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April 11, 2003     Heritage Florida Jewish News
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April 11, 2003

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H ERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, APRIL 11, 2003 PAGE 29 Photo by Adam B. Ellick/JTA gacob l~vkovitch, right, and Faiga Novisova stand beside machinery that was once used to bake matzah in the lrimtsk Synagogue, in lrimtsk, Siberia. By Adam B. Eilick IRKUTSK, Russia (JTA)-- When it comes to matzah in Siberia, religious freedom is bittersweet. Throughout Russia, this Seemingly limitless nation that ~Pans seven time zones and is igger than the United States ~nd Western Europe com- ined, the arrival of Passover and matzah is an annual re- Winder of religious freedoms enjoyed by Russian Jews since COmmunism's collapse 13 Years earlier. In the eastern Russian city ~f Yekaterinberg, matzah Oxes sent fresh from a Mos- COw bakery are stacked so high ey here. The 6-foot-high oven, the size of a parking space, was destroyed in 1999 after a cen- tury of usage caused its large red bricks to deteriorate. Until then, Yacob Levkovitch, 72, had spent two months every spring as a vol- unteer matzah man. The fur hat-wearing Siberian offers proof: a stash of bumpy matzah churned out just weeks before the oven was shut down in 1999. The flaky crackers are surprisingly fresh and far thin- ner than the boxed Western version that international Jew- ish groups will distribute across Russia next week. "The whole process is reor- ganized with international organizations today, but be- nearly graze the ceiling In a rabbi's office. Come Pass- fore the Revolution this was i~er, some 3,000 Jews will our Jewishtradition. lnother Ppily eat the unleavened cities they dont even know read in the city's largest how to bake matzah. We had Venue, the circus grounds orders from the neighboring But for Jews in Irkutsk, a cities of"Ulan Ude, Chita and PrOvincial Siberian city of Angarsk," says Levkovitch. 675,000 that holds Siberia s Political exiles from Poland Oldest synagogue, the begin- began to settle in Irkutsk at aingofPassoverisadisheart- the end of the 19th century. e~ing reminder of a lost local Others came from the Pale of art: baking matzah. Settlement, the band of the While the Soviets managed Russian Empire where Jews drainJewishidentityacross were allowed to live during ussia, the authorities some- czarist times. They took up how forgot about the Irkutsk the fur trade, a profession that gogue, where this aspect transformed them into "Jewish tradition prevailed, wealthy merchants -- their loF r more than a century, wooden, ornate houses still m al Jews ran a thriving stand today. In 1881, local "qtZah-baking operation moneys were donated to erect Photo by Adam B. Ellick/JTA Levkoviteh, left, and Faiga Novisova stand beside once used to bake matzah in the Irkutsk in lrkutsk, Siberia. the Irkutsk Synagogue and its matzah oven. The two-story sky blue building is believed to be the only synagogue that functioned east of Moscow during Soviet rule. Today it's home to a lively Orthodox community led by Rabbi Dovid Dorokhov, an Irkutsk native and convert to Judaism. The leniency during Com- munist times of local authori- ties in Irkutsk, compared to other cities where Jews fell victim to severe repressions, can be attributed to the eco- nomic success of the Jews, who gained a unique level of re- spect among Russian authori- ties, say local observers. "The Jewish voice couldn't be ignored," says Eugene Solomon, a local historian. "They were gold miners, land- lords, shop owners and they paid heavy taxes." In Soviet times, matzah was often the last link to Jewish tradition, and Jewish life in Irkutsk has deep roots compared to many other Siberian cities, where Jews didn't arrive until after the Communists seized power. Still, Jewish life in Irkutsk had its limits. Authorities in civilian clothes constantly monitored the synagogue, which was closed several times before Stalin's death in 1953. During the Soviet era, Pass- over celebrations began on the eve of the holiday and lasted three days. Jews would flock to the synagogue to pick up their matzah. The daring ones prayed during the day. Matzah was eaten at home, usually dipped in honey. "But you also have to bake the honey, until it turns red," Levkovitch says. "Jews were shy of express- ing attitudes but they came for Pesach. They probably didn't even know other holi- days. It's just a tradition. We don't know why. Maybe be- cause it's a holiday of survival and Siberians are true survi- vors," says Olga Sosna, man- ager of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee- funded Jewish Community Center, located in the synagogue's lower level. Faiga Novisova, 81, who was wed in the synagogue in 1946 and who helped bake matzah for decades, remembers that the bricks retained an extraor- dinary amount of heat as the unit's chimneys effectively exhaled the fumes. After the synagogue was closed down by the authori- ties in 1934, local Jews were forced to bake matzah at home. But the operation revived in 1946 when the state returned the second floor of the build- ing to Jewish hands. In most years, the Official Irkutsk Jew- ish Religious Society pur- chased flour for the commu- nity from local warehouses. However, during postwar food shortages,when flour was tough to find, Jewswould bring their own flour, usually slightly less than two pounds, and wait nearly three hours for their batch to bake. In an ambitious move dur- ing the 1960s, the society asked a local metal plant for electric devices to thin the matzah. Thanks to a Jewish plant man- ager, the synagogue acquired two roller-like devices with needles which poked holes in the dough. These machines are still in the synagogue to- day. Irkutsk Jews are now focus- ing on another communal ef- fort: preserving their syna- gogue. From 1995 to 2000, the dilapidated building un- derwent substantial repairs such as a new roof, a new stair- case andwhitewashed ceilings. Leaders say they don't know the cost of these repairs. But they do know a crisis is on the horizon. A recent as- sessment by a municipal ar- chitect responsible for cultural monuments reports the walls and ceiling, which show fis- sures, are in desperate need of repair. So scared is the feisty syna- gogue president, Uzbek-born Zhora Failavayev, 56, that he doesn't plan to advertise the upcoming Passover festivities because the building isn't sup- posed to house more than 200 people. Failavayev believes this round of repairs will cost ap- proximately $32,000. Despite pledges from local authorities and the JDC, he still requires more sponsors, a task so daunt- ing he's considering moving to Israel instead of watching his sacred home crumble. "In the early 1980s, the old religious men died," he shouts. "The oldest was 104. They told me to keep it alive because no one else believed in God. So I've been coming here for 32 years, before any international Jewish organizations. I was the rabbi, the leader, the plumber, the toi- let cleaner, and the driver. I did it all perfectly and all for free. Now if we have a God, our shul will be reconstructed." eA 0 Hyman & Harriett Lake Sign & Graphic Solutions Mode Simpk Andy, Karen, Nathaniel and Gabrielle Reiff i Presented by Maitland Area Chamber of Commerce Saturday, April 12 & Sunday, April 13, 2003 Held on the Shores of Beautiful Lake Lily (17-92 and Maitland Avenue) Juried Art Festival with over 225 artists Award Ceremony - 5:30 p.m. Saturday, April 12 at the Artist's Party in the Civic Center. City displays; food; children's activities. Sponsors: Progress Energy, Sprint, City of Maitland. Media sponsors: WLOQ and the Winter Park-Maitland Observer.