Online Oral History Museum of Modern Jewry
Playing with Leviathan:
The Jewish Soul Reflected in Personal Stories

Why Personal Stories?

Hidden Twentieth Century Text: Living Traces of Jewish Heritage

We have discovered an amazing pattern in the personal stories of Russian-speaking Jews that we collected.  On the one hand, most of our participants grew up in assimilated, non-observant households. Their parents or grandparents failed to pass their ancestral legacy down to them during the Soviet era, so they don’t look at their lives through the prism of the Jewish tradition.

On the other hand, despite all their assimilation and secular lifestyle, their actions and decisions reflect glimpses of Jewish soul, the spiritual legacy that for various reasons isn’t visible at first glance.

Conversations with venerated rabbis, philosophers, artists, business consultants, culturologists, and psychologists helped us and our participants to recalibrate their vision to be able to discern greatness in the mundane world.

Here are three points to demonstrate the amazing insights we discovered in these stories.


Solomon and Esther Among Us: History-Changing Stories

Those who shared their stories with me were not always angels, but however questionable their motives may have been, whatever their character flaws, no matter what obstacles were thrown in their path they were always able to hear the call of their Jewish soul and, without consciously thinking about it, find resourceful ways of bringing its aspirations to life. They take risks, think outside the box, and work tirelessly to achieve this goal. Hence, their actions bear the imprint of the Jewish tradition: the depth and values of Jewish holidays and the traits of biblical figures – David and Solomon, Esther and Rachel.

It’s worth remembering an image from Boris Pasternak’s poem: “Others will walk along the living imprint, your path they’ll follow inch by inch.” That’s exactly how the people of Israel are. Wherever they dwell, they cross from the present to the future following the living imprint of their best sons and daughters. Personal stories told by the project participants link us to our spiritual roots. “We are forgotten echoings of a someone’s depth,” said Alexander Blok.

Reconnecting with the common root leads to a realization that you are part of something greater than just your own self. “I” becomes “we”, allowing us to see that despite all our disagreements, we are one big Jewish family united by the idea of brotherhood and a spiritual bond. This unity provides us with strength and resilience in this fast-changing world and opens new horizons in different facets of life. This the first amazing aspect revealed to us in personal stories.


Life Beyond Schemes:
Personal Stories in the Context of Modern Research in the Fields of Personality Development and Society

We’ll cover the second, no less amazing aspect learned from personal stories

Through the veil of quite materialistic, utilitarian motives expressed by those who shared their stories with us, we call them our heroes, we were able to discern special aspirations and abilities of the Jewish soul, a unique view of the world and one’s own place in it. Our heroes tended to value people around them for their human depth rather than the positions they held and social roles they played. In other words, they were able to see fluid reality behind formal structures and traditional schemes.

These stories reveal the ideas of great twentieth-century thinkers – Martin Buber (I and Thou), Erich Fromm (To Have or To Be), Viktor Frankl (The Will to Meaning), Abraham Maslow (The Farther Reaches of Human Nature) – through real events in people’s lives. Apart from being another milestone in humankind’s evolutionary development, the will and ability to see human depth in every human being, not just a human evolution, is a trait that the Jewish people has been nourishing since the times of Moses. This truth is being revealed to us both through the Torah and the centuries of Jewish life.

An exhibition on the Jewish mob planned by the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv offers interesting insights into this subject. The first generation of Jewish immigrants to the U.S. became mobsters; their children became lawyers for the mob, while the third generation has had no connection with the mob whatsoever. These dynamics starkly differ from those of the Italian mafia, where the mobster role has been passed from one generation to the next.

This example offers yet another illustration of the Jewish soul freeing itself from the dictate of social roles and formal structures. Jewish parents see their child as a living soul rather than a set of characteristics and an object that should fit into a rigid preordained framework. This is how the Jewish soul frees itself from pharaohs (i.e. preprogrammed functions and structures) and leaves Egypt (in this case, a mafia clan).


