Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Yom Ha'Atzmaut

We have just finished commemorating what many consider the high holidays of the secular Israeli calendar - Yom HaShoah is the remembrance day for victims of the Holocaust, Yom HaZikaron is the remembrance day for fallen soldiers and victims of terror, and the day after Yom HaZikaron, Israelis celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, Independance Day.
Our commemoration of Yom HaZikaron/Yom HaAtzmaut began the day before the holidays, when we attended a dress rehearsal for the national event to commemorate the ending of Yom Hazikaron and the beginning of Yom HaAtzmaut. It was a huge affair - we arrived at Mt. Herzl hours in advance to take our seats amidst an excited crowd. Much of the ceremony consisted of soldiers marching impressively carrying various flags, as well as a long torch-lighting ceremony in which people from different sectors of Israeli society lit torches to represent the 12 tribes of Israel, and a host of dancers. We took many pictures and have posted them online - please take a look! (Incidentally, the other photos in the album are from a game-show themed event that Daniel planned for HUC)
I spent the morning of Yom HaZikaron with the preschool, and aside from the kids standing still when a siren sounded through the city to signal a moment of silence, the atmosphere was celebratory in preparation for Independance Day - the kids left the preschool early so they could nap well in order to stay up to see the fireworks. My favorite conversation of the morning linked the celebration of Israel's independance with a discussion of how independant the preschoolers are becoming - some can even go to the bathroom by themselves!
We spent the afternoon at an orientation for the Encounter program we're attending tomorrow and Friday - you'll for sure be reading about this in a few days, but suffice it to say, for now, that we will be participating in a program in which we will have an opportunity to hear Palestinian perspectives on Israeli politics and on peace.
In the evening, beginning around 9pm, we heard the fireworks and scuttled out of our apartment. Walking toward the noise and music, we ran into a woman that we know from the Israeli Reform congregation we frequent, and we spoke to her about Independance Day and how it was different in her childhood, when Jerusalem was a small town and you could see the fireworks from anywhere. She was very eager to tell us about different options for the evening, from singing Israeli songs in a small group to dancing in the streets with a hipper crowd.
As we approached the corner of King George and Ben Yehuda we stumbled upon streets blocked off and filled bustling throngs of celebrants, music blasting, kids blowing horns and squirting silly string, vendors selling candied apples, ice cream, and corn on the cob. The festival atmosphere stretched on for whole city blocks, and we wandered around, snapping pictures, eating dessert, and watching fireworks. Eventually we met up with some HUC friends and made our way to the town hall, where we watched and tried to participate in a massive Israeli dancing event - you'll definately want to check out the video we posted on our photo webpage - it was quite a thing.
Today we went to the park for a picnic, having been told that a barbecue in the park is the Independance Day thing to do. While waiting for our friends to arrive, we watched military planes fly overhead, displaying their prowess. People here pack elaborate picnics, kind of like tailgating parties in the US, and it was fun to fit in. We had our own feast, as Paola (my Italian friend from Hebrew U) baked a pie that was to die for! We had a lovely afternoon under the very hot sun.
I don't have anything profound to say about the experience, I just wanted to give you a taste of what we've been doing over the past few busy days. Happy Independance Day!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

It's Coming Up on Independance Day

I don't have a lot of time because I have to run to class, but before I forget to write about it I wanted to share some moments from a preschool celebration for Independance Day. It began with coloring in blue and white, with stickers and stars (and, like always, I ended up drawing mermaids for Nadav, who is "The Little Mermaid" obsessed). During the circle time, the teacher had six students form a circle in the center of the room. She gave three of them white crepe paper and three blue crepe paper, and had them hand each other the crepe paper to form a Magen David, which they placed in the center of the room. Then, the teacher played a song for the kids which works kind of like BINGO. The lyrics are "My land of Israel is beautiful and blossoming. Who built it and who planted it? All of us together. I built a house, and I planted a tree, and I layed a road, and I built a bridge, and I wrote a song for the land of Israel" adding one thing at a time. While we sang the song, we placed toy houses, roads, trees, bridges, and books around the rim of the star. It was all very festive, and presented the holidy of Yom HaAtzmaut as one of great pride and achievement.
By way of contrast, (and again this has to be brief because I'm off to class in a minute) yesterday I asked a friend if she wanted to go to a picnic for Yom HaAtzmaut. She said she had to think about it - she studies Arabic and Hebrew, has many Palestinian friends, and is generally left wing in politics. She told me that she feels caught between two cultures with regard to how to spend the 'holiday.' She said that many people she knows will spend it mourning, but she does not want to do that, however she doesn't exactly want to celebrate either. She says it is the holiday to celebrate the beginning of the State of Israel, which is something to celebrate, but this event resulted in many casualties, Palestinian refugees being displaced out of Israel, continued disparities in distribution of wealth and resources, etc. Somehow, it had not occured to me that I shouldn't put aside my ambivalence about Israeli policies and history in order to celebrate a festive day - As in America, where I'm willing to see fireworks and be proud of the USA on July 4 though American independance was founded on ideas such as slavery and taking away land and livelihood from native peoples. Surely there's enough to be proud of in Israel that I can celebrate it for one day without concentrating on its (large) flaws. Or maybe it's just because I'm lazy and like to celebrate that I feel this way. I'd love to hear your thoughts about national/nationalistic holidays and the value of celebrating them - does celebrating your country (or another) somehoe invalidate or weaken your critique of it?

