Monday, March 17, 2014

Land of the widening bases

Kazakhstan is one of my favorite places. I’ve been there several times, and I find the culture and people fascinating. If you get the chance to come with us on a mission, you’ll see an incredible warm, inviting culture, with a vibrant Jewish community. It’s the largest landlocked country in the world*, with some 130 different ethnic groups living there.

It’s not a long Jewish history – most Jews (or their parents/grandparents) were brought here in the 1930s and 40s in expulsions, migrations and resettlements. So they create their own history on the ground. When Hesed - our welfare distribution center - was set up 15 years ago in what’s now the capital city, Astana, there was a tiny Jewish community. JDC went from door to door and asked if anyone was Jewish. Sometimes they referred us, sometimes we figured it out from last names. We widened the bases.

So it was with particular interest that I’ve been reading about recent suggestions by the Kazakh president Nazarbayev to change the country’s name. His main suggestion is “Kazakh Yeli” (Land of the Kazakhs) – the current name “stan” means “place of” in Persian and “settlement” in Russian.

It’s not, let’s be honest, the most important issue facing the country right now. Or the Jewish community. But it’s another example of the shifting and changing relationships of identity politics of the former Soviet Union.

*but it has a naval force in the Caspian Sea. I love that fact. 

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