english | русский


Publishing project

Shtetl. XXI cent. Field studies. Collection of Articles. Ed. by V.A. Dymshits, A.L. L’vov, A.V. Sokolova. St. Petersburg. 2008. 292 p.
The articles published in the present collection are based on materials collected during the expedition schools of 2005-2007 in three small Ukrainian towns: Tulchin, Balta, and Mogilev-Podolsk. These towns contain small Jewish communities (fifty to one hundred families) that represent a branch of Soviet Jewry commonly believed to have ceased to exist after the Second World War. For us—professors, students, and graduate students from universities in the capitals—these were "other Jews." They differed from Jews living in major cities in terms of their names, language, habits, and most important, their experience of living in a "Jewish town."
During the war, the majority of the Jewish population from Tulchin and Mogilev-Podolsk was deported to the Pechora concentration camp, not far from Tulchin. Many of these people died from starvation and disease, but about a quarter of them survived. In Balta, Jews were consigned to the ghetto located within the town limits.
The culture of these Jews was formed during the first decades of Soviet rule as a result of mass Yiddish-language cultural production. However, when Jewish schools were closed at the end of the thirties, the impact of written texts precipitously diminished: most of our informants do not know the Jewish alphabet and cannot read Yiddish. Until the late eighties and early nineties, the oral "mimetic" tradition played the leading role in the culture of the Soviet shtetl. Only in the last ten or fifteen years has a new Russian-language Jewish literature emerged, along with Jewish organizations whose interactions with local Jewish communities and their traditions are complex.
The notion of the shtetl played three distinct yet interrelated roles in our research. First, we were interested in the contemporary life of Jewish communities — that is, the "post-Soviet shtetl" with its specific culture: its own system of values, language, rituals, and folklore. Second, we tried to trace the influence of shtetl mythology on the ways local inhabitants conceived of their past. Third, with a certain degree of caution, we can hypothesize that certain of the cultural practices we witnessed as well as some of the texts that we recorded were also typical for shtetls of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Only one article in the collection places the notion of the shtetl (and the related Russian notion of mestechko, or "township") at the center of discussion. Alia Sokolova analyzes how this notion was transformed into an abstraction, a Jewish lieu de memoire, and then later returned to thecultural landscape where it had once originated. The collective memory of township inhabitants ascribes value to "monuments of Jewish antiquity" — not only synagogues and cemeteries, but also ordinary houses whose architecture is typical for commercial town centers.
The ethno-confessional boundaries of Jewish towns and townships, which according to the myth of the shtetl insured its "near-total cultural and social isolation," were certainly not totally impermeable. One type of interaction that took place on these borderlines, the offering of matzo to non-Jews, is discussed in Alexander Lvov's article. His analysis of this practice, as well as of various notions associated with it, allows him to interpret the role of ethnic stereotypes (in particular, the "blood libel") in everyday interactions from a new perspective.
The notion of the "culture of the shtetl," as its critics emphasize, is not synonymous with that of "Jewish culture." Yet it was precisely the shtetl that was chosen by the founder of Jewish ethnography and folklore studies, S.A. An-sky, as the site of Jewish "folk culture." One of the main aims of our expeditions was to continue the line of research initiated by An-sky. In their article, S. Amosova and S. Nikolaeva present contemporary materials on Jewish birth rites, which they collected in keeping with An-sky's program. A structuralist-semiotic interpretation of the rites is combined here with an analysis of its transformation during Soviet times. Particular attention is paid to the practice of name giving as it is related to traditional ideas about interactions between the living and the dead.
In her article, A. Kushkova discusses ikhes ("origin", "nobility"), one of the key notions that determined a person's status in traditional Jewish society. The content of this hard-to-define notion was, of course, transformed during the Soviet period. In particular, alongside traditional religious learning, whose significance became secondary because of its absence amongst post-Soviet Jews, the article shows that the contemporary notion of ikhes encompasses secular education and the qualities associated with the "intelligentsia," which are highly valued by present-day city dwellers. However, for many of our informants the term ikhes has lost its original meaning, and has been preserved only in ironic phrases such as ikhes in bud ("ikhes in the bathhouse") or ikhes-tukhes (which we leave untranslated here).
An analysis of the ideas and practices related to cemetery visits has enabled Valery Dymshits to demonstrate the systemic character of tradition in the contemporary shtetl. Interaction with the world of the dead is not only determined by the prohibitions and prescriptions known to most Jews, but has its basis in the system of beliefs about the "life" of the dead and the rules for communicating with them. This communication requires knowledge of certain ritual formulas in Yiddish, e.g., loyf in beyt ("run and beseech"). As Dymshits shows, inhabitants of the post-Soviet shtetl consider it unacceptable to address the dead with such words during Jewish holidays or at night, when the dead "should rest."
In our expeditions, the stress on Jewish "folk culture" was combined with other anthropological approaches and models. The article by M. Khakkarainen discusses "old Jewish professions" in the context of globalization processes. Manual labor, which was accorded low prestige in a Jewish society that was traditionally oriented towards book learning, is romanticized in present-day narratives of family histories and local pasts. As Khakkarainen shows, these narratives have become an important means of constructing ethnic and local specificity (or "indigenization," to borrow Arjun Appadurai's term).
Sonia Izard's article focuses on the economy of the Jewish wedding and reveals the role of informal economic relations in the Jewish community. During the Soviet period, weddings were one of the few officially permitted public events in which Jews could openly express their ethnic and religious differences. Many people, primarily Jews, were involved in the informal economic activity related to the preparation and conduct of weddings. Izard shows how this helped maintain and strengthen social networks in Jewish communities.
The article co-authored by M. Alekseevsky, A. Zherdeva, M. Lurje, and A. Senkina represents one branch of contemporary folklore studies: the interpretation of the "urban" or "local" text. This article offers a new method of presenting these texts — in the form of a dictionary. Each of its eight entries is a brief yet complete analysis of various aspects of the urban culture of Mogilev-Podolsk—e.g., the "Bourse" (the unofficial name for a place in the town); wine cellars; the "bird cuttery" (the site of kosher poultry slaughter in Soviet times); the filming of Pavel Korchagin (which took place here in the fifties); and Abram Kordon, the legendary director of the town's main factory.
The final section of the collection presents materials related to the ethnography and folklore of Podolian Jews: a description of ideas and practices associated with the "evil eye" (M. Kaspina) and the wedding ritual (V. Fedchenko); and the repertoire of Yiddish songs remembered and performed in the present-day shtetl (D. Gidon and V. Fedchenko). This selection does not, of course, pretend to be complete. Rather, it demonstrates the prospects for using field materials in the reconstruction of "shtetl culture" and the study of its transformations in the Soviet period.

