In the late 1990s, advertising executive Gary Wexler visited Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union that had suddenly rediscovered their own religious and national identity in the wake of the collapse of communism. These ads captured some of the powerful moments and images of that period in Jewish history...
It was the story that many Jewish organizations in the U.S., as well as the Jewish Agency for Israel didn’t want people to hear. It was the counter narrative of Jews who had no intention of leaving after the fall of the Soviet Union. They were the thousands committed to building a Jewish life, in the place where Jews had been murdered and oppressed, and Judaism had been wiped out for nearly eighty years.
Jews in the U.S. didn’t know this story. And many would dismiss the legitimacy of these Jews of the FSU (Former Soviet Union), when they did finally hear it. It wasn’t the story they had been cultivated to believe or accept.
“This is my home,” people in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev and in many small towns told me. “This is my community. This is where my livelihood is. Do you know what we say? ‘The more that leave, the more that stay.’”
“What does that mean?,” I asked them.
“It means that yes, many are leaving. And our numbers should shrink. Yet, the community either continues to maintain its numbers or even grow. Because every day more people come out of the woodwork and introduce themselves to us as Jews who had been in hiding. They want to stay and build Jewish life along with us.”
I had been brought to the FSU (Former Soviet Union) by Rabbi Rachel Cowan (z”l) Director of the Jewish Life program of the Nathan Cummings Foundation and Martin Horowitz (z”l), founder of Jewish Renewal in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. My job was to meet the Jewish organizations they were funding in the FSU and create an ad campaign in the Jewish press across the US, to convince people to help support their efforts.
Once there, I heard about the tensions arising from organizations of the worldwide Jewish community each trying to stake their claim upon the Jews of the FSU. There was the Jewish Agency encouraging people to make Aliyah. Chabad had moved in with the speed of lightening, establishing communities from the Black Sea to Siberia. The Reform Movement hit the path to make sure that this revival went beyond Orthodoxy. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) was ever-present, providing much needed social services and aid to help these emerging Jewish communities flourish. And then there were the people who brought me, who had identified their own Jewish leaders and communities and were helping them fund Jewish schools, universities, libraries and culture. In just a few short years, Jewish life in this vast reclaimed territory had quickly become like Jewish life everywhere, where people were crawling all over one another, staking their claims and criticizing everyone else’s efforts. I felt right at home, with my People.
I had one very emotional experience which turned out to be quite personal. I was taken out to central Ukraine to a little village called Korsun Shevchenkovsky. As we neared the village, women in babushkas were plowing fields with oxen, there were tiny little houses, unpaved roads and men with donkey carts. It was like a scene from Fiddler on the Roof. The village was poor, shabby and depressing. I could see that every little ramshackle home had an outhouse. But the story I heard from a little man who spoke some Yiddish was emotionally overwhelming.
Before the fall of the Soviet Union there had been an anti-nuclear march through Poland and Ukraine, organized by a Jewish woman from Chicago, Sally Gratch. Sally and a few of the other Jewish American women organizers all wore Magen David necklaces, in case they encountered any Jews along the way. In Poland, no one. When they arrived in Ukraine, no one, until they reached Korsun Shevchenkovsky. A little man speaking Yiddish approached and asked if they were Jewish. They answered, “yes” and asked how many other Jews were in the town. The man said he wasn’t sure because no one would dare to identify as Jewish, but he knew a few. Sally told him that they would meet for Shabbat that evening up on that hill, at 6pm, pointing to the location. She told the man to tell whatever Jews he knew and for them to tell whatever Jews they knew. At 6 pm, five-hundred people appeared. The day I arrived there, several years later, between the town and oblast (the surrounding area) there were approximately 5000 Jews now involved in the community.
In the community’s building, I had to introduce myself. When I said my name was Wexler, pronouncing it “Vexler,” there was a murmur in the crowd of several hundred people. I then went on to tell them my grandfather was from a shtetl in Ukraine that disappeared during World War II. They asked what it was called. I answered, “No one I’ve asked since being here has ever heard of it. Zhivitov.” They all started screaming. “It was up the road here in this oblast. You’re one of us!”
I looked around at the poverty and misery, the people with missing and gold teeth, their worn out clothing and thought, “Thank you. Thank you to my grandfather for getting the hell out of here.” As much as I could appreciate the Jewish revival, in Korsun Shevchenkovsky, I wanted to tell these people, “Leave as soon as you can. There’s a better life outside.”
