Soviet Jewish Life: Bill Aron and Yevgeniy Fiks

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November 14, 2021 – March 20, 2022



SOVIET JEWISH LIFE: Bill Aron and Yevgeniy Fiks The Soviet Jewish experience is at the core of the work in this exhibition by photographer Bill Aron and multidisciplinary artist Yevgeniy Fiks. Because the Soviet Union was an atheist state, religious aspects of Judaism were discouraged: Jewish institutions were shut down, books and other publications were banned, and few synagogues remained open. Jews were recognized as one of many Soviet nationalities, yet generations of Soviet Jews grew up removed from their religious and cultural identity. During the Cold War, Soviet Jews experienced discrimination and often were disciplined when they applied for emigration to Israel, Europe, or the United States. Applications came at a great cost, resulting in the loss of employment, educational opportunities, and isolation from family and friends. American photographer Bill Aron, of Russian Jewish descent, travelled to Leningrad, Moscow, and Minsk in 1981. The trip was organized by the Los Angeles Commission on Soviet Jewry and sponsored by the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles. In each city, he recorded the rituals and social gatherings around the synagogue. He captured the religious Soviet Jews who wished to hold on to, or regain, their religious heritage, as well as the Refuseniks who attempted to leave the Soviet Union, but were denied permission. During his time behind the Iron Curtain, Aron was observed by state security officers, though he managed to avoid having his negatives confiscated. Yevgeniy Fiks left his native Moscow for New York in 1994, at the age of 22. As a post-Soviet artist, his practice reexamines Soviet history through multimedia projects that combine historical inquiry and artistic intervention. His studies of Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region established in 1934 near the Soviet–Chinese border, are presented here through video, drawing, an artist’s book, and memorabilia. Also on view is a project that explores the intersected narratives of the Soviet Jewish experience and the Soviet space program. A new installation establishes the connection between the civil rights movement in the U.S. and the Jewish dissident movement in the Soviet Union. Throughout these projects, Fiks reflects on the utopian promises and historical realities of Jewish history in the former Soviet Bloc.

Soviet Jewish Life is organized by Joes Segal and Anna Rose Canzano, supported by Ashla Chavez Razzano, Jane Friedman, and Cali Nathanson. This exhibition is presented in conjunction with the Robin Center for Russian-Speaking Jewry at the Wende Museum, which aims to preserve and expand awareness of the history of Russian-speaking Jews, Jews who lived in the Soviet Union, and the Refusenik movement through collections and public programming. Soviet Jewish Life and related programming is generously funded by the Peggy and Edward Robin Family Foundation, the Genesis Philanthropy Group, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, and additional supporters.

Bill Aron

Bill Aron, Gates to Synagogue, 1981, Leningrad

Bill Aron, Hebrew Class Ad, 1981, Leningrad

Bill Aron, Synagogue Sanctuary, 1981, Leningrad

Bill Aron, Simchat Torah Bima, 1981, Moscow

Bill Aron, Synagogue and Sukkah, 1981, Minsk

Bill Aron, Synagogue, Sukkot, 1981, Minsk

Bill Aron, Sukkot in Sukkah, 1981, Minsk

The old men of the Minsk synagogue shared a meager meal with Bill Aron on the first day of Sukkot (a weeklong autumn holiday). He was moved to tears by their generosity despite their obviously difficult circumstances. His guide in Minsk, Lev Ovischer, asked Aron to stop crying and told him, “It is hard enough as it is.” On the second day of Sukkot, Aron and his traveling companion, Chair of the Los Angeles Commission on Soviet Jewry Ahavia Scheindlin, brought food to contribute to the meal after services, including items that had become a luxury in the USSR such as chocolate. As they were about to enter the sukkah (ceremonial hut), the police arrived, ostensibly to inspect zoning permits for a new matzah-baking oven being built next door. The officers said the process would take a few hours, making it necessary to cancel the meal.

Bill Aron, Refusenik Portraits, 1981

Congregant, Minsk

Alla Zeliger, Leningrad

Rachel Genusova, Leningrad

Michail Kosharovsky, Moscow Nataly (Natasha) May, Moscow. First applied for exit visa: 1974

Grigory Rosenstein, Computer scientist, Moscow. First applied for exit visa: 1973

Mara Abramovitch, Moscow. First applied for exit visa: 1971

Pavel Abramovitch, Electronics engineer, Moscow. First applied for exit visa: 1971

Elena Genusova, Leningrad. First applied for exit visa: 1974

Ephraim Rosenstein, Moscow

Ida Milgrom, Musician, economist, and activist who led a campaign to free her imprisoned son Anatoly Shcharansky (now Natan Sharansky), Moscow

Professor Alexander Lerner, Cyberneticist, Moscow. First applied for exit visa: 1971

Lev Blitshtein, Administrator in meatpacking plant, Moscow. First applied for exit visa: 1974

Many Soviet Jews were denied exit visas for reasons of security. Although applications were generally rejected without explanation, some applicants were denied due to alleged exposure to state secrets, often through their careers at state-run institutions. Lev Ovischer, who fought in World War II and served as Aron’s guide in Minsk, said, “What kinds of military secrets can a pilot who has been in retirement for 16 Retired Colonel Lev Ovischer, Minsk. First applied for exit visa: 1972

years have these days?” Lev Blitshtein, the former head of the Meatpackers Union, said that his visa was denied on the official grounds that he knew how much meat was used to make sausages, but “unofficially” the real secret was “how little meat there is in the Soviet Union.”

