Wednesday, July 20, 2011


Tomorrow is the “big day,” meaning the “great train ride” from Novosibirsk, Russia’s third largest city, to St. Petersburg, the second largest.  We’re talking three nights and two long days across the heart of the Russian countryside – actually through the heart of the Russian forests. The Trans-Siberian Railroad is the whole reason Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia, exists, having been established in 1893 at the future location of the vital bridge over the Ob River. The Woody Harrelson film, “Transsiberian,” really nails it in terms of the accuracy of the experience. (Not that I’m expecting to meet any drug smugglers…) It even makes reference to Novosibirsk, which, being located on the midway point of the railroad, seemed as good a place as any for Comrade Stalin to exile his enemies. The city exploded in size and population during the Stalinist regime, the modern city boasting a population of over two million. It is difficult to determine how many Jews found themselves living in the Siberian capital by the mid-twentieth century. What is certain is that the Jews of Siberia became greatly assimilated, many converting to Christianity and/ or entering into mixed marriages. In any case, Jews were certainly present, as an element of the population, just as they are today.
St. Petersburg has its own story to tell. Czar Peter the Great coveted a warm water port,  and in 1703 staked his claim on a boggy island where the River Nava meets the Gulf of Finland. The czar himself grabbed an axe and set to work building his new city. He drafted thousands of workers in the effort, in spite of brutal winters and muddy malarial summers. The saying arose, “St. Petersburg was built on bones.” In 1711 Peter moved his capital there, creating a gilded legacy for what would become perhaps the most spectacular city on the continent. Repression and splendor seem to go hand in hand in Russia, as the next installment of the Trans-Siberian adventure is likely to reveal…
Shalom, and Da Svidanya!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Synagogue Rising!

Twenty thousand. That’s how many Jews there are today in Siberia’s capital, Novosibirsk, which itself has a population of roughly two million. While twenty thousand is only a sliver of greater Novosibirsk, it still represents a “decent congregation.” How many synagogues, then, would we expect to find in the city? Answer: One, and only one. During the seven long decades of Soviet rule, there were precisely none. Synagogues could not function in the open any more than churches. Houses of worship in Soviet Russia were literally driven underground, often relegated to people’s homes. In today’s Russia things are quite a bit different. Anti-Semitism is still a factor, as explained to me by one of the congregants at Shabbat services this week. (I was in fact able to find the one-and-only synagogue and join in the davening on Saturday morning.) One Jewish schoolteacher came to her classroom recently, to find that one of the pupils had drawn a big star of David on the chalkboard, with sinister implication. Security at the synagogue is understandably tight, visitors being required to register their passports at the front entrance. Inside, however, the atmosphere is warm and friendly, fellow congregants being quick to help in finding one’s place in the prayerbook. After services (and the obligatory kiddush), the vodka was flowing, and the food was plentiful and tasty. Who established this synagogue? I wasn’t surprised to find that its “parent” organization is Habad-Lubavitch. The congregational leader speaks fluent Hebrew, so the conversation flowed freely. I found that the synagogue has some five hundred families as members – pretty healthy! And while services are conducted in a side room, that’s but an annex of a large and impressive new building near the city center. Anti-Semitism may still rage in Russia, but the mere presence of a building like this speaks volumes about the future and vitality of today’s Russian Jews. “You’ve come a long way, baby!”  
Got Mezuzah?

Monday, July 4, 2011

More Russian Ramblings on the Fourth!

Having checked out an old Russian Orthodox church, in the exact geographic center of Russia, I’m drawn back to the biblical text, with some random observations:
At the end of Joshua’s life, the Bible declares:
Now Joshua was old, going on in days. And the LORD said to him, You are old, far along in days, and there remains yet very much land to be possessed. (Joshua 13:1)
Instead of jihad and genocide, we find that a great deal of the Promised Land had yet to be conquered by the Israelites. We actually start to wonder how good a general Joshua was after all. In the final analysis, the picture that begins to emerge from the biblical account is a gradual, two-century long process of “conquest” that encompasses the books of Joshua and Judges together, as one ongoing narrative of migration, settling down, and occasional battles and skirmishes with the local Canaanites. The “real” history of the period doesn’t make as compelling a story as the glorified hero-stories of biblical lore, but it tells us a lot about the struggles, not only of ancient Israelites, but of early Americans, to form “a more perfect union.” 

Russian Ruminations on the Fourth

Factor this! American Independence Day finds me on the other side of the world - literally - visiting downtown Novosibirsk, Siberia. Destination: the imposing statute of comrade Lenin, still proudly standing before the city's theater and opera house. (I'm sure Comrade Lenin was very attentive to the opera...) My thoughts immediately turn to the meaning of revolution, and the fact that the American Revolution of 1776 is often compared to the French Revolution of 1789, both being products of the European Enlightenment. But my thoughts turn to a different assessment: that while America's Founders were fueled by Enlightenment ideals, they were not purely men of the Enlightenment. Nor were they in any sense "radicals." They believed in the rule of law patterned on a "republican" form of government. The mob they distrusted, so much so that they took pains to ensure that neither senators nor the president be directly elected, but indirectly selected via the states. The fact is, the American Revolution has more in common with England's Bloodless Revolution. The French Revolution, very much the product of "the mob," should be associated with the Russian Revolution of 1917. Comrade Lenin still stands there, looking out proudly, as though standing astride history itself. But his revolution brought only tyranny, oppression and untold misery, especially for "dissidents" and Russia's Jewish minority. How ironic, that many Jews originally supported Lenin's revolution, only to find their very identities crushed by it. Such is the maniacal power of "the mob"...

Saturday, July 2, 2011

“Far and Away”...

So, I decided to take a little trip this summer … halfway around the world. And that’s why I find myself in, of all places, Novosibirsk! It’s the capital of Siberia, situated due north of east India! It’s 11 time zones to the east of the U.S. east coast, and another 5 hours by jet east of Moscow. Just a little “getaway.” Surrounded by endless forests, it was founded over a century ago as the midway point on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Its population “took off” when Stalin decided that there needed to be more people in Siberia, beyond all those he exiled here to the gulags. So, a world-class university was constructed, and substantial numbers of academicians, scientists, and captains of industry were politely “relocated” to the east. There were also quite a few Jews, who had historically lived in western Russia, whom Stalin perceived as “bait” for an attack by Hitler. So he moved them east, to Siberia. Here’s the great irony. While Stalin had no use for Jews, he nonetheless “saved” the ones he moved east, removing them from Hitler’s grasp. Hopefully, I’ll have a chance to do some serious research on the Jews of Siberia during my month-long furlough to central Asia. As I said, just a little “getaway”...