Life Risk of Staying Alive: Inspiring Experience for the Rapidly-Changing World

And now let’s discuss the third amazing aspect of personal stories. We have seen our heroes find original solutions to everyday problems and deliver answers to the pressing questions of modern times: the family institution crisis, breaking bonds across generations, existential vacuum, alienation from the world, people, and oneself.

It was especially valuable to see the heroes who shared their stories with us heed the call of their Jewish soul by breaking fossilized stereotypes and stifling routines. They are using innovative and unconventional approaches, and the end result is bringing more spirituality and humanity into the world.  This works in ostensibly mundane situations and manifests itself in contradictory personal lives.

We have discovered that these heroes are making the world a more humane and spiritual place. Carrying out this task often requires them to resort to innovative methods and break fossilized stereotypes and stifling routines. Making the world a better place applies to ostensibly simple circumstances.

For instance, in the Drinking Buddies, the Jewish Way episode, our participant’s Soviet-era experience as a glass recyclables receiving clerk now helps him train top managers on how to create a business with a human face. This story reveals how an unwitting desire to “repair the world” alongside with ability to get through to the essence of things helps an individual to find non-standard but effective solutions.


Why Playing with Leviathan? 

The Jewish Existential Corrida: Eternal Soul Tested by the Material World

In the Jewish tradition, Leviathan is more than just an enormous and awe-inspiring sea monster. It’s primarily a symbol of material forces of existence – those beyond human control like time, space, natural calamities, and epidemics, as well as man-made creations like states, economies, and technologies.

An art of coexistence between this matter and a human being created in God’s image and likeness is not a vain losing battle, but a fascinating game played with Leviathan – an uninterrupted dialogue of the eternal soul with the fickle material world.

It’s this ability to dream and transcend the boundaries of socially accepted rational algorithms, essentiallyrising above the material existence and playing with it, that allows Jews to remain both spiritual and down-to-earth at the same time. As a result, they can successfully realize their potential in a wide variety of spheres: in family life, education, or career.

This constitutes the timeless Jewish access code to transforming reality.  And the personal stories of the Russian-speaking Jews of the twenty-first century that our project features vividly illustrate this “Playing with Leviathan.”


Why Is This Project Valuable to Us, Our Heroes , and Those Around Them?

I will discern a great straight line while following your daring curve

Reflecting on the stories, we uncover the timeless traits of the Jewish soul and their manifestations in the lives of our contemporaries – although they might not even be aware of it. These traits transform the reality, complementing it spiritually and introducing the Creators’ original vision for His creation.

Discovering the links between our contemporaries – the heroes in our stories – and the heroes of the Jewish tradition (Solomon and Esther Among Us) presents a multi-dimensional and a wholistic image of what an authentic personality is really about. It helps a person to discern the significance of his own life through the patina of daily routine and chaotic events, and in doing so, also detect the living traces of the Jewish spiritual tradition in their own life.

This reflection leads to a surprising and inspiring encounter between our heroes and his Jewish soul.  The “hidden text” absorbed by the past generation happens to be the “great straight line” discerned behind the “daring curve.” As for the people that surround the heroes who shared their stories with us, it helps them to resolve long-standing personal questions and the questions of understanding the global reality they live in.

For instance, one of our project participants noticed that the practice of hedging one’s bet that saved him numerous times in challenging business situations originates with enterprising Jacob. When heading for a faceoff with his warlike brother, Jacob wisely divided his household into two camps: if one is defeated, the other will survive.

Delving in one’s personal history yields different results for each of the project participants. All of the results are certainly important, but they vary according to one’s life experience and the degree of involvement in Jewish life.

