Frontier Pesach
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Frontier Pesach

Karaganda, Kazakhstan

The Salop home at 18 Kopliskaya St., a one-story wooden building along the main road of Slutsk, was lit with kerosene lamps and crowded with a few guests on the seder nights of 1929. David Salop’s grandfather, a Russian worker’s cap on his head, led the seders. The conversation was in Yiddish; the readings, in Hebrew. Salop, the only child present, did the Four Questions — the Fier Kashes, he says — in Yiddish. Those are Salop’s most vivid memories of that Passover in Belarus — then known as Byelorussia, or White Russia — between the Russian Revolution and World War II. He was 5 then; a resident of Kazakhstan since 1941, a soldier in the Red Army from 1942-47, and a pensioner since 1995. He turned 82 last week.

Those seders he attended in his hometown were his last for almost six decades.

Josef Stalin’s agricultural collectivization policies, which brought widespread poverty and starvation across the Soviet Union, followed. Salop’s family, traditional Jews but not Orthodox, stopped holding seders. There was no food, little interest, he says.

On the second night of Pesach two weeks ago, Salop went to a seder again.

In a gray suit jacket that complemented his neatly combed full head of gray hair, topped by a black velvet kipa, he sat in the cafeteria of the Chabad Or Avner day school here, across from the head table where I led the seder as a volunteer.

Salop sang some long-forgotten holiday melodies, drank the Four Cups, and exchanged greetings with the night’s neighbors in Yiddish, his first language.

He came, he explained a few days later, “because I’m interested in tradition, because I am a Jew.”

A veteran of four decades in the mining industry, he was surrounded at the seder by a few dozen Jews, most of them fellow pensioners, many of them with roots or mishpoche in the area’s once-flourishing network of coal mines.

But the coal miner’s daughters stayed home.

“My wife is Russian,” Salop said during the first intermediate Hol Hamoed day of Passover, sitting in the lobby of a modest hotel down the street from the day school. “In my house there is no spirit of Judaism.” Neither his wife nor his two grown daughters, both doctors, have any interest in Jewish practices, he said.

Exiles Of Another EraSalop is typical of the country’s estimated 40,000-50,000 Jews. Most are intermarried, assimilated, further from Judaism than the Jews anywhere else in the former Soviet Union.

Kazakhstan, the ninth-largest country in the world, is the largest of the FSU’s 15 now-independent republics, besides Russia itself. Nestled in the underbelly of mammoth Russia, between Siberia to the north and China to the southeast, it is the furthest east of the FSU’s republics, besides Russia itself. It is where thousands upon thousands of people, many Jews among them, fled or were exiled or imprisoned in labor camps in the first half of the 20th century.

Like Salop, many chose to stay.Far from the Jewish population centers of places like Ukraine or Lithuania, and far from the large Jewish population in such metropolitan areas as Moscow or Leningrad, Kazakhstan, which had a maximum Jewish population of about 100,000 at the end of WWII, lacked the trained Jewish leadership or communal interest to sustain a semblance of Jewish life during the years of atheistic, Communist rule.

The cities of Russia, where small bands of Jewish activists risked imprisonment and unemployment, pre-Glasnost, to take part in underground classes or prayer services, were, comparatively speaking, hotbeds of Jewish life.Kazakhstan barely had a pulse. It was the Jewish frontier.Its Jewish community was little known in the West or recognized in the other Soviet republics. And Karaganda, a dusty, mining-industrial city of 600,000, even less so. “It’s a small city,” said Rabbi Meir Shainer, who heads the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic group’s outreach activities here.

As recently as last month, when two teenage Jewish girls from Kazakhstan qualified for an international Jewish talent show in Moscow – the teens, who sang and danced to Hebrew tunes, were the first from the country to attend the event – the head of the competition asked a leader of Karaganda’s Jewish community, “There are Jews there?”The city’s Jewish population is between 1,000 and 1,500, community leaders estimated.

Today, as throughout the former Soviet Union and the once-Communist countries of Eastern Europe, Kazakhstan is experiencing a Jewish revival. But it is smaller, and later in developing, than in many of the other Jewish communities that first experienced freedom of religion a decade and a half ago.

