Anna Shternshis, Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939
Fira was born in the small Ukrainian town of Monastyrschina in May 1899. She describes her family as extremely poor: “They did not own a house but rented two rooms from a Jewish landlord,” she explains. Her father was a striving shoemaker; her mother died young, when Fira was just ten years old. Fira never went to school and began to help her father at work at the age of twelve. Her father remarried shortly thereafter, and Fira was forced to look for ways to support herself. “At the time, no one wanted to marry me,” she explains, “because I was from a poor family with no yihes [pedigree].” During the pogroms of 1918, she lost her father and virtually everyone she knew. Her landlord and his family were also killed. With no one to turn to, she took up various residences as a live-in maid. In 1919 Fira’s life changed completely. She remembers how soldiers with Red flags marched to Monastyrschina. The large synagogue became a Soviet town hall. She says that people regularly gathered in the streets and discussed what the new government was doing. Fira overheard various conversations and decided to go to the council to ask if the Soviet regime could help her to get a room. The first official she talked to, a young Jewish man named Itsik S., invited her to live temporarily in his little apartment. “Times were different,” she sighs. “People were nicer.” The young man later helped Fira to get her own room. After that he convinced her to enroll in the new literacy courses that were held in the building, a former synagogue. It turned out that this was the first time Fira went inside this synagogue. During the four-month course she learned how to read and write both in Yiddish and Russian. As a result, she was able to get a job as a clerk in a local office. A year later Fira and Itsik married and eventually brought up three children. Reading and writing opened a new world for Fira. She began to devour newspapers, magazines, and books that were available in the new Yiddish library. She eagerly attended literary events, was active at local Soviet council meetings in her town, and even played an old witch in a local theater workshop. She said, “What we liked most, however, was when ‘real’ artists from bigger cities, such as Kiev or Odessa, came to Monastyrschina and recited poetry dealing with the civil war, about new people, women and children killed in the pogroms, and anything in general with Soviet characters.” She was so inspired by a poem at one such event that she wrote a letter to its author, Itsik Fefer:Fira mailed the letter, and three months later, in November 1935, she received a reply. That letter from Itsik Fefer became one of Fira’s most precious possessions. It survived her evacuation to Frunze during World War II, and she managed to bring it with her every time she moved in Ukraine and Russia. She arrived in Moscow in the late 1950s, when her husband was offered a new job there. During most of her postwar life Fira wrote and read predominantly in Russian. However, this did not affect her attitude toward reading in Yiddish. For example, she devotedly subscribed to Sovetish Heymland (Soviet homeland), the only Yiddish language periodical that appeared in Russia after de-Stalinization. “I did not read all of it, but I liked to think that I supported Yiddish literature,” she explained. Fira would be surprised if she were told that she represented the embodiment of the ideal Soviet Jewish reader as imagined by state ideologues. She learned to read Yiddish because the Soviet regime gave her an opportunity to do so.
I told him all about my life, my poor mother, the pogroms, and about what the Soviet regime gave me. I wanted him to write more about people like me, people who would have been dead if the Bolsheviks did not save us. I also asked him whether he could write some novels, as I liked them best. I said that I wanted him to write a book that would teach me and my children how to be real Soviet women: honest, proud, and hardworking.