Remote village loses faith

Yacov Yeroshin stands near his mother´s grave in the Iudino, Russia, cemetery where he still conducts Jewish burials. (Ezra Nathan)

Yacov Yeroshin stands near his mother´s grave in the Iudino, Russia, cemetery where he still conducts Jewish burials. (Ezra Nathan)

IUDINO, Russia (JTA) — Jewish traditions appear to be dying in Valentina Iosifovna’s Siberian village. Her alcove of a kitchen no longer holds two sets of dishes separating meat and dairy, the blue mezuzah nailed to her doorway goes untouched and she doesn’t know anyone who speaks a word of Hebrew. The death of Judaism is hardly surprising in rural Russia, where Soviet sympathies still run strong and Jewish populations rarely exceed a half dozen. But the near disappearance of Jewish life in this remote village known for nothing but its peculiar Jewish history, and where hundreds of Jews still live, is testament to the ominous and ubiquitous power of Soviet suppression. “We have no aim here. What can we do? We’re completely helpless,” Iosifovna, 66, says without a flash of grief. In many respects, Iudino isn’t all that different today from its inception in the 1830s, when locals resided in the same wooden cabins that still line the same dirt roads here. Vodka remains the drink of choice at the three village shops, as evidenced by men staggering outside in midafternoon. Meat is still sold only by a vendor who infrequently makes his rounds on a buggy selling bloodied bones with raw flesh. But kugel and matzah couldn’t compete with vodka and meat, leaving today’s Iudino with only a handful of precious remnants from its Jewish heyday. “There’s no place for faith in these hard times. Most important is for me to live better and make ends meet,” shrugs Evdokim Derevyagin, 79, who recalls celebrating Passover with bearded, religious men. “Our grandparents would feel pity that Judaism’s almost dead today, certainly. But we grew up in a Soviet manner, and nothing can be done.” Iudino was nothing but a thick birch forest until the 1830s, when a handful of Russian families arrived from Vrornizhen, near Moscow. Although much of Iudino’s history remains hazy — these villagers are far from accurate historians — most say the first settlers were a combination of Czarist exiles and those seeking to escape serfdom, high taxes and limited land plots. They discovered in this placid a fish-heavy river and an opportunity for tax-free farming. Inspired by their isolation from Russian Orthodox Czarist pressures, the families converted to what they considered the most humane religion, Judaism, which they had vaguely come to know during their days in European Russia. Their new faith exempted them from a hefty church tax. Enthralled with their new settlement, the founders wrote to their friends and families in European Russia, urging them to follow. The population quickly swelled with Russian farmers, many of whom converted to Judaism. Smaller numbers of long-time Jewish families — anxious to escape hunger and anti-Semitism — also were wooed over to offer their tutelage about issues of religious tradition. In 1910, a Jew by birth built a prayer house where he served as the religious leader, teaching Hebrew and Jewish traditions to the 3,000 local Jews, who were nicknamed Saturday People. They outnumbered the 2,000 non-Jewish farmers, called the Milk People, who lived across the village. Jewish tradition thrived. A local law required circumcision, though dirty tools and a lack of expertise resulted in death 10 percent of the time. Circumcision continued here even during Soviet times, when it was strictly prohibited elsewhere. Burial ceremonies were the most holy events in Iudino, and the surviving cemetery has dozens of graves with Stars of David. Following Jewish tradition, funerals took place one day after a person’s death — except on Saturdays — and locals drank a cup of wine and ate bread with salt at the cemetery. They washed their hands before returning home. One man worked the slaughterhouse, where he prepared kosher meat and ensured that the Jewish side remained free of pigs. The most celebrated holidays were Shabbat and Passover. Women prepared kugel on Friday mornings and bathed in public baths in the evenings, and everyone refrained from work on Saturdays. Most families used separate plates only on Passover. They prepared their own matzah with wooden tools topped with a gear-like device that pricked holes so the bread wouldn’t rise. Matzah also was dipped in honey to symbolize the sweetness of freedom. But this traditional lifestyle began to dissipate in the 1930s, when the Soviets converted the prayer house into a school; it was destroyed entirely in the 1980s. By the 1950s, intermarriage had become rampant. Today, residents point to a sick elderly woman as the only remaining Jew from birth in the city, though there are a few others. The last Hebrew speaker died four years ago. Locals say they can’t be bothered with religion when they can barely survive on their $48-a-month pensions. “We don’t know what pocket to put it in,” says Iosifovna, who still bakes matzah each spring. Yacov Yeroshin, a blue-eyed, boot-wearing villager, recites Kaddish and Yizkor in Russian for any of Iudino’s 2,500 residents, about half of whom are Jewish converts. He learns the dates of Jewish holidays when his cousin in Birobidzhan mails him a calendar. “Now we have more freedom but no possibility to hire a person to conduct proper ceremonies,” he says. “Financially, life here is worse after perestroika. A guy who studied with the rabbi in 1910 left me his notes, so we try to follow what we can,” says Yeroshin, who is Jewish. He recently received a few yarmulkes and a Talmud from the Federation of Jewish Communities branch in a town two hours away. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee office in that same town donated some Shabbat candles and a menorah but refused to recognize the villagers as Jewish for humanitarian support because of their hazy history. Anna Aninkina, 85, a woman with only two teeth whose family converted to Judaism, may be Iudino’s last practicing Jew. She is too embarrassed by her drunken son-in-law to accept visitors, but she pauses in the street to boast that she keeps Shabbat, kisses her mezuzah daily and refuses to eat pork because “if you eat beef you’re sinful until evening, but if you eat ham you’re sinful forever.” “I’m frustrated that no one cares anymore,” she says. “Our parents would be so sad.”

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