  • For the totally unobservant, this encounter with their Jewish soul triggers another look at their life priorities. It can serve as a start on the journey to the depths of one’s personality and help one realize the aspirations of his or her Jewish soul. Reflecting on one’s personal story allows to restore the broken link with one’s spiritual roots and realize the potential one received at birth.
  • For those deeply involved in the Jewish tradition, reflecting on personal history allows to better see and feel the living link to the meaning and values of our Jewish heritage, as well as the living link to Jewish holidays and historical figures in business, professional, and private lives.
  • For those making their first steps down the path of the Jewish tradition, reflecting on one’s personal history and learning about other project participants’ return to their spiritual roots helps to “trace” a similar return in their own lives. Pondering other people’s life inspires to reach out to the experience accumulated over centuries in Jewish history, philosophy and culture, and reveals the role that spiritual leaders, teachers, and guardians of culture play in one’s life. The participants also have a chance to appreciate the atmosphere of Jewish holidays and other events in the Jewish communities.


Why Do We Have Such Different Target Audiences?

The need for each story from a personal, Jewish and global standpoint

By attracting wide public attention to the experience of the Russian-speaking Jews, the project seeks to make this experience a conscious and active factor in transforming the man and the world. The project’s pilot stage demonstrated that the collected stories primarily interest four types of target audiences. Hence, the project further developed along four different tracks:

1. Personal Stories of Russian-speaking Jews as a Catalyst for Their Reconnecting with Their Roots

This track appeals to:

  • Jewish communities, cultural, and educational centers to increase the number of their members by attracting critically-thinking Russian-speaking Jews and the Jewish youth;
  • Older generation of Russian-speaking Jewish families to attract their children and grandchildren to their ancestral heritage;
  • Russian-speaking Jews to deepen their connection to the source of age-old wisdom and the spiritual source of their people.

Our innovational approach to creating and reflecting on personal stories in the context of Jewish spiritual heritage (Solomon and Esther Among Us) and modern philosophy (Life Beyond Schemes) allows us to gain some insights into the mystery of the Jewish soul and be able to talk about the relevance of the Jewish heritage to positivist, rational thinkers, unattached to the Jewish tradition.

2. Personal Stories of Russian-speaking Jews as a Spiritual Search Guide for American Jews

This track appeals to American Jews, seeking to attract their attention to the personal stories told by their Russian-speaking counterparts.

Besides sharing in the cultural heritage of the People of the Book, our heroes’ mother tongue is Russian.  It is not that we acquire a language, it is rather that a language forms our personality. This is the language of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, who wrote of an open, naked soul in search of the spiritual meaning of life. (“My spirit was athirst for grace,” Alexander Pushkin, “Prophet”)

Stories told by Russian-speaking Jews allow to discern the spiritual dimension of life more vividly and clearly and  thus become a mirror in which American Jews can see their own spiritual depth ensconced in the shell of rationality.

3. Personal Stories of Russian-speaking Jews as a Key to Overcoming the “Russian” Stereotype

This track appeals to Jewish communities in different countries, seeking to overcome stereotypes and prejudice about Russian-speaking Jews. The goal is to get the outside world to see us as Jews, not “Russians.”

Stories told by Russian-speaking Jews expose their Jewish nucleus, point to the truly Jewish behavior throughout their lives, and emphasize their Jewishness despite the customs and practices learned from Russian culture.

Learning about these stories help Jews from different countries see our heroes not as a “distorting mirror,” “Russians,” but as their brethren, the “hidden righteous Jews” whose un-Jewish actions and decisions are in fact imbued with Jewish content and tradition that’s kept alive in their hearts.

4. Personal Stories of Russian-speaking Jews as a GPS That Helps to Overcome the Challenges of Global Development

This track appeals to members of the business, intellectual, and political elites in different countries. Stories told by Russian-speaking Jews may serve as a GPS  that helps the humanity rethink and implement true human values.

Propagating the lessons of the Playing with Leviathan project is particularly relevant in the modern world that faces a crisis of meaning and values in various facets of life – from business to family.

