In 1791, Czarina Catherine the Great established the Pale of Settlement as a territory for Russian Jews, after several failed attempts by her predecessors to remove them from Russia all together, unless they converted to the Russian Orthodox Church.
The reasons for its formation were primarily economic and nationalist. Created under pressure to rid Moscow of Jewish business competition and "evil" influence on the Russian masses, the Pale of Settlement included the territory of present-day Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine and Belorussia. More than 90% of Russian Jews were forced to live in these very poor conditions of the Pale, which made up only 4% of imperial Russia.
During the 19th century, thousands fell victim to devastating pogroms, boycotts and other anti-Semitic depredations, which led to mass immigrations of nearly two million Jews to the United States and Palestine between 1881 and 1914. Those who could not leave would pay dearly with their lives. Over a million Jews were murdered between the Civil War of 1917-20 and the German invasion of the Ukraine in 1941-43 during the Second World War.
The images taken in the Ukraine represent a living memory of these difficult years of the 20th century.
The Jews of Uzbekistan in Central Asia have a long history independent of the Former Soviet Union, where their presence has been felt since the 7th century. Fleeing Persia from persecution, they became merchants on the Silk Route, establishing trade posts all along the Route as far as Kaifeng, China. But, in 1924, as the Russian Empire spread into Central Asia, Uzbekistan became a territory of the Soviet Union. While, in previous centuries, the attitude towards Jews had been tolerated, it was during this time that Jewish communities began experiencing anti- Semitism, both from the Czar and the Orthodox Church. During the Second World War, many Ashkenazi Jews fled Poland, Russia and the Ukraine, escaping to Central Asia to find shelter from the Holocaust. Here, they survived and flourished economically in the Bukharan communities. In 1991, the USSR split apart, and the Republics once again became independent states. Abrupt growth in Nationalism, as well as the revival of Islam caused major increases in migration, where thousands of Jews left and are continuing to leave Central Asia for Israel and Queens, New York.
For centuries there have been Jews living a fully integrated way of life in India. Small communities first settled along the southern coast around the 11-12th century; some historians believing much earlier.
Indian Jews fall into three distinct groups. The Marathi-speaking Bene Israel, who have lived for centuries on the Bay of Bengal, south of Bombay.
The Cochini Jews, who came at different times to India from Yeman and the Middle East, settled in southern Kerala. And the third group, the Baghdadi Jews, who arrived as traders and seekers of fortune, settling in the larger cities of Calcutta and Bombay.
In addition to the above groups, are two others that have more recently emerged; the Bene Menashe, living in Northeastern India near the Burma border, and the Bene Ephraim, a tiny community of 50 families living in Southeastern India. They both claim, as their name implies, to be descendants of one of the 12 Lost Tribes.
I made two trips to India to document these communities where emigration is very high. Whether they are ancient or emerging, they all have dreams of moving on to Israel in the very near future.
The story of the almost total destruction of the Greek Jews is an especially tragic one. In 1939 there were over 70,000 Jews in Greece, living in communities that stretched across over two thousand years, and whose family memories took them back to Medieval Islamic Spain. By the end of the war in 1945, the total Jewish population was less than 10,000. Those who did not return died in Treblinka. In some towns, a few Jews escaped deportation or were lucky to be hidden in the countryside, but all returned to find emptiness. Today, 4,000 mostly elderly Greek Jews are struggling with the twin burden of dealing with its holocaust legacy and sustaining an organized community in the face of its declining numbers.
During the Second World War, the Sephardic Jewish communities of Turkey and Bulgaria were the only ones that did not suffer from the Nazi Holocaust. Throughout history, Turkey has shown benevolence towards its Jewish population during many barbaric periods. Much has changed since the election of Tayyip Erdogan as the Prime Minister in 2003. The government has visibly shifted its policy, erasing the reforms of Mustafa Ataturk, the founding father of modern Turkey. Under Erdogan, Turkey has become a more ardent Islamist country, where the Jewish minority now lives in greater fear. The vast majority of the population is settled in Istanbul and Izmir, with much smaller numbers in villages scattered through out Turkey.
The garden Island of Djerba is located off the eastern coast of Tunisia. Shrouded by blue waters, with its Mediterranean steppe-like climate, it once beckoned Odysses, in Homers Odyssey. Djerba has been the home of Jews, Berbers and Arab Moslems for centuries, where all three cultures have lived in complete harmony. Because they have traditionally been pious and never had any disregard for each other, they have survived by being separate and the same. Even today, it’s hard to tell a Jew from a Moslem in the Souk or marketplace.
Jews arrived on the island sometime between the end of the first millennium and beginning of the Christian era, where they immediately benefited from social tolerance. As a religious people, they have always remained attached to their core values and developed the area of Hara Sghira and Hara Kebira, into a community of Synagogues, schools and graveyards. Working as goldsmiths, they have done business in the Souk with the Moslems and Berbers for hundreds of years, speaking Arabic for work and Hebrew at home.
Today, little has changed. The community is still all about family and religion. Young girls and boys begin their religious schooling from the early age of two or three, and are shepherded into a non-secular life style, where the worlds’ outside influences are pretty much kept out of their walled community.
Like Tunisia, it is generally agreed that Jews first appeared in Morocco more than two millennia ago. Arriving with Phoenician traders well before the Christian era. They lived primarily in the coastal settlements that are now known as Essaouira, Rabat and Tangier.
As early as Roman times, Moroccan Jews had begun to travel inland to trade with Berbers communities, most of whom were nomads dwelling in remote areas of the Atlas Mountains. Jews lived side by side with them for centuries, forging strong economic and cultural ties. It is said some Berbers even began to practice Judaism.
Upon the arrival of the Arabs in 732, who had expanded their empire as far as Spain and Morocco, greatly curtailed the freedom of Jews, forcing them to live in ghetto’s called Mellahs.
However, since the French declaration of the Moroccan Protectorate in 1912, Jews, Berbers and Arabs have lived peaceably among each other, in large part because of the protection given to them by King Mohammed V during the Second World War, and later by King Hassen II, and today by his son, King Mohammed VI. Morocco has become the most tolerant environment for Jews in the Arab world and serves as a promising example of peace and brotherly existence.
Although Jews had immigrated to Cuba as early as the 16 and 17th century, it was in the late 1800’s that a community from the Dutch Antilles settled in Havana, and the first congregation was founded in 1904. Many became sugar traders and were involved in all aspects of Cuban society and economy. Sephardic Jews from Turkey and Ashkanzi Jews from Eastern Europe came through Cuba between the wars as a stopping off point before continuing to the US, only to find little anti Semitism, economic opportunity, and good weather, a reason to linger. By the time of the Revolution in 1959, the Jewish population had peaked to 15,000, but the majority who were then living in Havana immigrated to Israel of the US. Those that stayed were too old or too poor to leave or believed in the revolution. Enrique Otolski, a Jew from Poland, was the only Jewish revolutionary and fought along side Fidel Casto when he overtook the Batista regime. He then held office posts as head of the Dept. of Communications and then of the Dept. of Fisheries.
Since the collapse of the FSU in 1991 and the hardships evoked by the US embargo, the Cuban government has sought to liberalize many of its policies and the Jewish community is seeing a rejuvenation of Jewish life on the island.
There are now 1,500 Jews living In Cuba, with three active synagogues in Havana and other communities scattered throughout the island. As Maritza Corrales, a Cuban historian remarked, “To be Cuban and Jewish is to be twice survivors.”