A Stolen Synagogue Seat and the Fate of a Russian-Jewish Family

Born in 1893 in a small, backwater Russian shtetl, Doba-Mera Medvedeva began writing her memoirs—filled with rich and detailed descriptions of Jewish life—while living in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Her grandson, the Israeli historian Michael Beizer, later published these Russian-language memoirs, which have recently been translated into English by Alice Nakhimovsky. The passage below describes the arrival in the shtetl of Medvedeva’s uncle Alter, who would use his relative wealth to exploit her family. Crucial to this passage is the mizra, or eastern wall of a synagogue, where the most desirable seats in the sanctuary could be purchased; sitting near the eastern wall was the ultimate sign of status:

 [My father] didn’t like rich people. When he was in the synagogue, he didn’t want to sit in a place of honor—that is, by the mizra, the eastern wall. He always found a place with the artisans and the paupers, who sat in the middle of the synagogue and by the doors and the reading stand in the center, since paupers and artisans were not allowed in the place of honor. It sometimes happened that a wealthy artisan would buy a seat by the mizra, at which point his wealthy neighbors would run away from him. And then there would be an uproar in the synagogue, both from the rich men and from the artisans and paupers, who would shout “They don’t like us! Our money is treyf, because we earn it by our labor.” The commotion would continue until the leaders of the synagogue (respected people, the heads of the Jewish community) would intervene and decide either to give the artisan back his money and leave the seat to the synagogue or make the rich man who couldn’t stand his new neighbor buy the seat from him and keep it for himself.

Alter’s first move was to take away my father’s seat in the synagogue. Of course, the way I look at things, both now and earlier, and in the opinion of many people, there’s nothing remarkable about that: “Big deal. So he took away your seat in the synagogue. You can go to synagogue without a seat, or you can not bother going at all.” But that’s how people think now—back then it was completely different.

As I already wrote, my father rarely used his seat, because he preferred to be with poor people, so he usually walked about the synagogue. When his brother-in-law Alter first appeared, my father seated him in his own place, as a brother and a guest. Alter responded by taking over the seat from the very first day. When my father would arrive and try to take his seat, Alter would try not to notice him, pretending that he was deep in prayer, or he would simply not let Father sit down. Finally he declared that the seat was part of his, Alter’s, dowry, and Papa retreated quietly, so people wouldn’t hear.

For my father, this was a huge blow. Most important, the seat had belonged to his own father, whom he loved very much and respected for his education. To make matters worse, people started to make fun of him, saying that he couldn’t stand up for what was his. . . . At that time to pray in the synagogue without a seat was the same as going someplace you weren’t wanted. He didn’t have the money to buy another seat, and in any case he would have been ashamed to do that in front of his acquaintances.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Russian Jewry, Shtetl, Synagogue

Iran’s Program of Subversion and Propaganda in the Caucasus

In the past week, Iranian proxies and clients have attacked Israel from the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, and Yemen. Iran also has substantial military assets in Iraq and Syria—countries over which it exercises a great deal of control—which could launch significant attacks on Israel as well. Tehran, in addition, has stretched its influence northward into both Azerbaijan and Armenia. While Israel has diplomatic relations with both of these rival nations, its relationship with Baku is closer and involves significant military and security collaboration, some of which is directed against Iran. Alexander Grinberg writes:

Iran exploits ethnic and religious factors in both Armenia and Azerbaijan to further its interests. . . . In Armenia, Iran attempts to tarnish the legitimacy of the elected government and exploit the church’s nationalist position and tensions between it and the Armenian government; in Azerbaijan, the Iranian regime employs outright terrorist methods similar to its support for terrorist proxies in the Middle East [in order to] undermine the regime.

Huseyniyyun (Islamic Resistance Movement of Azerbaijan) is a terrorist militia made up of ethnic Azeris and designed to fight against Azerbaijan. It was established by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps . . . in the image of other pro-Iranian militias. . . . Currently, Huseyniyyun is not actively engaged in terrorist activities as Iran prefers more subtle methods of subversion. The organization serves as a mouthpiece of the Iranian regime on various Telegram channels in the Azeri language. The main impact of Huseyniyyun is that it helps spread Iranian propaganda in Azerbaijan.

The Iranian regime fears the end of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan because this would limit its options for disruption. Iranian outlets are replete with anti-Semitic paranoia against Azerbaijan, accusing the country of awarding its territory to Zionists and NATO. . . . Likewise, it is noteworthy that Armenian nationalists reiterate hideous anti-Semitic tropes that are identical to those spouted by the Iranians and Palestinians. Moreover, leading Iranian analysts have no qualms about openly praising [sympathetic] Armenian clergy together with terrorist Iran-funded Azeri movements for working toward Iranian goals.

Read more at Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

More about: Azerbaijan, Iran, Israeli Security