How a MSSES graduate revives an abandoned synagogue of Mountain Jews in Dagestan

The synagogue of the mountain Jews of Dagestan, Temir Khan Shura, built under the legendary Imam Shamil, has stood ruined and empty for the past 30 years. Almost the entire local Jewish community left Buinaksk in the early 1990s, during the rampant banditry in the North Caucasus. But on the eve of 2020, shortly before Hanukkah week, the old synagogue came to life again. There was an artistic and musical performance with the participation of the world-famous French horn player Arkady Shilkloper, to which the audience flew from Perm, Vladikavkaz, St. Petersburg, Moscow and other Russian cities.

Katya Gandrabura, curator of the synagogue revival project, State Center for Contemporary Art employee and MSSES graduate, told how she reopened the synagogue for mountain Jews, how the community scattered around the world is taking part in its restoration, and what will happen in the old synagogue in the new year.

No one's synagogue is on the balance of the Federal Property Management Agency. A brief history of Temir Khan Shur

The Jewish community appeared in Dagestan in the middle of the XIX century, after the end of the Caucasian War. Buinaksk, where the Temir Khan Shura synagogue is located today, was one of the epicenters of almost half a century of confrontation between the Caucasian mountaineers under the leadership of Imam Shamil and tsarist Russia. The new city authorities decided that the former fortress should be filled with local suppliers and issued a decree according to which Europeans, Russians and Jews could settle in the region on favorable terms.

According to the rabbi's notes made after the opening of the synagogue, many Jewish families moved here from Belarus and Polandin 1864-1868. Here they were given land and a higher class status — for example, a merchant of the second guild, which was quite difficult to get in other places.

Visitors began to open many enterprises — in particular, the leather industry was well developed. A large community of European Jews (Ashkenazis) was formed — about 1,500 people, a whole settlement in the center of Buinaksk. And they had their own synagogue, which, unfortunately, has not survived to this day.

And a little later, mountain Jews came here from the mountainous regions of Dagestan. They had their own language, their own specific religious practices — they needed their own synagogue. And Temir Khan Shura is the oldest synagogue of the mountain Jews that has been preserved in Dagestan since then. There is another one in Derbent, but it was built at the beginning of the XX century.

Its uniqueness lies in the fact that the synagogue was practically not rebuilt: what was preserved was preserved in its original form. According to experts, it is probably just renewed. The surrounding area was part of a large area where Mountain Jews lived in Buinaksk. There were various trade shops, a school attached to the synagogue. When the Ashkenazi synagogue was destroyed, the mountain Jews gave their co-religionists a room at their place. As I was told by an elderly man who went there as a boy, when the "Europeans" finished their service earlier, they always waited in the courtyard until the mountain Jews finished, so as not to pass through the hall.

After the revolution, the building was nationalized. At the exhibition dedicated to the synagogue, which we organized in the local museum of local lore, a document is presented, which says that not only the building, but also tables, benches, carpets — all the property inside the synagogue is transferred to the state property.

As it turned out, today the Temir Khan Shura synagogue is still on the balance of the Federal Property Management Agency. And there is a slot machine club in the part where the school was located. It is unclear who gave such an order: the community never had the right to sell the synagogue building.

Documents for the synagogue privatization by the Jewish community have long been hanging out in different offices. The case is complicated by the fact that in the 1990s, when this became possible, most of the community left Dagestan, and the issue was suspended. But now that we have started our activity here, many of those who are far outside the country have remembered that the issue is waiting to be resolved, and have launched a new round of the synagogue privatization by the community of mountain Jews of Dagestan.

Treasury of the Buinak synagogue. What was found inside the abandoned building?

When we entered it, it was obvious that nothing was happening in the building, except that some boys or looters were breaking in, pulling something out, trying to burn it. But the synagogue is built of brick and strong larch-it is not so easy to burn it. Therefore, they limited themselves to burning out part of the floor and that was all.

People who climbed inside to pull out some valuable things, apparently, didn`t understand what is valuable. And to my great regret, when I collected the old books and prayer books there and put them in the cupboards, they just realized the value of these items. And before we went back to the synagogue again, they were taken out.