Refusenik Quotations, 1981 “Now we are here ... next year, may we be free.” —Rachel Genusov “It’s hardly the ideal way to plan a family, but we’ve been waiting seven long years, and life just has to go on however hard things are.” —Inna and Yuli Kosharovsky, parents of Michail Kosharovsky “What does it mean ‘being refused? ... This means being dismissed from your job, to be without money, to worry about your children who are hounded in schools and who won’t be accepted in any institution, to lose almost all your friends, to have trouble with the militia, with house janitors, with neighbors and the KGB. And this means that your life is passing without return, that the present has lost all sense and value, that you have been thrown out of the present and not given a future, that you are a shadow person.” —Yuli Kosharovsky “Waiting is an ordeal. We hope for the best, but time flies and days become years—and we still do not have the slightest idea of how long we will wait.” —Natalya Rosenstein, wife of Grigory Rosenstein “We, Jews, are a community based on memory. By denying us the right and ability to transmit our heritage to our children, Soviet authorities are bringing about the destruction of our most precious possession.” —Refusenik parent “Being a child Refusenik is to suffer disappointment at second hand. They are the barometers of how things are with us. When our hopes are high, we see it in their faces: and when things are particularly difficult, we see our own anxiety reflected in them.” —Refusenik parent

In Minsk, Aron captured an image of a man leading the Hallel service (prayers of praise and thanksgiving) on the festival of Sukkot. The man had been the first Hebrew teacher in Minsk. One day, in the 1970s, the KGB took him to their headquarters and detained him overnight. After that experience he never taught another Hebrew lesson. Aron describes how the man’s chanting of the Hallel prayers deeply affected him: “Every eye in the room was riveted on him. The emotion in his voice, the sincerity and strength of its sound, caused each note to seem to last forever … I was frozen by the fear of breaking the spell that filled the room. Not until the last few verses was I able to raise my camera and take a picture.”

Bill Aron, Sukkot, View through the Candelabra in the Synagogue, 1981, Minsk

Bill Aron, Sukkot Hallel Service, 1981, Minsk

Bill Aron, Yom Kippur Torah Reading, 1981, Leningrad

Bill Aron, Simchat Torah during Hakafot, Archipova Street Synagogue, 1981, Moscow

Shortly after arriving in the Soviet Union, Bill Aron went to Kol Nidre services (the ceremony on the evening of Yom Kippur) at the Leningrad synagogue. As he started to take out his camera, he froze. He realized that he had not considered the fact that he would be photographing on some of the holiest days of the year. Reminding himself that his purpose in coming to the Soviet Union was to put a face on the plight of Soviet Jews, he overcame this hesitation and photographed the woman reading her prayer book with a magnifying glass. After services, his feelings of uncertainty were assuaged when congregants, learning he was an American, expressed their desire to have their stories Bill Aron, Yom Kippur Day, 1981, Leningrad

told through his images.

Bill Aron, Kol Nidre, 1981, Leningrad

Bill Aron’s photo of Archipova Street in Moscow shows a crowd of roughly 20,000 people gathered on the eve of the Simchat Torah holiday, a symbol of rebirth for the Refusenik community. While shooting, Aron spoke with a man who told him that he had been coming to Simchat Torah secretly for the last five years in order to protect the identity of his family. The man said, “It has been the one public way I have allowed myself to identify with the Jewish people. I never told other members of my family where I was going or what I was doing. I did not want them to worry and I wanted no harm to befall them. This evening, as I made my way through the crowd, I came face to face with my 18-year-old son. Our eyes met in recognition. He had been coming secretly to Archipova Street on Simchat Torah for the last three years.” Bill Aron, Archipova Street, Simchat Torah Eve, 1981, Moscow

Bill Aron, Yuli, Ina, and Matityahu Kosharovsky, 1981, Moscow

Bill Aron, Simchat Torah Celebrations, 1981, Moscow

Bill Aron, Sukkot Torah Service, 1981, Minsk

Bill Aron, Sukkot Services, 1981, Minsk

Yevgeniy Fiks

This digital video work is based on excerpts from a 1936 Soviet propaganda film titled Seekers of Happiness, which narrates the story of a Jewish family from abroad who settled in Birobidzhan. Fiks has cut out all of the film’s footage featuring people and leaves only imagery of nature, landscapes, flora, and fauna. The artist also adds a voiceover in which he discusses both the importance and futility of Birobidzhan in the Soviet Jewish collective memory, the relationship and contradictions between identity and landscape, and his personal memories and imagination. Yevgeniy Fiks, Landscapes of the Jewish Autonomous Region, 2016, digital video, 10:30 minutes

