‘Toyve the Black Cantor’ and His 1930 World Tour

When celebrated African-American Yiddish soloist Thomas Larue crossed the Atlantic, he didn't know what was in store...

Billed as "The greatest wonder in the world", reactions to LaRue's appearances in Europe varied greatly (Poster image source: The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research)

Edvin Relkin the 50 year-old promoter of the provocative and attention-grabbing LaRue world tour, worked his way up from a childhood as a Yiddish theater candy butcher to become a leading director. The audacious tour idea seemed to offer unlimited possibilities with a heretofore untapped market: a European audience which had rarely even seen a Black person let alone one who spoke like a native Yiddishist.

After lining up two producers in Poland, Relkin, whom Variety dubbed “The East Side Yiddish showman”, lived up to that appellation and took what was already an eyebrow raising experience – an articulate and accomplished Black man who had mastered singing in Jewish languages and styles – and transformed it into a living musical diorama of Jewish history underscored by the chosen concert itinerary: Palestine, Egypt, Western and Eastern Europe.

“The Greatest Sensation in Europe! Just one concert of the famous American Black Cantor (Negro) Toyvye the Black Cantor in a program of cantorial compositions and Yiddish folk songs.” Advertisement appearing in Haynt, 9 October, 1930. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

For the tour, Thomas LaRue was transformed into “Toyve Ha’Cohen,” the last part added for its implied “in-your-face” inference of his Jewish priestly lineage. Gone, too, was the story of the inner city child of a single mother who favored the company of Jews, now rebranded with a more colorful creation myth which toggled between: “…a Jew descended from generations of the Ten Lost Tribes in the city of Bet El Set between Abyssinia and Arabia,” (Republika Lodz, November 26, 1930) to his being “…a Shabtis, [a descendant of the followers of the 17th century false messiah, Shabbtai Zvi] with a father who was a healer and made herbal elixirs as did Toyve himself in New York” (Dos Naye Lebn, Bilaystock, October 24, 1930).

In the November 21st edition of Unzer Grodner Express, Ha’Cohen’s father was “…named Petrosi, a very cultured man who was a high official in local Abyssinian government, while his mother Alia, died when he was young.” And in order to explain (however improbably) LaRue’s New Jersey residence, Unzer Grodner Moment Express on November 21 noted that his father “…wanted him to be a fully realized Jew, so he was sent to study with a Russian rabbi in Newark.”

After the initial announcement in the June 1928 issue of Variety, the tour was finally ready to begin.

On September 19, 1930 several Polish Yiddish papers ran the following story:

Cairo (Jewish Telegraphic Agency) En route to Europe, a concert was given here by the Black Cantor from New York where he is known as ‘Toyve the Black Cantor.’ The Black cantor’s program of cantorial hymns and Yiddish folk songs elicited great interest and his large audiences had many non-Jews.”


The tour’s first European stop was Warsaw, the jewel in the crown of cantorial cities, given its world-renowned synagogues. Warsaw Jewish audiences were tough. Their enthusiastic devotion to cantorial singing split the difference between being about spiritual or esthetic uplift and being an aggressive blood sport.

The Great Synagogue of Warsaw, early 20th century. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

It was the latter which LaRue would experience at his premier.

In an unsigned October 10 Unzer Express concert review, the author makes clear at the outset (and at the close too, for good measure) that Eddie Rankin’s Polish partners were two “shady characters” who had earlier produced a disastrous cantorial concert leaving angry attendees demanding refunds, with the promoters nowhere to be found. This, then, was the Warsaw community (and Unzer Express) declaring war on the impresarios via the Toyve concert.

Knowing that they had previously been conned by the “shady characters,” everyone figured that the “Black Cantor” was a scam, too.

When LaRue stepped onto the stage, Conservatory Hall was largely empty but for some comped guests, a handful of intrepid curious and the ubiquitous confrontational hecklers in the gallery (at one point, they derisively called out “Sing ‘Sonny Boy!'” referring to the Al Jolson hit of the previous season).

Warsaw Conservatory, early 20th century (Public Domain)

And, despite LaRue not being the primary target of the boycott, the collateral damage he experienced was decisive, resulting in a truncated 50 minute concert with what little audience there was streaming out. It was capped off with a corrosive poison pen hit-piece in Unzer Express chastising LaRue for his stage mannerisms, his cantorial singing being influenced by 78 rpms, and even his Jewishness.

On the Unzer Express humor page, opposite the scathing review, a cartoon (which may appear offensive by today’s standards) continues to jab at the producers accused of booking someone who doesn’t even know how to read from a prayerbook:

“The ‘Cantor’ With His Apprentice. Impresario: Ivan! [shorthand name for a Gentile] Black Man! Turn the prayerbook right-side up. How are you holding it?” Published in the Unzer Express, 10 October 1930. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection


“Toyvele, the Black cantor demonstrated here that the defamation he faced in the pages of a well known Warsaw newspaper was completely without merit.”

