Meryll Levine Page is a retired high school history teacher with a special interest in women’s history. She taught extensively about the Soviet Union and its break-up. Currently she co-facilitates the Minneapolis Jewish Artists’ Lab.
Immigration sparks global controversy these days.In the US it's a flashpoint for politicians.European Union countries flail between denouncing the overcrowding in refugee camps in Greece or Sicily and warning that their country cannot absorb more immigrants.Meanwhile, the flood of immigrants heads to northern Europe believing that their lives will ...
Remember the Blake Edwards film 10 starring Bo Derek and her braids?It was the first time I had thought about rating people by number.Of course, I was used to being graded and by 1979 I had graded a considerable number of student papers. But it seemed dehumanizing to "rate" a person from 1 to 10.Now rating is inescapable. Siskel and Ebert redu...
Vera and Alla can chuckle when they read this blog.Despite their Marxist economic education, they have managed to wrestle with capitalism and emerge victorious.Their business acumen and know-how is joined with their strategic and logistical thinking prowess. Leslie and I can look to our family for business models aplenty—our great-uncle, ...
Summer in Minnesota means a trip to the cabin for many locals. Even for those of us without a lake cabin, we sense the weekend’s rhythm as the roads leading north thicken with traffic on Friday afternoon, Costco is mobbed with people stocking up, and lines at the gas station snake well beyond the pumps. Our local newspaper features an article every Friday written by subscribers extolling their cabin's virtues.
Similarly in Sweden, families weekend away from the city on one of the many islands that dot the Baltic or in the woods in parallel fashion to Minnesota cabin owners. Sweden boasts 600,000 summer cottages. We interviewed Alisa’s friend Lena on a Sunday evening as she returned from her family sommarstuga to her Stockholm apartment (formerly occupied by August Strindberg). The ritual of return seemed very familiar—exhausted child and parents bearing luggage and parcels into the house with thoughts still focused on...
If you’ve scoured the internet and tour guides about St. Petersburg, you’ve probably encountered the phrase, “Venice of the North.” St. Petersburg (aka Leningrad) stuns visitors with its beauty and confounds travelers with its maze of canals. If you’re expecting onion domes and izba style architecture, St. Petersburg is not the place. This is the city where architect Domenico Trezzini created his own style—Petrine Baroque. Even the Soviet regime could not erase the European grandeur of St. Petersburg/Leningrad. Under the Soviets aristocratic palaces became museums and cultural palaces. Now they have been restored to their former glory. The Hermitage is as awe inspiring today as it was to St. Petersburg residents in the mid 18th century. Almost all the sites on any standard tour predate the Soviet era. It’s not hard to imagine Peter the Great’s courtiers sailing on a canal and chattering away in French. Since the demise of the...
Although our research for Jewish Luck has been completed, our fascination
with current Russia and all topics Russian has not waned.
Last week I watched Putin’s Kiss one night followed by Red Army the next night. Both
filmmakers are young (Danish born Pedersen is 42, and American Gabe Polsky is 36.)
Besides their youth (relative to my age), both filmmakers selected Russian individuals as
the focus for their documentary.
Pedersen found a fascinating subject, Masha Drokova. Pedersen’s question of Masha is
one many westerners pose to Russians—why does Putin have so much support?
The title, Putin’s Kiss, refers to Masha’s adoration of Putin sealed when he offers her a
chaste kiss at one of the Nashi rallies. She admires him because he is strong, supports
Russian economic growth, and has created stability in Russia.
As a teen she became a spokesperson for Nashi—the official Youth Movement of Putin’s
“At a recent public hearing before the vote, some Bloomington residents wept as they begged the city
to let them choose their own garbage hauler.” (Karen Zamora, Minneapolis StarTribune July 27, 2015)
I read this sentence twice. Then I double-checked to make sure the journalist wasn’t one of the terrific
satirical columnists who write for our local paper. Zamora answered my question as I read the sentence,
thinking ---really??? They cried about who would haul their garbage? One of the garbage haulers explained,
“People like to choose things that they can choose.”