I found an interesting article (and another) from a few years ago that is relevant to this question, I think. I'd love to hear your thoughts. And now I'd better go as I'm going to be late for Hebrew!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The FSU Pesach Project in brief.

.פרוייקט פסח ב-ברה''ם לעבר, בקיצור

This year, Jessica and I spent much of Passover in Russia on HUC's FSU Pesach Project. We had an amazing time and learned a tremendous amount. Below is a summary of our trip that catches the essence of the experience. If you'd like more detail about any part of the trip, you can definitely find it in Jessica's more extensive account of our trip. Also, don't forget to check out our pictures!


Every year, HUC sends a delegations of students to countries in the Former Soviet Union to help facilitate progressive Jewish communities’ Passover celebrations and to learn about Jewish life in the FSU. This year, my girlfriend Jessica and I—with the support of almost 70 contributors—were blessed with the opportunity to travel to Russia to participate in this unforgettable program. For six very full days we visited sites and communities in Moscow and Lipetsk, and the experience we gained in that short week will stay with us for many Passovers to come.

We arrived in Russia on Tuesday and met our amazing translator, Emma, without whom we most certainly would have been hopelessly lost during the course of the trip. We struggled through the traffic of Moscow (home to 15 million people), checked into our hotel, visited the community center for progressive Judaism in Moscow, taught a short lesson on new rituals in the Passover seder, ate dinner with one of the two regional progressive rabbis based in Moscow, and walked down historic Old Arbat Street (where I tasted some absolutely luxurious hot chocolate) … and this first day was a simple one!

We spent the first part of Wednesday at the Machon, which is based in the Jewish cultural center we had visited the day before. The Machon is a Jewish education program that students attend half-time for one or two years in order to be trained as para-rabbinic Jewish leaders in their communities. The students we met were between the ages of 18 and 30, and a number of them came from fine arts backgrounds. After joining them and the community’s cantor for Shacharit services, Jessica and I facilitated an in-depth text study of Ha Lachma Anya, a text found toward the beginning of the Passover Hagaddah. Aside from our brief half-hour lesson the day before, this was our first significant experience communicating with a group of people via translator, and we found the process both difficult and rewarding. Of course, we weren’t able to communicate all of our thoughts as clearly as we would have liked, but on the other hand, we were forced to boil our points down to the most important principles.

At the end of the text study, the students had time to ask us any questions that were on their mind. We were fascinated to be asked questions like, “How do American Jews relate to the Holocaust?” and “Is there anti-Semitism in the United States?” We learned almost as much about Russian perspectives on American Judaism as they learned about us.

After peeling some quail eggs with community members in the upstairs kitchen, Jessica, Emma, and I headed to our first seder with the Jewish English-speaking Ex-Pats (JEEPS). Hosted in a posh apartment in central Moscow, guests at this seder included a collection of businessmen, academics, and Israeli government officials drawn together by a savvy and well-connected hostess. Since many of the guests were stuck in traffic, Jessica and I conversed with these guests for a while on topics such as Russian Jewry, Yiddish literature, and our professional goals. The seder was led by the head of Oxford University’s Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, and Jessica and I contributed only slightly. The main value of our presence was to help forge a connection between the indigenous Moscow liberal community and JEEPS, who could serve as a significant resource for the struggling organization.

We had to leave the seder early to catch our train to Lipetsk, a city described to us as “just outside Moscow.” We boarded the train, stored our luggage, and settled in to sleep on our ten-hour train ride. The train cabin was tiny, but the ride was pleasant. When we arrived in Lipetsk, we were greeted by four smiling and enthusiastic members of Chesed Yonah, the fifteen-year-old progressive Jewish community in this city of 500,000.

As we drove down Lenin Road (passing Soviet Road and Revolution Road), we were informed that, while there was an effort to restore streets in Moscow back to their pre-Soviet Union names, no such initiative was being undertaken here. After checking into our hotel, showering, and eating breakfast, two English speaking young women joined us for a tour of Lipetsk. We walked down wide streets, past ornate and Spartan buildings, and stopped at not a few monuments. Peter the Great founded the city in 1703, and an enormous statue of him sits near a central park where old men often gather to play Chess. An iron factory dominates the local economy, which, as in many places, is currently depressed.

We visited the new Chabad synagogue, the Lipetsk Historical Museum, and sat down to our first kosher-for-Passover lunch (which, more often than not, was a simple salad). After some final seder preparations, we took a taxi to The Cave, a restaurant that members of Chesed Yonah rent four times a year for their major Jewish celebrations. When we got to the restaurant and saw the DJ setting up his equipment, we knew this wouldn’t be an ordinary seder.

The community members that we met were extremely welcoming and friendly. They were excited to see us, and the youth group was particularly eager to spend time with us. As guests arrived, we were discussing with Emma whether we should assume that people will go ahead and eat during the “seder” portion of the night or whether we should start our presentation by telling them that it’s okay to eat rather than have to wait the entire time for the dinner. However, when Olga, the head of the community introduced us, she enforced under no uncertain terms that no one was to take an unauthorized bite until the proper time arrived. Emma also seemed to be of this opinion, and Jessica and I concluded that this must be a local (if not Russian) standard of politeness (similar to America).

