The first thing you notice is the color:
Pinks and ochers of the houses and storefronts on a street in the Jewish quarter of Tbilisi. Oranges and reds of oriental carpets hanging on a wall at a funeral in Samarkand. Golden light on burnished wood in a synagogue in Oni.
Warm, mediterranean, Middle Eastern in feeling. It is an unusual glimpse of the Soviet Union for American eyes raised on grainy black-and-white photos of Soviet officials at microphones and fur-hatted Muscovites traipsing through city streets.
The photographs are the results of what Soviet e'migre' Nodar Djindjihashvili saw on his odyssey through Soviet Jewish communities -- some well known, some so obscure that even Soviet e'migre's who saw his photos earlier this year in New York were surprised.
They will be on display here until April at the B'nai B'rith Klutznick Museum's West Gallery -- sharing space with paintings by Albert Shvilly, a friend of Djindjihashvili who traveled with him. In the East Gallery are American photographer Bill Aron's portraits of Soviet refuseniks and scenes from Jewish religious life.
Over the course of two years, Djindjihashvili made his way through towns and cities, lingering long enough to allay suspicions, though his camera was rarely welcomed. "Most of the people were very scared of having their pictures taken," he says. "There was no other way to do it but with a hidden camera."
He is 38, a Soviet Georgian by birth, easily noticeable not only by his imposing looks -- a tall man with black hair, dark eyes and thickets of black eyebrows -- but by the language he speaks with friends, some of whom are his colleagues at Voice of America, where he broadcasts, writes and edits. They speak Georgian -- and slip into Russian when appropriate. "You just jump from one to another," he explains.
In fact, he speaks six languages (Russian, Georgian, Hebrew, German, Greek, English), though not all, he is quick to say, with the same competency. "If you consider this counting," he remarks of his English. He speaks in a gravel pit of a voice, roughened by the Marlboros he constantly smokes. He considers his name so formidable (pronounced Jin-jee-hahsh-vee-lee) that when he lectures he simply calls himself Nodar Djin. "I'm very embarrassed about forcing people to pronounce something unpronounceable," he explains.
His wife, Zina Baazova, a linguist, never uses his name.
He led -- by his own description -- what would seem to be a fine life in the Soviet Union. He was a PhD at 26, philosophy professor at two universities (Moscow and Tbilisi) by 34, a Renaissance man who leapt with gusto from one project of life to another: Teaching. Writing. Film directing. Script writing.
"You have time," he says, sitting in an office at Voice of America. "In the Soviet Union, there is not much to entertain yourself with."
All the while he was grappling with what he calls the "inner censor," and he paints the ubiquitous hand of the Soviet government hanging over everyone's life like a superdome.
"You have to prove you're a philosopher," he says. "You have to sincerely believe . . . that Kant was a successful thinker but overlooked reasons taken by Lenin. Wherever you go, whatever you do, there is a direct connection between what you do and what they want you to do. This is the killer in the Soviet Union -- this inner censor."
If Andrzej Wajda were to make a movie -- a la his "Man of Marble" and "Man of Iron" -- about coming to political awareness in the Soviet Union, Nodar Djindjihashvili would be the perfect model.
Ask Nodar Djindjihashvili about VOA and he will give you a strong endorsement. "What VOA was doing," he says of broadcasts he heard in the Soviet Union, "probably -- in the perception of most Soviets -- was the only one reliable source of balanced information, full information. This is why VOA was the most popular radio station in the Soviet Union. Absolutely. No doubts about it." As a broadcaster, he gives commentaries on American life, book reviews, reports on the U.S. press.
He loves the United States. "I've been in France, I've been in Italy. I am absolutely convinced this is the only one. It's the only one where it makes sense to be . . . to be vibrant, to be interested in being alive." Its quirks intrigue him. He's traveled all around the country and finds it odd that most Americans have not. "I think the U.S. is more homogeneous than the Soviet Union," he says. "For one thing, everyone speaks English. In the Soviet Union, you need at least five languages to get around."
He lives between a New York apartment and a Washington hotel two blocks from VOA. He drives a Buick and, later, from its windshield, he peers out at the white marble of the buildings bathed in night lights and notes that "Washington is a very quiet city. Sometimes that's appealing. Other times, I don't like it. So clear, calm, settled. It makes me suspicious."
In the VOA office, outfitted with two bureaucratically somber desks and chairs, he perches restlessly on a chair under a huge institutional clock by the door, smoking constantly, getting up to speak with coworkers. The room belongs to the Georgian desk of VOA -- there are newspapers and listings of Georgian broadcasters. At one point, he suddenly goes to a drab metal bookcase and pulls out a bottle of champagne. He sends people off on a search for cups or glasses. When they come back empty-handed, he sends them off again.
