Neither the air pollution nor the clouds blocked the view of the Tien Shan mountains on the Sunday when I took a bus across Almaty to find the grave of a famous Hasidic rabbi. I paced outside the cemetery while translating the Russian sign on the gate. The sign said the cemetery was closed on Sundays after 2 p.m. It was 2:14, but as I have learned over the past six months while living in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet Republic now an independent nation in Central Asia, official rules may be outdated, not followed, bent, or broken. So, I walked through the wrought iron gate and past the security booth. The cemetery was deserted. I started down the dusty main road and scanned the hundreds of tombstones, lawn crypts, and small mausoleums. I wandered in silence to respect the dead buried around me and to keep an ear out for the stray dogs running between the gravesites until I found the small Jewish section. The remains of the rabbi and his wife were held in an ohel with a large Jewish star on the door. I tried the door, but it was locked.
The rabbi and his wife ended up in Almaty after the Soviets exiled him to the Kazakh steppe as punishment for promoting Judaism in Ukraine. As I walked around the ohel, I saw the other, smaller graves marked with Jewish stars of David. Like the rabbi, most of these Jews came against their wishes. They were likely also exiled, forcibly relocated to work in Soviet labor camps, or escaped to Central Asia to avoid the Nazis in Europe.
The rabbi’s ohel is well-maintained because the rabbi is Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, father of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who was known in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement as simply the Rebbe and is considered to be one of the most important Jewish leaders of the 20th century.
Indeed, many Orthodox Jews still travel to Almaty to stand before the Rebbe’s father’s grave and wish for a miracle. I wasn’t wishing for a miracle; I was trying to see if finding his grave would bring me any closer to understanding Jewish life in Almaty.
I saw very few tombstones had rocks on them and realized that this semi-famous ohel would provide no epiphanies for me. Rather, it was another piece in the strange mosaic of Jewish life here. I put a rock on the tombstone nearest to me and walked back into the city.
I did not expect to find much Jewish life in Almaty. The city has the largest Jewish population in the country, but the scale is small: the World Jewish Congress estimates approximately 3,300 of the country’s 19 million people are Jewish. Yet, in unexpected moments, in peculiar places, Jews are mentioned in passing, our traditions are put on display, and our symbols are co-opted.
On the train between Almaty and Shyment, the third-largest city in Kazakhstan, an older Kazakh woman sharing our coupe started talking about Israel. Her rapid Russian left me confused as to her overall opinion, but I told her I was Jewish to make conversation. She remarked that Jews were considered very smart during Soviet times. I responded with the only Russian phrase that came to mind: это так, meaning, “It is so.” She laughed.
I sat with a student for an hour editing his research paper. On his way out of my office, he started telling me about Kazakh history. He explained that the Kazakh people are really made of many different tribes combined into one nation. He casually remarked that there is one tribe that people jokingly call the “Jew tribe” because they are greedy and act like cowards. He went on about Kazakh history without pause, but I had stopped listening.
The woman who controls the printing at the university at which I work said I look French or Italian. I told her my family is from around Russia. She made a face. I told her I was Jewish, and she said that made more sense.
Walking around the Central State Museum of Kazakhstan’s exhibit on the peoples of Kazakhstan, I suddenly faced a display that featured a seder plate, a tallit, a menorah, and a copy of the Torah in Cyrillic. The inscription was simple: “Jews.”
I went to the bakery across the street from my apartment. While buying bread, I noticed the baker wore a “Chai” necklace. Walking home, bread in hand, I thought about how my Hebrew school teachers had been right when they said, “wherever you go, there will always be Jews.”
A week later, I went back to the bakery. The baker was working again and still wearing the Chai. At the checkout, I pointed at her necklace and in my broken Russian said, “That’s Chai. Are you Jewish?” She was momentarily taken aback. Scared that I had inadvertently exposed her, I offered, “I’m Jewish too.” She recovered, and said, “No, no, no. Not Jewish,” emphatically crossing her arms into an “X.” She said, “this is a talisman,” holding up her necklace. She said again, “not Jewish” for emphasis. I nodded, smiled, and said okay, even though I had been walking around the whole week before thinking I had a secret Jewish baker.
The ground was muddy outside the Chabad-Lubavitch center in Almaty. I told the Kazakh man working security that I was Jewish and would like to be let in. He gave me an odd look as he examined my American driver’s license but let me through. Inside, it was quiet. A television silently played the Rebbe’s speeches on repeat. I wandered around the first floor without anyone noticing I had entered the building. Through the open sanctuary doors, I saw three or four old men silently reading and swaying in prayer. In an adjacent room, I saw a man hunched over a phone, watching videos at full volume. Eventually, I asked this man for help, and he called one of the rabbis to show me around. “Jack from America is here,” he said on the phone.
A young rabbi rushed over to the center. He graciously fed me a meal while cycling through the usual litmus tests. “Have you had a bar mitzvah?” “Where did you go to synagogue?” “What is the name of your rabbi?” “Do you know the prayers?”
As I finished the chicken soup, kugel, and salad, I asked him about his life. He was born in Israel but has been living in Almaty for the last 10 years. He will spend the rest of his life here. He said that there is a good community in the city. He gave me a calendar, a brochure, and a pamphlet, each of which featured the smiling faces of the Jews of Kazakhstan. Afterward, he brought me into the sanctuary and began to bind my arm and head with tefillin. He asked me if I had done tefillin before and seemed disappointed when I said that I had.
As I left, he told me that I could come back anytime but that there was another satellite synagogue closer to my apartment. This synagogue has a location on Google Maps, but has no sign, no listed working hours, and no doorbell to ring. It’s in the basement of an apartment building between a Middle Eastern restaurant and a library. Two weeks later, I went to this secret synagogue on Shabbat. The doors were locked. I was stuck outside, but the lights were on in the stairwell leading down to the sanctuary.
I have been mulling over what the Jewish presence in Almaty means, if anything. Is it purely a coincidence that the Rebbe’s father was exiled to Kazakhstan? Not exactly. The Soviets populated the Kazakh steppe with a diaspora of unwanted, troublemaking, or inconveniently located peoples: Germans, Koreans, Tartars, Chechens, and many more. So, perhaps, it is fitting that Jews, the people of diaspora, also have a small foothold in this nation.
Though my experience looking for Jewish life in Kazakhstan has been a winding path— full of false starts, dead ends, casual prejudice and benign curiosity— the Jewish community left in Almaty has made me appreciate what is, perhaps, the greatest Jewish tradition: survival.
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Native to the Milwaukee area, Jack Styler grew up attending Congregation Sinai in Fox Point. After graduation from University of Wisconsin-Madison, he took on teaching English at KIMEP University in Almaty, Kazakhstan for one year as a Princeton in Asia fellow. He blogs at: jackstyler.substack.com.