How Did This Jewish Scholar Defend the Cossacks and Survive the Soviets?

The complicated and all-but-forgotten legacy of Saul Borovoi

"Throughout his research, Borovoi underscored how the calcified myths of Jewish life in Ukraine blind historians to the true way of life at the time." (Composite image: Borovoi in 1947, from Vospominaniia / Russian propaganda poster, ca. 1900)

In the late 1980s, an all-but-forgotten scholar named Saul Iakovlevich Borovoi (1903-1989) helped lead a revival of Jewish studies in the Soviet Union, his life having already spanned the entire history of the USSR, and then some.

Borovoi’s younger colleagues widely praised him. His voluminous work included such diverse topics as the origins of banking in Russia, Alexander Pushkin, and aristocratic culture of the nineteenth century.

“Saul Iakovlevich Borovoi’s contribution to our nation’s historical scholarship was so broad and multifaceted that one can only regret that fame and appreciation during his life were not extended to him in full,” wrote noted Russian scholar R.S. Ganelin after Borovoi’s passing.


Surviving the Soviets

Borovoi was a survivor, thriving as a Jewish academic despite numerous public and professional denunciations. Countless colleagues were forced to flee or were repressed in various way. In explaining his survival, Borovoi simply claimed that he benefitted from extraordinary good fortune.

Borovoi. From Vospominaniia (Memoirs), part of the National Library of Israel collection

Yet in reality, he protected himself by “meeting the needs” of the Soviet historical establishment, selectively interpreting the past, adopting aspects of the Soviet ideology from his time, and presenting Jews in ways that conformed to the political climate and demands of the Communist Party. In fact, he became an accepted member of the intellectual elite, despite not becoming politically subservient in retaining his integrity as a serious scholar of Ukrainian and Russian-Jewish history.

In general, the Soviet intellectual milieu in the 1920s was characterized by contradictions.

Judaism was condemned and its representatives – rabbis, communal leaders, and teachers – were repressed. Yet at the same time the government offered support for secular and pro-Communist Jewish culture. The Communist government frequently funded Jewish schools, museums, and scholarly institutions. In Kiev and Minsk, special scholarly institutions dedicated to the Yiddish language and culture were established. Scholars were employed and valuable libraries and artifacts (expropriated from other centers) were collected for study.

Strides made by scholars in the last years of tsarist Russia significantly advanced Jewish studies, yet the Soviet government aimed to keep scholarly work within strict ideological bounds. In particular, the authorities prohibited mentioning Zionism or using Hebrew, while promoting Yiddish as the language of the Jewish working class.

A group of well-known Jewish intellectuals, including renowned Hebrew literary figures Hayim Nahman Bialik, and Yehoshua Ravnitsky, shortly before leaving the Russian Empire for good via Odessa, 1921. From the National Library of Israel Photography Collection

In the mid-1920s, there was a push to integrate Jewish scholarship into the general literary life of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The production of Judaica in Ukraine noticeably increased. In this way, the government showed sensitivity to Ukrainian language and culture as part of a policy to cultivate the loyalty of national minorities.



As a historian, Saul Borovoi had come of age in the period between the Bolshevik Revolution and the start of World War II. He was born in Odessa to parents who enthusiastically supported modern Hebrew literature. Family guests included Mendele Mocher Sforim, Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Ravnitsky. Borovoi’s father was a funder of Moria, the renowned Hebrew publishing house.

Borovoi as a young man. From Vospominaniia (Memoirs), part of the National Library of Israel collection

In 1924, the younger Borovoi received a law degree, enrolling in the Institute of Archeology around the same time.

Although there were voices against his promotion, influential scholars supported his advancement and he obtained a faculty position at Odessa’s Commercial Institute in 1932.

Not until 1940, however, did Borovoi defend his doctoral thesis on the Jews of Ukraine in the 16th  and 17th centuries.