"The salary, the goods were available in the Soviet Union," he says of his former life. "But then there comes some moment you ask yourself more metaphysical questions. And you are lost to answer them. You search for something else."
When you are Jewish in the Soviet Union, Djindjihashvili says, there's a ready-made vantage point from which to look at how you fit into the "Soviet universe," as he calls it.
He became obsessed with his Judaism. "My grandfather was the chief rabbi of Transcaucasia. My father, on the other hand, was a prominent lawyer who believed in the decency of socialist justice . . . When I was a young boy, I was commuting between these two poles -- one who looked into the past and one who looked to the future. I was constantly intrigued by being a Jew. In the Soviet Union, it wasn't considered a good thing to be a Jew."
Cynicism and doubt bubbled over. "There was either something wrong with myself or something wrong with the environment," he says. "You have to do something about it. Either start drinking -- which I did several times -- or deal with it."
He decided to explore the issue of being different -- specifically, being a Jew. "I had access to the western press and all the demagoguery -- it's no better than in the Soviet Union. I came to understand the whole issue of Soviet Jewry is often distorted both in the East and the West."
His journey -- via a Soviet-built Fiat -- covered more than 20,000 miles through the U.S.S.R., taking him to the Byelorussian republic in the West; the Baltic republics of Latvia and Estonia; Samarkand in the republic of Uzbekistan; and Soviet Georgia's capital, Tbilisi -- his final destination and the place of his birth. He traveled through 40 cities and many more towns.
"I traveled all over," he says. "My personal opinion is that not all Jews want to leave, and the majority don't want to leave." Djindjihashvili muses that people -- anywhere in the world -- who are rooted in a place simply do not want to leave: "Wherever you go, the majority don't want to leave . . . to go to a country with sharply differing cultural aspects."
He surmises that what Soviet Jewish communities want is "to reestablish and renovate their culture, which is dying off. This is what they want. Most are not wanting to immediately leave. There are refuseniks, there are people who applied for visas to leave. But we don't know all those people who don't want to leave . . . The West insists only on the right of people to leave. There is another right -- the right to stay and live the way they want. That is what they're not given."
The "main priority" of the West should be "to get the Soviets to allow Jewish communities to exist as a cultural entity -- language, history, their literature, their art, allowing them not to cut off their links with the past. The smartest way for the U.S. is to stress this, not immigration."
Djindjihashvili sees the conflict between the Soviet system and Judaic tradition: "Jews are inciters of critical spirit. This is how I see it. Even Moses was open to criticism. There were no 'saints' in Jewish history . . . Soviets are very interested in preserving the status quo. And in such a situation, Jews are not an asset."
Within that conflict lies the answer to change, he feels: "Since Soviets want to deal with the West, they have to settle some compromise. If we have in the Soviet Union restoration of the Jewish community it may more effectively change the Soviet Union than just having Jews dropped out. If we have no more Jews in the Soviet Union, it's not for the best in the Soviet Union."
His vision is somewhat out of sync -- though not completely out of sympathy -- with the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, a private U.S. coalition that sees immigration as the main issue. Earlier this year, the group cosponsored an exhibition of his photographs at the Jewish Museum in New York.
"The Jewish community, when it first began its campaign, sought primarily to restore Jewish rights in the Soviet Union," says the conference's executive director, Jerry Goodman. "It was clear by the late '60s and early '70s that the Soviet Union was not prepared to make any significant changes regarding Jewish life in the country."
Djindjihashvili's goal was to make a record of Jewish life: "I wanted to show the less-known Jewish communities -- less known in the West and in the East." He did historical research before setting out and periodically returned to Moscow, developing film in his bathtub.
Because of the Soviet "taboo," as he calls it, on Judaism, "people didn't want to be photographed. They didn't know how it would be used."
He resorted to ruses: "I went for many disguises -- I was a journalist on assignment . . . a filmmaker on location. I wouldn't come to an area like a stranger and say, 'I want to take your picture' . . . Sometimes I would stay a month or two months and just let people get accustomed to my presence -- like I was a romantic looking for adventure."
In some places he was detained, he says, by KGB agents. "What was I doing?" he says he was asked. "I would present my credentials he belonged to a journalists' union , which in some cases saved me. I would give them a copy of my book -- which I carried with me." The book was on esthetics.
But still, "there was something not clear about me," he says. "I would tell them I just decided to become a photographer and I was taking pictures. I was a journalist."
His exit visa came through in December 1979. He left immediately, first for Europe, his photography project completed.
"I wanted to show the last remnants of the culture," he says, "and that some kind of a decision should be made -- to either let it die or make some kind of a decision to rebuild."
He saw his journey as his swan song in the Soviet Union -- "I knew I would ruin my career after the trip. But it had to be done. I just decided, 'Why not me? Somebody has to do this.' "