published with the support of the AVI CHAI foundation and Chase Family Foundation


The First Jewish Museum in Russia. Exhibition 5. Catalogue. St. Petersburg. 2009. 32 p.



Photographs into the "Album of Jewish Artistic Antiquities".Exhibition 4. part 1. Catalogue. St. Petersburg. 2007.



Photographs into the "Album of Jewish Artistic Antiquities". Exhibition 4. part 2. Catalogue. St. Petersburg. 2007.



Jewish Nursery Room. Exhibition 3. Catalogue. St. Petersburg. 2005.



"Brothers and sisters in work and need!" Jewish workers and craftsmen before the Revolution. Exhibition 2. Catalogue. St. Petersburg. 2005.



"Young man’s experiences in photographic works". Artistic photographs by Solomon Yudovin, 1912 -1914. Exhibition 1. Catalogue. St. Petersburg. 2005.

Photographs from the Museum of Petersburg Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society.

The fragment of the photographic collection from the Museum of Petersburg Jewish Historical-Ethnographic society, kept in the archives of the of "Petersburg Judaica" Center, contains 320 photographs. They are of different origin, yet the nucleus of the collection, both quantitatively and qualitatively, consists of photographs made by Solomon Yudovin (later, a well-known Soviet draughtsman) during folklore-and-ethnography expeditions of 1912-1914. Semion Akimovich An-sky, a writer and a public figure, organized these expeditions that became the turning point in the studies of the culture of Eastern European Jews. Altogether, in the period of 1912-1914, An-sky conducted three expeditions to towns and shtetls of South-Western Ukraine (Volyn', Podolia, and Kiev provinces). WWI and the revolution prevented further expeditions.

