The beautiful icebox

Across the vast expanses of the taiga and tundra of Siberia, Jewish communities are experiencing a rebirth.

siberia snow cold 521 (photo credit: Gil Shefler)
siberia snow cold 521
(photo credit: Gil Shefler)
TOMSK, Russia – It’s an unusually warm midwinter’s night in central Siberia, only minus 8º Celsius, or so I’m told as I shiver in my thermal underwear and my fingers grow increasingly numb in my thermal gloves. Up above, Rabbi Berel Lazar, the state-recognized chief rabbi of Russia, and businessman Lev Leviev, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia (FJC), are on a platform suspended 10 meters in the air trying to light a giant hanukkia placed outside Tomsk’s newly renovated Choral Synagogue. The wind and subzero temperatures make the task exceedingly difficult; three matches are extinguished before the flame finally takes hold.
Suddenly, a jerk by the crane operator almost throws them over the railing. But Lazar and Leviev hold on tight, utter a prayer and complete their mission. Eight of the hanukkia’s nine candles, including the shamash, are lit on the seventh night of Hanukka, while down below about 200 members of the local Jewish community, visitors from out of town and a few curious passersby applaud. Even in the heart of Siberia, the Festival of Lights has triumphed over darkness.
It’s easy to forget that until not too long ago such displays were outlawed in this country. But since the fall of communism, they have become increasingly common as Jewish communities across Russia and the former Soviet Union are experiencing something of a rebirth. Here in Siberia at least 10 new or renovated synagogues and Jewish community centers have sprung up over the last decade. Run by Chabad rabbis and associated with the FJC, they are part of a coalition of Jewish organizations that also include the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Jewish Agency for Israel and others that cater to a small but growing number of affiliated members.
“There’s a tremendous awakening in Russia,” Ambassador Dorit Golender said at a Hanukka ceremony held a few days earlier by FJC in Moscow and attended by 6,000 people. “Many people are looking for their Jewish identities and curious about their mother’s or father’s connection to Judaism. Many people are finding their connection with Judaism.” There are a number of reasons why this is happening now, explained Asher Ostrin, executive director of JDC’s Former Soviet Union Department.
“When the Soviet Union collapsed, its values, norms and ethics also collapsed,” he said. “Some found the cause of a great Mother Russia, some found the Russian Orthodox Church, and many Jews found the community. It’s important to stress that Jewish peoplehood is just as important a notion as Jewish religion. Feeling connected to an ethnicity as well as tradition has a strong appeal.”
Nobody knows for sure how many Jews there are in Siberia, the same way nobody knows for sure how many Jews there are in Russia. Figures vary depending on whom you ask and what definition of who is a Jew you go by. But out of the 140 million people counted in the Russian census in 2002, some 230,000 identified as being Jewish and between 40,000 and 60,000 of those are believed to be in Siberia.
Back at the rededication of the Choral Synagogue in Tomsk, rabbis from relatively nearby places like Omsk and Bashkiria, just a few hundred kilometers away, came to show support for Rabbi Levi Kaminetzky of Tomsk and schmooze with dignitaries and colleagues.
Israeli-born Rabbi Aharon Wagner, chief rabbi of Irkutsk, who arrived in Russia eight years ago, said signs of Jewish rejuvenation are abundant.
“Two years ago we renovated our synagogue, the oldest in Siberia,” he boasted. “Eight years ago we had 800 kilos of matza brought in, and it was enough. This year we brought in two and a half tons, and we still needed more. We currently have 800 people on our mailing list and believe there are about 4,000 Jews in town.”
SOME WONDER whether it’s wise to invest much time and money in an area considerably larger than Europe where the total Jewish population is smaller than that of Ra’anana. Wagner admits the Jewish community in Irkutsk is much smaller than what it was before the aliya of the 1990s, but that doesn’t deter him.
“Back then, there were masses of Jews here,” he said. “Nowadays we have to fight for them, but each one is worth it.”
Snow is gently falling on Tomsk, population 530,000, making it difficult to drive. It takes three attempts for our experienced driver to plow up a steep and slippery turn toward a lookout point over the city. When we reach the top, a serene vista of Tomsk and its surroundings in blinding white is revealed.
