Yoga leader lectures on Judaism

Tsylyana Gorbunova, left, leads a yoga class at the Hesed center in Omsk, Russia. (Ezra Nathan)

Tsylyana Gorbunova, left, leads a yoga class at the Hesed center in Omsk, Russia. (Ezra Nathan)

OMSK, Russia (JTA) — During Soviet times, Tsylyana Gorbunova and friends convened discreetly every week in the rooms of Omsk’s imposing Red Star Stadium in the early morning hours to secretly fulfill their spiritual needs. No prayers were recited, no candles lit and no sermons were delivered. Instead, the group sat on shabby carpets and practiced a forbidden form of meditation called yoga. Three decades and one revolution later, Gorbunova’s expertise in exotic yoga is helping to kick start her latest spiritual endeavor in Judaism. Since 2001, the lively director of Omsk’s Hesed center has used yoga to attract the city’s highly assimilated senior citizens, who may never otherwise visit this warm wooden cabin of a community center. Gorbunova, 55, who was a doctor and social worker during the Communist era, also initiated a health discussion group and a professional choir that performs on Jewish holidays. “The Jewish center is primarily religious, and according to the Torah we Jews have to be healthy. So we picked this path of yoga to bring them closer to Jewish culture. The most important thing isn’t to talk about health but to implement it,” says Gorbunova, who — ironically enough — serves up mounds of the delectable, oil-heavy pelmini, traditional Siberian dumplings. “I worked among Russians all the time and I felt uneasy to tell them I was a Jew, so I was afraid to come here at first,” says Ada, one fit yoga participant. “But we started coming quietly, and now we all feel quite comfortable here.” One frigid winter morning last season saw seven grandmothers aged 55 to 77 trek through the snow and proudly declare how they had avoided the flu this winter. More want to attend the classes, but this tiny classroom plastered with photos of Israel is too small. After changing into 1980s-style athletic attire, the women lie down on their own rugs and begin stretching in tandem. Over the next hour they choose a few dozen exercises. Some are designed to ease their breath, others to relax their bodies. All participants swear yoga has reduced their health problems, which include osteoporosis, high-blood pressure and excess weight — just a few ailments on a long list they are hardly shy to discuss. “I was afraid at first. I didn’t know anything about yoga. But now it’s a necessity. I’m almost addicted to it,” says Fira, who, despite a bad back can now touch the floor without bending her knees. Gorbunova tries to incorporate Judaism into all activities, including her health club lectures. “The basics of a kosher diet are very wise. It’s very healthy to separate milk and meat because ferments and vitamins don’t mix well and produce negative byproducts. But I’m not going to deliver a whole lecture now,” says the loquacious leader, who goes on to do just that. Improved health is not the sole benefit of yoga. Gorbunova says the activity forces sedentary seniors to leave the house. The 22 women who turn up for the health club chatter, giggle and whisper secrets like a group of lifelong friends. “This is the brightest moment of our week — our second youth. We all had different professions and didn’t know each other until we met here. And now we’re all best friends,” says Dina, a regular at the center. Another 27 elderly women — the oldest is 92 — fill the classroom for afternoon choir practice twice a week. Most of the women had never sung a Jewish song before they entered the building. Today they deliver impassioned versions of O Yerushalayim, Tumbalalaika and Hava Nagila. “I remember Hava Nagila from when I was six. My dad was a military officer and he played it on the violin each night before bed. But I never heard it again until the late 1980s,” Gorbunova says. “Jewish songs were rarely on the radio. But when my grandmother heard one she would shout and everyone would shut up and listen quietly,” she continues. “Those songs caused her childhood to come back to her. She would start crying with her mouth open. If she saw this today, she would cry hard from happiness.” Hesed has called on local Jews to finance costumes for future recitals. The group will need about $480 to buy the fabric and sew together the blue-and-white uniforms with scarves. “We don’t have such rich Jews here, but they help how they can. We are ready to panhandle for the rest,” Gorbunova says. Despite drastic cutbacks across Russia in recent years, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which funds the Hesed center, feeds 40 elderly Jews a day at a soup kitchen, delivers 600 monthly food packages and provides medicine to about 100. If anyone knows how to attract those far from Judaism it’s Gorbunova, who first entered a synagogue only in 1995. Born in western Ukraine, she dodged Nazi troops when her family was evacuated to Siberia before the outbreak of World War II. But Gorbunova’s new life in Soviet Russia was devoid of any religious activity. The only Yiddish she recalls is “kushn tochkes” — “kiss my rear end” — because “my father was a strong personality with crude humor.” “When I walked into the synagogue something inside me awakened. I took a great interest in everything,” Gorbunova says. “It’s like something I inherited.”

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