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Next Year In … Kazakhstan

Next Year In … Kazakhstan

Conducting Passover seders in the former Soviet Republic reveals a place that Borat wouldn’t recognize.

For much of America, 2006 was the year of Borat. Kazakhstanishly speaking.

Borat, of course, was the “hero” of Sacha Baron Cohen’s farcical movie (officially, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious”) about a malevolent, anti-Semitic, crude, oversexed and undereducated journalist from a Kazakhstan that bore no resemblance to the actual, former Soviet republic.

I should know.

For me, 2006 was the year of the Kazakhstan seder.

Every year for more a decade, I’ve volunteered as a seder leader overseas at Passover, mostly in former communist countries. 2006 was Kazakhstan’s turn. Sandwiched between overnight stays in Almaty, the former capital of the sprawling republic (and the country’s largest city), and Astana, the current capital, I spent a week in Karaganda, an industrial city of some half-million souls in the middle of the country.

Kazakhstan was a revelation to me, someone familiar with the rhythms of lands behind the former Iron Curtain; someone who finds a special energy in societies that had within a generation emerged from the darkness of totalitarianism; someone who feels at home in places where Cyrillic and other foreign alphabets are everywhere and Western-style consumer items sometimes are scarce — and especially someone who had unwisely viewed Borat in preparation for my trip.

It’s a safe, friendly land whose architecture is a combination of Communist-era concrete, utilitarian look-alike apartment buildings and ultra-modern malls and office towers that have risen since Communism fell. This was especially evident in Karaganda, which was founded 80 years ago as the urban center for the area’s network of slave labor camps where more than a million Soviet citizens, according to a JTA story, “were worked to death or near death.”

In Karaganda you see no ancient ruins.

My base there was the Chaika Hotel — Chaika is Russian for seagull, a strange choice for a name since the Barents Sea, 2,000 miles away, is the closest major body of water. It’s a serviceable, non-pretentious building down Krivoguz Street from the Cosmonaut Hotel, a state-of-the-art facility by Russian 1972 standards that was built for the Soviet heroes who blasted off from and returned to earth in Kazakhstan.

An eight-hour plane ride from Frankfurt (as far as the German air-hub city is from New York), Kazakhstan still plays host to relatively few Western tourists; the Jews I met there showered me with small gifts, grateful that I made the effort to come.

The actual country, the largest of the USSR’s 15 now-independent republics, besides Russia itself; the furthest east of the republics, beside Russia, itself; the most famous of the republics, besides Russia itself, during its 15 minutes of Borat-inspired fame … bares no resemblance to Borat’s Kazakhstan, which was filmed largely in rural Romania.

Once part of the USSR, Kazakhstan is not an Eastern European country. It’s Central Asian, sandwiched between China and Siberia. The residents, largely descended from the followers of Genghis Khan, who occupied the land in the 13th century, are related to the Mongols. Their appearance is Asian. (Kazakhstan’s official language is Turkish Kazakh, but most people speak Russian.)

Kazakhstan, at least the part in which I stayed and over which I flew, is not dirt poor. With oil riches, and income from the export of uranium and other natural resources, the country has a flourishing economy. I saw new buildings under construction everywhere and people dressed in fashionable, Western-style clothing.

The country is not uncivilized, as Borat portrayed it. Although its longtime president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who in 2000 led a delegation on an official visit to Israel, does not have a sterling human rights record, it’s no police state. Visitors can travel freely; you see few police or soldiers on the street.

Kazakhstan is not wildly anti-Semitic, a la Borat. No “running of the Jew” competitions.

And no Borats.

The leaders and community members I met, including readily identified Jews like Chabad rabbis who are based in the major cities and bring Judaism to Jews in far-flung communities, said they had experienced virtually no incidents of anti-Semitism. The media carry reports of occasional anti-Semitic attacks, and according to an international study of anti-Semitism released by the ADL last year, the citizens rank as average — neither the most nor least hostile to Jews.

I walked around with a visible kipa and experienced no problems.

Kazakhstan is an officially secular but ethnically Muslim (about 65 percent) nation with a sizable Eastern Orthodox population. Mosques are a common sight. It’s mellow Islam, with strong diplomatic ties to Israel. The country has hosted international, interfaith Jewish-Muslim religious tolerance conferences that adopted resolutions condemning terrorism “in all its forms and manifestations.”

One sign of this respect-your-neighbor’s-faith attitude: a wooden monument in a Karaganda park on which are carved a cross, a crescent and a Magen David.

The Kazakhstan I experienced was simply one of the former Soviet Union’s many “stans” that were largely unknown to a Western audience (it’s the ninth-biggest country in the world, the largest landlocked one), and whose reputation was besmirched by a “reality” movie that reflected little reality.

Fortunately, no one in Kazakhstan had heard of Borat. No one there, at least, asked me about the film. And no one shared Borat’s sleazy accent.

Kazakhstan is the Wild West of the FSU — even though it’s far to the east of Moscow and St. Petersburg and the other Jewish population centers nearer to Europe. One of the world’s least-densely populated countries, it had a frontier feel. I met Jewish coal miners there, other Jews who had worked in factories. It’s a working-class community.

One afternoon I had the chance to interview one of the retired Jewish coal miners, who attended my seder. Dressed in a plain grey suit, he talked of his career (no one thought coal mining an unusual career choice for a Jew), of his time in the Red Army (1942-47), of his early life in a Jewish home (his family spoke Yiddish) and of his life under Communism (nothing Jewish, because of fear of persecution).

