• Old Photos: Soviet Jews in 1959

    Over the last several months the Soviet Union’s campaign against Jews and Judaism has intensified. All over the country synagogues have bee closed, prayer meetings have been raided and newspaper articles have appeared attacking Jews as “thieves” and “enemies of socialism.” In this climate of official attacks, hoodlums have felt free to stone and set fire to synagogues, Jews have been severely beaten and even killed.

    The extent and the virulence of the new campaign, which may come as a shock to the outside world, does not surprise the Jews of the USSR. They have had to live with organized anti-Semitism for more than a decade. ” The government regards Christianity and Islam as the “opium of the people,” a Gentile Russian told me in Moscow recently, “but it treats Judaism as if it were poison gas. What’s more, it doesn’t matter whether a Jew is religious or not. He’s pushed around just because he’s a Jew.”

    Life Magazine, December 7, 1959. “New Agony for Russian Jews”.

    The following photos are a rare sight – for the first 18 years of my life I haven’t seen a praying Jew; partly because most of the people I knew were not religious (at least not known to be religious); partly because all but one synagogue in my city were not functioning (one was a gym, another one housed some archives and who knows what else); partly because openly practicing a religion and especially Judaism which has visual attributes (head cover, facial hair) was not compatible with having a career and sometimes a job.

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  • Old Photos: Kansas City 1914

    Giving the Life Magazine a break, we continue onto the May 1914 issue of the Rotarian Magazine which was largely dedicated to Kansas City. Filled with photos and articles where mustachioed men took turns extolling the virtues of Kansas City, its businesses, theaters, schools, real estate and architecture. If you are bored at work a fan of Kansas City history, you should be reading this magazine already. 1914 was the year when the Kansas City Union Station was opened and the magazine dedicates the cover and several pages of photographs and essays to the “largest Union Station in the world”.

    The largest Union Station in the world

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  • Behind The Iron Curtain – #1 and #2

    With toilet paper question solved you ask your host where the restroom is.

    Communal (shared) restrooms.

    After the Great October Socialist Revolution in 1917 the housing problem was solved by adding more tenants to the existing apartments sometimes leaving original owners with a small room in their previously spacious quarters. This went well together with some idiot’s dream of communal living but created lifetime of conflicts and misery which is still going on. The resulting apartment was called “kommunalka” which is simply a communal apartment. All my life from birth till age 22 I lived in such an apartment. First, our family of 3 shared an apartment with my grandparents (2 people) and my aunt’s family (3 people) and the apartment had a total of three rooms, one small kitchen, one shower and one toilet. Then we moved to a place where in a larger apartment five families shared the same common facilities sans the shower and hot water. Imagine for a minute your Christmas guests permanently moved into your house, then multiply the misery times 5 and you may get close to what the kommunalka was.
    Communal leaving did not translate into shared fiscal responsibilities. That’s why when you approached the restroom you would see a number of light switches of all shapes and sizes, everyone had their own electric meter. Using your neighbors electricity was a huge faux pas, I don’t recall any fights in our apartment but we were “lucky” to have non-violent and mostly sober neighbors. Guests using lights other than their host’s would probably get a nasty look.
    Hygiene problems were solved by each family owning a toilet seat. If you read carefully so far, you can easily calculate that our restroom wall sported 5 toilet seats and looked something like this. Needless to say that I did not anticipate the thirst of my readers for toilet stories, so the picture below is not mine.
    In lieu of the toilet seat game some people resorted to climbing up on the stool somewhat resembling an eagle but, anyone who had seen me knows that I am not a contortionist and not a huge risk taker to perform something like that. Note: I don’t know who the model on this photo is, I am posting it strictly in the interest of truthiness.
    Finally, clutching your precious square of toilet paper, with the correct light switch on and your favorite toilet seat in place you are ready for the act. Of course, I don’t even have to mention the need to mouth-breathe at all times, most places did not have any ventilation and deodorizing sprays were not available. My apartment had a window in the restroom so the smell problem was somewhat fixable. At times you would hear suggestive knocks on the door reminding you that you are not alone and other people have to use the bathroom, you are not in the frigging library, etc. Sometimes knocking on the door would become more intense indicating that your time has expired, or else. You get up, you use you allocated TP, you pull the handle and….nothing. We lived on the third floor and half the time we didn’t have running water. Years later the pipes were replaced and they found that the old pipes where completely clogged up. Until then we had to carry the water upstairs in a bucket like mythical Sisyphus just so we can flush it down the toilet. So if your host left around a bucket of water you breathe the sigh of relief, flush the toilet and exit into the crowd of people giving you evil eyes and nervously dancing by the restroom door.
    Still, you are lucky you were able to use indoor plumbing. In most of the rural areas and old buildings in the city the facilities were outside but that’s a different story.
    To be continued…