This debate cum weeping took place the same week the Supreme Court debated the constitutionality of the
health care law and gay marriage. It was the same week that three terrorist attacks were perpetrated around
the world. And this was the week of continuing funerals in South Carolina for those murdered at their Bible
This image depicts how Leslie and I imagine a Russian troll. (Never mind that it was created by a Dane). These trolls make us laugh and remind us of the bygone 1960s and the KGB’s vast spy network. Today’s trolls labor in shifts in at least one St. Petersburg suburb trying to bend the internet and social media to Putin’s purposes.
On June 7, 2015 the New York Times magazine published an extensively researched article by Adrian Chen (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/magazine/the-agency.html) He detailed the inner workings of the Internet Research Agency. Their mission is to post pro-Kremlin, pro Putin messages using social media. In addition to spreading propaganda, the troll farm can perpetrate hoaxes by hijacking a twitter account and fabricating fake news reports that create mass panic and a sense of crisis. I recommend reading the New York Times article in its entirety. It concludes with a typical Russian twist. The reporter, Adrian Chen,...
Like laundry, revisions can be a never-ending cycle. Leslie and I make sure to do our laundry weekly and also make sure that our book is as error free as possible.
While Leslie and I have enjoyed positive reviews and little criticism from our readers, we appreciate a close reading and suggestions like those from an eagle-eyed reader. Marat Grinberg, a professor of Russian and Humanities at Reed College, wrote: I did like [Jewish Luck] quite a bit: it's engaging, smart and really does provide a pretty accurate window into many aspects of Soviet life and the place of Jewishness in it. I do obviously have certain reservations about some aspects of the book, but they're minor - overall I thought it was fantastic.”
Marat eventually emailed us an extensive list of all the corrections—mostly corrections of Russian transliteration of our epigrams. If you want to read those corrections and revise your...
Researching Jewish Luck led Leslie and me down many academic paths as we pieced together the Jewish world of Vera and Alla. If you glance at our extensive bibliography, you’ll discover that we investigated newer academic findings as well as checking sources written before the opening of the Soviet archives in the early 1990s.
When I began to read Yaacov Ro’i’s compilation of 14 scholarly articles in The Jewish Movement in the Soviet Union, I felt like the actor in the V-8 juice commercial—“I shoulda had access to this volume before we began researching!”
I enjoy a good novel, a thrilling mystery and a compelling memoir but I revel in an academic work that clarifies and explains. I raced through the articles soaking in the data and analysis and checking the footnotes to see if Leslie and I had read the same sources. About halfway through the volume, I began to wonder what...
Public art enhances our lives. In Minneapolis public art is diverse and found in all corners of the city. Sharon Zweigbaum highlighted Minneapolis public art featuring water as part of the Jewish Artists’ Lab sponsored by the Sabes JCC last Tuesday. Some of the sculptures like the shadow figures embedded in sidewalks make us rethink our idea of Minneapolis’s influential figures. Fountains abound in the City of Lakes that refresh and entice passers by.
Russian public art is, well, uniquely Russian. In the New York Times of May 29, 2015 (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/29/world/europe/another-huge-statue-in-russia-not-rare-but-hugely-divisive.html?ref=world), Neil MacFarquhar guides us through the reasoning that Moscow may soon be looking up at an 82 foot tall statue of St. Vladimir slated to perch on a Moscow hill. Aside from environmental arguments against the statue and the artistic merit of Salvat Scherbakov’s work, this is a convoluted attempt to reconstruct Russian History. For a more thorough explanation one needs to read...
“Where Bones and History Won’t Stay Buried.” It seems like the former USSR will forever regurgitate its dead. Andrew E. Kramer’s article and the imposing photo of tall trees resembling eternal sentinels reminded me of past photos in other forests dotting the former Soviet Union. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/14/world/europe/in-ukraine-bones-of-war-dead-re-emerge-to-stir-political-passions.html?ref=world
“Again?” I thought. In the case of Lviv in the western Ukraine, the perpetrators could be Soviets or Nazis. The Ukraine is even divided on which was the more evil enemy.