The seder was very well-received, and Emma’s translation enabled us to connect with the Russian-speaking crowd. We tried to shake things up in the interest of keeping people engaged: We washed our hands without water, we encouraged each table to ask a fifth question of what had changed in their lives since last year, and we acted out the Exodus story. This last part was very fun, as almost every one of the forty or so guests participated enthusiastically. After the meal (for which a sampling of delicious vegetarian dishes had been prepared specially for Jessica and me), we didn’t proceed with the rest of the seder despite multiple indications from the community that a full seder would be expected. The local custom seems to expect all of the “seder” to take place before the meal – the period after the meal is reserved for music and dancing! So, for the first time in our lives, Jessica and I partied on Passover as if we were at a Bat Mitzvah or wedding reception. We had tremendous fun dancing with our English-speaking guides, with youth group members, and with newly-introduced adults of the community. This was a tremendous opportunity to really fit in to the community across the language barrier and was certainly one of the highlights of the trip for us.

The following day, Friday, was also an amazing opportunity to engage with and learn about the Lipetsk Jewish community. Jessica and I spent the morning planning out a Kabbalat Shabbat service, and in the afternoon, the leader of the youth group, Matvei, met us for another tour of Lipetsk. Matvei, a chef who does computer work in his spare time, took us to one of his favorite restaurants where Jessica and I ordered off the “fast menu,” intended for Russian Orthodox Christians observing the Lenten vegetarian fast prior to Easter. (We were interested to learn that the Russian words for “Easter” and “Passover” are the same; thus, to be clear, Jews speak of their holiday as the “Jewish Easter.”)

Matvei talked with us at length about the Lipetsk Jewish community and about his personal views and beliefs. We learned that many of the Lipetsk Jews are very ignorant about Jewish history and religion. As Jewish communal practice was forbidden under Soviet rule, no customs or traditions have been maintained over the years, so Jewish life is only struggling to re-awaken after a decades-long period of slumber.

Despite being located in a small city in Russia, Matvei (as is common among Russian Jews) feels very connected to Jews around the world as many Jews leave Russia for other places. Friends and family stay in touch, so despite the incredibly long distances, Jewish relationships are maintained worldwide. Matvei himself has no plans to leave Lipetsk; he is rare in his commitment to Jewish education in his home town. Matvei represents a small but proud group of Jews in Lipetsk who are invested in progressive Jewish community.

Matvei told us that the Chabad synagogue was established within the last five years and, as is common throughout Russian and other FSU communities, is attempting to secure its role as the center of Jewish life. Although Chesed Yonah is ten years older than the Chabad congregation, the Chabad rabbi is recognized by the government as the leader of the Jewish community, and the significant financial resources of Chabad pose a major threat to the downsizing progressive community. This trend is particularly troublesome as this particular rabbi is strongly opposed intermarriage despite an 80% intermarriage rate in Lipetsk and has offended numerous Jews in the area with his harsh, alienating language.

We were to learn later that relations are extremely strained in Lipetsk and Moscow (though not in every FSU community) between the liberal and Chabad communities. Active liberal Jews in Moscow and Lipetsk resent Chabad’s use of money to attract participants and are especially proud of their pluralistic and progressive values in the face of Chabad’s exclusiveness. Olga, the head of Chesed Yonah, struggles to keep peace in what could become a fractured community despite her own disappointment in Chabad, and Matvei co-programs with the Chabad synagogue’s youth without knowing or caring whether their rabbi approves of their work.

The most impressive of these programs is a recent encounter between Jewish, Armenian, and Azerbaijani youth in Lipetsk. These ethnic minorities share many common experiences in Lipetsk, and the encounter program won a government sponsorship for its creativity and effectiveness. More inter-communal programming is underway, and the Jewish youth are excited to meet and exchange stories with other non-Russians.

After our lunch, Matvei took us to the small Chesed Yonah office, where we met with five members of the youth group. These particularly active members were chosen to represent the youth group, and their stories were amazing. Three of them had found out only in the past few years that they were Jewish – many parents feel it’s best for their children not to inform them of their heritage. Even Olga, easily in her forties or fifties, had only learned that she was Jewish fifteen years ago and decided to start the Jewish community so that other Jews could meet one another. Only one 17-year-old had been actively involved in Judaism since her childhood, and she told us that she didn’t even know if she was “really” Jewish (re-emphasizing to Jessica and me the strongly ethnic definition of Jewishness in Russia).

The members of the youth group appreciate meeting people like them and building a community with them. As many youth leave Lipetsk because of the hard economy, a number of these teenagers plan to move to Israel, and all of them want at least to visit. Their primary community activity is learning Hebrew from Olga (who studied for a year at Hebrew University) so that they can have some basic communication skills in Israel, and even the adults often take Hebrew lessons to affirm their Jewish identity. Although the community is small, the members love to see one another, and they were extremely welcoming to Jessica, Emma, and me.

After our Kabbalat Shabbat service, which consisted only of prayers transliterated into Russian and a brief d’var Torah which Emma translated for me, we joined about twenty adult members of the community for Shabbat dinner. We talked about our Shabbat observance and theirs, the tense relationship with Chabad, Yiddish, and music. We sang some songs, including one written by Olga, and I was asked a couple rabbinical questions. I was taken off guard when a woman told me that her grandfather was killed in the Holocaust—she doesn’t know when—and wanted to know when she should commemorate his Yarzeit. Should she pick a date or say Kaddish every week? I told her that she could do either but that formally remembering his death every week might be too painful. I also told her she could commemorate his death on Yom Hashoah. I learned when I returned to Israel that there’s a traditional day in the Jewish calendar for just this occasion, but I don’t know how meaningful following that tradition would have been for this woman, anyway. I was also asked about preparations for a brit milah ceremony, about which I know nothing, and I tried to answer to the best of my knowledge. Now I understand what Dean Marmur told us about rabbis sometimes having to seem that they know more than they actually do!