“This is where it began,” said Eduard Kleybort, 61, a retired cybernetics professor and member of the local Jewish community who volunteered to be my tour guide, pointing at a small plaque hewn onto a large rock: “This is where the old Tomsk fort was built.”
Coming from Israel, I found the snowscape breathtakingly beautiful. In the distance, the frozen Tom River can be seen, its surface crisscrossed by paths cut by locals who treat it like a street. But it must be hard to appreciate such a view when snow is on the ground six months a year.
“I don’t like it,” Kleybort admitted. “I like minus 5, minus 10. It’s healthy and cleans the air. But I don’t like the snow, and I don’t like when it’s minus 20 or 30.”
It can get a lot worse than that. The coldest temperature ever recorded in Tomsk was minus 55.
Guidebooks tout Tomsk as one of more memorable cities in Siberia. On the day of my arrival, its broad streets teemed with vehicular and pedestrian traffic completely oblivious to the raging blizzard. At Heroes’ Park, which honors those who gave their lives defending the country, mothers take their children for a stroll in the snow.
For centuries Tomsk was Siberia’s most populous and prosperous city. Rows of elaborate wooden houses built by merchants and administrators still line many of the streets in the old part of town, attesting to the wealth generated during those early days.
Still, not all were impressed.
Anton Chekhov, the great Russian novelist and playwright, had few kind words to say about the place he visited in 1890 en route to the Far East: “Tomsk is a very dull town,” he wrote a friend.
“To judge by the drunkards whose acquaintance I have made and from the intellectuals who have come to the hotel to pay their respects to me, the inhabitants are very dull too.”
His disparaging remark won him the distinction of having a statue placed in one of the city squares depicting him as a flat-footed buffoon.
WITH THE advent of the Trans-Siberian Railway in the early 20th century, Tomsk entered a long period of stagnation. The railway circumvented the town from the south, transforming Novosibirsk 300 kilometers away into a boomtown and robbing Tomsk of much of its prominence. But Tomsk survived by reinventing itself as a university town with four institutions of higher education.
“We have 100,000 students,” said Kleybort, who had been a lecturer at one of them.
“Without our universities, we have nothing.”
If Tomsk is not an ugly place, it is thanks to its being surpassed by its neighbors. Unlike Novosibirsk, which I visited briefly en route back to Moscow, it has been relatively unaffected by the blights of communism and, following a period of unbridled capitalism and to the delight of residents and visitors alike, it has retained much of its old-world charm.
Tomsk’s renovated Choral Synagogue may be the most recent addition to the growing network of Jewish institutions dotting Siberia, but it is by no means new. It was built in 1902 to serve a diverse community of retired soldiers, political exiles and rich merchants that had already been well established for nearly a century.
Chekhov, who had a generally low opinion of Tomsk and an ever lower one of Jews (like most Russian authors of his time, he too was infected by the anti-Semitism endemic to his society), wrote very positively of the Jews of Tomsk, owing in no small part to the home cooking of a nameless Jewish woman.
“Here they [the Jews] till the land, work as drivers and ferrymen and are called Krestyany [Russian for both “peasants” and “Christians”] because they are de jure and de facto Krestyan,” he wrote to his fiancée in 1890.
“They enjoy universal respect and, according to the local chief of police, are not infrequently chosen as village elders. I saw a tall, thin Jew who scowled with disgust and spat when the police chief told indecent stories. A chaste soul, his wife makes splendid fish-ball soup. The wife of the Jew who had cancer regaled me with pike caviar and the most delicious white bread. One hears nothing of exploitation by the Jews.”
David Kizhner, the treasurer of the synagogue and an amateur historian, confirmed Chekhov’s observation about the high esteem in which the local Jewish community was generally held.
“In Tomsk there were many cantonists [former Jewish soldiers of the czar] who played a prominent role in the life of the Jewish community,” he wrote in a brief history of the community. “On their initiative in 1865, donations began being collected for a Torah, and by the summer of 1865 it was purchased.”
