Chabad on the Bowery recently played host to a group of young Jews, some wearing kippot or long skirts, others less clearly Jewish-affiliated. What made this event singular was that most of its attendees were speaking Russian or Russian-tinged English.
Corroborating Gary Rosenblatt’s recent article in The Jewish Week, which described how some young Russian Jews, “considered among the most unaffiliated and at-risk…in terms of Jewish identity” are finding their way back to Judaism, these young people were there under the auspices of COJECO’s Blueprint Fellowship, a series of cultural programs for young Russian-speaking Jewish adults. The evening’s program, “Re:Turn,” a joint photography exhibition and literary reading, featured the works of two young Blueprint fellows who reflect this trend towards Jewish involvement both in their lives and in their art.
Avital Chizhik, born in the U.S. to Russian immigrant parents and baalei teshuva, was brought up in the mainstream Orthodox world. But, Chizhik, a journalist whose essays have appeared in The New York Times, Tablet and Haaretz, seems to have maintained a certain Russian skepticism despite her immersion in that world. Her essays, along with the two short stories she read at the event, displayed the knowledge and familiarity of the insider with the detachment and objectivity of the looker-on. The stories, part of a yet unreleased collection called “In the Eighteenth Minute,” painted the Russian-Jewish émigré experience with a mixture of poignancy and humor, while exposing the contradictions and idiosyncrasies of orthodox Jewish life. Based on the appreciative chortles that resounded in the room throughout the reading, her references and descriptions clearly resonated with her audience.
Anna Chana Demidova, who is a student in economics at Columbia and an accomplished photographer, followed a different trajectory. Born in Belarus, she described her photographs both as a tribute to the Orthodox community that supported her and her family throughout their arduous journey to and in the U.S. and as a letter of support for Russian Jews returning to their heritage. At first glance, the photographs are simple shots of everyday observance: a newly-married couple dressed modestly; a child lighting a Chanukah menorah; young men studying. But like the young audience, the photos are distinguished not by their subject matter but by their subject — Russian Jews involved in their Judaism. From a group that seemed impervious to religion after their many years of Soviet-enforced divorce, these everyday activities are counter-intuitive, defiant, even heroic, each act of observance worth recording.
COJECO Blueprint Fellowship hosted "Re:Turn", a joint photography exhibition and literary salon, featuring the photographs of Anna Chana Demidova and the short fiction of Avital Chizhik. The COJECO (Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations) BluePrint Fellowship is a year-long program for Russian-speaking Jewish adults ages 25-40 to explore personal and collective identity through the creation of community projects, funded by the UJA-Federation of New York and Genesis Philanthropy Group.
Gloria Kestenbaum is a corporate communications consultant and freelance writer.