Ask anyone from Kyiv about the puppet theater on Shota Rustaveli Street. An architectural icon, the building is one of the most elegant and impressive buildings in the city.
Every Ukrainian Jew hailing from the capital has attended performances there, but the experience has always been bittersweet. As they sat there watching the show, their enjoyment was tinged with the sad knowledge that the grand Romanesque Revival building was originally a shul. In 1926, the Brodsky Synagogue was seized by the Soviet authorities and was eventually converted into a puppet theater.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Jewish community was granted permission to open a small synagogue in the upstairs section of the building.
I remember hearing about the extraordinary rebirth of Jewish life in Kyiv when I was studying in yeshiva in Israel in the 1990s. At the time, the leaders of the burgeoning community were looking for an assistant rabbi to serve as the head of its yeshiva.
While I hadn’t yet been ordained, what they wanted was someone to sit in synagogue and teach Torah to their members. Over the next few weeks, I sat down with a teach-yourself-Russian handbook and mastered enough basics to get by. I assumed that the Yiddish I knew would probably put me in good stead anyway. From my experience growing up in Australia, the elderly Russians I had encountered all knew Yiddish, so I was hoping that would be the case amongst the Jews in Kyiv.
I arrived in Kyiv, but to my surprise, no one spoke Yiddish. Communism had truly taken its toll on the Jewish community, depriving it of the culture and language of its ancestors. The good news was that there a strong Zionist revival taking place, and many people had learned to speak a little Hebrew in the hopes of eventually immigrating to Israel. Tragically, however, that became somewhat of a pipedream for the many Jews who ultimately couldn’t prove their Jewish status.
Those months in Kyiv made a powerful impression on me. I was truly humbled to watch various Jewish organizations from around the world provide for the poor Jews of the city. I was proud to be part of the story as the community began a new era of history.
A few years later, in 2000, while I had long since departed the city, I was most gratified to hear that the Ukrainian government had returned the building to the Jewish community and the entire edifice began to function as a synagogue once again.
As I watch the brutal scene unfolding in Kyiv right now, my mind takes me back to those days of the puppet theater. The truth is that while the Brodsky Synagogue was shuttered during the communist era, the Soviets did allow the other Kyiv synagogue, in Podil, to remain open.
It was in a poor part of town and was nowhere near as impressive. The old Kyiv Jews explained that the Russians kept the synagogue open so that they could tell the world that they did not suppress religion in the Soviet Union. They would point to the open houses of Jewish worship in major cities, including Moscow, Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) and Kyiv.
“So you were able to attend synagogue even during communism?” I asked naively.
“Well, strictly speaking, yes,” they said. “But if you practiced religion openly, your career prospects were severely curtailed. You could go to shul, but one in four people there were undercover KGB agents.”
With a chuckle, they would add, “But now, with the fall of the Soviet Union, it’s more like one in three!”
It was their inside joke, but it was not entirely farfetched. For many years, even after Ukraine was independent, it was still a “puppet” state of Russia, toeing the political line of its former government.
On paper, it was a separate country, but the elected leaders were always pro-Russia, and the culture and education remained Russian-centric. For example, when I went to teach there, it was clear that I needed to learn Russian, not Ukrainian, as the commonly spoken language among everyone in the city was Russian.
But then, as time passed, the locals began to cut those puppet strings and reclaim their unique culture and national identity. Sitting on the border between East and West, that hasn’t been easy. But the election of a former Jewish comedian to the presidency just goes to show how independent and free-thinking the Ukrainian people have chosen to become.
Contrast that openness with the situation of the Jews in Russia. Sadly, throughout the current crisis, we’ve hardly heard a peep from Russian-Jewish leaders. Unlike in the West, Jews aren’t free to protest and speak their mind in Russia—even post-communism. They tread carefully, knowing full well that any word of criticism would threaten their ability to do the good work that they do for Russian Jewry.
There’s been lots of talk in recent days and weeks about evacuating the Jewish community of Ukraine. And it’s incredibly heartwarming to watch the global Jewish community come together to take care of our brothers and sisters anywhere in the world they find themselves suffering. But the silence of Russian Jewish leaders almost makes one wonder whether perhaps it’s time for us to redouble our efforts to evacuate the Jews of Russia from the tyranny of President Vladimir Putin.
Rabbi Daniel Friedman received his PhD in International Relations from the University of Alberta and advanced rabbinical ordination from Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz of the Beth Din of America. He is the author of The Transformative Daf series.