So ran the lead line in the October 29 review of LaRue’s Bialystock concert. The paper, Dos Naye Leben (The New Life) had been fans of LaRue’s since 1921 when they re-ran an ecstatic review from New York’s Morgn Zhurnal about LaRue in “Yente Telebende.”

The paper rolled out the red carpet for LaRue giving him three features including an October 24 sit down with their editor:

“…he is a genial young man of not just looks but his speech makes it seem as if the waters of the Jewish Diaspora have cascaded down upon him…”

The writer also deflated the charge in the Warsaw paper about LaRue’s reliance on commercial sound recordings by deftly acknowledging it:

True, his cantorial prayers sound as if he learned them off phonograph records and lack the burning immediacy of traditional cantorial improvisation, but the same can be said for a hundred percent of modern cantors even those who are currently practicing.”

And finally, a stellar October 29th concert review:

“...the audience gave him several standing ovations not allowing him to go on with the rest of the concert…. He is an unrivaled master worthy of the kind of praise heaped upon opera singers. In bestowing sincerity, honesty and artistic heart in each of his songs, you experience his true artistry.”


After appearing in Grodno on October 25th, then traveling to Leipzig and Berlin at the beginning of November, Larue returned to Grodno towards the end of the month amid a flurry of intense local interest, with Unzer Grodner Express (Our Grodno Express) reporting on November 20:

” …the Black cantor arrives here direct from Berlin where his concerts in their largest concert hall generated such a colossal response that he had to increase to 12 his scheduled three concerts… The Berlin music critics were effusive in their praise of the Black cantor in the Berliner Tageblatt, Vossische Zeitung, Morgen Post and many others. Reviewers were captivated by the concerts so it would stand to reason that in Grodno – where we know a thing or two about cantors – his imminent arrival has generated so much interest.” 

The tour ends

Following a performance in Lodz, LaRue would end his European tour where it started in Warsaw, as a guest of the Polish state radio in a concert of cantorial songs, thus having the last word in the city which gave his European tour its terrible start.

There would be a small European coda when LaRue returned to Europe the following year. An Associated Press dispatch in the April 13, 1931 New York Times noted that Toyve Ha’Cohen had just sung at the Hungarian Academy of Music in Budapest. Curiously, there appear to be no mentions of LaRue in the New York Times for any of his local New York performances.

In 1936, LaRue’s old employers, Jacobs and Goldberg (for whom he did Dos Khupe Kleyd and Yente Telebende), brought him back to the theater in the drama Di Falshe Tokhter (The False Daughter) at Brooklyn’s Parkway theater, having lost their Harlem Lenox Theater during The Depression. LaRue’s appearance – in a specially created “cabaret” scene – not only made it into the Yiddish press, but was also carried in the October 10th edition of the African-American newspaper The Amsterdam News.

One preview notice for a 1936 New Year’s eve concert and dinner dance at a synagogue in East Orange, New Jersey reveals the kind of complicated dynamic between LaRue and the communities he served. Atypically, LaRue is not singing cantorial and Yiddish music, but leading something called “The Bumble Bees Radio Broadcast Orchestra” and, in a reprise of an appearance at their last New Year party, organized and MC’d a minstrel show replete with “coon shouters” (blues singers).

The last known LaRue appearance is for a December 1953 Hanukah concert in his native Newark.

LaRue remains a cypher, occasionally visible in articles and display ads in period newspapers as a performer but also naggingly invisible there, too as a man.

LaRue inhabited a curious niche within the Jewish community, an uneasy mix of being apart from and a part of it.

Did he marry? Did he have children? Did he attend a synagogue when not performing synagogue music? What did he do between the ever-decreasing Jewish concerts? For that matter, was he even Jewish?

The kind of music culture in which LaRue had invested himself would, in the outwash of the Holocaust, go into a freefall with post-War Jewish audiences for whom the old time florid soloistic cantorial style gave way to milder “congregational singing,” while Yiddish, a major Jewish language and its attendant culture would decline after a majority of its speakers were murdered and its fecund old world communities destroyed.

Thomas LaRue’s final resting place was recently discovered in Linden, New Jersey, yet it is tragic that when he passed away, he certainly may not have been honored in the traditional way, which would have greatly resonated: to the strains of “El Mole Rachamim,” the prayer for the dead, a cornerstone intonation in the traditional cantorial repertoire, and something with which LaRue would have been intimately familiar.


A version of this article appeared on Henry Sapoznik’s Research BlogIt 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.

