Are there Jews in Asia
The Jewish minority in Central Asia - how do they live today?
Judaism is not very widespread in Central Asia; since the end of the Soviet Union, the communities in the region have been significantly smaller. The Internet magazine The Open Asia provides an overview of Jewish communities in the region, which we translate with the kind permission of the editorial team.
Judaism is the oldest of the religions that exist today, a traditional monotheistic doctrine that, according to various estimates, has around 13.5 million followers all over the world. In terms of numbers, it is by no means a small religion.
However, Jews are not only a religious, but also an ethno-religious group. Everyone who converts to Judaism becomes part of the Jewish people, regardless of which ethnic group they belong to from birth. Missionary work is not only unusual for Judaism, it is forbidden. There are conversions to Judaism, but rarely.
For these reasons, Judaism is not widespread in Central Asia. Nevertheless, there are Jewish communities here, as a visit to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan shows.
August 12, 2017 was an important day for Kazakhstan's Jewish community as it celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Central Synagogue in Kazakhstan. And while it wasn't a religious holiday, it was a significant day because this synagogue was the first to be built in Central Asia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Until then, the congregations usually met for prayer in converted houses.
The synagogue is a special, holy place for Jews. Apart from the Torah in book form, which is studied throughout life, there is a Torah scroll made of parchment in a special holy shrine in every synagogue. It is taken out three times a week and on public holidays and fasting days.
The role of the community
But the synagogue is not just a place of prayer. The newborn boys are carried here for circumcision on the eighth day after their birth, the 13-year-olds receive a bar mitzvah, weddings are celebrated and funeral services are held here. But that's not all. Ordinary problems of everyday life are also solved here.
The chief rabbi of Kazakhstan, Jeshaja Cohen, tells us the legend that explains why everyday questions are discussed in a sacred place: “EA new rabbi came into town and saw that the people in the synagogue were talking about everyday life after the prayer. The rabbi said: 'You can't do that, this is a holy place. Here one has to read the Torah or pray. ‘On the Sabbath, a parishioner knocked on the rabbi's door: 'Tonight is the Sabbath - I need food and wine, but I have no money and a lot of debt. ‘The rabbi gave him money from a special community treasury. Then a second came to him, then a third, fourth, and so on. The rabbi summoned the elders to explain what had happened that suddenly everyone had become poor. He replied to the rabbi that until his arrival, people would meet in the synagogue to solve problems. The lawyer helped the doctor and the doctor the shoemaker. And he, the rabbi, forbade them to do so. People no longer know how others are doing and what problems they have, everyone was left alone and many became poor. "
In the synagogue one can experience not only spiritual but also material support. Warm food is brought to those in need and medical help is provided. This is how the community supports its members. Jews pray three times a day - morning, noon and evening. There are 18 blessings in the prayers and one of them is the following request: "Bless us, Father, when we are all together.”Because: Individualism and everyone for himself - that would contradict Judaism.
Almaty and the Chabad Movement
Almaty is a special city for Jews all over the world. Rabbi Jeshaja Cohen was born in Israel and comes from a rabbinical family. He studied in America and admits that until his arrival in 1994 he had no idea what kind of country Kazakhstan was, but he had heard of Alma-Ata (the name of Almatys in Soviet times) as a child belongs. This is due to a movement within Judaism: the Chabad.
The Chabad movement is widespread in the post-Soviet area, among other places. It was created in the 18th century not far from Smolensk in the village of Lyubawitschi (today in the Smolensk region near the Belarusian border, note by the author). Its founder was Rabbi Schneur Salman. Chabad became the only movement that provides spiritual and material support to Jews around the world. Its spiritual leader was the Rebbe (rabbi in Hasidic communities, author's note) of Lyubawitschi, the seventh and last of them, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), fled from the Nazis to New York in 1941.
The father of the seventh Rebbe from Lyubawitschi was the chief rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk Levi Yitzhak Schneerson (1878-1944). In 1939 he was arrested by the NKVD (former Soviet secret service, author's note) for anti-Soviet propaganda, among other things, and banished to the southern Kazakhstan village of Shiali, where he worked underground as a rabbi. In 1944 he received permission to move to Alma-Ata, where he died that same year. His grave is in the city's central cemetery. Levi Yitzhak Schneerson was rehabilitated in 1989.
Almaty has been known to the Jewish community for over 70 years as Rabbi Levi Yitzhak Schneerson is buried here. His grave is a place of pilgrimage to which people from all over the world come to pray or ask for something. And those who had come to Almaty to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the synagogue also visited the tomb.
Yeshaja Cohen, the Chief Rabbi of Kazakhstan
The head of Kazakhstan's Jewish community, Jeshaja Cohen, is an envoy from the last Rebbe of Lyubawitschi. He was 23 years old at the time. He started learning the Torah at the age of four and at 15 he didn't want to be a cosmonaut or a policeman, but a rabbi, but wherever the community needs help. And in 1994, when Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was seriously ill, he was allowed to go to Almaty, where Schneerson Senior is buried and there was no rabbi at all for eight years.
