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[The following Postcard was republished Feb. 24, 2011, in the Jewish Exponent of Philadelphia. It was originally published March 2004 in JTA.]

By Michael J. Jordan

The artist, circa 1920, from "Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater"

VITEBSK, Belarus — There’s no business like Chagall business. At least, not in the hometown of the legendary artist.

Shunned by the Soviet authorities for his leaving the “worker’s paradise” of the Soviet Union for the artistic incubator of Paris, Marc Chagall has undergone a remarkable posthumous rehabilitation in his Belarussian birthplace.

The charming provincial city of Vitebsk, an inspiration for much of the artist’s oeuvre — like his floating, dreamlike images of wood rooftops, barnyard animals and bearded fiddlers — is not only a must-see for Jewish tourists, it’s said to be a cornerstone of national tourism. Located 120 miles northeast of Minsk, the capital, Vitebsk draws German and Japanese tourists and countless foreign art students.

Hordes of schoolchildren tour the museum within the refurbished Chagall family homestead. The museum was opened in 1992 and has since been accompanied by annual “Chagall Days,” featuring music, exhibitions, lectures and poetry readings. It’s quite a turnaround for an artist revered by some, scorned by others as a symbol of dissent, and long banned from public discourse.

Chagall is now a symbol of another kind, says Vitebsk native Arkady Shulman, a Jewish journalist and amateur Chagall historian.

“Any person who emigrated was denounced as a traitor,” says Shulman, who helped establish the Chagall museum and is chief editor of Mishpoha magazine. “People didn’t know his pictures, but they knew his name, and that he was against the system. Today, more people know his art, but he’s become a symbol of a boy from a small town who became world famous.”

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[The following article appeared March 17, 2004, in JTA.]

By Michael J. Jordan

MINSK, Belarus — It’s not your ordinary Friday night gathering at the Campus, the hub of Jewish life here in the Belarussian capital.

The first night of Chanukah is coupled with the much-anticipated induction of young Rabbi Grisha Abramovich as the new spiritual head of Belarus’ Reform movement.

In the brightly lit multipurpose room at the Campus Jewish community center, nearly 200 mostly elderly Jews are decked out in their Friday night finery: Many women look as if they’ve had their hair freshly styled, and several men have pinned their war medals and other honorary insignia onto their jacket lapels.

As the Minsk-born Abramovich is sworn in from the stage with a prayer by a senior Reform rabbi from Israel, there is a pause for the audience to respond “Amen.” But the room falls silent; only two or three appear to mumble the affirmation.

The ceremony and this awkward moment speak volumes about the state of Jewish life in Belarus: enthusiastic renaissance of Jewish culture and society, but painstakingly difficult reconstruction of Jewish religion.

“It is easier to train people to provide social welfare services than it is to teach them values and traditions,” says Marina Fromer, the local representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which underwrites much of Jewish cultural, social and welfare services in Belarus.

That’s one main reason that all Campus activities are free — it brings Jews through the door. And they come back for more: The JDC claims a 90 percent rate of return visits.

Jewish culture — at once providing a form of entertainment and sense of belonging — is an easier lure than religiosity or spirituality, which must strike a deeper chord emotionally and demands commitment, says Sender Uritsky, the chief rabbi of Belarus.

After 70 years of Soviet-imposed atheism, persuading Jews to observe Jewish law and ritual “is like trying to change an introvert into an extrovert,” Uritsky says.

Belarussian Jews describe themselves as living in a Jewish void.

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[The following article was published March 4, 2004, in JTA.]

By Michael J. Jordan

MINSK, Belarus — The crammed bookshelves in Yakov Basin’s personal library form an unusual collection, a rogue’s gallery of all the anti-Semitic, conspiracy-fueling publications that Basin has plucked from Belarussian bookstores during the past decade.

He pulls one from the shelf to illustrate his point: “War According to Laws of Meanness.” Its thesis of “Jewish crimes” — aspiring to global domination, for example — mirrors the notorious forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

Basin describes how on Nov. 29, 2000, Belarussian legislator Sergei Kostian distributed copies of the war book to colleagues on the floor of Parliament.

Basin, a Jewish leader and human rights activist, took the publisher to court. But the state-controlled judiciary in this ex-Soviet republic deemed the book “scientific” and “academic literature” and therefore not subject to charges of inciting ethnic hatred. Some 30,000 copies were published.

Such acts anger and frustrate some of Belarus’ estimated 70,000 Jews. But others, after decades of Soviet-era anti-Semitic policies, are resigned to a certain level of anti-Jewish provocations.

Jews are relieved that the country’s authoritarian ruler, Alexander Lukashenko, hasn’t adopted any of the anti-Semitic policies of the past or personally made any anti-Jewish pronouncements, Basin says.

But, he adds, Lukashenko also “has done nothing for us.”

Lukashenko sends mixed signals to the Jewish community.

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