Despite the fact that my grandparents came from Kiev and Berdichev, my Russian-language skills remain limited to please and thank you.
I could have done with knowing the words for “Please stand still and be interviewed” in Oakland last weekend at Bay Area Limmud FSU — an educational and cultural jamboree for Russian-speaking Jews from the former Soviet Union that at times was a Jewish version of “Where’s Waldo?”
In this case it was “Where’s Natan Sharansky?” as the world-famous former refusenik, now head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, showed that his ability to dodge unwelcome interactions has not left him since his activist days in the USSR. His trick is to say yes to everyone, and then simply disappear.
So when international chess master Grisha Kotlyar, who was playing 20 simultaneous chess games at the Oakland Marriott, where Limmud was held Nov. 17-19, suggested that it would be fun if he and Sharansky played chess together, everyone was enthusiastic.
Even Sharansky was keen. He said yes — and then evaporated. Organizers muttered into their cellphones, but Sharansky was nowhere to be found. Not before Havdalah, not after Havdalah. Vanished.
In the end, Kotlyar won 19 games, with the 20th ending in a draw.
Nevertheless, with or without Sharansky, the 800 mainly Russian-speaking Jews at this first Limmud FSU held in the Bay Area found more than enough to occupy them. Relaxed and free to communicate in their mother tongue, the participants joked, ate, sang and danced as they celebrated both their Jewishness and their Russian identity.
The demographics ranged from small children and feisty teens, each with their own packed schedules, to adults who included former refuseniks who had fought bitterly to leave the Soviet Union.
The Russian speakers, who have made new lives for themselves in the Bay Area, still have a strong sense of Russian-ness, even while exploring their Jewish identity. This could be seen in the enthusiastic response to the Saturday night gala event, with hundreds dressing up in a tribute to the “stilyagi” counterculture of 1950s and ’60s Soviet-era youth.
Bright colors, dirndl skirts, bolo ties, polka-dot hair decorations — the room was a riot of in-your-face rainbow style. And Russian Jews know how to let their hair down. Long after the presenters and VIPs had retired to bed, there was drinking and dancing into the early hours, courtesy of hot Russian band Undervud and Odessa’s sultry torch singer Tatyana Amirova.
Limmud FSU Bay Area was put together after a year’s worth of planning led by co-chairs Leo Hmelnitsky, Eric Fihman and Olga Rybak. Like the original Limmud, founded in Britain in 1980, each conference is volunteer-run, and the Bay Area event was no exception. Eighty volunteers were on hand to ensure the smooth running of the conference, with the occasional hiccups mainly due to troublesome technology.
Almost all of the 80-plus sessions attracted packed audiences. Under the umbrella theme of “Inspire,” sessions reflected the concerns and interests of the participants, with a hefty input of speakers from the social media and technology worlds. In something of a coup, Jan Koum, the Ukrainian Jewish founder of WhatsApp, gave a candid, though off-the-record, presentation. There was a panel on Silicon Valley startups and a close examination of the implications of artificial intelligence on the human race.
On hand for more serious inspiration was Garrett Reisman, the first Jewish astronaut on the International Space Station, while an Israeli who asked to be known only as Engineer X untangled the mysteries of American and Israeli missile defense systems.
Judaism was part of the overall mix, but Limmud FSU tried not to be prescriptive. So its offerings with a twist included two presentations from Abby Stein, the former Hasid who left her community and transitioned from male to female. And the man known as the Hollywood Rabbi, Benzion Klatzko, gave a barnburner of a lecture that was so well attended there was barely room on the floor after chairs and walls and tables filled up.
Tsvia Walden, daughter of the late Shimon Peres, Israel’s ninth president, and Israeli food writer Gil Hovav gave a well-practiced and often hilarious double-act as they explored the roots of the revival of Hebrew — Hovav’s great-grandfather was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, known as the father of modern Hebrew.
Demonstrating considerable versatility, Hovav later wowed the crowds by making industrial quantities of state-of-the-art hummus, pronounced to be the best ever by most tasters.
And there was, of course, politics, as Zionist Union Knesset member Yosef Yonah, who belongs to the peace camp, and Hebron settler Yishai Fleisher, went head-to-head over the two-state solution.
The marquee headliner of the event was Natan Sharansky, whose journey from refusenik to chairman of Israel’s Jewish Agency is familiar to Jews the world over, although he occupies a particular place in the hearts of former Soviet Jews.
Speaking on a panel about the untold story of Soviet Jewry, together with S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation CEO Danny Grossman, who served as a U.S. diplomat in St. Petersburg (known as Leningrad during Soviet times), and former San Francisco Soviet Jewry activist Morey Schapira, Sharansky spoke with passion about the “students and housewives” whom the KGB had disparagingly told refuseniks were the only people who supported them.
It was the sense of family with which the visiting Jewish tourists and the refuseniks bonded, he said, and the sense “that we were not alone, that there was a whole Jewish world out there.”