Aerial view of Odessa, ca. 1940

During World War II, he spent three years in Samarkand, and after his return to Odessa, he resumed employment. In 1952, Borovoi was targeted for arrest during the Doctor’s Plot, but apparently escaped harm by virtue of his cramped living quarters. According to his account, NKVD agents were disappointed to find that he lived in a communal apartment, when as a professor he could have acquired a three-bedroom flat.

In fact, he left Odessa to escape arrest and stayed with relatives in Moscow. Stalin’s death saved him from further harm and within a year he was rehired at the Commercial Institute.

Unable to publish on Jewish history, Borovoi turned to general economic history.

His memoirs, Vospominaniia (Memoirs), published posthumously in 1993, provide a masterful portrayal of Jewish Odessa, vividly transmitting the atmosphere of pre-Soviet and then Soviet Odessa, Borovoi portrays notable portraits of the age as well as disquisitions on central historical themes and academic problems that he himself experienced.


Converts, Nihilists and Revolutionaries

In his articles from the early and mid-1920s, Borovoi portrayed the types that would reappear throughout his work. They include tsarist-era converts to Christianity, Jewish nihilists and revolutionaries, Jewish advisers to the tsarist government, and even merchants who collaborated with anti-Semites – “bad Jews” – in the words of Shulamit Magnes, a specialist on modern Jewish history.

Borovoi also focused on the internecine fighting among non-religious Jews from various factions, including radicals and government workers. Each side attacked the other using denunciations and gossip even though they had the same goal of radical russification.

In the mid-1930s, Borovoi faced a perilous political situation directed against historians who “deviated” from the party line. Arrests for “bourgeois” leanings and “nationalist deviations” were just some of the trumped up charges.  During this period Borovoi began his analysis of Jews in the Ukrainian uprising in the seventeenth century. Although he portrayed Jews who broke from the Jewish collective, here he also emphasized Ukrainian-Jewish unity.


Defending the Cossacks

Making use of documents that had not been available to earlier scholars, Borovoi took issue with the conventional interpretation that Jews were innocent victims, torn between Polish noblemen and Khmelnitsky’s Cossacks. According to Borovoi, Jews were fully engaged on the side of the Polish landlords whom they served and on whose victory their livelihood depended.

At the same time Borovoi made an unexpected discovery – that there existed Jewish Cossacks who aided the Ukrainians. In his view, two kinds of Jews lived among the Cossacks. One group consisted of Jews who converted to Russian Orthodoxy and joined as fighters (rarely) or as Christian clergy. For such Jews, membership in the 17th and 18th century Ukrainian Cossack state known as the “Hetmanate” offered escape from the fear of being captured and sold as slaves or for ransom.

Painting of 17th century Zaporozhian Cossacks by Ilya Repin, ca. 1890. Click image to enlarge

According to Borovoi, Cossacks also found allies in merchants who abetted the exploitation of peasant labor. Jews, who earlier had bought and sold the peasants’ produce for the Polish lords, fulfilled the same function for the Cossacks. In this way, Jews helped expand trade with the Turks in the South and Europeans in the West. Eventually Cossack fortunes fell as the tsarist government shifted trade routes to avoid a Cossack transit tax.

Although documentary evidence offers little information about Jews who came to live in the Hetmanate, Borovoi identifies certain individuals by name – for example, Moisei Gorlinskii and Musia Iosifovich.

Surprisingly, he claims that Jews who worked for the Cossacks were not objects of discrimination:

“Our materials testify with enough conviction that Jews in the Sech (Cossack camp) at this time were not subject to any special discipline and did not experience any special inhibition in their activities. Therefore, we have the right to speak of Jewish ‘equality’ in the Sech, of course in that framework where equality could exist for the non-Cossack population of Zaporozh’e [that was] restricted in participating in its political life.”

Oddly Borovoi uses the term “ravnopravie”— “equality,” a goal of Jews in tsarist Russia—to describe a coercive reality based on fear of Cossack violence.

