Siberian Jews of Yakutsk survive fear, frost and flight

Everyone, that is, except Mark Mikhailovich Shats.

Shats is wearing a leather cap with ear flaps; it looks like old aviator gear. The trim, compact, gray-bearded 52-year-old is the chief scientist at the Yakutsk's Permafrost Institute.

It is an important job because all of Yakutsk is built on permafrost.

"At the institute, they call this my `Jewish hat,'" he says, his blue eyes sparkling. "I don't know why it is, but for some reason Jews all over Siberia wear this kind of hat. No one talks about it; we might not know each other, but still we wear this same kind of hat."

Shats' hat in many ways symbolizes the way the Jewish community identifies itself — and expresses its Jewishness — in the capital of the Republic of Yakutia, which is part of the Russian Federation.

There is pride in the distinction and little fear regarding public displays of that pride. Yet years of repression and isolation have decimated the locals' understanding of Jewish culture and religion.

As proud as he is of being a Jew, Shats does not know that his cap looks much like a yarmulke adapted for cold weather. There is no rabbi to tell him so, and no synagogue, no Hebrew school for his daughter.

These days in Yakutsk, there are memories and there are social events. There are young people leaving for Israel almost every year.

But in what many believe is the world's northernmost Jewish community — numbering some 1,000 — there are fewer and fewer real links to Judaism.

As Shats recounts the Jewish experience here, sitting over a kitchen table and sipping tea while dressed in a dark suit, he looks like an Eastern European Jew transported from the 19th century.

"You think I look Jewish?" he says. "I am very pleased," he says, "because I was told that I do not."

Alexander Groysman, who immigrated to Brooklyn, N.Y., last year — a year before his book, "Jews in Yakutia," was published in Yakutsk — cites a traditional Russian piece of advice: "The quieter you are, the further you'll go."

Groysman turns that phrase around to explain why Jews started being sent away to Siberia about 1828: "The farther you go, the quieter you'll be."

According to Groysman, the Jews sent to Siberia for "eternal settlement" in the 19th century had not committed heinous crimes. By and large they were exiled for possession of "stolen articles," which usually meant that they were buying and selling merchandise.

Often the cloudy term "faulty conduct" — which could have meant anything from being in the wrong place at the wrong time to artistic or political activity — was the only official justification. No trial was necessary.

Jewish exile to Siberia accelerated in the years leading up to the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, as political exiles mingled with traders and merchants.

"Not only here in Yakutia, but all over Siberia, there was an idea that Jewish people made the revolution," says Shats. "When people wanted to say bad things about the revolution, they would say, `Jews made this.'"

Even when their influence grew, their numbers remained small.

The community set up a succession of "houses of prayer," usually an apartment rented for weekly meetings. But as Joseph Stalin rose to power through the late 1920s and 1930s, such public religious expressions became more dangerous.

Stalin's oppression was pervasive, but he reserved his bitterest anger for Georgians — although he was Georgian — and for Jews.

It was a time, Shats says, when living far from Moscow, six time zones to the east, was an advantage.

"In Yakutsk," he says, "we only had an echo of the horror. And with our hard, tough climate, we have to think more about surviving than being so actively involved in these kinds of things.

"But it was not a good time to say you were a Jew, or any other nationality or religion."

The Soviet regimes systematically repressed the native people who had lived in Siberia for centuries, forbidding them to speak their own language in school and to maintain their customs.

This sparked a kinship between Jews and the Yakuts, who are also known as the Sakha. In the Sakha language, a nickname for Jews roughly translates as "our brothers."

The Yakuts, known for their rich culture and trading prowess, were sometimes called "the Jews of Siberia."

Beginning in 1986, perestroika sundered many barriers that had existed for most of this century.

But not until 1992 did Yakutsk's Jewish community feel confident enough to go public and establish a Society of Jewish Culture.

The society celebrates four or five holidays a year, meeting in a rented hall or cafeteria. Usually between 50 and 100 people attend.

"In the beginning, it was mostly old people," Shats says. "Slowly, this has changed. Now a younger generation is involved."

But knowledge is sparse. Glasses of wine might be passed, matzah broken, apples dipped in honey. But there is no kiddush over the wine, no retelling of the Exodus from Egypt, no contemplation in the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Shats remembers that his grandmother used to make a triangular, filled pastry at a certain time of year, but he does not know about Purim.

In recent years, the Jewish Agency for Israel has organized summer camps for children from Yakutia. Israeli tutors have arrived to teach language, culture and history.

Yet there is reason for the young to stay in Yakutsk these days. Economically, times are tough. Academically, Yakutsk is limited.

Does Shats believe that Jewish identity in Yakutsk will survive?

"If all the young people don't leave, yes," he says. But "one thing I know," he laughs. "Those who stay won't get frozen."