Mt. Ararat, Armenia
Mt. Ararat, ArmeniaR.Castro
Armenia is for good reasons not a top tourist destination for observant Jews: Besides the majestic snow-capped Mount Ararat overlooking the capital city Yerevan, its most beautiful attractions are medieval monasteries. In addition, although superlatively hospitable, Armenian families serve fare that is delicious, yet anything but kosher.

Nevertheless, even in Yerevan, there is a Chabad House always open to the intrepid Jewish traveler off the beaten track. It is there, where the author had the pleasure of being hosted by Rabbi Gershon Burstein and the tight-knit community of Yerevan’s observant Jews.

Rabbi Gershon is no ordinary Chabad emissary. As he davened Friday evening wearing a shtreimel, I was a little concerned that Armenian Jews might be unaware that Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn had passed away. In reality, it turns out that the chief rabbi of Armenia is a scion of Sanz Hasidism: After War World II, Rabbi Gershon’s father settled in Armenia, seeking a haven from persecution and antisemitism.

I was impressed by the rabbi’s fierce Armenian patriotism. When I asked him why some medieval Jewish rabbis had brandished Armenians as “Amalekites”, Rabbi Gershon shot back that those rabbis certainly hadn’t lived in Armenia. When I asked him whether he had plans to make Aliya, he answered that in Armenia he has never faced the slightest anti-Jewish hostility.

These answers surprised me somewhat. Although Armenians are generally extremely warm and kindhearted, my personal experience is that a disproportionate number of them are quite open about their antipathy toward Jews.

In Argentina, for example, relations between the Armenian and Jewish communities are excellent. In the Caucasus, Realpolitik has unfortunately conspired to drive apart two people whose histories are both seared by blood and tears.

Israel has repeatedly refused to recognize the Armenian massacre as Genocide, despite the fact that the world’s indifference to the fate of 1.5 million Armenian men, women, and children driven on death marches from Anatolia to the desert during World War I, reassured Hitler that a similar fate could befall the Jews.

Although the Armenian Jewish community has repeatedly pleaded for Israel to follow most Western democracies in recognizing this as genocide, Israeli politicians have balked at the thought that such a recognition might enrage the Turkish populace and Erdogan’s regime.

In addition, Israel is one of the top suppliers of sophisticated weapons to Azerbaijan, the predominantly Shiite Muslim nation that covets the Armenian heartland of Artsakh, internationally known as Nagorno-Karabakh.

The first war between Armenia and Azerbaijan during the early 1990s delivered a victory to Armenia, but also sealed the fate of Armenia’s Jewish community. As Armenia plunged into war and economic penury, most Armenian Jews made Aliya or moved to countries with more sizable Jewish communities. The Jewish school which just before the war boasted 300 pupils was bled dry by emigration.

As Rabbi Burstein recited Kiddush and five Yerevan Jews listened to the rabbi repeating its ancient words, it was clear that Armenia is another land outside of Israel, where only dying embers of once bustling communities are alive.

It is a pity that this fate befalls a country and a community in which no Jew needs to fear walking the streets with a kippah and where Christian benefactors have played an active role in providing their Jewish brethren with a community center and a synagogue.

The whole Caucasus has historically been an exceptionally welcoming region for Jews. When I reminded Rabbi Burstein that Georgia also has no tradition of home-grown antisemitism, I was amused to hear the rabbi lecture me that only Armenia boasts a rabbi mentioned in the Talmud.

Realization that even intra-Caucasian rivalries can acquire a Jewish flavor, convinced me that whatever the future of the Jewish community in Armenia, there will be far more nostalgia than bitterness among those Jews who leave this beautiful and incredibly hospitable country.

Rafael Castro is a Noahide Italian-Colombian who graduated from Yale and Hebrew University. Rafael can be reached at [email protected]. Rabbi Gershon Burstein can be reached via WhatsApp at + 374-9-440-7798.