A few weeks ago, I got a phone call from my friend, Igor Malakhov, the producer and host of Vestnik, a Russian-language news program that’s based in Toronto. “Do you know that your lectures are an Internet sensation?” he asked. How many people could possibly be watching our lectures, I wondered. Puzzled, I demanded clarification.
About six months ago, the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, which I am the director of, and Vestnik, entered into a joint project designed to increase our outreach to the Russian-speaking community in the Greater Toronto Area. Malakhov’s crew came to film some of the public lectures, seminars and events that we hosted. Later, they interviewed the speakers themselves and produced an 11-part series of reports, in Russian, that were aired on OMNI TV and posted online.
Topics ranged from feminism among Lubavitch Hasidim, to the lessons of the Holocaust. Usually, each episode was viewed about 2,000-3,000 times, a number that impressed us, as academics who are used to speaking to much smaller audiences.
Everything changed when the interview with University of Pennsylvania Professor Steven Weitzman was posted online. He is a historian and specialist on the Hebrew Bible and the roots of Jewish culture. Weitzman discussed theories about the origins of Jews and the controversies related to studying Jews within the field of genetics.
The clip was watched over 55,000 times and provoked a lively discussion with over 750 comments. Yes, you read that correctly: 750 comments on a Jewish studies lecture. Some had nothing to do with the topic of the lecture, but instead expressed hostile stereotypes of Jews, a phenomenon that is unfortunately all-too common on the Internet, no matter what language it’s in. One person wrote: “Yes, I always knew Jews and Armenians were the same!” Another lamented: “Jews are not a real nation. They pretend to be such.”
Other commentators turned to controversial questions about the origins of the Russian people. Indeed, Weitzman’s discussion resonated with the Russian-language audience, both in Toronto and abroad, because the issue of Russian identity and Russian culture is no less complex than the issue of Jewish identity and culture.
When we first started filming our public events, many of my colleagues objected to the move. Some did not want their fresh-baked, yet unpolished ideas to circulate to an online audience who did not do their required readings. Some worried about saying something they would later regret. Others argued that no one would ever watch the videos, so why bother? When the third group convinced the other two, we launched an English-language YouTube channel, which featured about 20 videos that were viewed around 2,000 times, in total.
None of us could have predicted that our largest audience would be Russian speakers who are interested in the origins of the Jewish people.
I have already written more than once that Russians still lack the language to talk about Jews – their history, their community, their philosophy and their beliefs – in a tone that lacks prejudice. But this does not mean that there is a lack of interest in the subject. Why else would so many people take the time to watch these clips and express their opinions about them?
There is something about speaking about Jews in Russian that seems somewhat scandalous or forbidden. Who could resist that, even if the topics discussed are academic in nature? Maybe such clips will slowly change the culture and create a new, non-inflammatory language for discussing Jews in public.
In any case, I do not complain. Indeed, maybe the best research in Jewish studies will eventually be written in Russian and we will catalyse it. To be sure, Jewish history and Jewish studies are full of twists that are stranger than this one.