We had to leave Shabbat dinner in order to catch another overnight train back to Moscow, and I was sad to go. The community told Jessica and me that our visit was very special to them and that we had made an impact on their Jewish identities. Olga informed us that next time we visit, we won’t be guests – we’ll be family. And I think she meant it. I’ve never felt so warmly embraced by a community, and it was honestly difficult for me to leave them. They were an extraordinary group of people in circumstances so alien to my own experience, and I’m blessed to have met them.

Back in Moscow, we attended the Jewish community center’s Shabbat morning service (which we were excited to be able to navigate and participate in without a translator) and hung out in the center for a couple hours. We conversed with some members of their youth movement, ate matzah with chocolate spread, and eventually went to the State Historical Museum in Red Square. Although we couldn’t read any of the information at the museum, we were amazed (continually) by how much Emma, an 18-year-old with a passion for history, was able to tell us.

On Saturday evening, we met the Moscow youth movement at a coffee shop and chatted with them. We had a lot of fun, though we also had moments of cultural exchange about how Jewish life in Moscow differed from life in the States. Again, relations with Chabad came up, as did the strong connection that many Russian Jewish youth feel with their national history despite the hardships faced by Jews under Soviet rule. We joined the youth movement for its monthly Havdalah program, in which they visit a site significant to Moscow Jewish history and have Havdalah nearby. We visited the former headquarters of the Jewish Antifascist Committee, which raised money to fight against Nazi Germany and received official government support. In 1948, the Soviet government shut down the organization and within a few years had executed most of its leadership.

After hearing this sobering story, we walked across the street to a park with a huge statue of Friedrich Engels and celebrated Havdalah there. Jessica and I learned a new custom of dipping your little fingers into the wine and touching them to your temples, lips, and heart for wisdom, bright speech, and love. We spent the evening at the apartment of one of Emma’s friends and returned to our hotel.

Sunday, our last full day in Moscow, was a busy day of touring. We went shopping in an outdoor market full of traditional Russian products and souvenirs, and there we met up with the other HUC pair that had returned from Siberia to spend their last free day with us in the capital. We traveled to one of the two Chabad synagogues in Moscow and received an impromptu tour in Hebrew by an Israeli Chabadnik, who in Russian told our translators that Chabad would pay them to bring their friends to the synagogue. (Our translators were naturally very upset by this affront.) We saw the Moscow Yiddish State Theater, ate lunch, and toured around the Kremlin for several hours. Far, far too quickly the day came to an end, and we enjoyed one final dinner in Russia before returning to our hotel. Early Monday morning, we were accompanied to the airport by one of our translators and made our way back to Israel for the last two days of Passover.

Jessica and I found our time spent in Russia to be extremely meaningful. We were welcomed into foreign Jewish communities because of our Jewish heritage and our commitment to its enriched future. We observed a Russian Passover, celebrated a Russian Shabbat, explored Russian Jewish history, and glimpsed its future. And, of course, we learned a tremendous amount of Russian history and culture and made a great new friend of our translator Emma. In the end, we believe that we probably gained more from our experience than we were able to teach, and we feel lucky to have had this unique opportunity.

We intend to stay connected to some of the people we met in Russia, and we hope that our careers as Jewish professionals give us more occasions to engage with FSU Jewish communities. Certainly, our future seders will remind us of the times we spent in Russia as the story of the Festival of our Freedom is enacted ba-yamim ha-hem, ba-z’man ha-zeh – in those days and in our own time.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel.

.יום הזכרון לשואה ולגבורה בארץ

Last night and today were Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day). In Israel, this day is called "Memorial Day for Holocaust and Heroism" or Yom Hazikaron l'Shoah ul'gvurah. The commemoration day was inaugurated in 1951 in Israel, and it took decades for widespread Diaspora communities to regularly honor the day. Originally (and until about 20 years ago), this day focused much more on the "Heroism" than the "Holocaust" in Israel. The Jewish resistance fighters (partisans) were the center of attention, and for decades, they were featured prominently in Yom Hashoah ceremonies. Only in recent years (as partisan fighters have died and Israeli society has changed) have Israelis come to associate more with the victims of the Holocaust. Over the last 24 hours, the Yom Hashoah Jessica and I have experienced have been focused on the victims of Nazi aggression and the role that Israel has to play in the story.

Every year, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, puts on a ceremony for Yom Hashoah that is televised throughout the country (and almost universally watched among Jewish families). HUC was fortunate to receive tickets, so Jessica and I were able to attend the event in person.

We arrived two hours early, expecting large crowds and wanting good seats. We were very impressed with the ease with which we made it through the numerous security checks and to our seats. One of my classmates remarked today how meaningful it was that, for once, Israelis weren't being pushy. People seemed more patient last night, more sensitive.

