Russia: Center for Jewish Art Releases Report on Synagogues and Judaica in Siberia
(ISJM) In August 2015, a research team from the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem went to Siberia and for the first time carried out extensive documentation of the extant Jewish sites in that vast region of the Russian north. This work follow-up on recent excellent detailed surveys of synagogues in Lithuania (published in full) and Latvia (publication in preparation).
According to their recently released report about Siberia - which can be read in full here - the team followed a route spanning 6,000 km. and visited 16 sites in Siberia and the Russian Far East: Tomsk, Mariinsk, Achinsk, Krasnoyarsk, Kansk, Nizhneudinsk, Irkutsk, Babushkin (former Mysovsk), Kabansk, Ulan-Ude (former Verkhneudinsk), Barguzin, Petrovsk Zabaikalskii (former Petrovskii Zavod), Chita, Khabarovsk, and Vladivostok as well as the Birobidzhan, established in 1928 as the Soviet Jewish Autonomous Region.
Sixteen synagogues and four collections of ritual objects were documented alongside a survey of eleven Jewish cemeteries and numerous Jewish houses. The team consisted of Prof. Aliza Cohen-Mushlin, Dr.Vladimir Levin, Dr. Katrin Kessler, Dr. Anna Berezin, and Arch. Zoya Arshavsky.
Center for Jewish Art Report on Siberia Expedition
The report concludes with these telling paragraphs:
The Center for Jewish Art’s expedition resulted in the documentation and survey of Siberian Jewish heritage in various states: active synagogues, former synagogues serving other purposes, abandoned synagogues in danger of collapse; well preserved and half-destroyed Jewish cemeteries; as well as ritual objects used in synagogues or stored in museums. We hope that our expedition not only documented Jewish buildings, tombstones and objects, but also contributed to raising awareness among locals about the value of Jewish heritage and the need to preserve it as part of their own culture.
For some of us it was the first expedition to the areas not affected by the Holocaust. Nonetheless, the state of preservation of Jewish heritage in Siberia does not differ significantly from the western areas of the former Soviet Union (currently Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Lithuania and Latvia). The only significant difference is the absence of mass graves and Holocaust monuments. All other typical features are present: the massive destruction of synagogues and cemeteries during the Soviet era, the adaptation of synagogues’ buildings to other purposes accompanied by reconstruction, and the presence of general neglect and dilapidation. The synagogues returned to the Jewish communities were radically reconstructed, and their interiors resemble present-day synagogues in Israel and the USA
Siberian Jewish heritage presents an interesting and important example of the convergence of traditions brought from Eastern Europe, fashions borrowed from the capital cities of the Russian Empire, St. Petersburg and Moscow, and local features characteristic of Russian architecture in Siberia. The Jews of Siberia adhered to Judaism and a religious way of life, but within a Russian environment, which strongly influenced them, even more than their relatives and co-religionists in the Pale of Settlement or in the European Russia beyond the Pale. The dualism of the preservation of traditions and a high level of acculturation was reflected in the synagogue architecture and the cemeteries. The attempts to express Jewish identity during the Soviet period and growing assimilation are especially visible in the tombstones. Jewish symbols and Hebrew epitaphs gave way to Soviet symbols and monolingual Russian inscriptions. The revival of Jewish life in the post-Soviet era finds its expression in the construction of new synagogues and the reappearance of Jewish symbols in the cemeteries.
The material collected during the Center for Jewish Art’s expedition will soon be uploaded to the Bezalel Narkiss Index of Jewish Art (http://cja.huji.ac.il/browser.php). We also plan to publish a book presenting the little known Jewish heritage of Siberia found by our team in this vast and remote region.