Soviet Jewish Life: Bill Aron and Yevgeniy Fiks

The Wende Museum
The Armory, Culver City, California
Sunday, November 14, 2021 - Sunday, March 20, 2022


Bill Aron, Simchat Torah Archipova St. Moscow, 1981, Soviet Union. 

Russia has had a long, tumultuous history with its Jewish citizens. Short periods of prosperity and acceptance were alternated with centuries of persecution and exclusion. During the Cold War, Soviet Jews experienced discrimination and often were disciplined when they applied for emigration to Israel, Europe, or the United States. Applications came at a great cost, resulting in the loss of employment, educational opportunities, and isolation from family and friends. The Soviet Jewish experience is at the core of the work in this exhibition by artists Bill Aron and Yevgeniy Fiks.

During travels to Leningrad, Moscow, and Minsk in 1981, Bill Aron photographed ritual and social moments in various synagogues and recorded the brave faces of the Refuseniks, Jews who wished to emigrate but were denied permission.

Aron’s photo of Archipova Street in Moscow on the eve of the Simchat Torah holiday shows a congregation of thousands, a symbol of rebirth for the Refusenik community. While shooting, Aron spoke to a man who had been coming to Simchat Torah secretly in order to protect the identity of his family. In the crowd, that man came face to face with his own teenage son who also had been attending undercover.

The son of a Russian Jewish émigré to Philadelphia, Aron was observed by state security officers during his time behind the Iron Curtain. Like other Western photographers visiting the USSR, Soviet customs officers attempted to confiscate his negatives prior to departure. Had he not packed a bag of decoy film, the exhibited images would have been lost forever.

Yevgeniy Fiks left his native Moscow for New York in 1994, at the age of 22, going on to create several multimedia projects that reexamine Soviet history. His fascinating studies of Birobidzhan, the semi-autonomous Jewish region near the Soviet border with China, are presented through video, collage, drawing, an artist’s book, and archival materials. His installation Withered and restricted, according to Mem Lamed Kof (2021) juxtaposes a large print of his Soviet passport with the audio of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking in defense of Soviet Jewry in a 1966 speech. With a mixture of documentary and fantasy, Fiks reflects on the utopian promises and historical realities of Jewish history in the East.

Soviet Jewish Life is presented in conjunction with the Robin Center for Russian-Speaking Jewry at the Wende Museum. Envisioned and underwritten by Wende Museum Board and Committee members Edward Robin and Peggy Robin, the project aims to preserve and expand awareness of the history of Russian-speaking Jews, Jews who lived in the Soviet Union, and the Refusenik movement through collections and public programming.

Soviet Jewish Life and related programming is generously funded by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, the Peggy Robin & Edward Robin Family Foundation, and additional supporters.