The ceremony itself was very interesting, especially as this was an avowedly secular, state-sponsored commemoration. The army featured prominently, placed sequentially beside two statues in the Warsaw Ghetto Courtyard of Yad Vashem, thus effectively displaying a progression of "Jews on the Marching to their Deaths" to "Partisan Fighters" to "Soldiers of Israel Defending the People of Israel." Throughout the ceremony, this was the message: The Holocaust was a planned tragedy, and Israel was the closest thing to a "happy ending" that the Jews could hope for. Moreover, there are still people today who would plan a Holocaust against the Jews, and the State of Israel is the only thing that can prevent that.

This was the message that struck me the most. Both Israel's President (Shimon Peres) and its Prime Minister (Benjamin Netanyahu) included a healthy dose of politics in their speeches. Each of them condemned the World Conference against Racism, which is being boycotted by 10 nations (the US, Israel, Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Poland, and New Zealand) because of its heavy anti-Zionist message. They also cited Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran as a critical threat against the Jewish people and called on the world to discredit him. (The same night, Ahmadinejad gave a speech at this conference so anti-Israel and anti-Jewish that at least 30 nations' representatives walked out.) Of course, they spoke about the tragedy of the Holocaust with force, condemning "Nazi Germans and their helpers" for the crimes they committed against the Jewish people. But the message rang loud and clear: the State of Israel is the only entity that exists to protect Jews against the possibility of another Holocaust.

In addition to these speeches, the former Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, Meir Lau, gave a moving account of his own experience during the Holocaust, and a letter written by a child killed during the war was recited by an FSU-born Israeli actress. The singer Achinoam Nini (known outside of Israel as Noa) performed several pieces, as did an Israeli girls' choir (all of whom sang beautifully). The chief cantor of the Army sang a version of El Malei Rachamim (traditionally a prayer of comfort but used here as a dirge of mourning), the current Chief Sephardi Rabbi read a Psalm, and the current Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi led the Mourner's Kaddish.

The most powerful part of the ceremony for me (perhaps because it is most similar to what I'm used to) was the lighting of the six torches. Each torch was lit by a survivor (or two, in the case of the pair of twins) whose story was narrated and displayed via video. Many of the stories were of children separated from parents, forced to live in a ghetto or concentration camp, or of children who managed to escape the worst by virtue of Righteous Gentiles or partisan fighters. Each of the six stories was very Zionist, describing an early and ardent commitment to the Land of Israel that was able to be fulfilled. Although the Zionist component stood out, the rest of the story narration was similar to other Yom Hashoah events I've attended.

I'm not surprised that this event was so Zionist. After all, we were in Israel! Perhaps what was most interesting, then, was the negotiation between religious and secular. Of the 80 minute ceremony, probably 15 or 20 minutes was "religious." During those times (as at others), the soldiers stood at attention - and just before the Kaddish was recited, a large number of men in the crowd (including myself) produced and put on a kippah. Of course, only Orthodoxy was represented, but the Kaddish was led with men and women sitting next to each other, and there wasn't a stir when Noa and the choir sang. (Generally, ultra-Orthodox people consider it against Jewish law for men to hear women sing.) There weren't very many ultra-Orthodox people in the crowd, but the Chief Rabbis were both present and "well-behaved." The State respected them and vice versa.

However, the political speeches were definitely a new component for me. I knew to expect them, so I wasn't caught off guard, but before this year, I would never expect Yom Hashoah to be so political. A couple years ago at UVA, the Darfur Week of Conscience ended on Yom Hashoah, and Hillel worked with STAND (Students Taking Action Now: Darfur) to plan a week of programming together. Yom Hashoah itself, though, was (as I recall) reserved for commemoration of the Holocaust. The political message was implicit but not mentioned during Yom Hashoah itself. This event at Yad Vashem was different.

I'm not criticizing, though. This is how they do it publicly in Israel. Anyway, I'm not sure I'd get much out of an official religious ceremony because it would by definition have to be Orthodox. What we experienced last night was engaging, interesting, and very moving for a lot of students. I myself was in a fairly analytical state of mind, so I wasn't emotionally taken by the ceremony, but I understand that it was very powerful.

This morning, HUC sponsored its own Yom Hashoah commemorations, which were fairly different from Yad Vashem's. Our service this morning included what one would expect in a morning service, though we sang less than usual and included readings about the Holocaust. After a half-hour break, we were encouraged to stand in front of HUC for the 10:00 siren, which I'd heard about before coming to Israel.

On Yom Hashoah, at 10:00 in the morning, sirens sound throughout the country with the tacit understanding that people will stop what they are doing for two minutes. In my imagination, the country stopped entirely for this time period, but of course, the reality never lives up to the ideal. At 10:00, as expected, the sirens went off, and the cars stopped in the streets and their drivers got out. One driver honked his horn, though after about 30 seconds, he too decided to stand in the street and pay his respects. Three construction workers across the street were, like us, watching the stopped traffic, though other (presumably Arab) construction workers continued to use their buzz saw inside the building. A driver took advantage of the slowed traffic to pass the stopped cars. For the most part, the area around me became still, but of course, it wasn't as dramatic as I had expected.

Back in the courtyard of HUC was our own Yom Hashoah ceremony. This was more familiar to me with poems, music and song, personal stories, prayers, and a name-reading at the end. There were certainly similarities to the Yad Vashem ceremony (HUC's was designed by Israeli as well as American students), but the Zionist factor was significantly reduced. The ceremony was well planned and powerful, but again, I found myself being too analytical to get carried away. Don't get me wrong - of course I teared up a couple times. But I'm usually much more moved by Yom Hashoah than I was this year.

