ABAKAN, Russia (JTA) Draped in a tallit that accompanied him through 21 days of exile and years of gulag torture, Mark Kravetzs violently shouts the Sabbath prayers that, for decades, he could only whisper. His wailing voice resonates off the confined walls of this dim, heatless hallway in a Soviet-era office building, the closest thing to a synagogue in this drab southern Siberian city. His 20 congregants are novice worshipers, bundled not in tallitot but in woolen coats and furry hats. They stare silently at the only man in town who knows even a word of Hebrew. After the bilingual readings Kravetzs speaks five languages they jot down questions and pass them forward for Kravetzs to respond. Here in Abakan, Jews hear the words of God from a deaf man. “I’m reading Torah with all my soul. It’s my only pleasure in life. Nothing more,” screams Kravetzs, who went deaf from vicious beatings in a Stalinist concentration camp. Religious doors were pried open in western Russia as soon as the curtain came down on communism, but Jewish life in remote Siberia which means “sleeping land” is waking up only now thanks to Kravetzs, an 80-year-old who lost his home, family and hearing, but never his faith. A quintessential Soviet creation, Abakan was transformed from a 1930s village of 1,500 into a city of industry birthed by river and rail. Today 160,000 live in this sprawl of lake and concrete apartment blocks, 2,500 miles east of Moscow. The city’s foremost claim, according to its official Web site, is as the “first place in alphabetic lists of Russian cities.” Abakan’s Jewish history isn’t much deeper than the snow that blankets the streets all winter, when temperatures can plunge as low as -60 degrees. Small numbers of Jews migrated here from a swath of traditional settlements in the Pale and western Russia. Most were ordered to Abakan by a state distribution system that wanted to establish a city here. Others were exiles. Nearly all changed their names to conceal their ethnicity. No one dreamed of a community, synagogue or cemetery. “We never had thoughts about being Jewish,” says Esfir, an elderly woman wrapped in a pirate’s scarf. With an intermarriage rate topping 90 percent, these Jews are among the world’s most assimilated. When asked if anyone knows the blessing on bread or wine, a stout elderly man breaks the shameful silence: “Come back next year and we will.” But curious they are. Each Friday the cohesive group convenes for a session of Kravetzs’ tutelage in the only affordable venue: a crammed lobby plastered with Soviet posters illustrating how to fasten gas masks when the enemy attacks. “It’s a friendly family atmosphere. We wait all week to study Torah piece by piece, and we know most holidays now,” a woman named Lyubov says with a flash of his gold teeth. “My attraction is belonging to a great nation. I’m glad this happened, even if so late,” says Arnold, who has forgotten his Yiddish since he arrived in Abakan from Ukraine in 1957. Simon, a former English teacher, and his Russian wife, Tetyana, immerse themselves in the Russian magazine L’Chaim and various books donated by the Federation of Jewish Communities, the largest Jewish communal organization in Russia. “I knew practically nothing about Judaism until last year,” Simon says. “My only knowledge came from reading Sholem Aleichem during childhood.” Solomon, a 74-year-old jokester, says, “I used to sit in the street with bad legs beside old grannies. Now this is my home. Even with these sick legs I can do some Jewish dances.” “We’re the models of Siberian Jews,” Maria says, shedding tears of happiness. “We survived despite many difficulties, and with all the characteristics of the Jewish nation.” The female cantor, a husky non-Jewish opera singer with a resemblance to Boris Yeltsin, unveils a booming, Broadway-quality rendition of the traditional “Oseh Shalom” prayer. No one mouths the lyrics: Apparently, Jewish tunes remain unstudied. “I’m a Jew in my soul,” says Mary, who moved here last year from Ukraine. “I’m trying to return all the richness I gained from this nation.” Gregory Probehlov, 66, the community leader, compensates for a lack of religious knowledge by providing charitable services for his members who, he says, are “older, lonely and no longer needed by anyone.” Each month he delivers 28 food packages courtesy of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The community’s growth dates to 2001, when a rabbi in Krasnoyarsk the nearest metropolis, 12 hours southwest of Abakan by train called on Probehlov, then a physical education teacher, to register under the federation umbrella. Probehlov laughed, citing the dearth of Jews in Abakan. But the rabbi, who has since left Krasnoyarsk, persisted, and Probehlov agreed to organize a seder. “It was primitive. Traditions weren’t followed. But 46 people showed up and the rabbi said, ‘See how many Jews we have?’ ” Probehlov recalls. “I didn’t believe my eyes. I was thinking: ‘Where are they coming from?’ ” It was enough to lure Probehlov to the job. He registered with the federation in 2001 after months of battling ministerial bureaucracy and pleas for bribes. Within a year he quit his teaching job, and since then he has worked for the community full time, for a monthly salary of $48. Today Probehlov works in an office no bigger than a parking space and gets consistent support from Chabad Rabbi Benni Wagner in Krasnoyarsk. A few middle-aged Jews volunteered to assist at first, but their interest waned when they noticed the $345 monthly budget. “They thought they’d get rich. I called a private meeting and scolded them: ‘You’re healthy guys with money, but someday you’ll be old, and you’ll need a community.’ ” Probehlov says. “Then they started cooperating.” Probehlov, who speaks fluent Yiddish, survived World War II by hiding for four years in a Ukrainian woman’s closet and dog kennel. The war robbed him of his family, including his Orthodox grandmother, who secretly baked matzah when Probehlov was a young communist. He recalls the fear he felt as a fifth grader when he classified himself as “Ukrainian” on a library card. Later, as a Soviet rifleman, he was demoted from his lieutenant ranking by authorities who blatantly but unofficially cited his religion. Kravetzs, meanwhile, had a traditional upbringing in Jewish-friendly Latvia, where he graduated from a Jewish school. “Shabbat, tallit, tefillin, kipot we had it all,” he says, laughing painfully at the lost times. But his world crashed in the early hours of June 14, 1941, when Soviet forces barged into Kravetzs’ home and gave his family 20 minutes to pack a suitcase Kravetzs threw in his tallit before loading them on freight cars bound for Siberia. The infamous exile targeted 26,000 bourgeois businessmen and religious activists like Kravetzs’ father. Ironically, it spared them from the Nazi troops that stormed the Baltics weeks later and slaughtered more than 95 percent of the local Jews, including all of Kravetzs’ former classmates. Kravetzs’ father perished in a Siberian prison. His brother died of scarlet fever at the same labor camp where Kravetzs toiled for 15 years. “We worked in the taiga,” or dense forest, “in -50 degrees without proper clothes. We only had small rags to cover our feet. But I always prayed alone,” Kravetzs says. His life finally returned to normal in the late 1950s, when he moved to Abakan and married Tetyana. “I always believed strongly in God. If God didn’t keep me alive, I would have been dead long ago,” he says. “Now, I read and pray more than ever.” A diagnosis of stomach cancer in 2001 did not shake his faith. The community raised $353 for treatment in Krasnoyarsk, which put his cancer into remission. “When he’s sick, we don’t even pray in Russian, out of respect for him,” Probehlov says. “There’s no substituting him.”
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