Rather than criticize Jewish Cossacks for betraying their co-religionists at a time of crisis, Borovoi focused on their unity with the Ukrainians. Although the number of Jewish Cossacks was statistically insignificant, Borovoi exaggerates their importance, presumably to demonstrate the friendship between Jews and Ukrainians.

It would be too dogmatic to see Borovoi as an apologist of Ukraine. What he argues instead is that control by the military officials known as “Hetman” in Southern Ukraine in the late 17th century did not do away with Jewish trading in the area, but actually increased it.

According to Borovoi, for those Jews who found work trading with the Cossacks, conditions in those territories might have been superior to conditions elsewhere in Europe. The records show much rougher economic and social conditions in Poland, for example. By making these comparisons, Borovoi could in some way justifiably proclaim that there was “no persecution” in dealing with the Cossacks.

“The Cossacks Plunder”. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Throughout his research, Borovoi underscored how the calcified myths of Jewish life in Ukraine blind historians to the true way of life at the time.

When it came to some of the tragic events of his own lifetime, Borovoi refused to differentiate between Ukrainians and Russians, underscoring the link between Jews and non-Jews. Although noting examples of collaboration by officials and certain intellectuals, he expressed pride in the help extended by Odessa’s non-Jewish population during World War II, writing:

 ”Towards the end of spring of 1942, they [Jews] began to receive a tiny ration [around 200 grams of bread, frozen potatoes, and so on]. Furthermore, their position gradually worsened.  Although Jews lived and worked in isolation, nonetheless, between them and the local population some contact developed. The majority of the local population related to Jews with sympathy, and this was something fundamental, almost essential, that helped save those whom the bullet of the executioner and epidemics had missed. Thanks to the peasants, they [Jews] could somehow feed themselves and hold out until liberation day.”

Borovoi also gave special praise to Soviet partisans who perished in the fight against Fascism, noting that a number of these patriots were Jewish.


Remembering Jewish Suffering

Yet Borovoi never forgot Jewish suffering during this period. Having acknowledged the pain inflicted on all Soviet peoples by the Nazi invasion, he described the martyrdom of the Jewish people in particular. Transmitting eye-witness accounts of mass shootings, the suffering of marches in the terrible cold, and other impossible horrors, Borovoi mapped out the areas of Odessa and its suburbs that had been transformed into a killing field:

”The Domanev territory located in the north-eastern part of Odessa county was the most abandoned and far from Odessa’s train routes. It was designated as the best place for the creation of the ghetto – or to put it precisely – the place of mass extermination.  Bogdanovka entered into our tragic history forever as the Majdanek of the Transnistria… The other terrible place that one should remember is Akhmechet Headquarters – a real death camp located twelve kilometers from the village of Akhmechet on a pig farm. It was not a coincidence of course that pig farms were chosen as places of extermination. In this [decision] the ‘humor’ of the fascist executioners was expressed.”

Although Borovoi had at times minimized the significance of the Jewish collective, here he expressed his deep sympathy for the martyrs. At the same time Borovoi expressed his deep distain for Jews who denied their heritage to save themselves. It is possible that Borovoi felt survivor’s guilt.

Bodies of Jews murdered in Transnistria, October 1941

With his escape from Odessa as a member of the institute’s faculty, he left his father and brother in danger. His father died on the road and thousands of his neighbors went to their graves because they did not have sufficient influence to acquire a spot on the list of the saved. In any case he now praised the Jewish collective that he had earlier viewed with skepticism.

Regarding his own life, Borovoi asserted that antisemitism did not play a significant role, yet the recollections in his memoirs of post-war Odessa are chilling:

“I looked hard at the traits of my native city.  A great deal was new, that was difficult to get used to, and to which one could not become reconciled. On the gates of many houses one could see crosses painted haphazardly. It signified that the house had been cleansed of Jews. The house managers and officials were not hurrying to erase them. They were still visible almost a year after liberation. More than once and for a long time one could hear from behind, ‘The pests have come back.’  The word ‘pest’ in the mouth of Odessites who had survived the occupation acquired a distinctly ethnic connotation.”