One of the most famous cantonists was Captain Herzl Yankelevich Tsam. Born in Ukraine, he was drafted into the Russian army when he was 17 and had a distinguished military career. The highest-ranking Jewish officer in the army of his day, he repeatedly rejected offers to convert to Christianity. After he retired, he became treasurer of a synagogue in Tomsk. The building has been gutted and converted into squalid apartments.
AT THE time of the revolution in 1917, Tomsk had three synagogues, two rival Jewish newspapers (Bundist and Zionist) and a Jewish hospital, but all that came to an abrupt end under communism.
Religious gatherings were banned, the main synagogue was turned into a concert hall, and a factory was built over the Jewish cemetery.
“It was a very bad time between the revolution and perestroika,” Kizhner said. “There was nothing, no community and no meetings.
We would gather secretly in apartments on Jewish holidays. There were only two Torahs left after the revolution, and the head of the community had to sell them both.”
Jewish communal life resumed in earnest during the late 1980s. Because he could read Hebrew and lead prayers, Kizhner became the city’s first rabbi since the revolution, until Kaminetzky took over in 2004.
Gitty Kaminetzky, the rabbi’s wife, recalled what it was like when they first arrived.
“We started working out of the main synagogue in a small room inside the ruined building,” she said. “We opened a kindergarten for the children and took on the project of renovating the synagogue, which was in complete disrepair.”
The synagogue was renovated with the help of several benefactors from around the world.
Israel’s Leviev, greatly revered by the community here and throughout Russia for his Jewish philanthropy, put in his share.
The Rohr family of New York and Miami, who give generously to Jewish institutions throughout the former Soviet Union, also pitched in. But the biggest and perhaps most important donation – especially if the community hopes to become self-sustaining one day – came from Yuri Zelvenskiy, a Jewish businessman born in Tomsk.
“We have many local businessmen who donated money to build the synagogue, but Zelvenskiy really put his heart and soul into the project,” said Kaminetzky.
He and his wife now hope to build a school and have already drawn up plans for the building. But despite signs of renewal, the future of the Jewish community in small and remote places like Tomsk isn’t entirely certain.
Back at the synagogue, Kizhner and Kleybort held a lively discussion on the subject.
Kizhner, the amateur historian, is a pessimist.
“I’m afraid all the young people go to Israel,” he said, lifting his hands up in the air in despair. “Not everyone here is interested in Judaism. Only those who go to synagogue will remain in the community, and they are too few.”
But Kleybort, my unofficial tour guide, is more optimistic.
“I bring my son here, and my son brought my granddaughter,” he says. Getting up from his chair, he walks over to the other side of the classroom to a list of names on a board and singles one of them out. “See? This is my granddaughter. She will be appearing in the Hanukka spiel later tonight. A lot of people like me bring their family here.”
Both agree dual forces are at work: Some Jews are assimilating or emigrating, while others are reconnecting with their heritage.
Meanwhile, two teenagers who study at the local branch of the Or Avner network of Jewish schools enter the room. One of them is Roman Mihalev, 14. Asked where he sees himself in the future – in Norway, where a cousin of his had gone to work, in Israel or in Tomsk – Mihalev resolutely said, “America.”
“In America it is easy to be rich,” he explained in rudimentary English. “I like the culture.”
His classmate, Vladimir, said he too sees himself emigrating to the land of opportunity in the future. But their teacher Reneta Yerohima, doing what teachers often do, disagreed.
“I don’t like America,” she said. “I want to move to Israel. Maybe two to three years from now I will go.”
It isn’t clear whether three or four years from now Vladimir and Roman will be living the American dream or whether Yerohima will be bathing in the warm waters of the Mediterranean. Like the protagonists in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, dreaming of a better, faraway place seems to be a part of the culture here, something to do to escape the tedium of everyday life but not necessarily act upon.
One thing is certain: Should they or other members of the Jewish community choose to leave, the option is open to them, something that wasn’t always so.
And should they choose to stay in this beautiful icebox of a city, the doors to the Kaminetzkys’ synagogue will always be open to provide them with a warm sense of community, even in the coldest and darkest Siberian winter.
The reporter was a guest of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia.