Rabbi Aharon Wagner reverently wraps the synagogue’s Torah.
Jews in Sibiria
11.10.2019, Communities of Eurasia
It makes sense that in the regional dialect of Ostyak, Siberia translates to “the end.” This vast landscape – spanning from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, and from the Arctic Ocean all the way to the borders of Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia – has meant the end for many lives throughout history. Ironically, however, it has also meant a new beginning for many Jews.
Siberia is like a country in and of itself, spanning more than 13.1 million square kilometers (5.1 million square miles) across much of northern Asia and Eurasia. Once Russia gained control over the region, Siberia became a storage facility for its dissidents. Its cold, unforgiving landscape became home to gulags – prisons and work camps for “enemies” of the State, many of whom were Jews. As early as the 17th century, the very word “Siberia” was synonymous with hardship and pain as rumors of what went on there traveled across the Russian Empire. Yet to some, Siberia simply became “home.”
For me, traveling to Siberia does feel almost like a homecoming. Being of partial Russian ancestry, I have always wondered what these edges of the world looked like, and when I finally see it for myself, it’s both less and more exotic than I expected.
Irkutsk does not rise up to greet you, but rather sits there in its old, gray dress, waiting for you to prove yourself. I arrive at the tail end of the High Holy Days, just as the community is about to celebrate Simhat Torah, and as I drive along the Angara River – the GPS set to take me to Karl Marx Avenue – I have no idea what to expect.
The Irkutsk synagogue stands out. Clad in gorgeous green and yellowish white, it is remarkably devoid of the armed guards and metal detectors that I associate with a Jewish house of prayer. The 2,000-square-meter building houses a synagogue but also a nursery, computer room, library, youth hall, a large kitchen, and a cafeteria, and when I arrive there it is bustling with High Holiday activity.
The 140-year-old synagogue burned down on Tisha Be’av in 2004, and was reopened in 2009. During the five-year restoration process, many old treasures were found in the rubble: pillars from the original structure that had been taken down and buried in concrete during the Communist era, along with tefillin and prayer books from the early 20th century. The artifacts revealed not only hidden treasures but many of the struggles endured by Russian Jews – struggles that brought them here to the far ends of the empire.
Aharon and Dorit Wagner, who arrived here as Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in 2003, are the heart and head of the Irkutsk community, managing everything from the preschool to the weekly services. Dorit and Aharon live with their four children three houses down from the synagogue, and a few hours after I arrive in the city, I am already sitting at their table being welcomed as if I were family. Under the Wagner’s tutelage, the Irkutsk Jewish community has grown in almost every aspect, and the longer I stay the more it becomes apparent that my idea of Siberian Jews as a dying breed is embarrassingly inaccurate.
“There are 5,000 Jews here, according to the latest census, but in truth there are probably three times as many,” says Dorit. “Wherever I go I see distinctly Jewish faces, and every week a new person enters the synagogue, wanting to return.”
Dorit Wagner is a refreshingly unsentimental person, and that is a helpful trait for an emissary in Jewish Siberia. Once upon a time, 10% of the Irkutsk population was Jewish, and even though assimilation and political and historical forces have decimated the community, there are thousands of halachic Jews walking around, unaware of their own heritage.
Dorit tells me that just last year, there were 19 adult men asking to be circumcised after having discovered their Jewish identity, and that number remains constant in Irkutsk and similar places. What communism once suppressed has awakened in the modern day. Thus, when emissaries like the Wagners arrive and create the infrastructure necessary for Jewish life, people respond and seek being a part of the community.
Those who are aware of who and what they are care deeply, evident to anyone visiting Irkutsk.
“On a winter Shabbat last year, it was negative 45 degrees, and I assumed the services would have to be canceled because no human will brave that cold and go outside,” Dorit tells me. “I was wrong. The synagogue was packed because no one wanted to be the person to cause the services to be canceled, everyone wanted to do their bit. That is what this community is all about.” And the loyalty is palpable, something I am made aware of as I attend a community dinner at the synagogue that night. The congregants are noticeably annoyed at me for calling their slice of the Jewish world exotic, as the connotation is that it is somehow small and obscure. Before I can even ask questions, they bombard me with facts and figures and comparisons to my own Stockholm community. They maintain that my community is both less active and faces more of a threat from both the non-Jewish community and government than their own. Not only do I grow to agree with them, but I also understand how such loyalty develops in a place with such a difficult history and where there is a struggle and dedication attached to one’s survival.
When I walk back to my hotel that night, I feel more at home than I expected to. There is proof of this Jewish history throughout the city. As I walk down the streets I see several buildings adorned with Jewish stars. Some of them are prominent mansions standing as historic witnesses to the financial and societal success the Jewish population once had in Irkutsk. Other landmarks are less inspiring: Sovetskaya Street was once home to the Jerusalem cemetery – a burial place for Muslims, Christians, and Jews – but it was demolished during Communist times, stone by stone, and a circus was built on top of the bones. It is chilling to see an ornate puppet theater standing directly on top of what was the Jewish section of the burial site.
Given their history here, the Irkutsk Jews have reason to be cynical or even angry, but meeting them, I’m struck by how they are anything but. It seems that the Irkutsk Jews are thankful rather than angry, and embrace their past as a means of moving forward.
Meeting the Irkutsk community, I’m slightly embarrassed by the resentment I have been harboring about my own Diaspora life, the feelings of loneliness I have over-indulged in, using geography as an excuse to come up short. Now I am in Siberia, at the edge of the Jewish world, and the Jews here don’t seem to be lacking in Yiddishkeit or fortitude.
The practical aspects of Jewish life here are complicated, as is often the case in more remote communities. Kosher meat needs to be purchased in Moscow and brought into the city. As a result, Jews in Irkutsk keep “kosher-style,” meaning they do not keep strictly kosher. The most difficult kashrut law to keep, Dorit tells me, is to not mix meat with milk, as dairy is a major staple of Russian food culture. A big part of what the Wagner family does is educate and inspire the community through kosher cooking. Dorit always uses ingredients that can be bought locally and are easy to find.
I ask Aharon and Dorit about antisemitism, and how Jews are perceived by non-Jews. Their answers are both amusing and surprising: “Jews are respected, even if it stems from a basic idea of antisemitism. There have been several people who, just during our time here, have changed their last names to a Jewish-sounding surname, because it is good for business! If there are two doctors to choose from and one is named Abramowitz and the other Matvey, they will go to Doctor Abramowitz.”
The rabbi sees the same ideas about Jews reflected in the people seeking to convert to Judaism. When asked why they wish to convert, some people say they want to become “rich and powerful, like the Jews.”
I ask the Wagners about Putin, and how they feel about the highly controversial Russian leader. They say that while he may not be good for everyone, he is certainly good for the Jews.
“You have to remember that we Jews have not had many friends in the Russian leadership. From the czars to the Communists, we have been getting the short end of the stick. Putin is the best so far, hands down, and we are experiencing a never-before-seen amount of religious freedom in this country.”
On Simhat Torah, there are 80 people in the synagogue celebrating the end of the yearly Torah reading. The service at the Irkutsk synagogue is nothing short of joyous, and I am somewhat astounded by the turnout, given we are at the tail end of the High Holy Days, when most Jews are exhausted and longing for a break from their spiritual obligations. There is one young man reading from the Torah, and as the sun comes through the ornate, stained-glass windows and hits the bima, it creates an aura of light around the boy as he hits the high notes. The service is a mix of traditional and modern, and is a force propelling this community into the future.