According to the poll taken among prominent business and political leaders at the Davos Forum, 68 percent of the respondents believe that the current global crisis is a crisis of values and trust as well; 55 percent believe “higher human values exist.” The Forum’s founder and president Klaus Schwab states that “the future requires us to first and foremost rethink our values”

What are the practical implications of these beliefs? How can one link the rethinking of values to everyday decisions and actions? How do higher values manifest themselves in the fabric of modern life? Where to look for inspirations and moral guideposts? There are millions of known business success stories, but just a handful of stories tell us about reexamining one’s values and applying them in the business world, society at large, and family. They remain in the realm of private life, but our project fills this important void.


Why Is the Project Significant
Not Only for the Participants But Also for the Common Good?

Our Heroes on Life’s Stage


Innovational Platform for Promoting Personal Stories 

The project provides its participants – heroes who shared their stories with us – with the platform to discover, reflect on, and disseminate their experience. It includes:

  • Creating a personal story in the multimedia format, as well as developing a personal (family) exposition in the Online Oral History Museum of Modern Jewry;
  • Including episodes from one’s personal history in the book entitled Solomon and Esther Among Us;
  • Presenting one’s personal story in a friendly atmosphere of a club gathering.
  • Jewish holidays: understanding the meaning on-line;
  • Lessons from weekly Torah portions: case studies of personal projects;
  • Jewish historical figures: Living imprints of tradition in our lives.
  • Organizing the participants’ presentations in the world’s leading universities and forums. Participating in the work of think tanks, expert groups, and advisory boards. Being interviewed by the national and international media.


Elevating the Sparks Public Recognition Award

Elevating the Sparks award seeks to attract public attention to the participants’ life stories and widely disseminate their experiences.

The name goes back to the Jewish concept of divine sparks. The sparks are said to be trapped in the shell of the material world, and the person’s goal is to redeem them. In the context of our project, “elevating the sparks” symbolizes the Jewish soul’s profound longing for the truth, kindness and beauty, which can be externalized in one’s business, social, and personal life. Redeeming the sparks is part of the individual contribution to tikkun olam – repairing the world.

The award goes to individuals for their achievements in the “game with Leviathan”, for their aspiration and ability to see human depth rather than the positions people around them hold and social roles they play. The awardees see a fluid reality behind formal structures and traditional schemes, and display on this journey the ability:

  • combine both idealistic and pragmatic aspirations;
  • be kind-hearted and inspire others;
  • be committed to his values, resilient, and resourceful.

Special nominations for the Elevating the Sparks award also allow to express appreciation to:

  • The People around our heroes – the loved ones, friends, colleagues, spiritual guides, professionals who monitored their changes and development – for the effective help they provided our heroes in the right time.
  • Intellectuals and artists for their contribution in helping interpret our heroes experiences and enhancing their personal stories.
  • Jewish community leaders, club, association, and social network activists, conference, seminar, and training organizers for their assistance in finding the heroes who shared their stories with us and educating others on those heroes’ experience.
  • Bloggers and journalists for their publication about our heroes.
  • Friends, partners, and sponsors for the organizational, promotional, and financial support of the project.

The recognition ceremony is a celebration that attracts wide public attention to the hero’s life experience and unites different generations of participants’ families. Innovational approach to conducting the ceremony casts the substantive presentation (philosophic reflection, thorough argumentation, expert opinion) in a festive form capped by participants’ awards, making it an outstanding and memorable event.

The ceremonies are held in two formats.  The first format is local, the ceremonies are hosted by co-leaders in their respective cities and spheres of interest (for instance, professional associations, chambers of commerce, and business clubs). And the second format is an annual gala, which brings together all of the past ceremonies’ participants (some via a teleconference). This event is intended to recap the project’s accomplishments for the past year and determine its future direction.

We will be happy to answer your questions, provide additional information, and discuss your possible participation in the project.

Dr. Mark Tourevski, the Founder of the Online Oral History Museum and the creator of the Playing with Leviathan project.