Longevity and Legacy

In the last years of Stalin’s rule the Jewish theme was off-limits even to Borovoi. His book on the Jews in Ukraine in the 17th century was never published, although a leading Moscow publishing house, the Sabashnikov Brothers, had accepted it for publication. Nonetheless, parts of the book appeared as articles in journals.

Borovoi’s longevity was due in part to his low profile and his refusal to join to the Communist Party during the purges. He also refrained from defending his dissertation until he was thirty-five. However, he always affirmed his loyalty to the Soviet Union.

Borovoi, 1962. From Vospominaniia (Memoirs), part of the National Library of Israel collection

In his memoirs Borovoi stated:

“Nonetheless I have been happy in my life. I survived the difficult years of revolution, civil war, hunger, and epidemics. I was not repressed in the thirties or the early fifties, and that was a happy coincidence. The most serious illnesses passed me by. I was able to spend my life engaged with my favorite subject. I was lucky to meet many good, kind, and smart people…”

Although Borovoi’s research conformed to what was considered acceptable by the Soviet authorities,  it would be wrong to view him as an ideological spokesman for the party.

He depicted Jewish individuals differentiated by class and identity, educational achievement, and professional status. Even so-called “bad Jews” were symbols of modernity and radical change.

Borovoi offered compelling studies that showed the fissures, internecine conflicts, and internal weaknesses among the Jews of Eastern Europe. His treatment of history was far from one-dimensional.

A version of this article appeared in Russian-Jewish Tradition:  Intellectuals, Historians, RevolutionariesIt appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

Is Fish and Chips a Jewish Delicacy?

The little-known Jewish connections to a few of the world's favorite foods

A Jewish immigrant is credited with serving the world's first "fish and chips" around 1860, though the dish's roots go back deep into Sephardic Jewish history

Fish and chips — the classic English street food combo of deep-fried, breaded fish fillets and crispy chips (French fries to Americans).

Chili con carne — that spicy, meaty, slow cooked stew that is so well-known from the American Southwest.

Foie gras — fatty goose or duck liver, often utilized in any number of French haute cuisine dishes.

What do they all have in common? While widely eaten and strongly associated with their regions of origin, each have little known connections to the Jewish people, and their history.


Fish and Chips

The strongest (and best known) of the connections applies to fish and chips. Invented in the immigrant-heavy East End of London, this dish combines two elements that share one production method — deep frying.

Frying battered fish fillets (for this dish, plaice, cod or haddock are most common) was typical to Sephardic Jewish cooking. The Oxford Companion to Food notes:

“As Claudia Roden (1996) observes, there was a strong Jewish tradition of frying fish in batter and eating it cold. And it was ‘fried fish in the Jewish fashion’ which Thomas Jefferson discovered when he came to London and which was included in the first Jewish cookbook in English (1846).”

The Jews were expelled from England in 1290, and it wasn’t until the 17th century that Jews were allowed to openly settle and practice their religion in the country. The new Jewish communities were largely from Holland and of Spanish-Portuguese descent. Many settled in London’s East End, and, in fact, the oldest continuously used synagogue in the United Kingdom is the Sephardic Bevis Marks Synagogue in that area.

The Bevis Marks Synagogue in London. From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

By the 19th century, there were also a number of Irish immigrants in the same part of the city, and their chips shops stood alongside those of Jewish fishmongers. Jewish immigrant Joseph Malin has been recognized as the first to look at these two deep-fried foods and put them together into one delicious combo, apparently some time in the early 1860s.

A plaque recognizing Joseph Malin as the originator of fish and chips

On a side note, the Sephardim typically covered their fried fish in “agristada” — a thick lemon-egg sauce that is still common today. As they moved in a different direction from Spain following the Expulsion, some arrived in Greece. There, according to historian Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, they left their mark on the local cuisine, and Greeks have a soup that incorporates this sauce, known as “avgolemono” (literally “egg-lemon”).


