Despite emigration, Moldova’s Jews create revival
CHISINAU, Moldova — At the dawn of a new century, the Jews of Moldova — unlike their impoverished compatriots — actually have something to celebrate.
After four decades of communism during which there was barely a pulse of Jewish life, Jews in this ex-Soviet republic are enjoying a remarkable renaissance.
It’s about more than schools and meals-on-wheels. There are Jewish historical and cultural societies, a folk-dance group and even a Yiddish-language center for children.
“Fifteen years ago, if you’d transported me to today, I’d be shocked,” says Semion Shoihet, 69, head of the Moldova Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities. “Now we argue about what time to hold this celebration or that celebration — but not whether to celebrate.”
None of this would be possible, says Shoihet, if it weren’t for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Still, the revival has not been enough to prevent a massive exodus of young Moldovan Jews to Israel, Germany, the United States and elsewhere. The community has shrunk from roughly 70,000 to 80,000 just 10 years ago to between 35,000 and 40,000 today.
Their reasons for leaving are clear.
Moldova, which boasted one of the highest standards of living in the former Soviet Union, has become one of the poorest countries in Europe since it became independent in 1991.
It is now also among its coldest and darkest. For example, Russia, which provides 93 percent of Moldova’s energy needs, cited Moldova’s mounting debt and cut off gas supplies in late December. That forced the closure of hundreds of primary schools.
Pensions, which arrive irregularly, average $8 per month. A Big Mac at one of the two McDonald’s in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, costs $1.25.
In the countryside, they do without cash. Villagers can’t tell you how much a box of detergent costs, only that it’s worth one live chicken or 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of sour cream.
But the 4.4 million Moldovans live mostly off the land: They smoke meats, pickle peppers and preserve jams.
The JDC provides Moldova’s Jews with more than organizational support; the elderly also depend on it for their physical survival.
The JDC, which first began its operations in Moldova in 1919, provides hot meals, medicine, blankets, heating fuel and home repairs. Last year, the JDC aided 2,200 Jews.
“Without our additional relief, they would die,” says Yigal Kotler, director of the JDC branch in Moldova. “They wouldn’t escape this economic crisis.”
Not surprisingly, the crisis has also galvanized the country’s Jews.
There are organized Jewish communities in 10 cities, impressive for a country just larger than the state of Maryland. They are a diverse lot, mirroring the Balkans-like ethnic mix of the country.
Moldovan society is 65 percent ethnic Romanian, 14 percent Ukrainian, 13 percent Russian, plus Turkic-speaking Gagauz, Bulgarians and others. Jews are 1 percent of the population, and there are Jewish homes in which Romanian, Russian or Yiddish are the mother tongues.
Shoihet, for example, speaks Russian and Yiddish. But the Jews are far more united than society at large.
“The Jewish community has become like a state within a state,” says Kotler.
“When all the other state structures collapsed, Jews found they preferred to be within the community than outside of it.”
However, almost every Jewish family has a member who has emigrated, and most young Jews say they think about following in their footsteps. But optimists here say the current situation is only the latest chapter in a history full of challenges to Jews.
Moldova, known as Bessarabia in past centuries, anchored the southwest corner of the Pale of Settlement. From 1835 to 1917, Jews were legally confined to the Pale, a huge swath of land that encompasses today’s eastern Poland, western Russia, Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus.
By 1897, there were more than 5 million Jews living in the Pale, according to Zvi Gitelman, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan.
Meanwhile, Bessarabia, long coveted for its fertile black soil, changed hands between Russia and Romania seven times since 1812.
In April 1903, the capital, then known as Kishinev, made news worldwide when a rabidly anti-Semitic newspaper editor incited a pogrom against the city’s 50,000 Jews. In two days, 45 Jews were killed and hundreds injured, according to Gitelman’s book, “A Century of Ambivalence.”
Worse times lay ahead. During the Holocaust, 300,000 of Moldova’s estimated 400,000 Jews perished.
Shoihet, born in 1931, says that anywhere from 10,000 to 18,000 Jews were killed in his hometown, Dubossary, including many of his relatives.
However, in 1941 the Soviets evacuated him, his mother and two younger brothers to the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan. Shoihet’s father, a soldier, died in Leningrad in 1942.
Semion Shoihet went on to study architecture. He later became one of the Soviet Union’s best-known architects and led Moldova’s most prestigious institute of architecture.
Meanwhile, the only sign of communal life in Moldova was a short-lived Jewish theater.
The capital city, which boasted 77 synagogues and prayer halls before the war, had none functioning during Communist rule.
One is open today, run by the Chabad Lubavitch community and overseen by Rabbi Zalman Hakohen Abelsky.
Despite the educational and career opportunities that the Communist Party offered Shoihet, his Jewishness sometimes became an issue.
In the early 1970s, he was blocked from attending an international conference in Colombia. Moscow replaced him with a woman, ostensibly to boost female representation in the Soviet delegation. The real reason, Shoihet asserts, was anti-Semitism.
At about the same time, Arab terrorists murdered 11 Israelis at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany. Shoihet says he and thousands of other Jews dared to openly gather at a local Jewish cemetery to read Kaddish.
Today, Shoihet and his co-religionists are less fearful to express their identity, despite the occasional manifestation of anti-Semitism — conspiracy theories in the media, outbursts on street corners and desecration of cemeteries.
In fact, Moldovan President Petru Lucinschi actively encourages Jews, especially Moldovan-Jewish emigres, to promote their culture and contributions to society.
“He hopes Jews can be a model for other communities,” says Shoihet, “to show how they should invest in their spiritual and cultural preservation.”
Indeed, Moldova’s Jewish community remains a fairly tight-knit group and loyal to Moldova, says Shoihet.
Despite the steady flow of emigration, even within his own family, he does not fear for the community’s long-term survival.
Shoihet’s two brothers are in Germany, as is one of his sons. His other son works in Moscow.
“I know emigration is the Jewish fate,” he says. “But the graves of our parents and grandparents have kept us connected here. I don’t rule out the possibility that my family may return to Moldova.”