Back In (And Before) The USSR
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Back In (And Before) The USSR

New Hunter course, created by a successful young émigré, highlights the history of Russian/Soviet Jewry.

Nearly all the seats in a 10th-floor classroom at Hunter College were filled last week when three émigrés from the former Soviet Union — all of whom have successful careers and family lives in the United States — told about their new lives here.

While the front rows were filled with senior citizens from the area, auditors in the new Jewish studies course that brought the panel to the Upper East Side, in the rest of the seats were a few dozen undergraduates, Jews and non-Jews, including some born in the former Soviet Union. They enrolled in “Russian and Soviet Jewish History” to fulfill an intellectual curiosity but many found the course spiritually fulfilling as well.

Which means success for Leonard Petlakh.

A native of Belarus who came to New York with his family two decades ago and became a Jewish studies major at Hunter, Petlakh thought up and helped the design the course at his alma mater.

Petlakh, who has worked his way up the Jewish communal ladder — he has worked since 2006 as executive director of the Kings Bay Y in Brooklyn — decided last year that Hunter, part of the CUNY system, should offer the type of course about his homeland’s Jewish community that was not available when he studied there in the early 1990s. He found funding from philanthropists for the course to be offered for at least three years, and is among three people who this semester taught the course, which holds its final session next week.

A course on the history of Russian-Soviet Jewry “should be a standard part of Jewish studies” at every university, said Petlakh, who taught the sessions about Russian-Jewish literature and helped line up a roster of guest speakers. Such a course, he said, offers a window into a “unique” part of Jewish history and into the Soviet émigré community, which now constitutes an estimated 20 percent of New York City’s Jewish community.

Petlakh lobbied for Hunter (one of the first public colleges in the country to offer undergraduates a course in Hebrew, in the 1940s) to add the new course to its interdisciplinary offerings in Jewish studies (including such courses as Jewish History in the Ancient World, American Jewish History and Masterpieces of Yiddish Literature in Translation), because few Americans know much about Soviet Jewry beyond the “Let My People Go” campaigns that were conducted in this country before the Iron Curtain fell.

The course was an instant hit when it debuted at Hunter earlier this year, attracting nearly 50 students, said Robert Seltzer, professor of history and director of the college’s Jewish Studies Program. “We could have had more people.”

Petlakh, who has served as director of Hillel chapters at two local universities and as assistant executive director of the Hebrew Free Loan Society, said he had another motivation for encouraging Hunter to offer the course: to spark students’ interest in their Jewish heritage.

As a Jew growing up in the former Soviet Union during the final years of Communism, Petlakh, then known as Leonid, learned nothing about Judaism.
As a student at Hunter, he learned about Judaism but nothing about the onetime Jewish life in his homeland.

Petlakh, winner of a 1994 essay contest — sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and the Hillel Foundations (on “What Being Jewish Means To Me”) and a 2010 nominee in the Jewish Federations of North America Jewish Community Heroes competition (for his role in revitalizing the Kings Bay Y), wanted to reach out to a younger generation of Soviet-born students.

He saw a college course as a perfect vehicle. Russian Jewry, those who lived between St. Petersburg in the west and Vladivostok in the east, is overlooked, he said.

Russian Jewry often finds itself in the academic shadow of the Jews of Eastern Europe (the fabled Jews of the shtetl) and of the Jews of Germany, whence came the Enlightenment and other modern Jewish movements, said Seltzer. He, a specialist in late 19th-century and early 20th-century Jewish history, and Edith Rogovin Frankel, a veteran professor at the Hebrew University who handles politics and government, co-taught the course with Petlakh. The curriculum traced the history of Russian Jewry from ancient and medieval times to the Jewish mass migration that peaked two decades ago. “The story of the Russian Jewry has decisively shaped the history of Jews in modern times an many ways,” the course description states. “Russian Jewry was one of the most important branches of the Jewish people in the late tsarist and Soviet periods, but also indirectly in the history of the Jews of the United States, the State of Israel, and other lands.”

“It’s not ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’” Petlakh said.

The course, he says, offers students who grew up in émigré families the facts to buttress family stories heard at home.

“It helps them to know their [own] background,” he said.

After last week’s panel discussion, a few students drew up seats in the back of the classroom and shared their impressions of the course.
Michael Shnayderman, 23, who lives on Staten Island and came at 5 from Uzbekistan, said he has faint memories of Jewish life in the Soviet Union. The course has taught him about the Jewish community’s history and culture, he said. It has “definitely strengthened” his ties to Judaism.

Yevgeniya Rothshteyn, 21, who comes from St. Petersburg and lives in Washington Heights, said it has helped her better understand why her parents emphasize the importance of marrying within the faith. Because of the course and a Birthright Israel trip, she said she feels “more connected” to Jewish tradition.

A third student, Vakhtang Shevardenidze, a resident of Jackson Height, Queens, is a Christian native of Soviet Georgia. The course, he says, helped him put into perspective the Georgians’ struggle for equality as an ethnic minority in the Soviet Union. “We share pretty much the same values as Jews.”

Petlakh says it is too early to tell what changes the course will reflect when it is next offered next spring.

It is likely that its formal curriculum will again conclude with the end of the Soviet rule.

Post-communism, “it could be my own story,” Petlakh says. Which is not the point of the course. “This is history.”

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