Members of the large Russian community in central New Jersey brought with them memories of anti-Semitism and economic hardship, but also a rich culture of literature and the arts.
To help preserve that complex legacy, the Jewish Russian Cultural Club has met monthly for the last 10 years at the East Brunswick Public Library. More than 200 members have come from as far away as New York, Philadelphia, and Morris and Monmouth counties to enjoy poetry, music, and literature in their native Russian.
This year, the meetings have moved to the South River offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County.
“The biggest shock is the cultural shock coming from another country,” said Zoya Polevaya of East Brunswick, who founded club. “Most of us were unable to have a Jewish heritage, but we were products of Russian culture, which is very interesting, and a language that is very powerful.”
Polevaya emigrated from Kiev, Ukraine, 13 years ago.
“People who emigrated here were mostly very well-educated,” she said.
The club has its roots in a 2001 meeting of volunteers who wanted to become community leaders of what was then the Jewish Family Service of Southern Middlesex County. Polevaya, who was an electrical engineer in Ukraine, worked for the agency. She now teaches part-time at a Russian school in Branchburg.
“In Kiev there was such a club of which I was a member more than 20 years so I decided to do something similar here,” said Polevaya. “I wanted some cultural things near me. Jewish Family Service helped me connect with the library. The group actually started under the auspices of the family service, but then became independent.”
The club, which offers free programming, had a slow start, but “I am a pretty outgoing person” and persevered, she said. A decade later, “People have established a little network. We talk to each other. It’s like a family. Some people have been with us 10 years.”
The group has 12 events annually; its September program featured Semyon Reznik, a writer, historian, and journalist and a member of the International PEN Club who lives and works in Washington, DC. Most of his books are about Soviet and modern Russian anti-Semitism.
Polevaya established an e-mail relationship with Sholom Aleichem’s granddaughter — author Bel Kaufman — who is 101 years old. Kaufman invited Polevaya, who took several group members, to her grandfather’s 96th yahrtzeit commemoration, held recently at New York’s Brotherhood Synagogue.
The group’s Oct. 21 program will feature Alexander Matlin, a retired engineer and Russian humorist. Before emigrating, Matlin published in Moscow. “In Russia I was writing as a journalist,” he said. “Here I do not get paid, but it’s a joy to do it.”