For the past several years, I've been intimately involved with Hillel's planning of Yom Hashoah's commemoration. I've picked up Holocaust survivors from their hotel, read names of victims at 2:00 in the morning, and helped plan the Week of Conscience mentioned above. Each of these experiences (and more) have been very moving and meaningful to me. But I realize now that very few people (and Jessica is one of them) experienced Yom Hashoah at UVA in this way. Most of the people read names for 15 or 20 minutes and possibly came to an event or the survivor's presentation. This year, I spent about 4 hours directly engaged with Holocaust commemoration (which would usually be considered a lot), but it seemed less powerful to me than before.

One thing I learn from this is that it can be hard to reach someone who didn't participate in the planning of an event. You do what you can do, but the "audience" has to bring itself to the table in order to be affected. I wasn't entirely present, so I didn't get all I could out of Yom Hashoah this year. I will keep this in mind not only for my own commemoration of similar events in the future but also when I'm planning such events.

In conclusion, the past 24 hours have been special, unique, and impactful - but I've learned more about Israel than about the Holocaust. I think that's okay - it is what it is, after all. And yet I find myself wishing for greater eloquence about the depth of the day. Perhaps next year, when I'm not in Jerusalem anymore.

Let me conclude with a poem that I did find moving that was included in HUC's memorial service this morning.

Yizkor by Abba Kovner, translated by Jules Harlow

We shall remember our brothers and sisters,
The city houses and the country houses,
The shtetl streets rushing like rivers
And the lonely inn on the country road --
The aged man and the features of his face,
The mother in her kerchief,
The young girl with her braids,
The child,
The people Israel in thousands of communities
Among all the human families,
The entire assembly of Jews
Brought down to slaughter on the soil of Europe
By the Nazi destroyer,
The man who suddenty screamed
And while screaming died,
The woman, clutching her infant to her breast,
Whose arms gave out,
The infant groping for his mother's nipple
Finding it blue and cold.

The feet,
The feet that sought refuge,
Though flight was no longer possible,
And those who made their hands into a fist,
The fist that gripped the iron,
The iron that became the weapon of vision,
Of despair, and of rebellion,
And those, the pure of heart,
Those whose eyes were opened,
Those who risked their lives,
Though they lacked the power to triumph.
We shall remember the day,
The day in its brightness, the sun that rose
Over the bloody conflagration,
The lofty silent heavens.
We shall remember the mounds of dust
Beneath the gardens in bloom.
The living shall remember their dead
For they are forever before us.
Look! Their eyes dart round and about,
Allowing us no peace, no peace,
Until our lives become worthy of their memory.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Back from Russia

This past week, Daniel and I participated in the FSU-Pesach Project. We were among 16 HUC students sent throughout Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine to celebrate Passover seders with Jewish communities. Daniel and I traveled to Moscow and Lipetsk in Russia. We attended one Passover seder and led another, taught two classes for a Jewish leadership training institute, led kabbalat Shabbat services and havdalah, met with two youth groups, and still had plenty of time for sight-seeing. We met some incredible people and made connections we hope we’ll continue to foster. The trip was a terrific opportunity to learn what progressive Jewish life looks like outside of the mainstream communities of the US and Israel, and to offer our knowledge and energy to communities that need support and encouragement. Thank you to everyone who supported us in this endeavor.

If you would like to see pictures, click here.

If you would like to read about the trip in greater detail, below I have typed out the journal that I kept while in Russia. You can also see each entry as its own page:

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5
Day 6


FSU Journal Day 1

Day 1

Well, after months of fundraising, planning, and worrying that we weren’t prepared enough, here we are in Moscow on the FSU Pesach Project! Ultimately we sent 16 people (8 pairs) to cities across the Ukraine, Russia, and Belorus to celebrate Passover seders with Jewish communities, providing their energy, knowledge, and enthusiasm to these communities that find themselves on the ‘fringes’ of the Jewish world both geographically and in terms of resources.

Today was a whirlwind of activity and I am writing in the hopes that I’ll be able to hang on to the memories long enough to share them with everyone at home. I hope to write here about what we see, do, and learn. I also plan on supplementing the journal when I get back with facts that I may not have had a chance to write down during the trip. If you are reading this journal, please know that in the course of this journal I will be giving you information about history, culture, etc. that I don’t know much about and haven’t spent a lot of time researching in a reliable way. While I’m trying to give you the best information I can, if you want to know more or in a more confirmed way, you should look elsewhere. Also please feel free to correct me if I’ve mis-stated something. I will be making heavy use of unreliable sources such as Wikipedia in order to inform this journal, for which I apologize. My reasons for writing the journal are (a) in order that I will remember the trip and to have a chance to organize my thoughts about the trip (b) to share the trip with friends and family and (c) as a resource in case I need to write about the trip in the future.

We left our Jerusalem apartment at 3:00 Am to take a sheirut to the airport. We were joined by two of Daniel’s classmates, David and Jordan, who would be with us for our first and last days in Moscow but would otherwise spend their trip visiting two cities in the Urals and on the edge of Siberia. We arrived at the airport, checked in, boarded the plane, and were on our way. The plane ride was uncomfortable but it was mercifully short (about five hours) and at 10:50 local time we landed in Moscow. We were met at the arrivals area by three young women holding signs with our names on them. They smilingly introduced themselves to us – Anya, the translator for David and Jordan, Emma, our translator, and Katya, the director of the office of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in Moscow.

