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Notes from Limmud 2014

The Jews of the Crimea: from early times to today

Rabbi Misha Kapustin

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

History of the Jews in the Crimea

The Jews settled in the Crimea over 2000 years ago. There is evidence for this in the form of people writing stone plaques to write their thoughts, and documents give written evidence of a man who was certainly a non-Greek man, because of his name, belonging to a nomadic tribe set free under the protectorate of the Jewish community of modern Kerch, in the eastern Crimea, then called Panticapaeum. He had to go to the synagogue and was converted to Judaism. This document dates to about the first century CE.

So there were not just Jews living in the Crimea but already an established Jewish community by that time.

When did the Jews come to the Crimea? Roughly, the first century CE or BCE. Or possibly even earlier?

Who were those Jews? We can only guess. Some believe they could have been members of the lost ten tribes, but it can't be proven one way or other. More probably Jews looking for good business and trade who spread around the Greek world. They were hellenised; they used Greek in their documents and for their tombstones.

The Greeks were looking for new lands to grow grain, because there was not enough grain in their metropolises. So they settled the coastline of the Crimea and did business with the local nomadic tribes, and sent grain to Greece and the rest of the Hellenistic world.

But then the Greek civilisation was destroyed, by the [lacuna]s. There is evidence the Jews were still around, but they now used Hebrew on their tombstones; not Greek. Later on, in the seventh century, the Khazars came. In the last decades of the Khazar kingdom, their king accepted Judaism as their formal religion. This does not mean that all of the people of the kingdom were Jews: many were pagans, and some had become Christians or Muslims. Their king, their kagan, accepted Judaism.

Why? Some believe because he was influenced by the Crimean Jews, the Crimea being part of the Khazar kaganate.

When the Khazar kaganate was destroyed by the Slavs, the Jews remained in the Crimea. In the eleventh and twelfth century there were Jewish and Karaite communities found.

When the Mongols came to the Crimea, a separate kingdom was established in the Crimea. Later on, this became part of the Ottoman Empire; initially semi-independent. The Jews kept living there the whole time. Those of the Turkish period were very different from the Jews of Ashkenazi or Sephardi origin.

In the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries they established their own language, Judaeo-Tatar, a variety of Turkish. They were called Krymchaks. They were Jewish from the point of view of religion. They did not marry Muslims, and had their own rabbis, They would marry only Krymchaks, or if there were no Krymchaks, a Jew from elsewhere.

They looked like Crimean Tatars in their way of dress. Their customs were very close to the Crimean Tatar ones, but they kept kosher, and preserved all the commandments written in the Torah and Talmud.

They were different to the Karaites. The latter did not recognise the Talmud; this was the major difference between them. The Karaites took the laws of the Torah literally, and did not recognise the comment[aries].

The Crimean Tatars did not care much about them; they were free to do whatever they wanted so long as they paid taxes. They wre then under the protection of the Crimean Tatar khans.

The Crimean Tatars saw the difference between the Krymchaks and the Karaites in one world: peyot. No peyot meant Karaites; with meant Krymchaks.

Some of them lived in Feodosiya and established their own community. Some lived in the moutains near Bakhchysaray, and had a fortress, with Krymchaks and Karaites living together.

At the end of the nineteenth century with the development of history as a science, there was an attempt by Karaites to rewrite history to increase Karaite representation as [lacuna]

What are the origins of the Krymchaks? Some say possibly the descendants of the Hellenised Jews. Some say according to some historical records, it's written that they are the descendants of Bar Kochba's soldiers. Some say they were a Turkish tribe, of those who moved to the west, who were pagans and at some point converted to Judaism, but kept their Turkish origin, and finally became ethnically Turkish but religiously Jewish.

Today, it is kosher for an Orthodox rabbi to marry the Krymchaks; they are halachically regarded as Jewish. Most of them today live in Israel; they tried to form their own community there, but it was not successful, and today they only have a once-a-year meet-up.

We can tell more about the Krymchaks through their surnames. For instance: Bakshi, Dimerji, are of Turkish origin. Ismerlin means coming from a place in Asia Minor. Abayev, Golji from the Caucasus. Abrabin, ?Lambergi, Piastro, are from Italy or Spain: Sephardi refugees from the exodus from Spain, invited by Suleiman the Magnificent to Turkey, who then subsequently moved to the Crimea, where they united with the local Jewish community and integrated into the Krymchaks.

