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Soviet Jews Study Their Lost Religion

September 14, 1989|AMY LOUISE KAZMIN | Times Staff Writer

As he chanted in Hebrew, Arthur Pinchev dipped a burning blue and white braided candle into a silver wine goblet. The flame was extinguished and the nearly 50 Soviet Jews encircling him were left in momentary darkness.

It was a traditional Habdalah, the Jewish ritual marking the end of Shabbat and the beginning of a new week.

The lights came up, illuminating the bright, excited faces of the participants--recent immigrants ranging in age from 5 to 75 who had been unable to practice their religion until they left the Soviet Union. They had come from throughout Southern California to the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley for a three-day retreat to study the basic traditions of Judaism. Few had ever witnessed a Habdalah.

"It is like a mystery, I have never experienced anything like this before," Tamara Korotkina, 59, said through a translator.

Korotkina immigrated to the United States from Leningrad less than two months ago to join her daughter and son-in-law, who came to this country last year. Her eyes glowed as she affirmed that she will continue to practice the ritual and learn more about her religion when she returns to her new home in Arcadia.

Sketchy Knowledge

Most Jews in the Soviet Union have only a sketchy knowledge of the values, beliefs and practices of their religion because, until recently, the Communist government has prohibited them from studying Judaism. With this in mind, the Los Angeles Jewish Federation Council's Bureau of Jewish Education invites recent immigrants to weekend retreats such as the one at Brandeis-Bardin to help educate them about their religion.

"Most Soviet Jews have a negative Jewish identity. Their Jewishness has been defined for them by anti-Semitism," said Rabbi Victor Rashkovsky, who was born in the Soviet Union and immigrated to the United States in 1973. "They have had negative things brought to their lives because of their Jewishness, but they have no positive Jewish identity--nothing to be proud of."

Rashkovsky, who became a rabbi 10 years after arriving in the United States, came from Tennessee to lead discussions and services in Russian for recent immigrants, most of whom came to this country in the last two years as a result of a turnabout in Soviet immigration policy. Many of the new arrivals have an intense desire to explore their religion.

No rabbis have been ordained in the Soviet Union since the Bolsheviks closed the rabbinical schools during the 1917 revolution, so Soviet Jews only learn what family members pass down, Rashkovsky said. Therefore, many have only a minimal knowledge of the history and heritage of their people when they leave the Soviet Union, he said.

"Most of them didn't know anything about Jewish tradition. For them, being Jewish was something ethnic, an identification with the past, present and future of the Jewish people," Rashkovsky said.

During the retreat, which began with Sabbath services and concluded Sunday morning with brunch, the recently arrived Soviet Jews experienced a traditional Shabbat weekend, with services, Hebrew songs and Israeli folk dancing, led by Pinchev, the program director of Brandeis-Bardin. They had open discussions about being Jewish in American society and asked questions they might be embarrassed to ask an American-born rabbi.

"It is easier for them to talk to me because they know I would never laugh at them, no matter how basic their questions. I know where they are coming from because I share their unfortunate background," Rashkovsky said.

While growing up in the Soviet Union, Rashkovsky said he never practiced Jewish rituals. He read a little ancient Jewish history and he knew about Israel, but that was the extent of his knowledge about his religion and its beliefs. Still, he said, he was denied a place as a full-time university student because he was Jewish.

Sofia Kashper, 64, a participant in this weekend's program, grew up in Leningrad. She recalled that she could never escape feeling that she was "a second person--not number one" because she was Jewish.

"How can you forget it? On every document, on every paper, it is written that you are Jewish," Kashper said. "It is a shame."

She said she knew virtually nothing about her religion. Until she married a Jewish man from the Ukraine, she said, she had never heard of Yom Kippur, the most sacred Jewish holiday, when Jews fast and pray for forgiveness for all their sins.

Kashper was as a professor in a music conservatory across the street from the old Leningrad synagogue, which she said she never dared enter. "I knew if I go to the temple I would be fired," she said in English.

Chased Out of Synagogue

Others at the weekend retreat told similar stories.

Felix Rubinstein, who immigrated from Kiev just over a year ago with his wife, Marina, and their 5-year-old son, said he was once chased out of the Kiev synagogue after he brought in some American tourists who had stopped him and asked for directions.

"The director asked me who I was, and I told him I was Russian," Rubinstein said. "He told me to get out and said I couldn't be there. The Americans didn't know what was happening." He said he believes that most people who work in synagogues are informants for the KGB.

Rubinstein and his wife said they are thrilled to have the opportunity to freely practice their religion.

"It's very exciting. I want to learn more. I have a son who is 5 years old and I want to give him a Jewish education. I want him to know more than me and my husband and my parents," Marina Rubinstein said.

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