Russian Jews built this city on rock and roll (and klezmer)

When the six members of the Simcha klezmer band hauled their instruments into a dilapidated rehearsal space, no one suspected they were about to hijack a government building in this large, clean city some 450 miles east of Moscow.

But that’s exactly what happened in 1995 when this popular ensemble — founded in 1989 by Jewish musicians during the Soviet Union’s twilight years — entered the Teacher’s House, a government-controlled building that had once been a synagogue. For three years, city officials had pledged to return the structure to the Jewish community.

But the band’s members had had enough of empty promises. Determined to hold the mayor to his word, the players remained barricaded inside for three days as police prepared to storm in.

The standoff ended with the city giving up the synagogue, which it signed over to its 8,000-member Jewish community the following year.

In this part of Russia, near the Ural Mountains that divide Europe from Asia, Simcha has been the linchpin of the Jewish community’s growth and strength and a symbol of the Jews’ determination to maintain their religious and cultural identity amid persecution.

“Many Russian Jewish communities grew to include klezmer bands,” Eduard Tumansky, the band’s current leader, told JTA after a performance in September celebrating the synagogue’s centennial. “But I know of no other klezmer bands besides ours that grew into a Jewish community.”

Violinist Leonid Sonts, who founded Simcha, “used musical activities as a vehicle for building a Jewish community long before open worship became tolerated again in Kazan,” said the city’s Chabad rabbi, Yitzhak Gorelick.

Sonts, who opened a Jewish cultural center, Menorah, in 1987, “used the band to turn musical events into cultural-religious events,” Tumansky recalled. “We performed during the holidays. Before [Kazan’s] Jewish people had a synagogue, they got together at Simcha concerts. Simcha became the engine for Jewish life.

“Simcha was the Jewish community’s main lobbying platform and face,” he said. “So when the Soviet Union collapsed, we already had strong partnerships. Everybody in Kazan knew Simcha.”

Later the community hired a rabbi for its synagogue and built a Jewish school – institutions that took over the task of serving as an axis for Jewish life here. Sonts became the president of Kazan’s Jewish community – a role he maintained until his passing in 2001.

After returning the Teacher’s House, authorities in Kazan have done more than give the Jews a synagogue: They turned it and the community into tourist attractions.

Since 2012, the city has held an annual Jewish music festival around Rosh Hashanah. And last year, the city held a series of Jewish-themed events outside the synagogue, including Kazan’s first Limmud FSU Jewish learning conference and a gathering by Chabad rabbis from across the former Soviet Union.

The events attracted an unlikely mix of secular and religious Jews, who flooded the spacious, red-cobble pedestrian streets of Kazan’s old city, with its mosques and gold-spired Russian Orthodox churches.

Local Jews say they feel safe among the Sunni Muslim majority in the Russian state of Tatarstan, of which Kazan is the capital.

“I regularly put my tefillin on while waiting for the subway in the morning,” said Gershon Ilianski, 16, a student at the Jewish high school here. “I know they have problems with Muslims in Western Europe, but I never worried anyone would bother me here.”

Thirty years ago, however, when Russia was still communist, Jews, Muslims and Christians all needed a non-religious alibi to worship.

“Simcha performed at Purim and Hanukkah parties while camouflaging the religious and communal nature of these events,” Tumansky said. “To the community, the concerts were [seen] as a Jewish event. To authorities, just a musical one.”

Even so, such musical gatherings were not allowed elsewhere in the Soviet Union, where Communist government sought to blur ethnic identities. This policy was less strictly enforced in Kazan, as its population was deeply attached to Islam and its heritage.

“Moscow realized it couldn’t restrict the locals too much on religion and tradition, because there’d be too much alienation,” said Chaim Chesler, founder of the Limmud FSU organization. “The result is an inspiring example of coexistence.”

This atmosphere of relative tolerance in Kazan during the Soviet era attracted hundreds of Jews from other parts of the Soviet Union. At a time when some universities nearer to Moscow barred Jews, they were accepted without problem at Kazan’s institutions of higher education, the Ukraine-born Sonts said in an interview he gave to local media before his death.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Kazan already had a functioning Jewish community — something that would take years to grow in other Russian cities.

This head start has meant that Jewish lay leaders have been able to have a more hands-on approach to developing their community. For example, unlike most other Jewish Russian communities, Kazan employs its Chabad rabbi, Gorelick, full time. Elsewhere in Russia, rabbis often work independently of the community, sometimes competing with its lay leaders for donations from local philanthropists.

Last September, the community celebrated its strength alongside its synagogue’s centennial by rededicating the shul following renovations. Tumansky, wearing his trademark black hat, performed with Simcha’s other five musicians before a crowd of several thousand outside the synagogue.

“It’s true that we are now the sideshow of the community we used to run,” he said of the band. “But then again, that was exactly what we fought for: to have a normal community.”

The concert was unorthodox; while Simcha primarily played klezmer, there were notable electric guitar and country music influences. After each solo, the crowd, a mix of Jews and non-Jews, waved blue and white balloons emblazoned with a Star of David, enthusiastically reacting with whistles and yelps.

“Tell me,” Tumansky told a reporter after the show. “Have you ever seen a Jewish community built on rock and roll?”

Kazan’s Residents:

A Sunday in the park. A brilliant, bright sun warms the air. The frozen tundra has given way to seedlings, flowers and patches of green. On this day, memories of the harsh Russian winter recede like so much melted snow.