Chili con Carne

That same Expulsion edict that sent Jews east towards Greece (as well as Italy, Turkey and other places) and north to Holland and later to England, also sent Jews in other directions.

Some found their way to the New World, starting early communities in places such as Suriname, Curacao, Brazil and Mexico. Though some of these immigrants were openly Jewish, there were also large contingents of so-called “Crypto-Jews” — those who outwardly converted to Christianity (known as “Conversos” or “New Christians”), yet secretly maintained some connection to their Jewish heritage, due to the authority of the Inquisition even in the New World.

Illustration of a dining scene appearing in a 19th century book on the Inquisition. From the National Library of Israel collections

Though Mexicans had already been making stews that included chili peppers, Marks and others have suggested that it may have been these same “Crypto-Jews” who first added meat and beans to the dish.

Chili con carne has similar ingredients — and a similar slow-cooking method — as hamin, the traditional Shabbat stew, which took a big culinary leap forward during the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, when new ingredients were added and the dish became notably more sophisticated.

Interestingly, there is even evidence from Inquisition records of New Christians in Brazil making Sabbath stews of beef and chili peppers.  While this is unlikely to be a direct antecedent to chili con carne, due to the geographic distance, it does show a similar predilection and perhaps even a connection to a shared culinary precursor.


Foie Gras

The Jewish connection to foie gras is more certain than to chili con carne, though somewhat less significant than to fish and chips. People have engaged in the process of purposefully fattening geese since ancient times, both in Egypt and Rome. According to the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, it may have been Italian Jews who preserved this tradition and transported it to Western Europe, though others believe that the Romans themselves may have originally brought the technique to France.

Either way it became a very Jewish endeavor, such that by the Middle Ages, Ashkenazi Jews specialized in the process of creating foie gras and were recognized as the masters of it.

Interestingly, the foie gras itself was not the primary goal of these Jewish goose farmers.

Geese appearing in an early 20th century Jewish children’s book published in Warsaw. From the National Library of Israel collection

Rather, it was a by-product of the desire to create enough schmaltz — rendered poultry fat — for cooking through the year. Since the laws of kashrut forbid any mixing of milk and meat, butter could not be used as a cooking medium for any meat product, and since pork is also forbidden, lard (rendered pig fat) could also not be used.

While Jews living around the Mediterranean Basin and across the Middle East had access to olive oil, this was inaccessible to the Jews living in more northern climes, so they would render the fat of geese, ducks and chickens, and use that schmaltz for much of their cooking. For similar reasons, agristada’s popularity among Sephardic Jews is also largely due to the fact that it could be used as a thickener for meat soups and stews in place of butter.

Jews were also amongst the first to mash the foie gras into a paste, and mix in things such as egg and onions. This not only developed into the French pâté de foie gras but also into another traditional Ashkenazic favorite, chopped liver.

Many people today have issues with foie gras, due to their perception of the pain inflicted on the geese during force-feeding. Some have presented evidence of Jewish ethical opposition to the practice going back at least until the 12th century, however Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky has convincingly argued that these sources have been misinterpreted. According to Zivotofsky, there has been significant opposition to the practice based in Jewish law over the centuries and into the modern period, though it stemmed from concerns about dietary restrictions (kashrut), as opposed to being driven by ethical objections.

Product wrapping for Israeli foie gras, ca. 1960s. From the Eri Wallish Collection, National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Nonetheless, in more recent history many Jewish voices have spoken out against the practice and over the past two decades, Israel has been one of the world’s leaders in legislation prohibiting the production and sale of foie gras.


“Jewish Dishes”

Dozens of dishes from around the world include the word “Jewish” in their names, but on a deeper level, there have been many examples over the centuries – like fish and chips, chili con carne, foie gras and avgolemono to name just a few – when the Jewish influence was more subtle, remaining largely under the radar.

