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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Jewish Studies Go Secular at MGU

When Mikhail Chlenov taught underground Hebrew classes in the 1970s in Moscow apartments, he could not imagine a day when he would teach Jewish studies at Russia's most prestigious university.

But that's exactly what he's doing.

Chlenov is among the professors at the Center for Jewish Studies and Civilization - a new department at the Institute of Asian and African Studies, or ISAA, at Moscow State University, known by its Russian acronym, MGU. The program was started last fall as a joint project with the Institute for Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

While the anti-Semitic pronouncements of Russian nationalist politicians have drawn much attention recently, not all the news about being Jewish in Russia is bad. Opportunities to study Judaism are on the increase, and not only for Jews.

Already there are Jewish colleges, universities, secondary schools, Sunday schools and kindergartens in Moscow.

But the department at Moscow State - which joins the efforts of Russia's top university with the Hebrew University, considered by Chlenov to be the world's authority in Jewish studies - creates a qualitatively new level of education and research.

Courses include language lessons in ancient and modern Hebrew, Aramaic and Yiddish, and also in Arabic and English; Jewish history "from Abraham to Auschwitz," as one professor puts it; classical and modern literature; Jewish art; religious tradition; and more general courses, such as economics. Some courses are taught by visiting Israeli professors.

"We have two faces simultaneously," said Arkady Kovelman, who co-directs the center along with his Israeli counterpart, Israel Bartal. "With one face, we are turned to Russia and Russian civilization. By depriving Russian civilization of the achievements of Jewish culture, the government in the past was robbing Russia. With our second face, we are turned to the Jewish communities in Russia, which definitely need people with a profound knowledge of their own civilization."

So far, however, the motivation of the first 30 students at the center is not all that lofty: Many said they enrolled simply because the Arabic class at the ISAA was full. Even so, the center's enthusiastic teachers and open-dialogue approach seem to have inspired them. And many are particularly intrigued by the success of Israel as an economic power and the Jews as a worldwide community.

"The task of our generation is to bring Russia to the world level," said Anastasia Klyuikova, 18. "Israel is a young country, but it has reached the world level. There is clearly something for us to learn there - look at the Jewish charity system, we don't have that. Or how united Jews are worldwide - unfortunately, we don't have that either."

Sergei Ivanov, 23, said his interest was driven by a desire to learn the truth about the Jews.

"What kind of attitude do most people in our country have toward the Jews? That they are guilty of everything. I don't think that way, but want to find out for myself what Jews really are, in order to have something to say in response," he said.

Asked whether he was Jewish, Ivanov said half jokingly: "Hardly likely, but who knows - my mother's name is Vera Isaakovna." The patronymic points to a likely Jewish name, Isaac.

Ivanov was not alone among those students in the program who are wondering whether they might have Jewish roots.

Anna Astakhova, 23, who is auditing the program and waiting to be enrolled full time, said it was hard for her say what came first: curiosity about the subject or awareness of her mother's Jewish origins.

"European people are always interested in the East because something alien is always interesting," Astakhova said. "And here, it is alien but turns out to be your own, so it is twice as fascinating."