Jeshaja Cohen remembers how difficult it was when he arrived. He spoke neither Kazakh nor Russian. There was a small synagogue and a tiny community in the city. Many Jews did not know how to prepare kosher food and had never held a Torah in their hands.
Rabbi Cohen started with the youngest: he organized a summer camp for Jewish children and carried out the first circumcisions. After a while, he asked the Akimat (the city administration, author's note) for a plot of land for the construction of a synagogue. "When I sent the letter to the church, I asked for 1,000 square meters. But they didn't give me 1000“, Says Jeshaja Cohen. " They gave me 3500 square feet“.
A rabbi is not just a clergyman. He also fulfills the role of a “secular” judgment in the church. Business partners who cannot agree, quarreling spouses and parents come to him with the request to judge to receive advice on questions of upbringing. The most important rule is to listen to both sides and try to reconcile them. But in his advice and judgment the rabbi can only refer to the Torah and other sacred books. He must know this very well.
„I thank the Almighty for coming right here in Kazakhstan because this is a place that I consider exemplary for the whole world. And I believe that everyone who comes to Kazakhstan feels that way. The people here seem more tolerant and friendly than almost anywhere else“, Explains Rabbi Jeshaja Cohen
„And the state organs - I've been observing this since 1994 - from the Akim to the government to the president, always convey that one has to live in friendship with one another. And although there is a lot here many different ethnicities everyone lives peacefully with one another. When I'm on the street today and everyone knows and see that I'm Jewish, I don't have to beware of any attacks. Thank god people understand us. We are few in number, but we are treated as equals, with respect. I ask the Almighty that it will always stay that way.“
He estimates that around 40,000 Jews live in Kazakhstan. There are fully functioning synagogues with cultural centers under the direction of a rabbi in six cities: in Almaty, Astana, Karaganda, Kostanai, Pavlodar and Öskemen.
The history of the Jews on the territory of today's Kyrgyzstan is not very old. Of course, isolated representatives of this people settled here a long time ago, because the Silk Road ran here too - on which not only goods but also new knowledge made its way. However, a real Jewish community did not emerge until the end of the 19th century, when Kyrgyzstan was incorporated into the Russian Empire. A second wave reached the republic during the mass repression under Stalin and during World War II.
„Jews came here for a variety of reasons. Most of the families were exiled to Kyrgyzstan. Others fled from possible persecution to the more quiet Central Asia. In addition, people were evacuated here from the war-affected areas in Belarus and Ukraine“Says Rabbi Arie Reichman.
The early Jewish community in Kyrgyzstan
Around this time the first synagogue in the republic was built. For many years she was in a simple house that was no different from the neighboring houses.
In his notes “Evrejskoje slowo i delo w Kirgisii” (“Jewish word and deed in Kyrgyzstan”), Aleksandr Barschaj recalls the former Jewish community.
„When I was a little boy, my grandfather Chaim took me to the old synagogue in Frunze (today's Bishkek). It was probably on the Sabbath and we walked a long, long time, almost to the outskirts. There in a long one-story wooden house that looked like a barrack were old Jews covered in prayer shawls who whispered something, spoke softly in Yiddish, and even tried to sing.“
According to the 1959 census, there were 26,000 Jews in Kyrgyzstan. "And that's just the official number. It was quite dangerous to be Jewish at the time, which is why many hid their nationality and registered as Russians, Ukrainians or Belarusians“, Said Rabbi Reichmam. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the emigration of Jews began. According to the 1989 census, there were only 7200 Jews in the republic. The number is still falling today.
„Our synagogue - and it is the only one in Kyrgyzstan - is still about 1,500 people“Says the rabbi. "Not all come here for prayer. In general, the word “synagogue” when translated from the Greek means “assembly”. So it's a place of the church.“For a long time the Bishkek synagogue was only a place for the community and Jewish associations. This was the result of the fact that there were hardly any Jews in the republic who knew how to pray or celebrate holidays.
The only rabbi in independent Kyrgyzstan
Reichman came to Kyrgyzstan in 1989. After completing his training as a rabbi, he actually wanted to go to Tashkent, but the rabbi there drew his attention to the fact that there was no one in Kyrgyzstan to help carry out the prayers and holidays there. So he's lived there ever since.
„The community here is small, I have few helpers, which is why I have to carry out all rituals that are connected with the religious life of the Jews. I didn't want to stay here for a long time. But Judaism in Kyrgyzstan is only just beginning to form. Here you need someone to answer questions, such as how to cook kosher food and hold weddings or funerals.“
In 2010 the Jewish community experienced a severe shock. On September 9, around 5:20 p.m., strangers threw an explosive device into the courtyard of the synagogue. Under the roof in the courtyard everything was already prepared for the Jewish New Year festival Rosh-has-Shana. It was only by a happy coincidence that nobody was hurt. The festivities were scheduled to start at 5:30 p.m., but moved to 6:00 p.m. The crime has been classified as an act of terrorism by the security forces.