Jews have spread all over the world throughout history, and have integrated (to greater or lesser degrees) into the cultures that surrounded them.

The foods they ate have often – if not always – been influenced by what non-Jewish neighbors ate, many times altered in order to meet the requirements of kashrut. Yet, the influence in the other direction, of Jewish cooking on other culinary traditions, is too often overlooked and is more significant than many of us may have ever realized.


A version of this article first appeared on The Taste of Jewish Culture. It has been published here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

Sources and Related Reading

Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food, John Cooper

The Jewish Kitchen: Recipes and Stories from Around the World, Clarissa Hyman

Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, Gil Marks

“Foie Gras ‘Fake News’: A Fictitious Rashi and a Strangely Translated Ethical Will”, Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky

The Ad Campaign That Told the Other Story of Soviet Jewry in 1999

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...

An image and slogan appearing in one of the ads created by Gary Wexler following his trip to the former Soviet Union, the Gary Wexler Collection at the National Library of Israel

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.

Former advertising executive Gary Wexler has donated his ad portfolios dealing with the Jewish world to the National Library of Israel

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.

The Soviet red star hanging over the Hebrew alphabet, in a Moscow classroom in 1999, the Gary Wexler Collection, at the National Library of Israel

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.

A crowded Moscow synagogue in 1999, the Gary Wexler Collection, at the National Library of Israel

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.

“a cross between a chasid, pictures of my great grandparents, and Rasputin…”, the Gary Wexler Collection, at the National Library of Israel

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.


Memories from my Sephardic Grandparents, by James Russell

Greek songs and stories, a book from Morocco, and one ruby-eyed snake ring...

Ladino speakers from opposite edges of the Mediterranean, Russell's maternal grandparents passed down a rich and curiosity-sparking cultural inheritance

My maternal grandmother, Marguerite Sananes, née Saltiel, of blessed memory (1900-1997), was a native of the northern Greek city of Salonica (Tk. Selanik, Gk. Thessaloniki).

At the time of her birth it was one of the great ports of the Ottoman Empire. Her forebears on that side of our family had fled to safety in Muslim Turkey from Toledo in 1492 following the infamous edict of expulsion by Ferdinand and Isabella. Like other Sephardim (except for those from the other kingdom of the Iberian peninsula, Portugal, of course) we preserved the Judeo-Spanish language, Ladino or Judezmo, which my mother Charlotte, her three sisters Esther, Clarice, and Gloria (may their memory be for a blessing), Grandma, and my Great-grandmother Rachel of blessed memory all spoke as their native tongue.

Sephardim wrote Ladino in the notoriously difficult Hebrew cursive called Solitreo; they printed it in “Rashi” and standard square-character Hebrew letters. Great-grandma Rachel (whom we called Manache) knew Ladino, Italian, and, I am told, some Greek and Turkish, and that was enough— by the time I knew her she had reverted to Spanish alone.

Excerpt from a letter in Solitreo script. From the National Library of Israel collection

Manache had learned English well enough to pass the test on the US Constitution for her citizenship examination, and to converse fluently with my father, an American-born Ashkenazi Jew innocent of Ladino, not to mention Turkish or Bulgarian. Manache passed away in 1964 at the age of 96.

In the year of Grandma Marguerite’s birth, Salonica was the only great city on earth with a majority Jewish population. Most of the Jews belonged to the working classes, and they spearheaded the nascent labor movement in the Ottoman Empire. Many were stevedores, and on Shabbat, the port came to a standstill.

A Jewish porter in Salonica, early 20th century. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center at the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Grandma Marguerite told me when I was very young how she used to distribute socialist newspapers in Ladino to workers at the waterfront— she reminisced about the famous White Tower (Gk. Leukos pyrgos) by the sea. Our family attended the synagogue called Los figos locos, “The Wild Figs”, which, she explained, was named after a place remembered from the Toledo of the fifteenth century.