The attitudes Kramer encountered from residents of Lviv regarding the unearthed bones varied widely. Some were eager to rebury Ukrainian bones because they represent the ancestors of Lviv’s residents. Others want the past to remain past, “Let them lay there,” states another. And what of the mass graves of Poles shot by the Ukrainian Partisan Army? What about the Jewish skeletons?
Can a country, a region, a town, a person live without feeling he or...
Amidst the tumult of the Athenian agora, Baltimore’s recent riots, and the depredations of the Romans, these three venues hosted groups of people who could silence the chaos raging around them by meeting and learning together by posing questions.
The Socratic method, pioneered in ancient Athens by the philosopher Socrates and his disciple, Plato, encouraged Athenian men to think through important questions like What is real? How do we know what we know? Similarly the tannaim (of Bnei Brak fame, as mentioned in the Haggadah) and later the amoraim began to record the discussions among the argumentative rabbis. When studying Mishna one quickly learns the Hebrew abbreviation for “another opinion.” These teachers, too, began with questions that were posed by a Torah text or questions of law; and, the disputations were exhilarating and respectful, not laced with enmity and venom.
Leslie and I recently returned from a Hadassah Brandeis Institute in Baltimore on April 28th and 29th. West...
When I googled “Stephen Olsen,” there were 43,000,000 results. Now that I've learned about site optimization, I thought it was a perfect title although the content of the blog has shifted focus.
Leslie recently told me that Stephen Olsen purchased our book at Magers and Quinn. Thank-you, Stephen, and you’ll find your name in Jewish Luck: A True Story of Friendship, Deception, and Risky Business beginning on page 202.
We ask all the Stephen Olsens of the world, especially those based in Minneapolis, to forgive us for hijacking your name. Leslie and I decided to change the names of anyone who hadn’t given us permission to use his real name or anyone who might not want his or her business with Vera examined. Putin, however, is the Putin you know from the news. Stephen Olsen was our name choice for the quintessential Minnesotan who made Vera an entrepreneur in the Soviet Union....
Perhaps because I was a high school teacher, the Soviet school system fascinated me. I enjoyed listening to Alla and Vera tell tales of their lives in their English language schools. Once we captured their stories, it was time for more objective research.
Although I’m grateful for the ability to research from my computer at home, I still feel the need to check the stacks at the university library just in case there’s a treasure awaiting discovery. Indeed, within fifteen minutes of arriving at Wilson Library, I felt like shouting “eureka!” There sat Inside Soviet Schools by Susan Jacoby—a study she conducted while Vera and Alla were students in their Leningrad special schools.
The detail Jacoby provided such as the curriculum guide and daily schedule for kindergarten offered context for Vera and Alla’s memories. Schools, Jacoby writes, “prepare for the serious business of life.” (73) Jacoby, however, does not write in...
“Never happened!” shouted new immigrant Mark L. when I began my lecture on the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939. Who was this giant of a boy shouting at me in front of my eleventh grade European History class? I deescalated the situation by asking Mark to join us the next day for class after he and I had time to talk privately about the existence/non-existence of this treaty. That night I phoned my sister Leslie. Leslie’s travels to the USSR and her work as an ESL teacher made her the perfect adviser for me.
“That’s what Mark learned in Soviet school,” Leslie informed me. “He’ll have an entirely different take on the Great Patriotic War than a non-Soviet and he’ll have it memorized.”
(To encounter this phenomenon in today's Ukraine Separatist zone, see the April 30, 2015 article in the New York Times about the newest guidelines on teaching the history of...
Passover is on its way out and it’s never too early to wax nostalgic. Or is it?
At our seders there is always conversation that begins with, “when I was young, we used to…” At times the memory is sweet, other times it leaves a more bitter taste.
It doesn’t take much to prompt a memory.
At our table our mother can be reminded of her family seders from the objects we use—the wine decanter brought lovingly from Slovakia in 1905, our great aunt and uncle’s wine goblet now designated for Elijah. A tune links us to the past. Our family completes the seder with the melody our brother learned at Hebrew School when he was still a soprano and sang with such gusto at the model seder and all subsequent seders. And, of course, it can be food that reminds us of seders past. There are only so many variations...