Along with the blue skies and verdant forests, Judaism has returned here after a long hibernation. About 125 Russian Jews gathered May 9 to celebrate Lag B’Omer, a minor Jewish holiday that commemorates the day a plague ended during the time of Rabbi Akiba. Boys kicked around a soccer ball. Parents stopped to catch up with old friends or to share a smoke. A crowd huddled around a fiery barbecue from which the sweet smells of succulent chicken kabobs wafted.

Spring had arrived in Kazan, a city of 1.4 million about 500 miles southeast of Moscow. Life seemed especially good for the estimated 7,000 Jews who continue to call the place home. For decades, Kazan’s Jews had lived uncomfortably in an atheist state that viewed them as outsiders. Practicing Judaism during the Soviet era — publicly or even privately — could derail careers, lead to academic expulsions and attract the unwanted attention of the KGB.

Today, a Jewish renaissance is taking place in Kazan, as in other parts of the former Soviet Union (FSU). In the past 15 years, a Jewish community has slowly grown up in here, partly under the auspices of the Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch sect. Kazan has a renovated Jewish community center in the heart of town that houses a synagogue, a mikvah (ritual bath), and a library teeming with Jewish texts. Jewish pensioners receive free medical care, meals and Hebrew lessons from a group called Hessid. In March, a new 30-minute radio program about Jewish philosophy began airing on a local station.

"We now have the possibility in Kazan to say we’re Jewish and proud of it," said Sofia Botodova, a 45-year-old mother of two and director of cultural programs for the Jewish Community Center. "We can celebrate all the Jewish holidays and invite our non-Jewish and Jewish friends. We can have a Jewish life here."

That’s not to suggest anti-Semitism has disappeared from the Russian landscape. It hasn’t, said Alistair Hodgett, spokesman for Amnesty International. In recent years, Jews have been beaten, robbed and intimidated for their beliefs, and Russian authorities have sometimes shown a reluctance to classify anti-Semetic acts as hate crimes, he said.

Still, many Jews in Kazan and elsewhere in the FSU said things have improved dramatically since the crumbling of communism.

Grigory Dyakov, born to a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father, said religion never mattered much to him growing up. But when his grandmother died six years ago, Dyakov went to temple to say Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer for the dead. The 32-year-old investment banker said he discovered a beauty in Judaism that completed him. He has since become an Orthodox Jew and underwent an adult circumcision in 1999.

"The synagogue has become my top priority," he said as he performed the Jewish religious custom of wrapping tefillin. "I come to pray in the morning, at lunch and in the evening. I am a better Jew, and I think a better person as well."

Kazan State University student Jenya Sontz said she has forged her closest friendships at the Union of Kazan Jewish Youth Center. There, students celebrate Shabbat, attend lectures on Judaism and feel pride in their heritage.

"Maybe it’s a cliché to say, but we’re all family," she said.

In Kazan, Chabad works in tandem with several other Jewish organizations, including the Joint Distribution Committee, Hillel and the Russian Jewish Congress to support Jewish life. Elsewhere in the FSU, Chabad is "the only game in town," said Sue Fishkoff, author of "The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch" (Schoken Books, 2003).

The group has permanently stationed 220 rabbis throughout the FSU, funds seven Jewish day schools, 10 Jewish orphanages, Jewish summer camps and soup kitchens, among other projects. Its annual budget for the region of $60 million dwarfs that of other Jewish organizations. Chabad traces its roots to the former Russian city of Lubavitch.

Some Russian Jews mutter privately that Chabad wants nothing less than to turn the largely secular Jews of the FSU into ultra-Orthodox foot soldiers. Nonsense, said Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, the executive director of the Chabad-Lubavitch-dominated Federation of Jewish Communities of the Former Soviet Union.

"Chabad wants to help every Jew: man, woman, or child, to appreciate and love their faith and traditions more and go up one step at a time to add a little more to their observance," he said.

Kazan was gentler to its Jews than most other parts of the FSU. Jews began settling there in the 1830s when the czar forcibly conscripted young Jewish boys to serve him in the region. Jewish traders and craftsman followed, bringing the Jewish population to about 2,000 by the end of the 19th century. In 1915, the relatively prosperous Jewish community opened a synagogue, which the Soviets later nationalized and turned into a cultural center for teachers.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Ukrainian and White Russian Jewish students barred from their home universities fled to Kazan where anti-Jewish quotas were more relaxed. Kazan authorities sometimes looked the other way when Jews celebrated minor Jewish holidays such as Simchat Torah or baked matzah in their homes.

But Kazan’s Jews faced insurmountable obstacles to practicing their faith. During Soviet times, there existed "no Jewish schools, no Jewish education, really no organized Jewish life here," said Lev Bunimovich, a 77-year-old retired welder. Even in the nominally tolerant ’60s, a Jewish professor of mathematics lost his job for refusing to teach on Shabbat.

Under former Soviet leader Mikail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika, Jewish culture reasserted itself in Kazan. Jewish youth choirs and klezmer bands emerged and held large concerts. Hundreds attended public seders. Still, about 4,000 of Kazan’s Jews immigrated to Israel and the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Surprisingly, those who decided to stay behind did — not because they had lost touch with their heritage — but because they wanted to build a Jewish life in their homeland. Israel’s economic woes and vulnerability to terrorism have put a brake on new immigration and have actually led to a reverse migration. In recent years, an estimated 50,000 Soviet Israeli Jews have returned to the FSU, experts said.

Alexander Velder is one Kazan’s many Jews who said he has no regrets about remaining. The 45-year-old furniture manufacturer chairs a local philanthropic organization called the United Jewish Council of Kazan. The group is actively raising local money to build Russia’s first Jewish home for the aging, which, when completed next year, will house 50 seniors.

Reflecting on Kazan’s Jewish renaissance, Velder smiled and said: "It was never like this for most of my life."