These memories were still vivid after nearly half a millennium: many Jews still kept the keys to the houses in Spain that they had been forced to abandon.

In the Balkan Wars, when Grandma was twelve, the city reverted to the Kingdom of Greece and returned to its original name, Thessaloniki. Grandma had attended the school of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, where she learned fluent French, and had been set to attend college in Auteuil. But the World War broke out in 1914 and those plans never materialized; she became a journalist for a local newspaper.

Her knowledge of French enabled her to find a job with the French military authorities and to feed our family during the famine in the aftermath of the conflagration that devastated the city, particularly the poorer, Jewish neighborhoods, in 1917.

View of Salonica from the Jewish cemetery around the time of World War I. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center at the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Manache broke her hip during the Great Fire. It was never set; and when I was little she used to get about the house with a great cane. She was a tall, gaunt woman, bedridden in her last years, and used to call me to her saying “Camina, pasha!” –  “Walk, little prince!”

Grandma, her parents, and many other members of the Saltiel and Ben Ruby families immigrated to the United States in 1920, sailing from Piraeus— the port of the Greek capital, Athens— on the Meghali Ellas, (“Greater Greece”, after the grandiose plan of Venizelos to liberate Ionia and the Hellenic communities of Pontus and the Anatolian interior from Turkish rule).

Greek immigrants board a small boat that will take them to a ship bound for America, ca. 1910

It ferried thousands of Greek, Jewish, and Armenian immigrants from Athens to the New World. Grandma used to describe the good ship to me when I was a boy as rather less grand than its name might suggest: “half a walnut shell”.

Over the month-long passage the only food was bread and onions that were, she used to add, not very fresh. But the Meghali Ellas bore its passengers safely to New York.

Great-grandmother Rachel was a clairvoyant and practiced magic: I remember being told that she would go and sacrifice a black cock at midnight over the grave of the spirit she discerned had caused an illness in the family. Manache wore a gold ring of entwined snakes, one with a single ruby eye; the other, with a single diamond eye: I inherited it upon her death.

Great-grandmother Rachel’s mysterious snake ring (Photo: James Russell)

It may have significance as an apotropaic amulet, cf. the brazen serpent Nechushtan of Moses. I am named after her husband Ya‘aqov, whom people called “el bueno“, “the good”, for his kindness and his honesty in business.

In Ottoman Salonica he had been a grain merchant: he was a polyglot and used to strike a verbal deal with the farmers up north in the partly Slavic-speaking province of Macedonia and in Bulgaria, and seal the contract for the price for the year’s crop with a handshake. He always paid the agreed sum, even if it turned out to be a bad harvest. So he was good, if not rich.

The family settled on upper Park Avenue in Manhattan— then as now a poor neighborhood. They advertised for a suitable match for Grandma in the Ladino newspaper, and when each swain came to call, the women would leave a book on the table and hide in the kitchen to see what the prospective spouse did with it.

Most men showed no interest in the book. (That is fair enough, in retrospect: they had not come to visit a library.) One fellow did, but as he was holding it upside-down it was plain he was not literate and therefore a bad match.

Finally, a somewhat older gentleman immersed himself in the volume, not looking up right away when the ladies emerged. So Grandmother married him.

Joseph Sananes, my maternal grandfather, was also a Sephardic Jew and Ladino speaker, but from the other Mediterranean edge of the Iberian dispersion: Tetuan, on the northern coast of Morocco.

The Jewish Commerce Street of Tetuan, ca. 1900. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center at the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

The newlyweds settled in a large, comfortable house in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Grandpa was a successful businessman in the 1920s.

Those were the days of the Prohibition of liquor in the United States, so he grew grapes in the backyard and made Shabbat wine for our family, as well as the strong anisette liquor raki. Grandma baked honeyed kadayif pastry and cooked the Moroccan tejine for him, along with the traditional Shabbat adafina stew and the delicious dishes of the Jews of Greece.

