IRKUTSK, Russia — When it comes to matzah in Siberia, religious freedom is bittersweet.
Throughout Russia, this seemingly limitless nation that spans seven time zones and is bigger than the United States and Western Europe combined, the arrival of Passover and matzah is an annual reminder of religious freedoms enjoyed by Russian Jews since communism's collapse 13 years ago.
In the eastern Russian city of Yekaterinberg, matzah boxes sent fresh from a Moscow bakery are stacked so high they nearly graze the ceiling in a rabbi's office. Come Passover, some 3,000 Jews will happily eat the unleavened bread in the city's largest venue, the circus grounds.
But for Jews in Irkutsk, a provincial Siberian city of 675,000 that holds Siberia's oldest synagogue, the beginning of Passover is a disheartening reminder of a lost local art: baking matzah.
While the Soviets managed to drain Jewish identity across Russia, the authorities somehow forgot about the Irkutsk synagogue, where this aspect of Jewish tradition prevailed.
For more than a century, local Jews ran a thriving matzah-baking operation here. The 6-foot-high oven, the size of a parking space, was destroyed in 1999 after a century of usage caused its large red bricks to deteriorate.
Until then, Yacob Levkovitch, 72, had spent two months every spring as a volunteer 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 thinner than the boxed Western version that international Jewish groups will distribute across Russia next week.
"The whole process is reorganized with international organizations today, but before the Revolution this was our Jewish tradition. In other cities they don't even know how to bake matzah. We had orders from" the neighboring cities of Ulan Ude, Chita and Angarsk, Levkovitch says.
Political exiles from Poland began to settle in Irkutsk at the end of the 19th century. Others came from the Pale of Settlement, the band of the Russian Empire where Jews were allowed to live during czarist times. They took up the fur trade, a profession that transformed them into wealthy merchants — their wooden, ornate houses still stand today. In 1881, local moneys were donated to erect 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 of local authorities in Irkutsk during communist times, compared to other cities where Jews fell victim to severe repressions, can be attributed to the economic success of the Jews, who gained a unique level of respect among Russian authorities, say local observers.
"The Jewish voice couldn't be ignored," says Eugene Solomon, a local historian. "They were gold miners, landlords, 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, Passover 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 expressing attitudes but they came for Pesach. They probably didn't even know other holidays. It's just a tradition. We don't know why. Maybe because it's a holiday of survival and Siberians are true survivors," says Olga Sosna, manager of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee-funded Jewish Community Center, located in the synagogue's lower level.
After the synagogue was closed down by the authorities 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 building to Jewish hands. In most years, the official Irkutsk Jewish Religious Society purchased flour for the community from local warehouses. However, during postwar food shortages, when flour was tough to find, Jews would bring their own flour, usually slightly less than two pounds, and wait nearly three hours for their batch to bake.