Aliyah and migration to the United States and Germany have reduced the country’s population figure, but here, as elsewhere in the formerly Communist world, other Jews — attracted by nostalgia and financial assistance — started to affiliate with the Jewish community when the dangers disappeared in the last several years.

Biggest Seder In DecadesThe seder two weeks ago was the first full-length Pesach meal held in Karaganda on the night of Pesach since communism fell, Rabbi Shainer said. He or rabbis from abroad led abbreviated seders in the afternoon, more convenient for the elderly Jews who comprise most of the participants, in the last few years.

Chabad hosted last week’s seder, with the cooperation of Chesed, the local branch of the social service-cultural organization that provides a wide array of services in several ex-Soviet republics and is supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

I led the seder under the auspices of the JDC.

During a week in Kazakhstan I visited isolated Jews aided by Chesed; I toured large synagogues established by Chabad in Almaty, the country’s largest city and former capital, and in Astana, the capital since 1997. I attended a Sunday afternoon Passover meal-celebration sponsored by Chesed in Karaganda’s largest café. I traded Pesach stories with a few Jewish retirees at a meal hosted by one pensioner couple as part of the “Warm House” program that offers the elderly companionship and moral support. I watched students from the Or Avner school burn a pile of chometz in the school’s courtyard on the eve of the holiday.

The children learned about Passover traditions in school, then went home and educated their parents, Rabbi Shainer said. Some Karaganda Jews, probably fewer than 100, held seders in their homes, he said.

The rabbi handpicked the people invited to the second-night communal seder; few would come two nights. He asked members of the community he judged sincerely interested in the holiday traditions, not just a meal.

“Each year [observance of Pesach] becomes more important,” he said. “They would like to know the traditions of their fathers,” said Alexander Baron, president of Mitsva, Kazakhstan’s Jewish National Organization.

Passover celebrations and a Purim party are the most popular events for Karaganda’s Jews, Rabbi Shainer said. Seders are held around the country, in a score of cities and towns, in schools and synagogues, cafes and theaters. Most are led by members of the community.For the participants, the seders are an opportunity to socialize with other Jews. For the sponsoring organizations, the seders are a chance to find out who the Jews are and what their needs are.

In addition to Chesed and Chabad, other organizations that lead seders annually in once-Communist lands include the Yeshiva University-based YUSSR organization, Hillel and Hebrew Union College.

The Or Avner cafeteria, a medium-sized room with cream-colored walls and lace curtains across the windows, glowed for the Karaganda seder. Round plastic tables, covered with white tablecloths, were arranged in a U-shape.

The invitees, a majority of them senior citizens, with a handful of young couples and children, arrived early. They were dressed in their holiday best.

I told some stories and gave some brief explanations. Katya Abramovitch, daughter of Alexandr Abramovitch, Chesed program director, translated my words. Before the Ten Plagues, I passed out some toy frogs and other items – donated by Baltimore’s Congregation Tiferes Yisroel, Manhattan’s J. Levine Books & Judaica, and Lisa and Leonard Levy of Forest Hills, friends of mine – intended to make ancient history come alive.

When I opened the door for Elijah, I explained the symbolism: for centuries, Jews lived under oppression, afraid of their neighbors, afraid to open the doors of their homes. After the seder, Salop wished me a gut yuntiff, and other participants took home some of the ceiling-high stacks of matzah the school was distributing.

Two men, 40-ish, in suits, came up to me. They did not introduce themselves, but one started speaking. “As official representatives of the Jewish community of Karaganda,” he said, “we wish to thank you for coming to teach us about the seder.”

Then he turned apologetic. “For many years,” he said, “we did not have the opportunity to learn about our traditions.” It was dangerous, under communism, to practice any form of religion. I understood, I said.

The man shook my hand. Then he pointed to the cafeteria door I had opened a few minutes earlier, during the seder. “We are glad,” he said, “that we no longer are afraid to open the door.”

Steve Lipman’s visit to Kazakhstan was sponsored by the Joint Distribution Committee.

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