Emma directed us to a car where we would be driven to our hotel. We and she were both shy as we packed into the car and sat in traffic for several hours. We asked a few questions and she explained a bit about Moscow’s geography and answered some questions about herself, but mostly we were quiet. Emma is 18 years old and a first-year college student in a military school studying translation – English and Spanish, and she hopes eventually also Hebrew. She lives in an apartment in Moscow with her parents and she has two older step-sisters, neither of whom lives in Jerusalem. Emma has lived in Moscow all her life but she loves to travel and has been in many places throughout Europe. Emma is responsible, knowledgeable, and eager to help us and teach us. We couldn’t have asked for a better translator, though she keeps insisting that she doesn’t know very much or apologizing for forgetting English words.

After a long car ride we finally made it to the hotel, driving past suburban areas, parks adjacent to historical landmarks, and beautiful churches with bright blue and gold onion domes that we are told were built only just recently. The hotel is very nice and we look forward to sleeping here.

We went out to lunch in a restaurant called Moo Moo (MY MY in Cyrillic letters) which served Russian cuisine – we had salads, blinches, and Daniel tried Kisiel, a popular desert drink that consists of sweetened juice thickened with cornstarch or potato starch, with dried fruits added to it. Across the street from the restaurant there was a beautiful pink and white building that seemed out of place among the dark, severe brick buildings that surrounded it. I asked Emma about the building and she told us it was once the home of aristocracy but is now an office building. This city is layered so thick with history that each spot was once something to someone, long ago.

We were scheduled to give a lecture to the students at the Machon program next. Machon is a para-rabbinic Jewish leadership training program that draws students from throughout the Former Soviet Union. Many students who finish the program either make aliyah, go to rabbinical school, or work formally or informally for and in Jewish communities in the FSU. We didn’t have much time to teach because we were running behind schedule as a result of the traffic jam, but we did our best with the time we had. In the small classroom we sat at the head of the table and spoke to the class of two women and about seven men of ages ranging from high school graduates to young professionals. Our lesson was on the creation of new rituals (largely drawn from what we’ve learned from reading Inventing Jewish Rituals by Vanessa Ochs). After each sentence, Leonid Bimbat, the rabbi who teaches at the Machon program, translated for us. After a brief introduction defining new rituals and discussing how they are developed and why they might be useful, we introduced the ritual for Miram’s cup. The class told us that their teacher had mentioned the ritual but had not explained it, so we talked a bit about Miriam’s well, about the reasoning behind the tradition, and about how it fits into the rest of the seder. Then we had students paint glasses that they could use for the ritual. Some students seemed excited to paint and some a bit skeptical, but we figured that since we would be lecturing for them the next day too and they’d just been at an HUC lecture by David and Jordan we would do something a little easier and more fun for the short time we had. While they were painting the glasses we had a short discussion with the students about the efficacy of new rituals – can they be as important as old ones? More important? When do we need a new ritual and who can create it? The students seemed to take to the idea of new rituals naturally, saying that all rituals were new once. I wonder if their lack of resistance to newness is connected to the fact that for many all of Jewish tradition is new to them as they did not grow up in observant households. I don’t know. In any case, given the time that we had with a tired audience of students at the end of their school day, I was proud of our performance. We’ll go back tomorrow for more.

David, Jordan, Leonid, Anya, Emma, Daniel and I then went through the Moscow subway in order to get to the restaurant where we would have dinner to ‘say goodbye to chametz.’ We walked through a network of underground shops selling baked goods, flowers, DVD’s, clothes, and women’s underwear until we reached the train station. Let me just say that the Moscow Metro is amazing. It is the world’s second most heavily used rapid-transit system and the trains are always packed though they arrive roughly every two minutes. I has 12 lines and 177 stations, and on a normal workday it carries over 7 million passengers. It is state-owned and was built almost entirely undergroung except for the lines that cross the Moskva river or the Yauza River by bridge. The first stage of the metro was opened in 1935, but work on new lines continued through World War II and the spaciousness of the metro is due in part because it also functioned as a bomb shelter during the war. The Council of Minsters moved its offices to the metro, and Stalin made public smeeches there on seval occasions. The Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya Line is very deep and was built during the Cold war as shelter in the event of a nuclear war. The stations are all extravagantly decorated with statues, stained glass, and marble. The metro stations themselves were definitely worth touring and many of the pictures we took were from inside the Moscow Metro. The stops are named after the streets they are near or historical figures such as partisans, scientists, and politicians.

The restaurant where we ate dinner is meant to be decorated as an old train station and the waitresses wore conductor uniforms. The food was quite good – in addition to vegetables and other ordinary foods, I was able to sample small stuffed buns filled with cabbage, potato pancakes, pickles, and Russian raisin-filled pastry. We drank cider – apparently the only cider served in Moscow as cider is not native to Russia and has only recently made its way here as Russians have traveled throughout Europe. Over the course of our discussion we talked about Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions regarding what is permitted to eat on Passover. Leonid said that even though most Jews in Russia are of Ashkenazi origin, they should be able to do whatever they like because Jews in the FSU were not raised in a particular tradition, and they are free to choose whatever they want. I wonder if Jews here really do have this kind of blank slate, or if this is just an excuse to eat rice and beans. This is an interesting question, particularly as David and Jordan told us that their presentation to Machon on ethical kashrut didn’t go over well because the students seemed to imply that people here aren’t in the privileged position to be able to care about the treatment of animals in the production of their food and because progressive Jews shouldn’t care about halacha (including kashrut) anyway. Is claiming that Jews here have no background to draw upon true – they have no family traditions and they don’t want to be guided by halacha – or is going too far? From where do they draw their Jewishness?