Beerman, Warshavsky, Weinberg are Ashkenazi names from Ukraine, Poland, Belarus. The Crimean Tatars attacked the northern lands and brought slaves, and some of those were of Jewish origin. There were slavery markets in [lacuna] and Feodosiya, and Jewish slaves were brought there. The Torah says if you see a Jew captured and imprisoned, it is a commandment to set them free. So they bought the slaves and set them free, and they entered the community but kept their Ashkenazi surnames.

So today the Krymchak ethnic group consists of several groups of Jews of different origins. This caused problems. Some of the Jews wanted to follow different customs, others others. A rabbi from Kiev established his own minhag in Kaffa (modern Feodosiya).

Finally in the eighteenth century, the Crimea was occupied by the Russian empire. Some of the Crimean Tatars and the Krymchaks moved to Turkey, but most stayed in the Crimea. The Crimea was included into the Pale of Settlement, and Jews from elsewhere started moving into the Crimea, and within two or three generations these Ashkenazi immigrants outnumbered the Krymchaks. They established their own commjunities, with their own rabbis and their own synagogues. They had nothing to do with the Krymchaks; they spoke Yiddish, not Judaeo-Tatar.

In the nineteenth century occurred the first war in modern history: the Crimean War. The Jews fought on both sides: both in the British Army and the Russian army. There were at least 500 Jews killed: a 20% casualty rate, so there were probably 25,000 Jews fighting for the Russian Empire. [Hmm, there's either a zero missing from the first number there or added to the second.] There were stories about "[lacuna] who was a brave soldier though he was a Jew. [...] In general the Jews are cowards, but he showed great evidence of being a brave Jew."

The Jews who fought there had special marks on their uniform so that if they were killed in the war, it was clear how they should be buried. Most of the soldiers were Russian Orthodox, but there were also Muslims and Jews, so it was necessary to know how and who to bury them.

In 1897 there were about 30,000 [rabbanite] Jews living in the Crimea and about 4500 Karaites. In 1914 there were about 40-45,000 Jews, of which only 6500 were Krymchaks.

Many of these people died during the First World War and civil war; and many were evacuated, but of those that stayed, some were involved in the Russian Revolution. Finally, when the Soviet power was fixed, there was an attempt to build Jewish collective farms, and to get the Jews involved in the agricultural matter. Before that Jews could not own land and therefore could not get involved in agriculture. So now there was an attempt to make the Jews work on the land.

To a certain degree this project was very successful. Dozens of thousands of Jews came to the Crimea from the Ukraine and Belarus, and established collective farms. The Joint Distribution Committee was established when the First World War started. They helped the Jews with machines, tractors and the money; but at some point this organisation could no longer work in the Soviet Union, as they were seen as an American spy organisation. By now, though, the Jews already had the abgricultural machinery they needed.

The Jews produced a film to show themselves growing figs: This was to show the other Soviet citizens that these are good Soviet citizens of Jewish origins, not the Jews of the shtetl.

Pesach haggodos of the Soviet period showed, in their illustrations, capitalists instead of Egyptians.

By the end of 1941 the Crimea was occupied by the Nazis. Most of the Jews who were not able to evacuate to the east were almost all murdered by the Nazis, mostly by the end of 1941. But there was a dilemma for the German authority: What to do with the Krymchaks and the Karaites. It was clear to them what to do with the Ashkenazi Jews, but they had never heard of these groups.

At the end of 1941 they came to the decision that the Karaites were not Jewish and could live; the Krymchaks, by contrast, were Jewish and must be killed. Two thirds of them were murdered. Other Jews had evacuated the Crimea, but for the Krymchaks the Crimea was their home; they didn't want to evacuate.

After the end of the Soviet period, new Jewish organisations were established, based on religion, culture, social programmes and so on; there was also the Jewish Agency, and the JDC, and an Israeli cultural centre.

Most of these organisations have continued working in the Crimea until today.

The speaker's role during the Ukrainian conflict today

In November 2013, at the start of the the revolution in Kiev, students protested against the regime, and were harshly beaten up. The security forces chased them for a mile. Some of them knocked on the door of the cathedral. The priests opened the door and let them in but did not let in the special forces. This was the starting point of the revolution.

The speaker said to his congregants: If such a thing happened in Simferopol, and people knocked on our door, I would not ask questions, I would let them in. We're talking about the value of a human lfie.

The speaker made no political comments at all at that time because he believed in the separation of church and state. The only thing he did was pray for peace. He asked his congregants to keep silent, not to say which side they supported.