The destiny has disposed it so that these expeditions left behind not so much the reports, but the legends: their materials were hardly ever published, the collections were destroyed and disseminated among various museums and archives. As a matter of fact, the major result of these expeditions was the famous drama The Dybbuk written by the "father of Jewish ethnography," S. An-sky.

The plan to publish of the photographic album that would reflect various aspects of Jewish people's life and art was not implemented — in spite of the fact that, according to memoirs left by A. Rechtman, a participant of the exhibitions, their photographic archive contained about 1,500 photoes. Materials of An-sky' expeditions, including photographs, were preserved in the Museum of Petersburg Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society, which was situated in the building of the Jewish almshouse founded and named after to A.M. Ginzburg (5th Line, Vasil'evsky Island, H. 50). In 1929 the Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society and its museum were closed, and the photographic collection was partly distributed among various museums of Russia, Israel and the United States. Presently "Petersburg Judaica" Center holds the largest fragment of the photographic collection from the Museum of Petersburg Historical-Ethnographic Society.

The "life course" of these photographs is rather curious. At least since the middle of 1950s they were kept by the famous artist Natan Altman, who used them for his illustrations to the "Selected Works" of Sholem Aleichem (1957). It is not known where these photographs were kept between 1929, when the Jewish museum was closed, and 1957, when they were used by Altman. Yet one can assume that it was Yudovin who handed them overto Altman, for Yudovin had been the main curator of the museum till the very end. It is known that the closing of the museum was rather chaotic, and Yudovin, who lived in the museum building, succeeded in preserving a number of materials at home. Later he gave a part of them to the Museum of Ethnography of the peoples of the USSR in Leningrad (now Russian Ethnographic Museum), and another part was sold by his descendents to various collections. No doubt, the major part of materials hidden by Yudovin were pictures; the more so, because he himself was the author of the largest part of the photpgraphic collection, Yudovin (as well as later on Altman) made an extensive use of compositions and motifs of this collection in his graphic works. The fragment of the photographic collection from the Museum of Petersburg Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society, kept in the archive of "Petersburg Judaica" Center, contains primarily Yudovin's expedition pictures. They represent inhabitants of Ukrainian shtetls; Jewish artisans and workers (largely due to An-sky's socialist beliefs); synagogues and monuments of Jewish folk art. The photographs catch the instances of expedition work, portraits of its participants, the exhibition based on the results of the expedition, prepared by An-sky in 1913.

A series of exhibitions dedicated to archival photographs from the Museum of Petersburg Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society allows casting a glance into the world of shtetl on the eve of the impending catastrophes of the 20th c.




Photographing the Jewish Nation Pictures from S. An-sky's Ethnographic Expeditions Eugene M. Avrutin, ed. Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry Series Brandeis University Press University Press of New England 2009. 228 pp. 182 illus. 8 x 10"

From 1912 to 1914, S. An-sky and the photographer Solomon Iudovin gathered materials and took photographs of Jewish daily life in pre-Revolutionary Russia’s Pale of Settlement. Photographing the Jewish Nation offers English-language readers their first look at over 170 extraordinary, recently rediscovered photographs from their expeditions. The pictures provide visual texture in remarkable detail that rarely appears in written sources. This volume includes a critical introduction and five chapters that document all aspects of Jewish life inside the Pale, including work, education, and religious and cultural traditions.