But of course there were also happy moments. A Jewish middle school was opened, and last year the synagogue moved to a new, pretty and pleasant building that was built thanks to donations from Jews from all over the world. Impressions of this can be found in a video from the Kyrgyz internet medium Kaktus:
There is not a single picture in the synagogue. "Because it's forbidden. You have certainly heard of the 10 commandments. In the 2nd commandment it says: You should make no image or any simile, neither of what is in heaven above, nor of what is below on earth, nor of what is in the water under the earth: Do not pray them and do not serve them. Because I am the Lord your God“, Quotes the rabbi.
The prayer room is divided in half. Half of the women are behind a screen. "This is done for very common reasons of daily life and has nothing to do with discrimination against women or men", Says Arie Reichman,"Imagine a beautiful woman entering the synagogue. The men can no longer focus on prayer and will be distracted all the time. That is normal."
Judging by the location of the lectern, do you turn your back during prayer?
„The question is who. We turn to God with prayer and we turn to him.“
And can you pray in any language and form or are there special texts?
„I think you have to have more trust in God than the majority of people think. Of course, he understands all your words in any language. You can contact him any way you want. But of course there are also special texts. Since people are different, not all of them can formulate what is on their minds. That is why thousands of years ago the wise thought of special words. "
I have heard that as a Jew, one is only born and cannot become one, in contrast to Islam or Christianity. What is the most important difference to these religions?
„Do you want to become a Jew? Nothing is impossible. It's difficult, but possible. And as for the differences, the other religions want to increase the number of their followers. This is forbidden in Judaism. People should make their own decision.“
And may we ask what is the elected being of the Jewish people??
„Do you know where this expression comes from? From the Bible. But that doesn't mean that God treats us special. It's like a big family. Parents love all of their children. But some have their purpose. The fact that the Jews are chosen consists precisely in the fact that they have a purpose, a certain range of duties. Anyone who thinks that any preferences result from this should look at the thousand-year history of our people.“
Thousands of followers of Judaism once lived in Tajikistan. For example, the 1989 census gives a figure of approximately 15,000. There were three synagogues open to them in Dushanbe, two of which were closed in the 1980s, so that only one remained. Their building was one of the oldest in the center of the Tajik capital. In 2006 it was demolished. Today there is a green area in its place, which is adjacent to the Palace of the Nation.
Read also at Novastan: The disappearing Dushanbe
The demolition of old buildings in Dushanbe always arouses the anger of the locals, but in the case of the old synagogue, a real scandal arose. The demolition began in February 2006. Bulldozers destroyed the mikveh (the ritual bath), a classroom and a kosher slaughterhouse, but city leaders were soon forced to stop with the destruction, as representatives of the World Congress of Bukharan Jews joined the protest connected.
Litigation with the city administration
As a result, the city administration proposed a piece of land to the Jewish community on the outskirts to build a synagogue there. However, this could not satisfy the community because it lacked the financial means for a new building.
In 2008, the district administration filed a lawsuit against the management of the synagogue, which refused to comply with the city orders and to leave the building. The court agreed with the plaintiff and the synagogue was finally demolished.
But that was not the end of the matter: after exactly one year, Hassan Asadullosoda, CEO of the "Orienbank" (one of the largest banks in the country, editor's note) and future son-in-law of the president, the community has a house in the center of Dushanbe. "The house is in good condition and does not need renovation“, Representatives of the Jewish community informed the press at the time.
Today the only synagogue in Tajikistan is located in this house. There is not a single Star of David on it, only the gate is painted in the colors of the Israeli flag. The new synagogue is quiet and empty, but also clean and pleasant. We are greeted by a man who introduces himself as Yakow Matajew, the chairman of the small Jewish community in Tajikistan.
„There are 30 people on my list, all of them very old. Many don't get up at all and rarely come here. If they send us matzos from Israel or the Ukraine for the holiday, I distribute them to the houses“He says.
There is not even a rabbi in the Tajik synagogue, because according to the laws of Judaism no fewer than 10 men over 13 years of age must come to pray - a requirement that the congregation no longer fulfills.
A vanishingly small community
„The emigration of Jews from Tajikistan began in the 1970s and continued into the 1980s, and when the civil war began in 1992, a direct flight connection to Israel was set up and anyone who wanted to left the country. Since then there has been practically no one left“, Says Mataev.
Jewish migrants who work for international organizations in Tajikistan often visit the synagogue. And the former Tajikistans do not forget their roots either: almost every year someone comes to Dushanbe to visit the synagogue and the graves of their relatives in the city cemetery, which the community tends with financial support from the World Congress of Bukharian Jews .
„Last year a large delegation came from America, and families who stop here sometimes visit us“, Says the chairman Mataev. He leads us through tidy rooms, shows us the prayer room: three people keep the synagogue in order - he and two of his helpers. "And so it has come about that representatives of all world religions now come together in our synagogue: I am a Jew, Andrjuscha is a Christian and Gulya is a Muslim. We live in harmony, keep order and are always happy to welcome guests.“
The Open Asia
Translated from the Russian by Robin Roth
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