The Jewish Book That Revealed the Secrets of the Heavens

In 1600, three scholars from completely different worlds met in the “New Venice” castle outside Prague. The meeting lasted three weeks and resulted in a Hebrew astronomy book, as well as in a lesson about the unifying power of love for the sciences and the quest for knowledge

Our story begins in 1599, when Tycho Brahe, the Danish astronomer and nobleman, arrived in the city of Prague in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), at the invitation of Emperor Rudolf II, after he was forced to flee his own country. Rudolf II, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, was known for his interest in art, the sciences and alchemy. After moving his court from Vienna to Prague, the city became a magnet for artists and scientists. At the time, Prague was an oasis of tolerance in an empire divided by religious tensions. The city’s splintered religious communities managed to live together in relative harmony.

The same calm prevailed in the Jewish Quarter. Its Hebrew printing house, which was one of the first of its kind in Central and Eastern Europe, had transformed Prague into a center of Hebrew learning. At the same time, the Prague Beit Midrash (a Jewish “house of learning”), headed by the famous Rabbi Judah Loew Ben Bezalel, also known as the Maharal of Prague, attracted scholars from across the Jewish world. One of the Maharal’s students was David Gans, who despite his rabbinical education, was drawn to Renaissance culture and began writing studies on history and the sciences in Hebrew.

The crowded living conditions and various plagues that swept through the Jewish Quarter led the curious scholar to leave Prague, but he diligently continued his studies. At some point, he heard that the most famous astronomer of the day, Tycho Brahe, had relocated his great observatory and astronomy research center to the “New Venice” castle north of Prague, not far from the village where Gans was then living. With a dose of good old-fashioned Jewish chutzpah, the industrious self-taught Gans, who had no formal scientific education, decided to pay a visit to the castle and see how he might gain access and perhaps learn some of the secrets of the universe.

The “New Venice” castle today in Benátky nad Jizerou, Czech Republic

Surprisingly, Gans received a warm welcome, and he remained at the castle for three weeks (likely excluding Fridays and Saturdays), learning from the best minds of the time. He described impressive and complex measuring tools beyond his imagination, as Brahe was known to have made his many discoveries without the aid of the telescope, which was still in its infancy as a scientific tool. While at the observatory, Gans also met and studied with Brahe’s assistant, Johannes Kepler, who was himself destined for greatness in the field of science. Gans also made his own humble contribution by translating Hebrew astronomical texts that were otherwise unavailable to Brahe and Kepler.

Illustration from the Jessnitz print edition of Gans’ book, Neḥmad VeNa’im

Gans wrote the Hebrew book Neḥmad VeNa’im (“Nice and Pleasant”) in which he recounts his meeting with the two great scientists and what he saw and learned while he was in their company. He describes in detail the impressive observatory, and how Brahe would “seclude himself there with his wise men . . . and . . . sit with twelve men, all wise and astute in science . . . and the great analytical tools never before seen and the thirteen rooms all in a row which the emperor had built him, and a special tool in each room.” Gans also explains how the tools were used to calculate astronomical and geographical measurements, thus separating the Ptolemaic cosmological knowledge he was familiar with, from the innovative Copernican astronomy he encountered.

In that time, the distinctions dividing science and mysticism, as well as astronomy and astrology, were fairly blurry. In fact, many scientists and scholars, Brahe and Kepler included, dabbled in occultism. Gans devoted some of his sketches to an explanation of the zodiac, but these were clearly separate from the main content of his book. Apparently, this distinction was intended to alert readers to the value of scientific observation over mystical divination. Furthermore, Gans makes a number of statements in the book that deny the use of astronomy as a means of foreknowledge and argues that this form of knowledge is misguided, and that even the slightest use of the zodiac [as a scientific tool] was wrong in his view. It seems that Neḥmad VeNa’im’s purist, Copernican viewpoint led to a later printing in 1743, 130 years after Gans’ death.

Brahe died about a year after his encounter with Gans and was buried in splendor in the Church of Our Lady before Týn, in the Old Town of Prague. Kepler moved to Prague for a few years where he served as a scientist in service to the court. He resided just a few minutes’ walk from the Jewish Quarter, where Gans had returned to live. We know that Kepler and Gans maintained a correspondence, apparently communicating in German peppered with Hebrew, which Kepler remembered from his studies at the University of Tübingen. According to Neḥmad VeNa’im, Kepler even claimed that the solar system moved elliptically, similar to the Hebrew letter khaf (כ). In 1613, the same year that David Gans died, Kepler left Prague in order to further his research and thus ended the story of these three scholars – a Danish nobleman, a German burgher and a rabbinical Renaissance man – brought together through their curiosity and love of knowledge and science.

One no longer need infiltrate a remote castle to discover what Gans was so eager to learn. His book can now be read on the National Library of Israel website in the original Hebrew. A number of manuscript copies of Neḥmad VeNa’im are also available.

Illustration included in a manuscript copy of Neḥmad VeNa’im


Further Reading:

Jewish Thought and the Scientific Revolution of the Sixteenth Century: David Gans (1541-1613) and His Times, André Neher, translated from the French by David Maisel, Oxford University Press, 1986


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.