For Many Soviet Jews, First Taste of Religious Freedom Comes in L.A.


Alexander Katsman celebrated a Jewish holiday publicly for the first time Sunday.

For most of his life, Katsman said, he had practiced Judaism mainly in his heart. Then last week he and nine relatives emigrated from the Soviet Union, where Katsman, 38, had been an equipment designer in Kiev, to Los Angeles.

And on Sunday afternoon they were among the several hundred Soviet Jews--many of them recent arrivals--gathered at West Hollywood's Plummer Park for an unusual observance of Purim. The holiday commemorates a victory by the Jews more than 2,000 years ago over Persian enemies who would have annihilated them.

To members of Chabad, the group of Orthodox Jews that organized Sunday's event, however, the parallels between ancient and modern history were worth observing.

"The Jews are still the same strong Jews, even after years of (Soviet) oppression," said Rabbi Naftoli Estulin, founding director of Chabad's Russian Program and a Russian immigrant himself. "This will help unite them, educate them and make them feel close."

Said Katsman: "I am very glad to be here. It shows that Jewish people have real rights in America."

Speaking through interpreters, many of the immigrants applauded perestroika, the recent loosening of restrictions in the Soviet Union that has resulted in more religious freedom.

The new policies also have made it easier for Soviet Jews to leave their country. During the last year, said Gregory Makaron, president of the Los Angeles-based Assn. of Soviet Jewish Emigres, immigration to the United States has increased dramatically, bringing the Soviet Jewish population in Los Angeles to more than 45,000, second only to New York's. In 1990, Makaron said, as many as 5,000 Soviet Jews are expected to make Los Angeles their home.

But the loosening of restrictions has also caused problems, the immigrants said.

Among other things, Makaron said, the new freedoms have "released the genie from the bottle where Jews have always been a target."

In a country imbued with a history of anti-Semitism, he said, freedom of speech often means freedom to cast aspersions on the Jews. And with the rise of nationalism in Soviet satellite countries, he said, has come a corresponding rise in the right-wing mentality that historically has found expression in anti-Semitism.

"Today we are very worried about what could happen," Makaron said.

On Sunday, however, worry seemed far away as the new arrivals--some of them wearing the long beards and black suits traditionally associated with Orthodox Judaism--listened to the Purim story in Russian and Hebrew, mingled with friends and were entertained by violinists, singers and a Russian comedian.

The only English spoken from the podium came from Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky and West Hollywood Mayor Abbe Land, both of whom greeted the immigrants warmly through a translator.

"For many people this is the first time they've been able to celebrate Purim openly," Land said in an interview. "I'm here to tell them that it's OK."

Most seemed to be getting the message.

"I feel healthy, free and young again," said Nathan Vanerman, 64, who emigrated from Kiev two years ago. "For the first time I feel like a real Jew. In Russia I could only dream of this."

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