But we also managed to save something. There were scattered things that show how many parishioners were in the synagogue, how important it was in their lives. For example, we found taliths — a cloth that is used to cover the head while reading the holy books. So, before leaving, people brought their belongings to the synagogue, left some religious objects in it, realizing, perhaps, that they would not return.

There were also such special family bags in the corners, in which they wrapped Torah scrolls and, probably, taliths. They were usually kept in an individual box for each man. Each such bag is sewn by hand in different years, from different fabrics, with embroidery, monograms, linings. Each piece reflects the skill of the women who made such bags for their husbands. Either they handed it over for rags, or they didn't have time to pick it up when they were leaving.

When you look at this collection of fabrics, you realize that behind them there are families from several generations. We sent this to the restorers, who worked well with them — a significant part is now represented in the local history museum of Buinaksk.

An earthquake occurred in Dagestan in May 1970, and many residential buildings were destroyed. The epicenter fell on Buinaksk — and since then the city has not fully recovered from the disaster, it still looks mutilated. But the synagogue miraculously survived, and few of the community moved, everyone remained there. On the contrary, they began to restore and re-build housing.

And in the 1990s, when there was unrest in the North Caucasus as a whole and kidnapping and human trafficking flourished, local Jews became particularly vulnerable: if anyone was stolen in this territory, according to those who remained in Buinaksk, it was members of Jewish families who were stolen. Some couldn`t redeem their relatives: "they stole my uncle, we didn`t collect the money — and he was killed" - the Jews were the weak linkat that time and in that place.

Realizing that they would not be able to save their loved ones in such a situation, many left. One man told me how he was already on the plane to go to Canada, but he thought about his uncle who was seeing him off, who was left alone in Buinaksk — and just unfastened his belt and got out. He still lives here. His wife filed for divorce from him, his daughter is now in Germany, and he remains in Dagestan and keeps the keys to the synagogue as the only remaining Jewish man of the right age who they can be entrusted to.

At the same time, the synagogue of the Mountain Jews of Buinaksk under the jurisdiction of the Federal Property Management Agency is not formally an architectural monument or at least a newly identified object of cultural heritage. The relevant documents for it were prepared, but were suspended. There is an opinion that when the synagogue becomes a monument, there will be difficulties with its repair and restoration.

Restoration work must be licensed, which will increase the cost of all processes. On the one hand, this is natural. On the other hand, there is no guarantee that the synagogue won`t have plastic windows, for example.

Our project to revitalize the synagogue as one of the cultural centers of the republic has partly prompted both the community and government agencies to discuss this issue again. We interact with everyone — the ity Hall, the Republican community, the National Museum of Dagestan, the Ministry of National Policy and Religious Affairs, the Federal Ministry of Culture and the Russian Jewish Congress.

A holy place is never empty. What will the Temir Khan Shura Synagogue look like in its new capacity?

The synagogue operates as such when there are 10 male members of the congregation who can read the Torah. If there are no 10 men - and there aren`t, and they are unlikely to appear - then the synagogue cannot be revived in its former capacity. Our project, by the way, helped many people to realize and accept that there should be something different here.

Initially, I had the idea of museumifying this space — the atmosphere and meanings that are embedded in it, because it is an authentic architectural monument connected with the history of the Mountain Jews in the North Caucasus. But museumification is not as an adaptation for some external exhibition, but as a preservation of what is in this space.

The history of the community is worth telling. There is a whole geopolitical history behind it. I think if everything is done correctly, it will become both a tourist attraction and an important point of forming the citizens` identity. Buinaksk has a specific reputation that needs to be changed in a positive way.

Locals continue to leave — especially young people. Only the old people remain. Once there was a huge Orthodox community in the city with a church in the center of the city — today only a small parish remains of it. There were Lutherans, the kirk -also almost everyone left. People living in Buinaksk say that the synagogue, of course, needs to be restored, but the confessional diversity of this territory as a whole is interesting. It is almost lost today — and the locals understand that it`s necessary to at least preserve the memory of the communities that were here.

