Our hard Jewish lives - a snapshot from abroad

By Brian Davis, September 12, 2011
Ukrainian Anna Stepanenko: "Many of my friends have made aliyah," she says

Ukrainian Anna Stepanenko: "Many of my friends have made aliyah," she says

Recently 100 young people from around the world gathered at the New North London Synagogue and Warwick University, for Machol Europa, a series of courses and workshops organised by the Israeli Dance Institute. They took the opportunity to reveal what Jewish life is like in their countries.

Luciane Bleivis, aged 35, from Sao Paulo, Brazil

"I work in purchasing in a department store in Sao Paulo and teach dance once a week in a big Jewish club called A Hebraica. It used to be a place where everybody Jewish would go but now that's weaker, maybe because the fees have gone up. However, the McDonald's here is very popular with young Jewish people.

"Brazil has about 100,000 Jews and most are Ashkenazi not Sephardic, which may sound surprising. The main centre is Sao Paulo with about six kosher restaurants, five kosher shops and two kosher butchers.

"I try to keep Shabbat and eat kosher but my parents are more traditional. Brazil is very multicultural, so we don't see much antisemitism. But sometimes we hear things we don't want to hear. Assimilation is a big and growing problem. I am single and it's not easy to find a Jewish partner. Everything is open and available, so many young people are moving away from our culture."

Patricia, 20, Poland

"I live in Krakow. All our Jewish young people are going abroad or to Israel. I'm always depressed when I go back home after meeting Jewish people abroad - it's very assimilated and lonely. I know only about five Jewish people. There's nobody to go out with, most are over 60, and the only boy my age is gay!"

Elena Gorelik, 35, Latvia

"I am married and have a six-year-old son. I am a civil engineer working for a big real estate company. In my spare time I teach Israeli dance in a Jewish community centre. The centre holds cultural events, concerts and workshops. We also have a kosher café and restaurant, and have seminars and camps.

Latvian Elena Gorelik: "Antisemitism is rare"

Latvian Elena Gorelik: "Antisemitism is rare"

"Generally, Latvians don't know much about Jews. Their attitude is probably better to a Jew than to a Russian, because of the former Soviet occupation. Antisemitism is now rare in Latvia but during the Soviet time we had a lot.

"Although my family is 100 per cent Jewish, all our Jewish traditions were lost during the Soviet period. Keeping kosher is extremely expensive now, but we try to observe Yom Kippur and some other festivals.

"It's very hard for a young woman to find a Jewish partner in Latvia. For example, we don't have any boys in our dance group. We have many mixed marriages. Most Jews are assimilated."

Anna Stepanenko, Ukraine

"I am a Hebrew teacher in a Jewish school. We have a strong Chabad presence in the Ukraine. They are very religious, which puts off many people from coming to community centres.

"There are about 60,000 Jews in the Ukraine and one small synagogue. Our rabbi arrived in 1991, but before that time we had nothing. My parent's didn't keep anything and being Jewish was a secret. Many of my friends made aliyah.

"It's better to be a Jew in a big town than a small one. The general picture is OK, but bad things do happen from time to time. Money is very tight and there is a lot poverty."

Adelina, 30, Lithuania

"In Vilnius they know nothing about Jews. I say: "How can you hate someone you know nothing about?" When I was at school, somebody said he hated Jews, so I hit him! After that we started to get to know each other, and he'd never say such a thing again. Antisemitism is everywhere. But as a Jew here today you can live anywhere you want."

Dina Djilas, 36, Serbia

"There was a time in my country when it was not normal to keep the traditions but now we keep high holidays. There are only a few thousand Jews in Serbia - sometimes there are signs of anti-semitism but it's very rare.

"Israeli dance is an important part of my life. During the bombing in Serbia in 1999, we used to do Israeli dances in the basement to keep our spirits up. Some who weren't Jewish quickly overcame their prejudices while doing the hora."


The participants from Turkey were reluctant to speak because of fears for their safety when they returned home. The general impression they gave was that: "Things are terrible. It is not safe to show any signs of being Jewish, like wearing a Magen David in public or even mentioning Jewish holidays or interest in Israel. Antisemitism is common and revealing that you are Jewish puts a person at very serious risk."

For details of the Israeli Dance Institute visit www.idi.org.uk

Last updated: 11:30am, September 12 2011