When Yanukovich ran away, the speaker was in Kerch, helping to mediate between the community and the JDC. There were two meetings then in Simferopol. One was mostly organised by the Crimean Tatars, and was pro-European; the other was organised by the Russians—but they were both meeting at the same place, in the same square. Despite this, no one was killed, though one man had a heart attack and died, and something similar happened to someone else. It was interesting to see how the leaders of the two groups were standing next to each other, using the same microphone, and asking the leaders of their camps to calm down.

The following day, the Ukrainian parliament was occupied. The pro-Russian groups came to the parliament to support them. The soldiers moved from Sevastopol to Simferopol, and occupied all the infrastructure: airport, parliament, post office, railway station and government buildings.

Then the Russian troops started moving from Kerch into the rest of the Crimea and occupied the whole of the peninsula. There were Ukrainian bases there; some of them supported Russia but most of them refused to do it.

For the speaker, it was not politics any longer, it was an occupation. The speaker [who is Russian himself] was and is a Ukrainian citizen, and does not want anyone to decide for him in which country to live, and which passport to hold. Because the next step would be: which synagogue to go to, which God to believe in or not believe in.

When people in the West made rallies to support the Soviet refuseniks, most of the Soviet Jews were against the refuseniks, because they were good Soviet citizens. But people in the west still kept supporting them. The speaker felt the same way about the current situation.

There were several choices, and he had to choose between them.

Either he could pretend and lie, or stop thinking and keep doing as everyone else (and be pro-Russian). Or, he could ignore it all, and be neutral: put his head in the sand and say that nothing is happening. This, he reasoned, could work for a worker in a factory, but the speaker is a public man: he was often on TV, and involved in interfaith work, etc. So he had to take a side.

And there was a possibility to react: to go on the street with a flag. But that wouldn't be a good idea for his community.

Finally, there was another choice: to leave—what the Jews do all the time when they believe that they cannot stand any longer what is happening in the commnunity where they leave.

Lack of democracy is a spiritual destruction not as a Jew but also as a human being. He didn't want to live in a society where he could not [lacuna].

Two days after the occupation, he was live on TV for thirty minutes, being asked various questions. For the first time in his life, he did not answer a single question. He asked himself: Do I want to live in the fear that anything I say may be used against not just me but other Jews?

And indeed, by leaving he did a good thing for his community. It would have been much harder for them had he stayed.

He also did something else. A few days after the occupation, he wrote an open letter, of three or four sentences, saying that Crimea was occupied by the Russian soldiers; we cannot stand against them; do whatever you can to stop it, because we cannot; along with a link to the White House website, where there were several petitions. He sent it to his mailing list, with no exceptions; to hundreds of people all over the world.

Finally this letter got onto the news, and on antisemitic websites, where they said he was a provocateur, and a fascist, and a British or American spy. Then it was said he had asked the American navy to enter the Crimea, because one of the petitions on the White House website was for that. Then he became the author of this petition; and it kept going.

There was an antisemitic attack on the synagogue on the same night the Ukrainian parliament was occupied. One man got through the security fence, and graffitied swastikas, "Death to the Jews", and a symbol of a far-right Ukrainian party (which, nevertheless has openly Jewish members: they are nationalists, but not on an ethnic basis). But this symbol was drawn in mirror image. The speaker googled them, and found nothing antisemitic. He said a person who belonged to such a kind of party would certainly know how to draw their symbol. And there was the same kind of symbol graffitied on the cemetery in Odessa. But the leader of the party there was the chief rabbi, and he worked to clean up the cemetery.

Eventually, the speaker made a decision. Originally, he wanted his wife and children to move to Israel, where he has many relatives; at some point this got out to the media and then she changed her mind! So instead, on the referendum day in the middle of March, they left the Crimea with no destination in mind. They got a train to Kiev and stayed in a shelter, all four of them in one room.

After one week, it was not clear what to do next. He was employed by the World Union for Progressive Judaism. They had been suppportive to him, but could not make a decision for him on where to go. He understood them, but he and his family needed stability. They had left everything in the Crimea: their property, their car, their friends, etc. They had expected to stay there their entire life.

Finally he got a call from Bratislava to visit them for rehabilitation, and possibly stay on as their rabbi, but with no obligations. He spoke to WUPJ in Jerusalem, but they were not able to make a decision, so went along with his. So he made the decision. He adds that he has no bad feelings about the WUPJ.

Jewish learning notes index


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