In Vitebsk, Russian Jews Echo Chagall's Alienation

Ninety years later and the great Jewish artist remains a stranger in his beloved hometown.

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VITEBSK, Belarus –In Vitebsk, things fly. Or so at least Marc Chagall promises in his dreamlike, feverish images of his hometown.

While walking here one June Sabbath morning, I squint and try to see things the way Chagall did, but everything is very much grounded. The impassioned colors of his Vitebsk in paint are somehow muted in real life. It's a picturesque yet Soviet town –the hills and churches' golden spires, a charming old square, an old bridge dotted with hammers and sickles, a river.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that reality is quieter than art. The streets in the city center are a muffled quiet, police patrol the streets, men sport mullets, young women run in stilettos, streetcars pass, and the only real sounds are the church bells. The locals in the cafes and streets explain that the town lives in its past. "We're frozen in time here," a municipal clerk tells me.

Chagall's legacy is the inspiration for a Limmud FSU arts festival here; last week young Jewish faces appeared in these streets, coming from Moscow, Minsk and Kiev trying to breathe Chagall back in. "I'll take Vitebsk over Paris!" they joke and clink shot glasses in between Limmud lectures on Jewish history, Israeli politics, Soviet art and Yiddish theater.

The young people sit and tell me about their tireless volunteering, the seminars they attend and the life of a young Jew in the former Soviet Union.

"Can you believe it? I opted to have my nationality noted in my Lithuanian passport," one young Vilna Jew says at the table. The others are stunned –some girls whisper about rumors the Russians want to reinstitute the infamous passport "fifth line" for nationality.

The Vilna Jew shrugs and says the government clerk asked him to reconsider noting his Jewishness, but "to hell with them all." Another young man tells us how he wears a Star of David necklace in Kiev's streets, and if somebody has a problem with it, well, he wasn't a boxing champion in high school for nothing. Everyone laughs; it's the same traditional Diaspora humor, but now it's carefree, proudly mischievous.

The young people like to exchange statistics: how many people go to synagogue in their town every week, how many of their friends have made aliyah or gone on Masa programs. I'm repeatedly shocked by the array of community names I hear: Mogilev, Zaporozhye, Zhitomir, Babruysk –the very names I heard growing up but somehow imagined had disappeared due to one military uniform or another.

Unmarked synagogue

A handful of Jews still live in Vitebsk today. As in many small towns throughout the former Soviet Union, the local synagogue is in an unmarked two-room house.

"I know everything there is to know about this grand city of Vitebsk," a local elderly Jew tells me over Sabbath lunch. "And let me tell you, Chagall was both insane and brilliant. He was right that this place is magical. Listen, I write poetry, just close your eyes and listen to my poems and you'll see it's a magical place our Vitebsk! Everything flies here, Chagall himself shows how even cows fly here, like angels!"

The Expert of Vitebsk is like a character out of Sholem Aleichem: short, bearded, limping, large dark eyes and a singsong voice. He pulls me out of the dining hall toward the main avenue and points to the main bridge.

"See this bridge? The Vitebsk Choral Synagogue used to stand on the other side. And that hotel over there, on the riverbank –behind it was the Jewish ghetto. During the war they used to shoot Jews and throw them into the river. They say that the river was red for months."

I look down at the brown river rushing below; a young family is posing for a picture nearby.

"But you say you're from New York?" The old man cracks a grin. "Nu, I've never been there, but I once wrote a poem, 'On Brighton Beach, they've opened a little restaurantchik ...'"

Later, I cross the bridge to walk the streets of the former ghetto. It's serene here; children run in the streets and old women carry groceries. A young light-haired man approaches me, smiles and asks me where I'm from. When I say that my family is from Kiev, he blesses me for my light eyes, for my "clean Ukrainian blood." I laugh nervously and turn back to walk along the brown river.

It was probably this very riverbank that Chagall envisioned when he wrote, from his exile from Vitebsk, "I see the river floating away, the bridge in the distance, and here close by... here is my soul. Look for me hereabouts, there I am, here are my paintings, my roots."

Yet the man never expected his town to love him back, no matter how deeply rooted he felt in these hills. "It will not surprise me," he later wrote, "if, after I have long been absent, my town obliterates my traces and forgets all about the man who ... worried, suffered, and took the trouble to implant Art there, who dreamed of transforming ordinary houses into murmurs and the simple inhabitant into a creator."

His words were almost prophetic. The house in which the painter grew up may be a museum of sorts, but now it's the very image of Jewish memory in Eastern Europe: a house so restored that it's all but turned to plastic, a frowning old woman at an admissions desk, a magnet of Chagall's "Over the Town" that can be yours for only 70,000 rubles. Souvenirs are everywhere, but there's not one original Chagall painting in the entire city.

"Neither imperial Russia nor the Russia of the Soviets have any need of me," the painter wrote mournfully in Moscow in 1922. "To them I am incomprehensible, a stranger."

Ninety years later and Chagall remains a stranger in his own beloved Vitebsk, his face featured on every tourist brochure, yet uncomfortably so. He is both inside and outside, wearing a Star of David while hiding behind light eyes, professing love for his roots but forever foreign, hovering somewhere above the rooftops.

Vitebsk as Chagall knew it.Credit: Courtesy
Vitebsk today, including its brown river.Credit: Avital Chizhik

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