Drawing on their Jewish heritage
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Drawing on their Jewish heritage

Dr. Maya Katz explores the roots of Soviet animation

Crocodile Gena and Cheburashka the bear were popular characters in Soviet children’s films.
Crocodile Gena and Cheburashka the bear were popular characters in Soviet children’s films.

When we think about Soviet Jews — or any citizens of greater Russia under the Communist regime — our imaginings tend to be in black and white. Grey photos of refuseniks; black and white photos of Moscow under gray skies.

Dr. Maya Balakirsky Katz of Teaneck tells a different story. She left Russia when she was 5, in 1979. She took her favorite books with her when her family moved to Italy and then to America, brightly colored books with pictures of cartoon animals she had watched on Soviet television.

Years passed. Dr. Katz went to Touro College, earned a doctorate in art history at Bryn Mawr, and now is a professor in that field at Touro University. In a graduate course she teaches on Jews and media, a student introduced her to a 1979 animated Soviet film, “Tale of Tales,” directed by Yuri Norstein.

The film, a beautiful, dense, allegorical 29-minute wordless story about a wolf, has been voted in more than one competition as the best animated film ever.

Dr. Maya Balakirsky Katz
Dr. Maya Balakirsky Katz

The film captivated Dr. Katz.

“I kept watching it for several months,” she said. “I probably watched it 50 times before I had an opinion I could write down about it.”

Dr. Katz was struck by the spiritual and even religious content of the film. “I couldn’t believe that such a religious film, by a director who was openly Jewish, was being shown in the Soviet Union in 1979,” she said.

“I had totally bought into the image of Soviet Jews I adopted in America. It was totally different than the images Yuri Norstein presented on the screen as a very proud, spiritual person.”

How had Mr. Norstein come to make the film, she wondered. And what were the implications of his Jewishness for understanding Jews in the Soviet Union?

The search for answers to these questions propelled Dr. Katz on an investigation. The result is her new book, “Drawing The Iron Curtain: Jews and the Golden Age of Soviet Animation,” published last month by Rutgers University Press. The story of “Tale of Tales” doesn’t come until the end of the book, which begins at the founding of Soyuzmultfilm, the Moscow animation studio that was the country’s leading source of cartoons for three generations of Soviet children.

“In order to understand why Norstein went into animation, I had to keep moving back,” Dr. Katz said.

Cheburashka arrives in an orange crate.
Cheburashka arrives in an orange crate.

She found herself exploring the early lives of the first Soviet animators. In the aftermath of the Communist Revolution, anti-Semitism was officially against government policy. Jews were able to enroll in the art institutes that had excluded them before the revolution — but when they graduated, they couldn’t get jobs as fine artists. But the popular new medium of animation beckoned, and they embraced it.

“They believed they would revolutionize the world by telling stories,” Dr. Katz said.

As Dr. Katz discovered, the field of animation became a center for Jews. They were disproportionately represented in Soyuzmultfilm, they were very aware of their status as Jews, and — this particularly surprised Dr. Katz — they used their creative freedom to express their experiences as Jews.

Looking through the book, it becomes evident that Soviet animation, like New York comic books and Hollywood films, was a product of Jewish sensibilities and experiences — even if the resulting art couldn’t use the word “Jew.”

“Who would have thought it was the Soviets who first animated the Holocaust? Not only during the war but even after the war. Using animal characters,” Dr. Katz said.

This was not the first time that Soviet animation dealt with politics and history. In 1932, a Soviet film attacked American racism, she said. This was in contrast to the attitude at Walt Disney studios, which in 1933 had portrayed the Big Bad Wolf in “The Three Little Pigs” as a Yiddish-accented Jewish peddler.

06-3-V-drawing-coverJewish characters continue to appear in Soviet animation. And then there were the characters that hinted strongly of having been modeled after Jews.

In the 1969 first episode of the popular “Crocodile Gena” series, an orange bear named Cheburashka is delivered to a greengrocer in an orange crate that looks remarkably like those used for Jaffa oranges. Dr. Katz writes that the bear’s “association with oranges hints at his unknown roots, an idea that would have resonated with Cheburashka’s puppet maker, Leonid Shvartsman, who changed his own name to Israel after Israel’s astounding victory in the Six-Day War.”

In researching her book, Dr. Katz drew on studies of the individual artists; on their diaries, in some cases, and on the Soviet Union’s penchant for meticulous record-keeping. “The Soviets were amazing at keeping student and employee paperwork. There are files on all the students who went to the fine arts academies. There are files on all the employees.

“I was lucky to get actual letters and publications from the art graduates, these heartfelt calls that they’re going to change the world.

Dr. Katz found that idealism drove Mr. Norstein’s art. “He’s a very spiritual person,” she said. “He was very much a patriot. The man does not have a cynical bone in his body,” she said.

Dr. Katz interviewed Mr. Norstein for the book; Mr. Norstein, 75, still is working as an animator.

“He really believed that as a Soviet artist he could change the world,” Dr. Katz said. “People think of the Jews as anti-Soviet. It wasn’t that way. A lot of Jews were involved in creating the Soviet image. He was the real thing. He believed in it, even though I can’t help raising an eyebrow as an American ex-Soviet Jew.”

“Tale of Tales has no dialogue,” just a musical soundtrack. The occasional songs with lyrics are helpfully subtitled on the version on YouTube. “It’s beautiful to watch,” Dr. Katz said. “Things start coming together with each additional viewing. I couldn’t help but be taken in by it.

“In his words, it’s about all people at all times. It’s about the notion of eternity,” she said. There is a wolf, and there is the passage of seasons, and there is a poet. There is also war — depicted not with graphic violence, but in the disappearance of young men and their subsequent death notices.

A scene from “Tale of Tales.”
A scene from “Tale of Tales.”

Mr. Norstein was born in 1941 to a family evacuated from Moscow during the war.

“His childhood was spent under the shadow of institutional anti-Semitism,” Dr. Katz said.

Research for the book also involved repeated viewings of Soviet cartoons — many of which are on YouTube.

Dr. Katz’s four children eagerly joined in.

“You just can’t help but fall in love with some of the best ones,” she said. “The kids really do enjoy it, and they’re willing to watch again and again — which I can’t get my husband to do.”

Though the book is finished, Dr. Katz is continuing to research and write about Soviet animation. Her latest study actually might make the basis for an animated film, or at least a graphic novel, in its own right. It concerns the period during World War II when the animation studio was evacuated to central Asia —the home of the largest Bukharian Jewish community in the world.

“This was the most multicultural center in all of Soviet history,” she said. “They still speak about it like it was the golden years of their Jewish life, and it was right in the middle of the war. One guy said, ‘I came alive in 1943.’ It sounds crazy.”

“Drawing the Iron Curtain” is the second book Dr. Katz wrote. The first was “The Visual Culture of Chabad.” She also edited a volume, “Revising Dreyfus.”

The topics seem disparate. But she sees them as one single path, of exploring how groups use media and the role it plays in religion.

“I think of art history as my methodology and Jewish studies as my field of study,” she said.

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