The film ‘Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,’ is a 2006 comedy starring the Jewish actor Sacha Baron Cohen. The plot: Kazakh television personality Borat Sagdiyev leaves Kazakhstan for the “Greatest Country in the World”, the “U, S and A” to make a documentary at the behest of the Kazakh Ministry of Information. He leaves behind his wife Oksana and other inhabitants of his village including his “43-year-old” mother, bringing along his producer Azamat Bagatov and a pet chicken. The film pokes a lot of fun at a country that most foreigners know little to nothing about.
It is rare to meet someone who has travelled to Kazakhstan, but last week Rabbi Ben met a young Australian who had just cycled through Kazakhstan. Naturally he asked the cyclist, ‘Did you meet Borat’s family?’ The cyclist replied, ‘Whatever you do, never mention Borat in Kazakhstan. The people there are not happy about this movie that has portrayed their country as a joke!’
It’s interesting to note, that the villages that Baron Cohen visits in depicting how backwards Kazakhstan is, were not even in Kazakhstan, they were filmed in Romania.
Sacha Baron Cohen may not be welcomed in Kazakhstan but Jews have a history there.
General Secretary Joseph Stalin forcibly moved thousands of Jews from other parts of the Soviet Union to the Kazakh SSR, and during the Holocaust 8,000 Jews fled to Kazakhstan.
A Chabad-Lubavitch synagogue in Almaty is named after Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, father of the Rebbe, who is buried at the city’s cemetery, close to the synagogue. Levi Yitzchak Schneerson was exiled to Kazakhstan from Ukraine, Dnepropetrovsk, where he was a chief rabbi. Lubavitcher Jews from all over the world come to pray at his grave.
It seems like Jews historically ended up in Kazakhstan not entirely by choice though today there are estimated 3,300 Jews living there.
Between 2005 and 2006 attendance in religious services and education in Almaty among Jews greatly increased. The Kazakh government registered eight foreign rabbis and “Jewish missionaries” (most likely Chabad!) and has also donated buildings and land for the building of new synagogues.Across the country, there are fourteen Jewish day schools attended by more than 700 students and there is a Jewish kindergarten in Almaty.
We find it inspiring to learn about Jewish communities and hope you do too. Who knows, maybe some Rabbi in Almaty met a cyclist from Adelaide and this week is writing about the Jewish community of Adelaide!