A group of men in Kishinev, USSR,
observes kiddush after morning services.
A Jewish Journey
Into The Past
To write his book, The Last Jews
Of Eastern Europe, ethnographer
Yale Strom traveled thousands of
miles, spoke with thousands of
people and immersed himself in a
culture that retains much of its
Friday, March 13, 1987
THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS
Special to The Jewish News
kink of Jewish life in Eastern
Europe and you think of a past that
was glorious, a vibrant culture, a
huge population. Think of Jewish life in
Eastern Europe and you think of a pres-
ent that is pathetic, a mere shell of its
former self, a small remnant of elderly sur-
vivors barely managing to hang on. Think
of Jewish life in Eastern Europe and you
don't think of a future.
Yale Strom knows about Eastern Europe's
past only through what he's read. And, he
says, it was indeed as glorious as we think
it was. But when it comes to Eastern
Europe's present and its future — yes, its
future — the 29-year-old Strom can speak
from more personal experience. And what
that experience has shown him, he says, is
that what we think isn't entirely what is.
Strom spent six months traveling through
E astern Europe, visiting big cities and
small villages, talking to and listening to
Jews, seeing who was left, what kind of
Jewish life was left, and for how long it will
be left. The result is the just-published The
Last Jews of Eastern Europe, a book of
photographs and oral history looking at a
Jewish Community that is more than 1,000
years old and today numbers more than
"More than 200,000 is a lot of people,"
Strom tole the Detroit Jewish News in
an exclusive interview. "And there are not
only old people but young people, too; pro-
fessionals, people who look like your next-
door neighbor. And there are more than
cemeteries and old shuls no longer in use.
There is a vitality to what remains in
Eastern Europe. There are Jews there, alive
and living as Jews without assimilation."
That is not, Strom notes, what most peo-
ple think when they think of Eastern
Europe's present and not what he expected
to find when he set out on his journey. "We
tend to think that everything was deci-
mated by the Holocaust, that all have
assimilated or emigrated or that there's no
culture because of lack of interest or
government interference. But that's not
the way it is."
Strom was able to find out the way it is
because he spent time in the places Jews
are, visiting 26 communities in all, and
because he met the Jews, talking to thou-
sands. He was able to do that because he
went in with a unique set of qualifications.
For starters, he's a social scientist with a
master's degree in ethnography. He's got
another master's degree in Yiddish studies.
He is, as a result, fluent in Yiddish. He's
also fluent in the music known as Klezmer,
playing his violin in the style that was born
in Eastern Europe in the 17th Century and
which became and is still an integral part
of life there. Strom grew up in an observant
home and so is familiar with religious
Of all those, it was his Klezmer music
that first took him to Eastern Europe back
in 1981. Strom went hoping to do field
recordings in the place the music began, to
"see if the old guys could still play or, at
least, hum the melodies."
What he found, to his surprise, was not
only that Klezmer music was still alive but
that Jewish life and Jewish culture were,.
too. And so he decided he would have to
come back. For professional reasons. And
for personal ones.
"My bubble, zaide, aunts and uncles are
all from there. I think a certain way
because of Eastern Europe. I may be an
American, born in Detroit and raised in
San Diego, but Eastern Europe is where
my Jewish roots are."
And so, in the winter of 1984, Strom,