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  • Master and Margarita At The UMKC

    After reading an article in the Pitch imploring me to see the Master and Margarita at the UMKC I knew I had to go. The Master and Margarita is one of only a few books that I read more than once and discovered something new every time. It is also one of a few Russian masterpieces  that no matter how well translated could not be fully understood by a foreigner (that would be you); it’s somewhat similar to me trying to decipher Cris Packham’s pop-cultural references (not that I don’t try). The book was written during the times of the strictest censorship when even a hint of anti-Soviet criticism could literally threaten the writer’s life and that’s why Mikhail Bulgakov had to insinuate just as much as he wrote down. The average Soviet reader could easily read “between the lines” and see the satire in the most innocent dialogues and descriptions. Some of the references were to the specific characters in the author’s life and are not easily recognizable but the barbs thrown at the Soviet bureaucrats, censors, informers, dimwits, careerists, sellouts and the regime itself were obvious to the people who still encountered them in their everyday life for another 50 years after the book was written.
    Not too many people risked producing it on the stage or on the screen, it could not be easily condensed and the characters were so well-known and beloved that any such attempt would be criticized by the fans. That’s why I was pretty skeptical going to the UMKC performance. I didn’t expect the cast to have an understanding of the book required to convey it onto the stage and it couldn’t possibly be shortened to fit into the regular length of the theater performance. What I saw was pretty amazing and truly one of the best theatrical performances I’ve seen in my life – honest, funny, enthusiastic, smart, inventive and, although not very close to the book, with plenty of Blugakov’s spirit in it. Once you get past the fact that some male roles are played by girls (i.e. Koroviev and Azazello), the character of the devil – Woland is wearing hooves, and the Cat Behemoth is a black guy with the red Mohawk dressed in some kind of leather corset and a shaggy trench coat, everything else falls in place. The actors were outstanding but Patrick DuLaney who played Woland was on par with the Russian actors who played this role in the movie versions of the Master and Margarita. He was able to convey Woland’s millenniums-old age, his exhaustion with life, his disgust with people which could only be defeated by the true love and selfless sacrifice. Julane Havens as Margarita was also very impressive, as a sensitive, sensual, defenseless but determined woman ready to sacrifice everything just to be with Master. The actress who played Hella gets a special mention, nice job keeping every male eye locked on the stage!
    I also would like to specifically praise the costume and stage design. The Soviet people are all dressed in the same gray uniforms lovingly adorned by red stars; even their underwear is gray (as was revealed later and you missed it). I also liked the use of projection screens.
    During the show I (illegally) made a few videos, sorry, serious-looking-bearded-usher-guy, I didn’t spend years in the KGB school in the USSR to be told what to do by the Man.

    (By the way, in the bottom part of these videos you’ll see a jackass who didn’t feel it was necessary to take his stupid hat off in the theater; maybe the usher should have concerned himself with this view-obstructing clown instead of making sure I can’t record a low-quality video.)

    After the show I overheard  one lady ask her friend if she enjoyed the show, “it was too weird” was the reply. It’s hard to convey the whole complexity of the book on the stage to an unprepared viewer, but to people who understood it was an amazing effort worthy of a professional venue.

    P.S. Alan Scherstuhl is my new Facebook friend on the condition that I will never have to pronounce his last name.

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  • What I Did This Weekend

    May, you may want to skip this one.

    Sunday’s weather cooperated and, as I as was anticipating, we were on the way to Lawrence to attend Kansas State Fiddling and Picking Championships. Last year we attended this festival just looking for something to do (for free) and we liked it so much that this year we were actually planning on going. There was a pretty good-sized crowd, unlike the other notable music event, proving again that location matters. The festival had two stages where competitors and performers such as O’Shea Sisters and DeLancey Trio took turns entertaining the public. We spent around 3 hours listening to the music, wandering around and taking some photos and videos. Most of these have heads and other parts of people who decided to park their fat obnoxious asses in front of me, so I forever have memories of these inconsiderate morons. Click on the cover to see the rest of the photos.

    KS State Fiddling and Picking Championships 2008

    Another unexpected and pleasant surprise was waiting for us in downtown Lawrence where The Lawrence Busker Festival was taking place. My daughter and I are big fans of buskers, although until yesterday I didn’t know that they were referring to themselves as “buskers”. I always thought it was “street performers” or whatever. There were quite a few of them – magicians, jugglers, musicians – and downtown Lawrence was alive with crowds. We didn’t leave Lawrence until after 5, after eating at Rudy’s Pizza and finishing with Ben and Jerry’s Ice cream.
    And that, May, is what I did this weekend.

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