By Mordechai Haimovitch
Kazan, Russia – A steak before the luggage belt, a Coca Cola before passport control. In Kazan airport, you can go to a restaurant before you collect your bags. As if to say: wait a minute! Your stuff has arrived, but what about you? Have a bite before you go on your way!
Kazan is situated some 800 kms south of Moscow on the confluence of the Kazanka river, from which it gets its name, and the Volga. But there is a legend that says something else. When the Mongols arrived here from the Siberian steppes and south east Russia, the local prince took a kazan (“pot” in the ancient Tatar language) of gold and flung it into the river.
Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan, one of the republics of the former Soviet Union. But it is also the capital of tolerance; more than 115 different nationalities encompassing Muslims, Christians of different sects – Catholic, Russian Orthodox, and Jews make their home here. In 2009, Kazan was officially declared the third capital of Russia after Moscow and St. Petersburg.
But last week, Kazan was a Jewish capital. At the initiative of Limmud FSU, an inter-faith dialogue between rabbis, imams and priests, took place. Chabad also gathered together its emissaries from across the FSU, and the local Jewish community celebrated the rededication of the 100 year-old synagogue. The Jewish weekend signed off with a music festival celebrating the birth of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, 90 years ago.
On the way from the airport, you see brightly painted houses already waiting for the coming of Ronaldo and Messi, who will be arriving here for the FIFA World Cup in 2018. In honor of the Universiada – the university student games five years earlier and the World Swimming Championships a few weeks ago, dozens of sporting facilities have been built. Kazan is an important sporting power. The volleyball club, Zenith Kazan, is considered the best in the city. The local ice hockey team, Eck Bars achieved world fame, and of course Rubin Kazan which won the Russian championship in 2008 and 2009. In its first season in the champion’s league, it achieved third place. In football, the Israeli-Circassian Bibras Natcho, who played for Hapoel Tel Aviv, played with Rubin Kazan for four years and today wears the uniform of CSKA Moskva.
But Kazan has also known more than wizards of sport. One of the greatest operatic stars of all time, the bass Feodor Chaliapin was born here. Pushkin spent time here and collected material for his book on Yemeliyan Pugatchev, leader of the Cossack Rebellion of 1775. The 13 year-old Tolstoy came here with his brother and sisters to study in the local high school. Along a street named for Maxim Gorky, there are no less than four museums and six statues – naturally including one of Gorky. Lenin studied in the local university, now called Lenin University, and there is a statue there in his honor.
In Kazan there is no feeling of post-Communist remorse. The melancholy feeling is less tangible; faces seem unkind but the eyes are less bitter. When you raise your eyes and look around you, you do not see angry gray buildings, like the architecturally dead railway blocks of Ceausescu-style housing in Bucharest. Here there is an urban mixture that takes little account of any aesthetic laws. Rows of orange colored housing with rounded roofs of mosques at the end. Next door to them, modest tall buildings with garret windows that remind one of the servant’s quarters of imperial Paris. Together with all this, mosques with minarets which seem to offer a fair fight with those of Istanbul and one day, might win.
Kazan also competes with Moscow. Its white Kremlin rises up with turquoise painted spires. One might have an argument with the taste but the size is impressive. At noon, like from any other mosque, one hears the muezzin. Here they call it “Hazzan” which somehow sounds like “Chazan” (cantor) so maybe this is also a symbol of togetherness and tolerance.
The story of Amina, our guide, is evidence of this. She is Moslem and was born in Kazan. When I ask her age, she replies: “39 – going on 60.” After my expected laugh, she explains, “When I am 60 in two year’s time I will say I am 40.” A large woman with a large heart. She badly misses Tatiana Shvartzman, who was her closest friend, but their paths parted. Tatiana moved away and her two daughters live in Israel. “But I still dream about meeting her again.”
What would you do together?
“I would visit her home, be her guest during the holidays and go to Synagogue with her.”
The first Jews to arrive in Kazan were Cantonists – young men who had been abducted by the Tzarist forces to serve for decades in the imperial army. After their discharge, they received permission to live outside the Jewish Pale of Settlement. Some of them were unable to recover from the abduction and the years of military servitude and committed suicide. Others were baptized against their will during their involuntary time on the banks of the Volga.
But it is clear that these unfortunate events were drowned in the Volga long ago. In the Tatarstan People’s Cultural Center, an unbelievably ugly building, an inter-faith dialogue is taking place. Co-chairing the conference, Chaim Chesler, the founder of Limmud FSU says that this dialogue is a crowning achievement of Limmud’s work. “Its purpose is dialogue: we need to learn how people of different faiths can live together in peace in the face of ISIS and fundamentalism.”
The Chief Rabbi of Russia, Berel Lazar, gives a welcoming address. Kamil Smigolin, the Chief Mufti of Tatastan, dressed in green velvet robes, provides the main headlines. “The adherents of ISIS are destroying humanity – our brothers and your brothers. They ostensibly follow Mohammad but have stepped outside the boundaries of Islam. They have no real heart. They are as beasts. Islam is very far from their actions as it educates toward a pure heart and love.”
Vladimir Samuelenko, of the Russian Orthodox Church, is a large man with a large voice and a massive gold cross around his neck. He emphasizes that the answer to tolerance is unity. Rabbi Menachem Hacohen, a former member of Knesset and Chief Rabbi of Romania, says that in Kazan, he had encountered a spirit of love and togetherness which he would like to prevail in his own city of Jerusalem. Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee and former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, pointed out that in our times, there are those who are badly exploiting religion; “The answer is in dialogue like that taking place here today.”
Outside the Synagogue, is a heavy security gate. Police officers in black uniforms are examining those entering the building to attend a ceremony marking 100 years since its foundation. Among the visitors is Rustam Minniikhov, the President of Tatarstan. On the street outside are towers of blue and white balloons and a stage on which young girls are singing. Nearby, their heads covered with Islamic shawls, women are sitting outside “Café Syria.” I get the impression that most of the audience is not Jewish; muftis in robes, men in heavy gray Soviet jackets from the days of Stalin. When the girls vacate the stage, they are replaced by Hanan Yovel and the Alma Band. When the band bursts into Am Yisrael Chai, the audience springs to its feet.
The Limmud FSU conference took place in a forest near the village of Petrovsky, some ten kilometers from Kazan: somehow it is redolent of a Camp David. Many trees and the smell of wood smoke. Families with children in tow are playing among the evergreen vegetation; some of them emerge onto the paths bearing baskets of mushrooms picked after the rain. The only things missing are burning log fires to indicate winter but that will also come soon. In Kazan rain is falling – the temperature drops to ten degrees Celsius. We are told that the winter cold here is Arctic – colder than Moscow.
The conference proceedings open with Chesler declaring, “The special quality of Kazan is tolerance between the faiths. Moreover, there is also cooperation between Limmud and the local Jewish community. The rabbis do not determine the agenda and that is evidence of the independence of Limmud.”
In the resort’s corridors, I meet Boris Kozlovsky. 52 years old, he lives a divided life. Every two months he leaves his wife and daughter in Kazan and visits two other daughters and his mother who live in Israel. He is a building contractor and owns a security company. In 1995 he immigrated to Israel and lived on Kibbutz Dan. “All the time there were katyushas from Lebanon and my wife and daughter were very scared,” In the end they returned to Kazan. He came to Limmud out of curiosity “and to meet the important people from Moscow.”
At midnight poetry is being recited in one of the halls – dubbed “Jerusalem” for purposes of the conference. The children don’t want to go to bed and are lying on carpets as if they were in their own home. One of the mothers tries her best but gives up in the end and with no alternative, returns to Pushkin.