Vinnytsia Oblast, Ukraine
The region around Vinnitsya, a city four hours southwest of Kiev, once boasted dozens of shtetls (Jewish villages) and hundreds of thousands of Jews. Today, those who survived the Cossacks, czars, Nazis and Communists -- and who chose not to emigrate to Israel or the United States -- number only several thousand.
After decades of Soviet-enforced atheism, few keep kosher or Shabbat and fewer read Hebrew -- but Jewish culture is beginning to thrive again.
"I only started observing Jewish holidays after the Soviet Union fell," says Yvgeny Zilbert, who runs Mishpakha, an organization devoted to rejunenating Vinnitsya's Jewish culture. "Now I´m making up for lost time," he says.
Zilbert's actions speak louder than his words. For example, around the Purim season every year, Zilbert reads the Book of Esther publicly more than a dozen times, making him the traveling celebration broker of the Vinnitsya region.
The Vinnitsya Jewish community shows particular enthusiasm for Klezmer music and Yiddish theater. Sasha Tsondekovich, a math teacher, manages a young Jewish theater group in his spare time. Tsondekovich's troupe performs Sholem Aleichem plays several times a month in former shtetls around the region.
One afternoon in early Spring, Tsondekovich visits an elderly woman living 100 miles south of the regional capital, in the small town of Bershad. She last attended a Jewish function when Tsondekovich´s Chanukah play came to town.
"Oy vey, Maccabey!" shouts Vera Shvartsman Cheyved, 78, answering the door with a loving, toothless smile, unconcerned or unaware that the Maccabis pertain to Channukah, now long past.
"Oy," she repeats for emphasis, and the grin disappears momentarily as she says to Tsondekovich in Yiddish, "I've had a lot of bad things in my life."
Indeed, it is difficult to imagine an indignity she has been spared. She was ghettoized, orphaned, shot, starved, dressed in rags, left childless, torn from her husband, exiled, denied religious freedom and, more recently, stripped of adequate health care.
"But oh, how I love to sing!" Cheyved says, the light returning to her scarf-framed face as she clasps her chubby hands to her bosom like a little girl receiving a gift.
Cheyved props her enormous figure against the bed frame in her tiny flat. Playfully shaking in her massive blue housedress, she sings half a dozen romantic Yiddish songs.
Returning from Bershad, Tsondekovich remarks that Cheyved´s rosy demeanor is unsurprising. "Our sense of humor," he says of Vinnitsya´s Jews, "is how we survive."
Bryan Schwartz visited the remaining Jewish community of Ukraine’s Vinnitsya region in 2001 and presents its members in vivid text and photographs in his book with Jay Sand and Sandy Carter, Scattered Among the Nations.