In my May 2008 column entitled “My Visa Application and Testing for HIV,” I wrote about our problems obtaining visas to go to Russia, where I was to teach as a “Senior Lawyer Abroad.” After considerable effort, we managed to persuade the Russian Embassy to let us in, and last November we found ourselves in Maykop, Republic of Adygheya. If you’ve never heard of the place, don’t feel bad – neither had we, or anyone we know. It’s a small speck on the map of a very large country, located in the Northern Caucasus region of southwest Russia
Adygheya has a population of about a half million, consisting mostly of Russians and Adyghes. The latter, sometimes called Circassians, are an ancient people who speak their own language which, at least to my ears, sounds like a lot of consonants with an occasional vowel thrown in. During our visit we became well acquainted with an Adyghe man named Nehad, who was born and raised in Kfar-Kama, one of two Adyghe villages in Israel. After attending school there and serving in the Israeli Army, he lived in Israel and, for many years, in the United States. Several years ago, he paid a visit to his ancestors’ birthplace, Adygheya, and liked what he saw. He has now lived there for two years, but he is so involved in the business and cultural community that you would think he’s been there his entire life.
Like most Adyghe people, Nehad is Muslim. He does not drink alcohol or gamble, follows the dietary rules of his faith, and loves Adyghe music and art. He is deeply committed to helping other Adyghe people do as he has done – return to the homeland from such places as Israel, Jordan, Syria and Turkey. “Making Aliyah,” as he puts it, using the Hebrew expression that refers to Jews moving to Israel.
The first day I met Nehad, we went off in his car to visit a new Adyghe settlement a few kilometers from Maykop. With us were the “Mayor” of the settlement and two brothers from Israel who, I later learned, were taking advantage of a free land program for Adyghes willing to “return” to Adygheya. On the way out of town we stopped to visit Nehad’s friend Gurevich. Nehad introduced me, and Gurevich greeted me with the Hebrew words for “peace be upon you” – “shalom aleichem.” I wished him the same. That pretty much exhausted his knowledge of Hebrew, and mine as well.
Like Jews everywhere, the Gurevich family came from someplace else. They emigrated from Poland in the 1960s, about two generations after my grandparents, and most of the Jews of Claremont, left that country. Gurevich and I got along right away. He asked about my family, and I told him about growing up in New Hampshire. He said he had heard of it, but maybe he was just being polite. He showed me pictures of his family, and we discovered that we both like to fish.
After we left, Nehad told me that a year ago Gurevich decided to hold a seder – the ritual meal held on the Jewish holiday of Passover. He sent away for haggadahs, the special prayer book that describes the Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt as recounted in the Book of Exodus. (Passover began this year at sundown on April 8 and ended a week later.) He invited his Jewish neighbors to attend, and also Nehad. Nehad said he wasn’t feeling well, but Gurevich told him, “You can be sick some other time, I want you to come.” Not wanting to disappoint his friend, Nehad showed up at Gurevich’s house at the appointed time.
Everyone sat down for the meal, Gurevich brought out the prayer books, and he suddenly realized he had a problem – he didn’t know how to read Hebrew, and neither did his fellow “lantsmen” (countrymen). “Can you read this?” Gurevich asked Nehad. “Of course I can,” Nehad replied. “I’m Israeli.”
And so the Jews of Maykop had their first seder, conducted by an Adyghe Muslim.