Ethnic memory in America is often culinary, partly because such innocuous things spice quaintly the melting pot of the shared, diverse culture, but partly too because tastes and smells of early childhood have a visceral power in the memory.

The stock market crash of 1929 that ushered in the Great Depression wiped out the family finances, but Grandpa worked very hard and managed to support his wife, four daughters, and a large extended family. He would enjoy a small glass of raki when he came home from work, and my mother told me he regularly studied the works of the eleventh-century philosopher and Torah sage, the Rambam (Maimonides).

On Shabbat and other holidays, visitors would come to call and Grandma served them raki, coffee, and homemade candied orange peel. The other Moroccan Jews – some of whom were unlettered, rough men – considered my gentle, learned Grandpa a “hakham“, and turned to him as a sage and adjudicator of disputes.

My Grandfather Joseph Sananes, passed away in 1956, when I was three; but I am told he and I were great friends: once one evening after supper he gave me a thimbleful of Turkish coffee in my parents’ apartment on the southwest corner of 164th Street and Broadway in Manhattan and I giggled all night long.

Joseph Sananes shortly before he passed away (Courtesy: James Russell)

I still treasure his silver tiger-eye ring and have the painted wooden stool embossed with metal studs that he made for me.

Joseph Sananes’s ring (Photo: James Russell)

But the most precious inheritance is a Psalter given him when he left Morocco for the new world, around 1900 (see Plates 5, 6, and 7). This Sefer Tehillim was printed at Livorno, in the year encoded on the title page as “Ve-zot ha-berakha“, “And this is the blessing” [= 5626, 1865 CE] with the owner’s name embossed on the tooled red leather cover:

“With peace upon Israel! Shelomo son of David/ N[ahon?], May the right hand of God preserve us, in the city of Tetuan, may God protect her.”

There follows a dedication on the verso of the title page:

“This book is a gift given as a memorial of love and affection to one close to me who is from amongst those who know God’s law, the friend of my soul and spirit: in honor of Rav Joseph Sananes, may his Rock watch over him. ‘And thou shalt discourse upon it by day and by night.’ (Joshua 1.8) The Psalms of King David, peace be upon him: may he by his merit defend us and all Israel, Amen.”

Shelomo ben David’s signature in the cursive Solitreo script used for Ladino follows.

This much, then, for the circumstances of the written evidence.

“Write it down!” the historian Simon Dubnow commanded the Jews of the ghetto of Riga before the Nazis murdered him in 1941. So, one writes, in love and vengeance.

But of the life itself there is much more that cannot be set down in any book, but that moves and speaks in color and sound and scent in the tableaux vivants of the chambers of the mind where the past lives— the lazy warm light of a Sunday afternoon, the taste of fish cakes and rice with tomato sauce and fried peppers in a little Brooklyn kitchen, the crackle of fijuela pastries, the hard sweet rolls called roscas.

Coffee brewing. The voices.

Marguerite Sananes, née Saltiel, shortly after her arrival in New York, ca. 1920 (Courtesy: James Russell)

Stories about Djuha, the holy fool, and the way Grandma told them as cousin Michelle and I hung on every word in enraptured delight: The time he taunted the cat who snatched his fish by saying, “You’ve got the fish, but I have the recipe!” or the time he asked the wind to help him carry the heavy bag of flour he needed to bring home…

The melody of the Greek lullaby Grandma sang “Samiotissa” (“The girl from Samos”) and of the Ladino song “La vida dó por el raki” (“I would give my life for raki!”)

Picnics and laughter.

And still, beyond, remoter memories: a white tower, the flowering Aegean sea, men in fezzes, the hushed Sabbath of Salonica.

And before that, in the backward and abysm of time, wild fig trees in a dry Castilian landscape, and the arabesques adorning the walls of a holy house in Toledo.

It is said that the Holy One, Blessed be He, will accomplish the resurrection of the dead through His perfect memory of all they were and all there was.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.