The history of the Jews among the nations of the earth is filled with delicate moments. And so it is today for the Jews of Yerevan.
Armenia, a young democracy that is also the oldest Christian civilization in the world, grapples with the usual post-Soviet sordidness. Students of the genre will know this includes not only a legacy of corruption and a problematic housing stock but also border disputes: the USSR’s internal borders mangled the ethnic map so thoroughly as to guarantee conflicts should its republics one day become independent states. It was a feature, not a bug.
So it is, famously, between Russia and Ukraine – and so it is, no less passionately, between Armenia and Azerbaijan. There was a terrible war in 2020, instigated by the latter, there are border skirmishes now and then, and about 120,000 ethnic Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh region since December have been under a blockade by what is technically their own government in Baku.
And whereas Israel has labored (not always very elegantly) to stay away from the Ukraine war, it is implicated to the hilt in the latter conflict – on the side of Azerbaijan, a petro-kleptocracy that makes Armenia’s other neighboring nemesis, Turkey, look like a model of democracy and reasonable governance.
Israel is a major weapons supplier to and oil importer from the government of Ilham Aliyev, and reputedly uses the country as a sort-of forward base for its own imbroglios with Iran. So it is no mere diplomatic nicety that compels Israel’s president to visit Baku this week. Rather, it is one of the world’s prime exemplars of realpolitik in action, and it is not making Israel very popular at all in Yerevan.
Spare a moment, then, for the handful of Armenian Jews who soldier on, as Jews have done for millennia in all kinds of situations, yielding all kinds of results.
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Rabbi Gershon Burstein seems like a man out of space and time. Bearded and berobed, intelligent eyes sparking beneath his shtreimel, he presides over a makeshift synagogue in a ramshackle neighborhood, where he labors to pull together a minyan as part of his project to keep the flame of Judaism alive in Yerevan. Surrounded by Shavuot pastries, we reflect on how there is also an Armenian diaspora in Israel – indeed an entire quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City.
I asked the 63-year-old chief (and probably only) rabbi what kept him in his place of birth when he so clearly belongs in Jerusalem or Bnei Brak. He answered with a story (which may come as no surprise): in 2011 at a Chabad conference he was asked the same question by a Jerusalem-based rabbi more learned than myself. He asked Rabbi Burstein how many yeshivas there were in Yerevan (there are none) and how many minyans (they are rare). “What are you doing there then?” the other rabbi asked. Burstein replied by asking how many yeshivas there were in Jerusalem. “Oh, many,” the man proudly replied. “And how many minyans?” “More than I can count.” So Burstein asked: “What are you, then, doing there?”
Burstein denies that there is nationalism in this idea of keeping Jewishness alive in far-flung corners of the Earth. In his version of Judaism, there is ahavat hinam (unconditional love) for all mankind, and all the world is as one. The Holy Land stands apart, but it, too, is meant for all. He concedes that this is not really the animating sentiment among the religious establishment in Israel. That will have to wait, he hypothesized, until yemot meshiach (the arrival of the Messiah). Until then, we must suffice with ahavat Yisrael (love among Jews).
Burstein believes Armenia has a role in this future utopia, because of Mount Ararat, its national symbol. This is the reputed resting place after the great biblical flood of Noah’s Ark, which he notes carried representatives of all creatures and thus stood for global unity as well.
“There is a link between Mount Moriah in the Holy Land and Armenia’s Mount Ararat,” he said. “We are connected in this mission.”
Ararat visibly looms over Yerevan like a snowy, jagged specter, not 20 kilometers away – but across a sealed border. Lenin gifted “Western Armenia” on behalf of the Soviet Union to Turkey in 1923, shortly after the Ottoman massacre of 1.5 million Armenians. Turkey’s refusal to even recognize the genocide is behind the continued tensions to this day. Alas, “Armenia’s Mount Ararat” may have to await yemot meshiach as well.
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The exodus of tens of thousands of Jews from or via Armenia to Israel since the fall of Communism appeared to doom efforts to preserve the community, which had dwindled to scarcely over 1,000 – many of them in mixed families, and almost none of them religious. Then, in one of history’s little tricks of the light, came Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Tens of thousands of mostly young and educated Russians fleeing the draft have alighted in the surprisingly vibrant and bustling Armenian capital of Yerevan, sending the price of everything from rentals to coffee skyrocketing, and giving a huge boost to the buzzing local IT sector.
And at least 2,000 of them are Jews, said Odessa-born Rimma Varzhapetyan-Feller, president of the Jewish community. Many of them register with the Jewish Agency via her office, meaning they may be intending to move on to Israel. Every six months, the Israeli consul responsible for Armenia, who is based in Tashkent, comes over “to stamp the papers,” she says.
With this, she proudly collaborates; indeed, her own children and family have mostly dispersed to Israel and the United States. But as with the rabbi, her goal appears to be keeping a flame alive in Yerevan.
I asked her whether the unpleasantness with Azerbaijan was not fueling antisemitism. Her answer was somewhat complex: yes, during outbreaks of violence there were some security threats, and a Holocaust monument in the city was defiled with red paint. But no, there is no particular antisemitism as such – if for no other reason than that the Jews here are too few.
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Our Jewish guide, Abel Simonyan, had a related but different take: Jews in Armenia are actually much appreciated because of the notion that their tribe wields magnificent global influence. That is, of course, widely considered an antisemitic trope, but it has its useful consequences: For a small, landlocked country of barely 3 million, beset from all sides by enemies and despots, it is an association too valuable to squander for the mere dubious joys of antisemitism.
But sometimes, when there is a flareup of violence with Azerbaijan, or when the Azeris cause particular damage with Israeli attack drones and the like, he does feel a certain “antagonistic feeling toward Israel.” Indeed, in recent days all Yerevan was abuzz with reports of infiltrations by Pegasus spyware produced by NSO, whose Israeli provenance never failed to be noted.
Simonyan, a 34-year-old whose family hails from Russia and Saloniki, is married to a non-Jewish Armenian and has two small children, a daughter and a boy. His future, he thinks, is here.
He enters the Cathedral of St. Gregory the Illuminator and lights a series of liturgical candles, same as his fellow Armenians. It is Last Bell Day, a national commemoration of graduation, and the place is filled with students – as befits the main cathedral in a country that was the first, in 301 AD, to adopt Christianity. He crosses himself carefully as he exits the structure.
“I must visit Tel Aviv one day.”