The Hope and the Illusion (The search a Russian Jewish homeland A remarkable period in the history of ORT). Photo Album. World ORT 2006. 157p.
The story of the Soviet attempt to create autonomous Jewish regions within the territory of the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s has for many years been relegated to a footnote in history. Nevertheless, initially the idea was met with great enthusiasm not only by the Soviets, but also by Jewish communities around the world including ORT. Despite serious misgivings about co-operating with the Soviet authorities, ORT took on a vital role in the project, viewing it as a way to empower Jews and help them attain social equality and economic self-sufficiency. The Hope and the Illusion is devoted to this little-known chapter of history. The album consists of photographs from the World ORT Archive in London, archives and museums in St. Petersburg, Russia. Not only does this material include documents that shed new light upon the era, but it also contains remarkable examples of photographic art. Many of these photographs are only now being made available to the public for the first time.

published with the support the World ORT.

B. Luckin, A. Sokolova, B. Khaimovitch. "ONE HUNDRED SHTETLS OF UKRAINE" Issue 2. Jewish communities of Podolia. St. Petersburg. 2000.
The impact of the remarkable culture of Eastern European Jewry on the Jewish world today should not be underestimated. Theirs was a unique civilization, which still thrived less than a century ago. Vibrant and diverse, it encompassed the whole range of human endeavors from spiritual inquiry and creative expression to science and commerce. It has now vanished from the towns and shtetls of Eastern Europe and lifeless stones are all that can be seen after hundred of years of Jewish history. The time has come to "collect these stones" for unless we try to save this invaluable heritage today, tomorrow it may be too late. The western part of Ukraine, in particular Podolia, is a rich repository of the materials remains of Jewish culture. Jews, who formed the majority of the local urban population and who were its most active component, had a powerful influence character of the Podolian shtetls. Today we are able to savor the unique character of these Jewish communities through the shtetl streets, stately synagogue buildings, and old cemeteries crowded with carved tombstones that have miraculously survived the ravages of the 20th century. This second volume of the historical guide to the Jewish communities in the series One Hundred Shtetls of Ukraine is a groundbreaking work. It is the first ever study of the Jewish regional history of southeast Podolia (now southern Vinnitsa Province). Local Jewish communities were not totally annihilated during World War II since most of this region was incorporated into Rumanian Transnistria. There we met with Jews, heard Yiddish on the streets, and took part in Shabbat prayers. Today one can still see material remains of the Jewish past that time and people are proceeding to destroy. This is why we felt it urgent to describe the Jewish communities of the particular region, which introduced new colors of their own into the overall mosaic of the past we are attempting to restore bit by bit. The very names of the shtetls themselves - Bratslav, Tulchin, Shargorod, Bershad - evoke vivid associations. A total of 31 communities are described in this volume of One Hundred Shtetls of Ukraine. The authors have done their utmost to provide a complete picture of the Jewish life of the region, presenting precise and comprehensive historical and cultural information in a readable and entertaining style. The guide contains about four hundred photographs, both contemporary and archival, together with dozens of historical and topographical maps and charts. This material, together with excerpts from folklore and historical documents - most of them never before published - assist the reader in reconstructing a vivid picture of those places, then and now. The guide begins with introductory articles on: "Podolian Jews in the 17th - 18th centuries" by B. Luckin, "The architecture of Podolian shtetls within the context of traditional culture" by A. Sokolova, and "The folk art of the South Podolia" by B. Khaimovitch. An extensive reference section concludes the book, comprising indexes, a glossary of terms, a chronology of Jewish history in Podolia, and a detailed list of literary and archival sources. More than ten years ago, the three authors of this guide participated in an informal seminar on Jewish history and then helped found the Jewish University in Leningrad. These landmark events inspired the authors to begin their own investigations into different aspects of the Jewish history and culture, which they have continued ever since. They share a common goal - to present the great heritage of Eastern European Jewry and to make it accessible to its heirs worldwide. This series is intended for a diverse audience including both professionals and lay-people interested in the study of Jewish history, folklore, art, architecture and genealogy, as well as history teachers in Jewish schools and colleges. It will also be of invaluable assistance to tourists, pilgrims, and tour guide planning to explore the Jewish Ukraine.


"THE JEWISH WORLD IN POSTCARDS" Electronic versinon of the exhibition. 2002
CD-ROM presents the electronic version of the exhibition "The Jewish World in Postcards" dedicated to various aspects of Jewish life in Russia in the beginning of the 20th century.