“If we had met 20 years ago,” when Kazakhstan was still Communist, “I wouldn’t speak with you,” he told me; a conversation with a Jewish journalist from the West would invite danger.

Now, he said, he was an active member of Karaganda’s emerging Jewish community. “Because I am a Jew.”

Kazakhstan’s Jewish community is a mixture of Ashkenazi and Sephardi. It’s where some Jews first arrived as early as the 17th century as Russian army conscripts, where Jews fled during Nazism, where Jews were sent into exile during the early days of Communism.

For Jews, it was the outer fringe of the Soviet Union.

Places like Moscow and Leningrad-St. Petersburg, where open practice of Yiddishkeit was verboten and dangerous during seven decades of atheistic rule, were thriving centers of Jewish life compared to isolated Kazakhstan, which was far more secular. For decades, the Soviet state was home to few rabbis, few educated Jews, few people who could pass on anything Jewish, even clandestinely, to their children.

Until freedom came in 1991. And that watershed was followed by Chabad, the Joint Distribution Committee and the JDC-supported Chesed social welfare organization, the Jewish Agency and other disseminators of Judaism. In Karaganda — and in brief stops in Almaty and Astana — I found Jews willing to learn how to lead a Jewish life, and Jews from abroad willing to teach them.

As in other parts of the former Soviet Union, Jews had been reluctant to publicly identify themselves as Jewish, to attend synagogue services or other Jewish activities, or to join the few extant Jewish organizations. And this presented a problem for the Chabad representatives who came to spread Yiddishkeit in the early, post-communist days.

The Chabad shaliach in Karaganda when I was there told Danny Chameides, a Riverdale resident who spent several weeks there the same year to facilitate an adoption, how he, the Chabadnik, had done it. Who could tell him who the Jews are? The KGB.

The Chabad rabbi, a proper bribe in hand, went to the Karaganda office of what had been the feared Soviet security agency, best known for spying on citizens. The rabbi emerged with a list of the city’s Jews; he went on to a successful career as a Lubavitch emissary.

Like other former communist communities, Kazakhstan’s is experiencing its own Jewish revival.

The seder I led (in many emerging Jewish communities, few Jews go to a communal seder both nights of the holiday, and even fewer make their own) took place in the cafeteria of Chabad’s Or Avner day school. Sitting at the tables were a few dozen people, mostly pensioners, many outfitted with wartime medals. They exchanged yom tov greetings in Yiddish, and sang long-forgotten Pesach melodies in Hebrew. Few asked or answered questions that night. Afterwards, they lined up to take home boxes of matzah.

One afternoon I led a model-seder-style holiday lunch at the crowded apartment of a senior member of the community; the meal was part of the “Warm House” program the JDC has established in many venues for Jews, mostly older ones, who want to take part in Jewish activities but can’t get to shul or other communal events. Instead, the Warm House participants make Shabbos — or yom tov — for themselves, hosting meals and social events for their friends.

At the lunch we sang some songs, I gave some explanations of Passover rituals, we exchanged some Jewish jokes, I even hid the afikomen. The hosts offered a small, framed picture for the person who found the hidden piece of matzah.

I couldn’t eat a thing there; none of it was remotely kosher; my hosts understood my kashrut limitations, but felt bad that I couldn’t join the meal, which looked delicious; they were delighted when I finally accepted a small banana.

Before I left Karaganda, I was a guest at another Pesach celebration, a lunch at the city’s biggest café. Several dozen Jews, across the age spectrum, were there too.

Rabbi Meir Shainer, the Chabad shaliach in Karaganda, placed the city’s Jewish population at 1,000-1,500.

When I went there, Kazakhstan’s Jewish population was estimated at 40,000-50,000. Recent estimates put the current figure much lower — as low at 3,500, as high as 10,000. The rest have gone to Israel or the U.S. or other points in the West.

As in many isolated venues that I have visited, Chabad was the most-visible Jewish presence, establishing day schools and outreach centers in the biggest cities, taking Judaism on the road in Mitzvah Tanks outfitted as rolling synagogues, most recently setting up kosher catering.

Also available: an extensive Jewish lending library, social clubs for cooks and children and veterans of the “Great Patriotic War,” programs for singers and dancers, a klezmer group, and an annual camp-culture festival for kids.

“Jewish life in Kazakhstan exists, and it is blooming and I hope it stays that way,” the website quoted a young resident of Karaganda as saying last year.

Take that, Borat! ◆

If You Go…

In recent years, Kazakhstan has developed tourist attractions and facilities up to Western standards. Birdwatching is a big draw for the ornithologically inclined; the country is home to 500 species.

In Almaty, Kazakhstan’s biggest city, the Central State Museum ( offers a look at history from the Bronze Age to the present.

A reasonably priced four-star hotel there, with double rooms for $88.50 a night, is the Saraishik (

In Astana, the capital, the yurt-shaped Presidential Cultural Centre (7 7172 22 33 19) is a museum whose highlights include national jewelry and historical artifacts.

Double-rooms at the Hotel Mukammal ( start at $73.50 a night.

The Cosmonaut Hotel ( in Karaganda, where the Soviet Union’s space heroes stayed, is a connection to history.

The Shabanbai-Bi Village ( at the foot of the Kyzylarai mountain range offers a slice of traditional village life.

No kosher restaurant is open in the country now, but Chabad in Almaty does kosher catering. Vegetarian restaurants there include The Green House ( and Govindas (

To make connections with the Jewish community, contact the Mitzvah Association (, or the Chabad Houses in Almaty ( and Astana (