Kindling the light of Judaism

December 08, 1993|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

In Wednesday's Today section article about a Russian-language radio program, the International Food Market Inc. at 6970 Reisterstown Road was incorrectly identified as being located in Reisterstown.

The Sun regrets the error.

On a waterlogged Sunday morning, Anna Toporovsky and Albert Plaks urgently debate in Russian some last-minute script changes. Pavel Tuvelman, a soft-spoken man in a flannel shirt and jeans, sorts tapes labeled in Cyrillic, while the preceding program, featuring a preacher praising the Lord in English, winds to an end.

It's 10 minutes until air time for "Zvezda Davida (Star of David) Radio Magazine," an hourlong Russian-language radio program broadcast on WERQ-AM (1010). The show's purpose is to reach Baltimore's burgeoning community of 7,000 Jewish emigres, helping them to get acclimated to life in the United States and to learn about Judaism and Jewish culture.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Since May 1991, "Star of David" has introduced Russian-speaking listeners to the Jewish traditions squelched so vehemently in their homeland. The weekly show, broadcast from the penthouse level at Sutton Place Apartments at Park and Howard streets, also features news from the Jewish-American community, Israel and the former Soviet republic. Political commentary, wryly expressed by Mr. Tuvelman, a Torah lesson and music -- in Russian, English and Hebrew -- are part of the program as well.

For the program's three hosts, "Star of David" is a dramatic manifestation of the miracle of Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday that begins tonight at sundown. The Festival of Lights celebrates the rededication of the temple in ancient Jerusalem where a day's supply of sacramental olive oil burned miraculously for eight days.

It is a "miracle we're here, a miracle we're alive; this radio program is a miracle, too," Ms. Toporovsky says in very respectable English. She arrived three years ago from Baku, in the republic of Azerbaijan, where her great-grandfather was murdered as he left his synagogue.

Just as the Jews in Judea cleansed their temple after its defilement by oppressors, "Star of David" is a way for more recent targets of anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union to "cleanse out the defiled temple within and let the proper light of of Judaism shine once again," says Avraham Rosenblum, the program's American founder and producer.

"It's a window to holidays, customs, traditions, besides acculturational things," says Rosalie Daniel Wollner, an activist within the Jewish emigre community who came to the United States from a Ukrainian mountain town, Mukatchevo, 21 years ago.

The program reinforces the community's commitment to religious and cultural identity. It is a reminder "not to lose perspective, [or not to forget], why did we come here?" Ms. Wollner says.

Some 3,000 listeners tune in weekly, according to the program's staff. "It's very useful for many people, especially for people who can'tread and can't understand proper English," says listener Riva Yablonovsky, who came to Baltimore from Stavrapol, a city near the Black Sea, four years ago. "They can get from this program some news about what's going on in the United States and Israel. It is also useful because its gives consumer information, [about] saving money, making investments and the complexities of credit cards."

It has been five years since Leonid Kalensky arrived from Kiev with his wife, Anna, and family. For Mr. Kalensky, an older man who speaks English hesitantly, the program is a direct link to the Jewish diaspora. "I think it is very important. My wife and I, every Sunday we listen to this program."

"Star of David" grew out of an earlier, half-hour English-language program created by Mr. Rosenblum and called "The Jewish Star," which focused on Jewish news and music.

An Orthodox rabbi and acclaimed musician known in Jewish circles around the world, Mr. Rosenblum feels a strong affinity with Soviet Jewry. His own family managed to survive World War II in Vilnius, Lithuania, and to settle in the United States. As he watched emigres flow into Baltimore during Operation Exodus -- the international effort to get Jews out of the Soviet Union -- he realized that a Russian-language program could serve an important purpose.

A grant from the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation enabled him to expand his original show to an hour. The program also depends on contributions from listeners, and has several sponsors, but teeters week to week on the brink of insolvency. To raise money for the program -- air time costs $200 a week -- Ms. Toporovsky conducts introductory tours for emigres to Washington, Annapolis and New York and donates the proceeds to the show.

Mr. Rosenblum and the program received the Governor's Medal of Distinction in June, further increasing the program's stature. Still, "Star of David" could use stronger support from the established Jewish community, its unpaid staff says.

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