Despite Critics, Historic Russian Translation of the Talmud Gains Steam

A monumental effort with commentaries is launched with the first three volumes

Pro-Russian Jews, Not Anti-Soviet Politics

The first modern attempt to translate Jewish texts into Russian was undertaken by Professor Herman Branover in the early 1970s while the renowned physicist was still living in the Soviet Union. Following his emigration in 1972, Branover, a pioneer in the field of magnetohydrodynamics, was chosen by the Lubavitcher Rebbe—RabbiMenachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—to become the head of the newly founded, Jerusalem-based Shamir Association for Jewish Professionals, as well as editor-in-chief of its publishing house.

“There was a stress on translating the fundamentals—the siddur, Chumash—the books needed to become acquainted with Yiddishkeit,” says the professor’s son, Brooklyn businessman Danny Branover. “Everything was coordinated very closely with the Rebbe.”

With most Russian-speaking Jews at the time living behind the Iron Curtain, the Jewish books being printed by Shamir were being surreptitiously delivered to the Soviet Union. Books such as This Is My G‑d, the Jewish primer written by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Herman Wouk, as well as the many works of Aryeh Kaplan were seeping into the bloodstream of Soviet Jewry, with Branover’s translations proving to have a profound effect on growing circles of newly inspired Jews.

“I’ve met countless numbers of Russian Jews whose first exposure to Judaism was through those basic Jewish works translated and published by my father,” says Branover.

Although obvious sources of inspiration for Russian Jews, the Rebbe gave direct instructions to Shamir’s staff that the books should avoid the appearance of being anti-Soviet. During a 1977 private audience with one of Shamir’s founders, British businessman Peter Kalms (Kalms recalls the Rebbe’s suggestion that they both destroy their notes from the meeting so as to err on the side of caution), the Rebbe explains his reasoning in no uncertain terms.

“Your publicity and writing should be directed to those who speak Russian, not only Soviet Jews. It should not make the customs man hostile before he has seen what is inside,” the Rebbe told Kalms. “It should … appear to be directed to Russian-speaking Jews living in other countries, so that when it is received in the Soviet Union, they will not have a pretext to find it anti-Soviet, as it is directed also to Jews in other countries.”

The Rebbe’s additional instructions were that the books preferably not be printed in Israel, or at the very least, second editions be printed in countries with diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. Additionally, if Shamir publications explicitly mentioned Russia—for example, when listing Shabbat candle-lighting times in large Russian cities—the Rebbe advised that the city names be mixed into a broader list of cities outside of the Soviet Union.

Throughout Kalms’ discussion, the Rebbe spoke of the need to light the spark within Soviet Jewry by teaching the fundamentals of Judaism they had so long been denied.

“Jewish people must survive even Bolshevism,” stressed the Rebbe. “It is not enough to dance once a year at Simchas Torah, but he must do something every day. [The Russian Jew must be taught] ‘Modeh Ani,’ not higher philosophy!”

With these published works, the flames of Torah study would continue to spread at the grassroots level throughout the Soviet Union. Following the Rebbe’s intricate guidelines, Shamir would publish 400 titles over the next few decades, printing some 12 million books in all.

Exported Around the World

Knizhniki’s offices and showroom are located in the heart of Moscow’s Marina Roscha district, a neighborhood that has in recent decades become the most identifiably Jewish in Eastern Europe. Sitting in a low-slung building between the seven-story Marina Roscha Jewish Community Center and the sprawling campus that contains, among other institutions, the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, the Shaarei Tzedek social-services center and the Beit Shvidler Jewish day school, the publisher’s modest headquarters belies its impressive output.

Initially founded in 1992 as L’chaim Publishing House, it was rebranded Knizhniki nine years ago and began publishing at a completely different tempo.

Since 2007, it has published more than 450 books—not just books but beautiful books, ranging from illustrated editions of translated Yiddishpoetry, books of Jewish literature and history, and colorful children’s books. That same year, Knizhniki launched the Library of Classic Jewish Texts, and has translated and published Chassidic classics such as Torah Ohr andDerech Mitzvosecha, as well as the 13th-century Sefer HaChinuch and Rabbi Jacob Ibn Habib’s Ein Yaakov.

In the process, the Jewish publisher has become one of Moscow’s most respected book publishers despite its ostensibly niche market.

And while there was a time in the not-so-distant past that Russian-language Jewish books were printed exclusively outside of Russia to be sent into the country, today Knizhniki’s books are being exported around the world, having become popular sellers in Israel and the United States.

“Our books are sold everywhere,” attests Gorin. “That the Russian-language student of Jewish texts exists has been proven without a doubt.”

 

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