Leslie and I interviewed Alla and Vera for countless hours (trust me, we didn’t count and we should have). One of the most poignant moments for me was Alla’s memory of preparing for Passover. I can still feel the distress and ache in her voice when she told me, “We were around the table and we knew why, but we couldn’t recite the prayers. We didn’t know the words.” (Jewish Luck, p. 86) She counted her first “real” seder as the one at the doctors Einhorn’s table in Stockholm. As Alla recounted her grandmother’s devotion to preparing a seder in Soviet Leningrad no matter how many obstacles piled in front of her, I thought about how Alla’s family was struggling to be free and live the Passover exodus story no matter how many evil decrees the Party enacted. And Alla’s family seder, imperfect though it may have been, tethered her to her Jewish tradition.
Last year when we burned...
The Ukraine and now the murder of Boris Nemtsov? What’s happening in Russia?
Everyday we read the news from Russia, we are very relieved for Vera that she has left Russia for good and we’re certain Alisa feels vindicated in her move many times over.
For me, the murder of Nemtsov(photo on the left) brought back memories of Sergey Kirov’s (photo on the right) 1934 murder. In December 1934, Pravda (Truth) alleged it was a young man named Nikolaev who was guilty of killing Kirov and the organs of state successfully captured, tried, and convicted him. But, when Soviet archives were opened in 1994, the truth was not so clear. Nikolaev may have pulled the trigger, but it seems Stalin and the NKVD (forerunner of the KGB) were behind the plot. After playing the role of chief mourner at Kirov’s funeral, Stalin initiated new laws and orders that launched the purges...
Last year at this time we were anxiously anticipating our trip to New York City for the Jewish Book Conference where hundreds of Jewish authors present a short, oral synopsis of their book for an audience representing Jewish book fairs across the country. We focused on our presentation but we didn’t anticipate how it would feel to meet Jewish authors. After we received our name tags and directions, I looked up and saw David Laskin. The only other time I was as star-struck was at a US History Conference where I saw David McCullough descending on the escalator. Imagine teenaged girls spotting Paul McCartney in 1967 and you will have a sense of my excitement level. David Laskin, even jet lagged, is very approachable. He had just returned from a trip to see the Israeli branch of his family and was willing to talk to me. He also calmed my nerves...
Be happy, it’s Adar! * This is the kind of imperative, I can really support. Thanks to my friend, Sara Lynn, who distributes these reminders across the Jewish world during the Hebrew month of Adar. On Wednesday night we read the story of Persian King Ahashuerus’s attempt to destroy the Jews thanks to the machinations of his vizier, Haman. With help from her uncle Mordehai, the Jewish Queen Esther manipulates the king and saves her people. Exactly one month after Purim, we celebrate another holiday, Passover. The centerpiece is our master narrative-- the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. Is it any wonder so many Jews are writers and publishers? As Alisa would say, “it’s part of our Jewish DNA.”
One of the highlights of a book talk or an invitation to a book club is that Leslie and I are frequently privileged to hear others’ stories. At times...
February 5th, the fifteenth of the Hebrew month of Sh’vat is the yahrzeit of Alisa's mother, Bella. Like others of her generation, Bella endured hardship after hardship in her life in Russia until Alisa ensured that she and Naum emigrated to Stockholm. In her final months Bella was trapped within her body, unable to speak her thoughts. It was her lovely eyes that spoke and her graceful hands that declared her emotions as she touched Alisa or photos of her family. Leslie and I were moved when we met her and saw her eyes light up as we talked about Alisa. We’ve reprinted the eulogy given at her funeral by a rabbi who did not know her well but gathered the story of her life from her family. The English translation is followed by the original Swedish.
The English Translation of the Eulogy
Bella Chrapkovskaja was born in 1928 in Leningrad, the only daughter...
Last week when Leslie mentioned she would blog about family trees, my mind immediately jumped to Tu B’Sh’vat, the new year of the trees. This week as I anticipate the weekly Torah reading, Yitro, that includes the Ten Commandments, I think about the command that enjoins us “Do not covet.” I’ve talked with a few people about this strange command that seems like thought control—not so different from Soviet “ideals.” It bothered the commentators too, and their consensus is that thought leads to action. If you covet, you might be led to theft which might lead you to murder. I consider coveting or desire to be neutral—neither inherently good nor bad. Like other human impulses, we can deploy it for good or for evil, it can be directed by our yetzer ha-tov (good inclination) or our yetzer ha-ra (evil inclination). Now you, dear reader, can judge how to categorize my desire and covetousness.
My coveting has nothing to...
During the question and answer at my appearance at the Lawrence JCC in La Jolla on January 15, a very astute audience member asked, “how do you market your book when you publish independently?” The answer is “by any means possible.” But, one way is to approach independent bookstores and ask them to stock our book. We’ve had some success in the Twin Cities, but our first success came from a more unexpected locale—Sedona, Arizona.
At Well Red Coyote Books one would expect to find the usual Sedona material—crystals and vortex, trails and nature. But owners Bill and Kris Neri are the best kind of bookstore owners who search for books beyond the obvious. Sadly, their Sedona bookstore will close on Feb. 15. Leslie and I won’t return to Sedona until May so we won’t be able to thank them in person for taking a chance on Jewish Luck.
We will mark the...
WIth the Russian economy in a downward spiral and Cuba shaking off its dusty communist past,
readers probably expect a timely blog. Not yet. I am still reeling from the Cuba news and haven't
yet had enough time to process all the possible changes. This week, I decided to write about a topic
that has been nagging me--passwords. Passwords are the bane of my existence. One of the great
benefits of retirement was shucking my school passwords. But, life is still a chain of abracadabras to get into my
bank accounts, email, social media, charge accounts—all readers who are accessing this blog online
know about passwords. The latest hacker attack on Sony has only amplified my concerns although I’m not sure
that our book is quite as valuable as a Sony script and my emails are probably not as juicy as Sony’s.
Still, it points to our vulnerability and a need to be mindful of...
What do Hanukkah and Jewish Luck have in common? To me, they both represent the great do-over.
And here’s why.
As I learned in Hebrew School in the dark ages of the 20th century, the Maccabees couldn’t celebrate Sukkot because they were fighting Antiochus’s army for their lives. (to check, see II Maccabees 10:6-7). The Maccabees saw Hanukkah as a do-over of Sukkot, hence the eight days. Some of you may be familiar with the idea of a second Pesah that’s prescribed in the Torah in case you had to miss Pesah in the month of Nissan. In Jewish Luck, both Alla and Vera seek a do-over of their lives under the Soviet system and they take complete charge of their economic makeover with great success. They also are focused on ensuring their children’s lives are replete with opportunities that were denied to them.
I like this idea of the do-over. As we learn...
Medvedev deserves a shout out just for endurance. He was born in 1925 and survived even with the epithet of “dissident historian.” His father was not so fortunate and was caught up in Stalin’s purges of the 1930s. Medvedev was born in Georgia, but is not a Georgian. He is Jewish and his father was a professor in Tbilisi when ROy was born. Medvedev is the consummate outsider;yet, he attended Leningrad State University.
The Medvedev book we consulted for Jewish Luck was Let History Judge, a book published in 1969 that earned Medvedev expulsion from the Communist Party. In Russian the book is entitled, К суду истории, which translates as Before the Court of History. We also consulted an interview of Medvedev in 1977 on dissidents. His definition aligned well with the feelings of Alisa and Vera that they were not dissidents even though they felt imprisoned and spoke to each...
Are you wondering, what happened to the recipes for the Shabbat table posted on the website each week? I'm still cooking for the family –no worries.
Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, MN asked me to write a weekly insert for haKol which linked to the theme of the year, “Beth El Eats.” That was in 5774—last year. Beth El has moved on to a new theme in 5775 but the recipes remain on our morejewishluck website. http://www.morejewishluck.com/extended-version/taste-of-torah
This year I’ll be compiling the columns into a book that will include supplementary material like a bibliography, a step by step guide on how to create your own Ta’am Torah, and instructions on how to create a game format for Ta’am Torah. Our hope is that the cookbook will be published around May 2015. Although this is not a collaboration with my sister, Leslie, it is a collaboration with our cantor, Audrey Abrams, and our...