In a way, this could be my own synagogue: children running up and down the pews, women chattering behind the curtain, and the men’s voices rising with the melodic flow of prayer. In other ways, it feels completely different. The total lack of security makes it a much more intimate experience than I am used to – here we are part of the community rather than, as is the case in most of Europe, a walled-off entity behind bulletproof glass. Furthermore, the general atmosphere is much less formal than I am used to, from the dress code to the way the rabbi speaks to his congregants. It is all more familiar and close-knit than most other experiences I have had.
The Jews of Irkutsk no longer live in specific neighborhoods or shtetls but are mixed in with society, spread across the city, and they are no longer limited to craftsmanship or peddling. I meet doctors, salesmen, academics, and builders – representative of the wide spectrum of Siberian Jewish life. In fact, several different languages are spoken in these halls, a testament to the wild and miraculous journey our people have had.
It’s a culture and atmosphere I feel at home in, not merely because my distant relatives were Russian, but because there is a familiarity and warm bluntness to the people of this city who have seen and been through more than most of us could even imagine.
When I watch the joy on the children’s faces, I’m reminded of the reading I heard on Yom Kippur, the story of how God saved Nineveh and why. It has always been my favorite haftarah because it juxtaposes the painful repentance of the day, the focus on the hurts and transgressions of the past, with the Jewish birthright of hope and potential.
Nineveh, a city of recorded cruelty and unimaginable darkness, isn’t saved because of the countable good deeds of the present day but the innumerable possibilities of the future. Who would have known that in Siberia, a place that has seen so much darkness, there would be this Jewish light? Who, but God, would have bet on the survival of the Jewish people at the edge of the world? The most remarkable experience during my trip to Irkutsk comes on my very last day there. On the morning of my departure, I get up a few hours early and grab a cab to the old Jewish cemetery. It is a cold and sunny morning in Siberia, and as I open the large white gates decorated with two large Stars of David, I am completely taken aback by the sight before me.
Rows and rows of headstones, overgrown with branches, tall grass and shrubbery, all frozen both in time and by the unforgiving climate. I get lightheaded as I walk down the unkempt paths between the burial plots, and I realize I have been holding my breath the whole time, walking lightly in the deafening silence of a place that holds so much history and so much pain.
I rummage through my jacket for the pebbles and stones I have brought from home to put here on the tombs of the forgotten, and I take a picture of each headstone, wanting to somehow remember all of their names, curious about where they came from and how they ended up here. I can tell by the dates and years and inscriptions that many of those buried here were cantonists and peddlers. Some of the stones have pictures on them, solemn faces looking back at me as I stand there, all alone in the desolate cold.
There is one headstone that somehow completely encapsulates my journey, not only to Irkutsk but also as a Jew meeting other Jews across the world. It is the headstone of a man born in 1916 who died in 1946. I think he must not have had many easy years throughout his short lifetime. I don’t know his story, and I probably never will, but by telling the larger story of Jews here, I can perhaps honor his life and his sacrifice in some small way.
I stay at the old Irkutsk cemetery for hours; my fingers freeze up and cramp as I try to take pictures. Some 30 minutes in, my phone shuts off from the cold. I’m not really prone to sentimentalism, but walking along those endless rows of names I allow myself to tear up, because the presence of these Jewish souls is completely overwhelming.
Usually I leave Jewish cemeteries feeling empty and disheartened, but that is not the case today. Rather I feel amazed by how, under these difficult circumstances, Jewish life here keeps on going and even growing, and that people still care enough to fill their shul and do their part.
I came to Irkutsk with a fully formed idea of what I would find and what kind of life these Jews were living, but reality on the ground proved me wrong. The legacy of the people whose graves I just visited lives on in Siberia. They did not live in vain, nor did they come here for nothing. It is a comforting thought in a difficult time, and an anomaly in a modern Jewish world that often offers little comfort.
BY ANNIKA HERNROTH-ROTHSTEIN
Annika Hernroth-Rothstein is a journalist and author, based in Sweden. Her forthcoming book, Exile – Portraits of the Jewish Diaspora, will be published by Bombardier Books in January.