As a Communication professional, I knew that the story of Korsun Shevchenkovsky was compelling. But the photos would not be the right ones for communicating the bigger story. It was when we arrived in Moscow that I directed the Russian photographer I hired to begin shooting.
The photo we captured for the first ad in this series told the whole story. There almost didn’t need to be other ads. I was about to pass through a doorway of a Jewish school in Moscow, where an aleph-bet poster was pinned when I looked up and saw a leftover Soviet hammer and sickle that had never been removed, directly above it. A perfect image for everything I wanted to say.
That evening was Simchat Torah and we went to the Archipova Synagogue, the main Moscow shul which existed during the Soviet era, even if it was barely used and had KGB crawling all over it. As I arrived several blocks away, the streets were teaming with people squeezing in, taking every seat and hundreds gathering outside. The Russian photographer, not Jewish, said to me, “I feel like I’m in a foreign country. What do I do?”
“Snap pictures. Don’t stop,” I told him. That became the second ad.
As we left the synagogue I felt the first chill of being a Jew in Russia. A man came up to me who I had seen in the synagogue. He said, “Move as quickly as you can. Get away from the crowds. Don’t talk about being Jewish. Throw away your yarmulke if it is still in your pocket. It’s not safe.” Within minutes, the streets were empty. Then three teenage guys came up to me. They spoke a bit of English. “We saw you in the synagogue taking pictures. It’s not safe for you. People know you are walking from the synagogue. We will walk with you until you reach where you are going.” I didn’t know to trust them. I asked, “Does anyone speak Hebrew?” One of them recited the Shma. One of them actually spoke some Hebrew. We moved fast through side streets and alleys until we reached my destination.
In St. Petersburg, we visited the Jewish University, where the rector traced my family history in Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine, telling me stories of the shtetls my grandparents came from. I remembered my wife’s grandmother telling me about the “fortichka,’ the little window within a window that was opened for air in the winter. I glanced over from the rector’s desk and saw a little window within a big window. I pointed. “A fortichka,?”
“See, you are one of us,” he answered. He looked like a cross between a chasid, pictures of my great grandparents, and Rasputin. I turned to the photographer, “Take his picture.” That was the third ad.
The Jews of St. Petersburg were different from the Jews in the rest of the FSU. They spoke incessantly about the poet, Anna Akhmatova, literature, theater, art and music. The Jewish revival there was based in culture, more than anywhere else. They were ahead of others in the Jewish world using culture as an engagement tool. It took several years for Jewish communities around the globe to catch up to them, using and funding culture as the way to bring young Jews closer to their Jewish identity.
It was in St. Petersburg that everywhere I went, the Jews said to me, “But wait until you meet Larisa Pecherskaya.” Her name came up constantly. I was taken to see a Jewish school and there was a young woman with flowing hair, teaching third graders the Rebbe Nachman song, “Kol Haolam kulo, gesher tzar m’od.” She was dancing it out, like theater. Then she taught a Yiddish song, in the same way. She was mesmerizing. I asked, “Who is she?”
“Ah, that is Larisa Pecherskaya,” they said proudly. Three months later, I had Larisa Pecherskaya on the bimah in my Los Angeles synagogue, having raised the money for her to come to L.A., to tell the story of the revival of Jewish life in the FSU. But three years later, Larisa was living and teaching in New York. Her son recently graduated from Harvard.
Over the years, I have bumped into many of the young people I originally met on my trip on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Quite a few of them, I see on Facebook, are now in the U.S., and many have stayed in Russia and Ukraine.
The photographer in St. Petersburg and I became fast friends. He brought me to his apartment in an old building which he explained had been a grand apartment split between many families during the Soviet era. He brought me to meet friends, other artists, photographers and even journalists. We talked to each other for hours, explaining our lives. After a few days together, I thought I knew him well. On our last day, I wanted to go out and have him photograph the Jewish cemetery. He reluctantly took me. Once there, he said, “Come with me. I want to show you something.” He took me to a grave. “This is my grandmother.”
“You’re Jewish,” I asked incredulously.
“My mother’s mother was Jewish. Being with you this week at all these Jewish places and events has woken me up to my Jewish connection.” The last time I ever heard from him, was several years later. A postcard from Tel Aviv.
This ad campaign captured a moment in Jewish life, a revival, a controversy, a reality. We Jews are filled with triumphs and conflicts. We are builders of Jewish life, no matter what the circumstances. With all our faults, we are an amazing people.