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It Had Its History

The Jews of Russia

Its cities are called the Paris of the Baltic. Itís a vast country - a country of harsh winters that stopped foreign invaders and wild winds that bring in the autumn rain, fine and chill. Itís banishments to the desolates and souls that languished. Itís forced silence and stirring music. Itís long train rides into the vast Steppes. Itís a country where in winter hot tea is sold in the streets - and lemonade in the summer. Itís War and Peace, and short stories. Itís a land where an Empress banished her personal physician of eighteen years upon learning that he was a Jew and a leader of today who comes to the ceremony to light the Chanukah Menorah candles. Itís a land of exodus and pogroms. Itís sweet and sad balalaika music. Itís partisans and love for the motherland. Itís Yiddish not suppressed but still spoken and knocks on the door. Itís Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Itís Tsarist decrees that forced its Jewish citizens to serve its armies for forty years. Itís old buildings gilded and brief rays of sunshine. Itís skies huge and domed and a curtain that once was iron. Itís Russia.

In early Russian history Jews were not allowed to settle and the few who did were later expelled by the Czars. It is difficult to say exactly when Jews first moved from the area of the Mediterranean to the region we know as Russia. Ancient Greek writings mention Jewish settlement on the northern shore of the Black Sea. In 740, King Bulan of the Khazar empire selected the Jewish religion. This was very important for the older Jewish communities. Most waves of immigrants came from Byzantium and the Muslim Empire in the eighth to tenth centuries, CE, and smaller numbers from the west as well. It is reasonable to assume that Jews from the Khazar Empire were brought to Kiev where the first historically documented report of a Jewish settlement in Kiev dates only from 1018, when Jewish homes were raided by soldiers. From the outset the new Church followed a course of accusations directed against the Jews. The Jews were important to the economic life of Kiev and in the trade relations with Central and Western Europe. The Jewish merchants were known in the Hebrew sources as Ďthose who go about in Russiaí.

Scholars from ĎAshkenaz (Germany) would sometimes arrive with the trader caravans, while pupils from Russia would travel to Central or Western Europe to study at rabbinical seminaries (yeshiviot). The Jews of Kiev also maintained relations with those in Babylon. In the twelfth century Rabbi Moshe of Kiev was in contact with the Rabbis of Germany and with Rabbi Shmuel ben Ali, head of the Babylonian yeshivah, on matters of halakah.

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