Sovetish Kosmos/Yiddish Cosmos dissects two seemingly unrelated stories: the narratives of the Soviet Jewish experience and the Soviet space program. From these, Sovetish Kosmos/Yiddish Cosmos forges one narrative of a Soviet Jewish futurism based on secularity and scientific progress, positing the Soviet Jew as a contradictory “Cosmonaut/Refusenik.” The large migration of Soviet Jews to Israel, Europe, or the United States was a result of a campaign led by Soviet and American Jews for the right to emigrate. The “Let My People Go” movement, which lasted from the 1960s to the early 1990s, included demonstrations, picketing, and lobbying in Washington, D.C. and in the international arena. These prints feature photographs of Soviet space program monuments that usually depict Yuri Gagarin or a more universal “man in space.” The images are superimposed upon pages of Sovetish Heimland, a Yiddish-language literary magazine published in Moscow (1961–91). As an official government publication, it was censored and could not directly discuss Judaism. Fiks also adds anti-Soviet slogans from the “Let My People Go” movement. He evokes the stalled identity of Soviet Jews who lost their connection with their religion and culture. Thus, he suggests their embrace of scientific progress was a substitute for this lost identity

Yevgeniy Fiks, Sovetish Kosmos/Yiddish Cosmos, 2018, prints on paper

Yevgeniy Fiks, The Sovetish Kosmos/Yiddish Cosmos Archive

In 1961, the same year as Yuri Gagarin’s first flight into space, the USSR created the Soviet Yiddish literary magazine, Sovetish Heimland (Soviet Homeland). Published in Moscow from 1961 to 1991, the magazine covered stories of the Soviet space program, making space exploration one of the legitimate topics of Soviet Yiddish identity as part of the wider Soviet culture. At the same time, state-organized anti-Semitism led to the cancellation of several scheduled missions by the cosmonaut Boris Volynov (a friend and close associate of Gagarin) because of his Jewish background. Letters sent by “concerned citizens” to the Soviet authorities demanded they not send a Jew into space. It was only in 1969, and then again in 1976, that Volynov was able to travel into space. At the same time, the Soviet Jewish exodus from the USSR was underway. Included here are items from the artist’s collection of Soviet Yiddish books and periodicals on the subject of the Soviet space program.

Yevgeniy Fiks, The Birobidzhan Archive

Located on the Trans-Siberian railway, Birobidzhan sits close to the border with the People’s Republic of China in the far eastern area of the Russian Federation. This Jewish Autonomous Region was established in 1934 and was supposed to have become a home for Soviet Jews wishing to relocate there. Initially, Birobidzhan attracted a number of Soviet Jews as well as Jewish foreigners from Argentina, the United States, Palestine, and elsewhere—all of whom came to help build a secular socialist Jewish homeland. In the long run, however, the experiment was unsuccessful in attracting larger numbers. Many Jewish expats left Birobidzhan demoralized by Stalin’s purge of the region’s leadership in 1937, the inhospitable Taiga climate, inadequate or wavering support of the project by the Soviet state, as well as several government campaigns against nonconformist Jewish identity. The region still exists today, but the Jewish community does not make up more than about 1% of the population, roughly 3,000 people. Presented here are items from the artist’s collection of Birobidzhan memorabilia, which includes historical books, stamps, and pins commemorating the creation of the Jewish Autonomous Region.

In December 1966, on Hanukkah, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in Atlanta in support of Soviet Jews at the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry, giving a rousing address on behalf of what he called a “withered and restricted Jewish community.” “When you are written out of history as a people, when you are given no choice but to accept the majority culture, you are denied an aspect of your own identity. Ultimately you suffer a corrosion of your self-understanding and your selfrespect,” he emphasized. Yevgeniy Fiks, Withered and restricted, according to Mem Lamed Kofs, mixed media audio installation

In this installation, Dr. King’s speech is paired with the artist’s official Soviet birth certificate, issued in Moscow on November 21, 1972. It states both of his parents’ Jewish identities, and thus prescribes the newborn’s ethnicallydefined identity in the eyes of the state. Withered and restricted, according to Mem Lamed Kof evokes solidarity politics between African American and Soviet Jewish communities and establishes a connection between spirituality, culture, and liberation.

This drawing belongs to a series that traces the border of the Jewish Autonomous Region using texts about “home” and “belonging.” The artist has read these proverbs and sayings in Russian, into which they were previously translated from minority languages spoken in Russia, such as Tuvan, Kumyk, and Nogai. Fiks then translates them from Russian into his limited Yiddish, retaining the imperfect quality of the translation as a marker of his assimilation and hyphenated Russian-Jewish identity. The drawing on view features a Mordvinic proverb “Being in our native land is like being in heaven.” Yevgeniy Fiks, A Map of Birobidzhan, 2016, gold ink on paper

Yevgeniy Fiks, Flora and Fauna of the Jewish Autonomous Region, 2016, a selection of pages from artist’s book

Flora and Fauna of the Jewish Autonomous Region is an artist’s book consisting of pictures of animals and plants found in Birobidzhan. The photos were first published in a 1984 propaganda book written in Russian, Yiddish, and English to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Birobidzhan. In Fiks’s 2016 rendition, each image of Birobidzhan’s plants and animals is given an individual Yiddish name by the artist as a gesture of artistic appropriation.


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