lot of people from a younger generation in the U.S. who are interested in Yiddish, and it’s often for political reasons, or for personal, or family history reasons. Do you think it’s similar in Moscow? What kinds of associations do you think Yiddish has for a younger generation in Moscow?

OV: I hope so! There are a lot of people here who are attracted to Yiddish and Yiddish culture.

I also just remembered that there is a way to know about Yiddish even if you have no personal connection to it or a special academic interest, and that’s because we have the poet and singer Psoy Korolenko. If you are a Russian philologist in Moscow, you know of him; he is well known for his music and his academic research. One of my favorite projects of his is when he sings popular Soviet songs in Yiddish translations made by Aaron Vergelis. These are official songs we usually hear on the streets, like on the Day of Victory for example, which is just heavy stuff for Soviet hearts. When it is sung by Psoy Korolenko in Yiddish there is something strange there; it is an emotional translation process.

LL: I think there are two reasons [people are drawn to Yiddish]. One, there are many baalei t’shuvah in Moscow, and people who try and return to their religion, and so they are learning Yiddish, and many of them are young. Another thing is that young people do it out of protest, maybe, because it is an unusual language here, it is strange…

OV: I think it is a kind of subculture.

LL: Yeah, it’s a subculture, exactly. In St. Petersburg I met someone from Kaliningrad who was part of the LGBTQ community and a feminist and was learning Yiddish. 6 6 The person referenced, Alice Che, also has a Yiddish Youtube channel. I don’t know if she had Jewish roots or not. And my roommate at the St. Petersburg seminar I went to was also really active in the Yiddish scene and I don’t believe she had Jewish roots. It’s a chance for young people to join a kind of subculture—to connect with something new.

Benjamin, Tova. “Moscow’s Yiddish Center: An Interview with Lyubov Lavrova and Olga Vinogradova.” In geveb, April 2020:
Benjamin, Tova. “Moscow’s Yiddish Center: An Interview with Lyubov Lavrova and Olga Vinogradova.” In geveb (April 2020): Accessed Mar 04, 2024.


Tova Benjamin

Tova Benjamin is a PhD student in the History and Jewish Studies departments at NYU.