Around the Jewish World: in Frozen Land of Siberia, a `jewish Hat’ Tells It All

The temperature is well below zero, typical weather for the Siberian city of Yakutsk, reputed to be the coldest city in the world.

Everyone in the crowd gathered at the bus stop is wearing round fur hats, stylish in a Russian way and certainly warm.

Everyone, that is, except for Mark Mikhailovich Shats.

Shats is wearing a leather cap with ear flaps that look like old aviator gear. A trim, short 52-year-old man with a gray beard and piercing blue eyes, he is the chief scientist at the Permafrost Institute in Yakutsk – an important job because all of Yakutsk is built on permafrost.

“At the institute, they call this my Jewish hat,” he says, laughing. “I don’t know why it is, but for some reason Jews all over Siberia wear this kind of hat. No one talks about it, we might not know each other, but still we wear this same kind of hat.”

Shat’s hat in many ways symbolizes the way the Jewish community identifies itself – and expresses its Jewishness – in the capital of the Republic of Yakutia, which is part of the Russian Federation.

There is a pride in the distinction and not much fear of public displays of that pride. Yet years of repression and isolation have removed much of the understanding of Jewish culture and religion.

As proud as he is of being a Jew, Shats does not know that his cap looks much like a yarmulke adapted for cold weather. There is no rabbi to tell him, no synagogue, no Hebrew school for his daughter.

These days in Yakutsk, there are memories and there are social events. There are young people leaving for Israel almost every year.

But in what many believe is the northern-most community of Jews in the world – numbering some 1,000 – there are fewer real links to the ancient culture.

As Shats recounts the Jewish experience here, sitting over a kitchen table, his gray beard hanging over a dark suit and dark turtleneck, and sipping tea, he looks the part of a Jewish man from anywhere in Eastern Europe, from anytime in the past century.

When told this, he looks up, surprised.

“You think I look Jewish?” he says.

Assured that he does, he smiles again. “I am very pleased,” he says, “because I was told that I do not.”

Alexander Groysman, who immigrated to Brooklyn, N.Y., last year, a year before his book, “Jews in Yakutia,” was published in Yakutsk, writes that there is a traditional Russian piece of advice that says: “The quieter you are, the further you’ll go.”

Groysman turns that phrase around to describe the reason why Jews were sent to Siberia beginning about 1828: “The father you go, the quieter you’ll be.”

According to Groysman, the Jews sent to Siberia for “eternal settlement” in the 19th century were not people who had committed dangerous crimes.

By and large they were packed into exile for the discovery of “stolen articles,” which usually meant that they were buying and selling merchandise.

Often the cloudy term “faulty conduct” – which could have meant anything from being in the wrong place at the wrong time to artistic or political activity – was the only official justification. No trial was necessary; just a religion and a suspicion.

Jewish exile to Siberia accelerated in the years leading up to the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, as political exiles mingled with traders and merchants.

“Not only here in Yakutia, but all over Siberia, there was an idea that Jewish people made the revolution,” says Shats. “When people wanted to say bad things about the revolution, they would say, `Jews made this.’”

Certain Jewish family names became well known in Yakutia: Kirshenglotz, Gommershtadt, Grinshtein, Mooterpearl, Mishlemovitz. They built a strong business community and then integrated into political life in the years after Vladimir IIyich Lenin.

Even when their influence grew, their numbers remained small. Census figures show that there were probably fewer than 1,000 Jews in the Republic of Yakutia in the early part of this century, out of a total population of about 250,000.

The community set up a succession of “houses of prayer,” usually an apartment rented for weekly meetings. But as Joseph Stalin rose to power through the late 1920s and 1930s, such public religious expressions became more dangerous.

Stalin’s oppression was pervasive, but he saved much of his bitterest anger for Georgians – a deep irony, because he was Georgian – and for Jews.

It was a time, Shats says, when being far away from Moscow, six time zones to the east, was an advantage.

“In some respects it was better here in Yakutsk,” he says. “We only had an echo of the horrors from the center. And with our hard, tough climate, we have to think more about surviving than being so actively involved in these kinds of things.

“But it was not a good time to say you were a Jew, or any other nationally or religion.”

The Soviet regimes systematically repressed the native people who had lived in Siberia for centuries, forbidding them from speaking their own language in school and from practicing their customs.

This helped foster a kinship between Jews and the Yakuts, who are also known as the Sakha. In the Sakha language, there is a nickname for Jews in Yakutia that roughly translates as “our brothers.”

The Yakuts, known for their rich culture and trading prowess, were sometimes called “the Jews of Siberia.”

Beginning in 1986, perestroika blew down many of the barriers that had existed for most of this century.

But it took until 1992 for the remaining Jewish community in Yakutsh to feel confident enough to go public and establish a Society of Jewish Culture.

“A majority of the Jewish people in Yakutsk gathered, and registered,” says Shats. He estimates that of the entire community of about 1,000 some 30 to 50 families are involved in the group.

The society celebrates four or five holidays a year, meeting in a rented hall, cafeteria or restaurant. Usually between 50 and 100 people attend these social events.

“In the beginning, it was mostly old people, older than 60,” Shats says. “Slowly, this proportion has changed. Now, a younger generation is involved.”

But knowledge is sparse. Glasses of wine might be passed, matzah broken, apples dipped in honey. But there is no Kiddush over the wine, no retelling of the Exodus from Egypt, no contemplation between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Shats remembers that his grandmother used to make a triangular, filled pastry at a certain time of year, but he does not know about Purim.

In recent years, the Jewish Agency for Israel has organized summer camps for children from Yakutia.

Tutors from Israel have arrived to teach language, culture and history.

This has been a welcome, exciting addition, says Shats, though there have been tensions created as well.

Many Jews have applied to immigrate to Israel through the Jewish Agency, which “can cause problems between parents and children,” says Shats.

“And for the whole nation, it’s shame that the brightest young people are leaving.”

Yet there is little to stay for in Yakutsk right now. Economically, times are tough. Academically, Yakutsk is limited.

Does Shats believe that a Jewish identity in Yakutsk will survive?

“If all the young people don’t leave, yes,” he says. Then he laughs again and says: “And one thing I know: After all these years, those who stay won’t get frozen.”

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