I am in favor of the participatory museum — for the inclusion of communities, specialists, and experts in cultural design and the reconciliation of different concepts. People who left Buinaksk 30 years ago are now writing to me from America saying that a book, for example, is important for Jewish culture. Therefore, it would be good to open a library for the citizensin the synagogue — let it completely change its purpose. It seems to me that if we correctly correlate all the scenarios, one won`t interfere with the other.

Our main task now is to ensure that this activity doesn`t fade away. When the audience came to our performance in December, the Dagestani community of mountain Jews met, perhaps for the first time in 30 years. And many people come from here!

Return to mountain Canaan. How did the community react to the revival of the Temir Khan Shura Synagogue?

As soon as we appeared in the public space — the community has a large group in Fb, where I published information about the project — at first we were treated with distrust. Someone was angry, offended: "Why don't we do it?", "Why do you impose someone else's music on us?", "What right do you have? Are you Jewish?" We heard a lot of things at the beginning.

It was quite difficult to explain that in this situation it doesn`t matter at all, that there is just a professional approach.

But then we finally sat them down, covered them with a blanket, because it's so cold inside, and Arkady Shilkloper took the shofar, and the artist Max Epstein lit the candles, as required by the ceremony, -and they heard this proto-sound... They saw that Max was drawing their history, the familiar landscape, the mountains of Dagestan, the old Jewish cemetery, which was very recognizable, portraits of people they knew. It was a technique of transforming painting, the so-called documentary drawing. And it was accompanied by light sad music, which was written especially for the performance by the Israeli composer Yuri Brener.

This synthesis of the visual and the music had a very strong effect on them. At least they were able to read what we wanted to tell them. Everyone left with enlightened faces and thanked us. It was a revelation for them — I think people arrived without knowing what was waiting for them. A symbolic recapture of this synagogue. Now they may not just argue about it: "You abandoned it — no, you abandoned it!", but discuss its future from a constructive point of view. It should be a museum or a library, and if neither, then what?

Coming to the performance, many non-Jewsadmitted that they have lived in the city all their lives and have never been inside! In a local cafe, we were fed by such enthusiastic girls, they even burst into tears: "We didn't know who we were feeding, thanks to you, we learned such things about our city."

This is also a story about post-traumatic rehabilitation: about leaving, which was associated with a terrible time for people. It's hard for them to remember it. I was shown a death certificate from a man in Israel that said "Died of nostalgia." Therefore, the "Jewish Suite" in the synagogue was also an art-therapeutic step on our part.

When you find yourself in a situation like this, it starts to involve you emotionally. There is a sense of responsibility-to the specific people who believed you, took the keys and opened the synagogue, prepared national food in honor of your arrival.

This is one of the saddest projects of my life. I've never worked on the subject of repression, the Holocaust, or anything like that. And here is such a loss. The region has lost a whole people, who have mostly dispersed, lost touch with their roots. This is, of course, a traumatic story. Understanding this trauma and working with it is my personal mission in the project.

Energy of events and features of cultural design in Dagestan

The audience at the performance said: in order to be present at the event that we organized, it was worth flying from St. Petersburg, Nalchik, Moscow, Vladikavkaz. But I don't think the energy of events will last long enough to attract people, to excite their imagination. From the point of view of the tourist, Buinaksk is not the most attractive city. And there is much to see in Dagestan: both the sea and the mountains are beautiful.

Therefore, we don`t try fit into the current situation, but create it. We are creating a museum designed for an audience, firstly, international, and secondly, heterogeneous. This is not the tourist who comes to Dagestan to the beach, but those who return here, for example, in search of documents about their relatives or to feel the atmosphere of the city and the synagogue where their grandparents went.

Then the so-called smart, educational tourism develops. In the public space, mountain Jews are a cultural mystery — many would be interested to learn about them. I don't mean researchers — rather, people who are interested in cultural diversity in the world.

The families started coming to Dagestan by car, because the tension in the region has decreased. I don't think there will be buses with tourists here, but there are obviously interested groups.


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