We leave for Israel on Wednesday and my excitement builds. A mountain of events lies before us as well as the absolute joy of drinking a cup of coffee on our cousin’s patio while watching birds migrate from Europe and western Asia to the Great Rift Valley in Africa. I expect to see the local hoopoe bird on the railing of the patio as he, too, enjoys the vista.
We are privileged to travel to Israel where we will attend our cousin’s wedding. It’s also a trip for us to spread the word of Jewish Luck, enjoy a day trip to Tel Aviv with another cousin, meet with an Israeli publisher, see old friends, relatives, and uncover all manner of connections to people we meet. I think about this trip as a constant movement from center-stage to backstage to the audience and I am excited to be in the theater of Israeli...
Every so often, a series of discrete events seems to coalesce. This week is no exception. I have been thinking of the upcoming holiday of Simhat Torah and remembering how much it meant to Alla to be able to be part of such a boisterous Jewish celebration. The dancing and singing proclaimed, Am Yisrael hai, The People of Israel live! I appreciate how Alla drew Vera into the holiday and how she defied the fears that beset others and determined to find a way to be part of the celebration. Today in the US, there are no barriers to American Jews participating in Simhat Torah. Yet, how many people will appear in our synagogue on Friday morning? Simhat Torah also reminds me of the role that liquor and drinking ashot or two plays in the celebration. In our synagogue, there has been a group of men who keep a bottle of schnapps and glasses...
When my mother was 8 years old, she had a "grandmother" for just over a year, the only grandmother she remembers.How did this happen? Grandfather Emil, a widower, lived with her family until 1937 when he was introduced to a "nice widow." Thirteen months after his wedding, Emil died at the age of 59.Cause of death? "Overfeeding by Regina," my mother said.Mom was sure that Regina was a " black ...
Dear Melania,As a former ESL teacher, I guess it is up to me to tell you that the title of your new campaign makes no sense. First of all, grammatically it is incorrect and should be "Be the best." However, even if you were to say that, my next question is "Be the best what?" The best bully? The best obstructionist? The best dressed? The best plagiarist?* The best blogger? By ...
Intrepid, almost. Pen in hand, I set out for my solo hike this morning in Sedona, Arizona with a bit more confidence than years before.I had been consulting my brother, who, astride his horse in Jack London Historic Park, was giving me advice on how to deal with any snakes I might encounter.I ...
We were featured speakers at Hadassah Brandeis Institute and Levy Summer Series. Our speaking engagements include JCCs, synagogues, libraries, book groups, retirement communities, schools, and organizations (e.g. ORT, Hadassah, and Women's League). References are available.
"I was very fortunate to be able to hear Meryll and Leslie speak at a Hadassah event in Israel. Each of the ~50 participants really enjoyed the event because Meryll and Leslie were so engaging. While they had a natural rapport with the audience, you could also tell they had prepared well so they could connect with our particular group's interests. I learned a lot from listening to them, and I found their sisterly interaction unique and fun. If you want an enlightening and uplifting experience, attend one of their book talks." Lisa Shimoni, Modiin Israel
"Truly, you have written a story that makes accessible the reality of existence in Russia, through the eyes of individuals who lived through the various regimes and dictates. It is fascinating and very well told. As I read Vera and Alla's story, I learned more Russian history than I had known from a textbook. That's a big deal, women! You tell the tale with vivid detail and hook us on the two women and their stories, then weave in the history to illuminate their journeys. It is such a necessary book. I am thrilled that the two of you collaborated, as I can see the uniqueness of your personalities come through in the stories, and that, too, makes the book a gem." Margaret Leibfried, Danielson Group consultant
Buy the Book
Click here to order your copy of Jewish Luck: A True Story of Friendship, Deception, and Risky Business on Amazon.com.
Make a donation to Sholom Home and enjoy Jewish Luck at the same time. Jewish Luck is now available at the Sholom Home West gift store. Meryll and Leslie will donate 50% of the proceeds back to Sholom Home. Enjoy!
Nourish mind, body, and soul with Meryll's Tasting Torah, which will bring oneg (joy) and limmud (learning) to your Shabbat, broaden your culinary horizons, and draw your Shabbat guests closer together.