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Klezfest St.Petersburg 1999

By Sheila Fox

St. Petersburg in June is the time called "white nights". This last summer it was also the third time that Klezfest St. Petersburg occurred. I had the most incredible journey and look into Russian Jewish life. I found that Jewish communities are still very much alive and growing.

The wonderful people of the former Soviet Union that I met are passionately learning or in some cases relearning about their Jewish roots. The 35-40 musicians and singers I performed and learned with for 12 days at Klezfest-St. Petersburg, came from all over Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Lithuania, Byelorussia, Estonia. There were 5 of us from the U.S (2 were teachers, 1, an interpreter, 2 students). Many Russian participants traveled for days and days by train or bus to get there. Russia is huge and taking planes is uncommon. They were young and old, very dedicated to their communities and families. Many of the singers and musicians were conservatory trained. Their warmth and sincerity made me feel so welcomed, almost at home (my great grandfather was a trombone player from St. Petersburg). We shared the same desire and enthusiasm for learning about our Jewish heritage. I felt such tremendous spirit there, in spite of (or now in retrospect) maybe because of the hard conditions under which they live.

The Klezfest program included Yiddish classes, vocal coaching, instrument/ensemble class, chorus, lectures and a total of 4 performances, 2 in St. Petersburg, and the others in Pskov and Novgorod, smaller towns about 5 hours by bus from the city.

Arkady Gendler, a 78 year old man from Zaporozhye, was my Yiddish teacher. It was tough being taught Yiddish in Russian with an English translator. He had lots of stories, about before and after the war. In a town of about 2,000 Jews, he was the only one who remembered or would come forth, with how to do a seder. In 1993, the Hebrew school helped him to organize one. So many people came they had to do another one the next night to accommodate everyone. My vocal coaches were Zalmen Mlotek and Adrienne Cooper, both from New York, who I know from past Klezkamps. If it were not for them, I would not have come to Klezfest. Their rich knowledge and understanding of Yiddish folk and theater songs comes from their life experiences. Both were raised in families that come from music and theater backgrounds. I could listen and watch them both in class and on stage for hours and hours. Zalmen taught chorus as well. What an honor it was to sing with so many beautiful voices and work with such magnificent people.

One lecture I will surely never forget was by Lithuanian, Yiddish writer Masha Rolnikayte, a Vilna ghetto survivor. She was strong and beautiful and 77 years old, I think. She spoke in Yiddish. She was 14 years old when the nazis occupied. She saw the tearing down and the rising back up of the Vilna ghetto theater. She sang in the Hebrew language choir in the torn up theater. Musicians and actors continued to put on shows throughout all the horrid actions. She said at first there was shock in the ghetto; how they could continue to perform like this? But then people saw how it gave strength and spirit and many started to come. Masha came to our repertoire class and Adrienne, our teacher, sang a song that Masha had written lyrics for -- "Moyshe Halt Zikh" (Moyshe Be Strong). She was smiling and nodding her head. Her eyes were beaming.

An exceptional pianist I enjoyed working with, was 25 year old, conservatory trained, Marina Lebenson from Yekaterinburg (a college town famous for the killing of the czar). We used sign and body language, facial expressions and of course the music, to communicate with each other. We really had fun performing together.

One night after one of our concerts at The Actor's House in downtown St. Petersburg, we went on an enchanting boat excursion on the Neva River from 10 pm to 5 am. St. Petersburg is far north, only an hour from Finland and June is the time of "white nights" which provide this incredible pale pink light most of the night.

I was actually quite impressed with what was provided for us, in light of the country's economy. It was made possible through funding from the Jewish Community Development Fund (JCDF), a project of American Jewish World Service. Most of the Russian participants were there on scholarship due to this fund. They had to compete amongst 100 or so applicants. The Jewish renewal and human rights programs that JCDF continues to fund and organize in the former Soviet Union are having a wonderful impact on peoples' lives there. Alik Frenkel, an extraordinary Jewish activist, administrator, and cultural worker heads the St. Petersburg Jewish Community Center. His coworker at Klezfest and wife, Lika was phenomenally effective at running the whole megilla, with help from Eugeny Khazdan, a talented composer and pianist.

Some of the group continued on with our concert tour to Pskov, a small town about 5 hours by bumpy bus ride from St. Petersburg. The small towns we passed through along the way looked as if they could be shtetls from my great-grandfathers time. Little houses of wood, leaning one way or the other with folkart trim around the windows and doors. Little garden plots outside most houses. People working by hand in the fields. People afoot and by bicycle, harvesting berries and nuts from the trees.

Pskov is one of the oldest cities in Russia. We visited the old monastery and kremlin and then met with the woman director of the Jewish community center. Across from the center I saw a Holocaust Memorial, an Eternal Flame burning. Eternal Flames burn in many cities all over Russia.

The concert we gave was enthusiastically received by the under served Jewish community of Pskov. The mostly Jewish audience was all ages, and so beautiful. The younger people, high school and college age, danced in the aisles, eager to hear and learn anything Jewish. Little girls with long braids and little boys dressed in their best, brought flowers up after each singer and then curtsied and bowed amongst thunderous applause. The finale number we all sang was Ale Brider, (All Brothers) and neither the performers or the audience wanted the evening to be over. We were just locked in applause for each other.

The second city on our concert tour was Novgorod. We barely had time to rest after arriving there, when it was time for our concert. We walked through the grounds of a kremlin to get to the concert site, a multicultural center. There was this huge bell, a monument with all the heroes and heroines of Russian history. The workmanship was astounding. During the war, the nazis dismantled the bell some how, and hid it in different places around Novgorod, planning to steal it and transport it back to Germany. The war ended before they could do this and all the pieces were found and put back together again.

The audience response to our concert was again similar to what we had experienced in Pskov. The tradition of youngsters presenting us with flowers, loud and rhythmic applause. This time we joined the audience in dancing and brought them up on stage with us. There were unforgettable beaming faces and sparkling eyes. The moment felt timeless to me.

This was to be our last night altogether. We took a lovely walk at about mid night, I think. You could never tell what time it was till about 4:00 am when it was considerably darker but still this pale pink light prevailed.

The next day we shared presents and songs. I recorded as much Russian, Romanian and whatever other songs people wanted to sing for my Russian friends at the Kline Galland Home back in Seattle. It was a sad day of good-byes as we dropped people off at the bus stations along the way. Fima, Susanne and Anzhela would ride the bus 5 hours to Moscow. Then 36 hours on the train back to Kishinev. Alina and Polina left the night before right after the concert. They had a long train ride back to Kazan. Polina Achkinazi is 1 year married and 5 months pregnant. She is a beautiful singer and musician. She has visited Israel and knows she could move there but she will stay in Kazan because it is where her family is. It is her home. The 15 or so that are left, see us off at the airport. Everyone comes to the very last check point with us. What a group! Today it is sad, it is joy, it is connecting. We feel strong and happy at what we created together. Will we ever see each other again? Next year, Klezfest 2000, we say.

Sheila Fox is the vocalist for Seattle's Klezmer/Ladino quartet, The Kosher Red Hots. For a video and pictoral presentation of Klezfest St. Petersburg 1999, you may contact her at
sjofox@aol.com


Originally published in Jewish Transcript (Seattle, USA).