After dinner we were to go for a walk but ran into a crisis when an ATM ate Daniel’s bank card as he was trying to extract rubles we panicked a but after deciding upon a plane to retrieve the card tomorrow when the bank reopened we continued on for an evening of tourism in the biting cold of a Moscow evening. It seemed particularly cold as I was wearing a skirt in order to blend in with the style in Moscow – everyone seems to be very fashion conscious, with brightly painted lips, fancy boots, skirts, and jewelry. In order to fit in I brought some of the nicest clothes I own!

Emma led us to Old Arbat Street for a stroll. It is a pedestrian street full of cafes and shops. The first mention of the Arbat was in 1493 as a road leading from the Kremlin to Smolensk. The neighborhood used to be home to elegant churches but later became a prestigious living area where wealthy and famous people could rent their lodgings. The street was almost completely destroyed in the great fire during Napoleon’s occupation of Moscow in 1812 and had to be rebuilt. Alexander Pushkin lodged here for some time, as did Tolstoy. Today the street also has many notable statues in cluding one for the Soviet-era folk singer Bulat Okudzhava – who Emma told us was one of the first singer-songwriters in Russia. During Perestroika, the street was a gathering place for informal youth movements and street musicians. Voktor Tsoi’s wall, which we visited, is on a side street off Arbat. It is a monument to the years of Perestroika and Russian youth still gather there to drink and play songs of Tsoi and other songwriters. We went up to look at the wall and they invited us to join them. The buildings that line the streets are graceful and old, and we strolled leisurely as Emma entertained us with her expansive, encyclopedic knowledge of Moscow. She pointed to buildings and landmarks – a tall building built for Stalin, a statue of Pushkin and his wife. We stopped in a chocolaterie and Daniel had a small thick hot chocolate the consistency of syrup, while Emma talked about the literary figures painted on the alls of the shop. Emma even took us into the first McDonalds in Moscow it opened in 1990 and was at the time the world’s biggest McDonalds – she said lines for McDonalsd used to stretch all the way down the street. McDonalds seems to have adapted to the history-loving, monumentalizing culture of Moscow, and Emma gave us a lesson in Moscow history by walking us through reproductions of historical maps and paintings of Moscow that were hanging on the ways of McDonalds.

Incidentally, Moscow is the largest city in Europe. Historically it was the capital of the former Soviet Union, Russian Empire, Tsardom of Russia and the Grand Duchy of Msocow, and today it is the capital of the Russian Federation. Moscow is also home to the largest number of billionaires in the world and was named the world’s most expensive city for foreign employees in 2006, 2007, and 2008. The first reference to Moscow dates from 1147. In 1156 Prince Yuri Dolgoruki of Rostov ordered the construction of a wooden wall to surround Moscow. It was sacked in 1238 and the Mongols burned the city to the ground. Moscow became the capital of the Vladimir-Suzdal principality in 1327 and it expanded and developed into the Grand Duchy of Moscow. In 1480 Ivan III broke Russians free of Tatar control, and Moscow became the capital of Russia. Moscow has seen many invasions and uprisings. The plague of 1654-1656 killed half of Moscow’s population. In 1712, after Peter the Great founded St. Petersberg, Moscow ceased being the capital of Russia. During the French invasion of Russia in 1812, Moscow was burned – no one is sure whether the Russians did it to prevent the French from accessing Moscovite resources or if the French did it themselves. Nevertheless, Napolean’s army, plagued by hunger and cold had to retreat and was nearly annihilated by the Russian winter. Folowing the Russian Revolution of 1917 Moscow became the capital of the Soviet Union. Moscow is located on the banks of two intersecting rivers, and it is designed as a series of circles around the Kremlin.

Finally at the end of the evening we made our way back to the hotel as Daniel impressed Emma by sounding out the names of subway stations. Emma says she is pleased that we prepared for our visit – but I think we couldn’t possibly have prepared enough and I am so grateful for her guidance and really so impressed with her capable maturity. I am excited to get to know her better over the course of the trip.

FSU Journal Day 2

Day 2

We woke up in the morning still tired from the previous day’s journey. After dressing and packing our bags we made our way to the sumptuous breakfast buffet. A player piano chimed, fancy china an silverware surrounded dishes of beets and salads, meats and cheeses, and a wide assortment of pastries. Daniel and I helped ourselves to cottage cheese blinches, fruit, and tea. We then met Emma in the lobby of the hotel where she and Sasha, a Muscovite Reform Rabbi, went with us to Machon.
We arrived at Machon in time for Shacharit services. A pleasant-seeming kippa-wearing guitar-playing cantor led services in Hebrew and the students followed along capably, all performing the choreography of the service in unison. It was actually sort of amazing to pray in Hebrew next to people with whom we otherwise can’t converse without a translator. After services and a brief coffee break, Leonid turned the class over to us so that we could lead a discussion.

Our lesson was focused around the passage in the seder “Ha Lachma Anya” which is said directly before the four questions. We read the passage in Hebrew and English, and then we did a close reading, going line by line through the paragraph and considering its meaning. I felt tha the conversation, though slow because of translation, really pushed me to think in new ways about the paragraph. We were surprised at the ardent diaspora-peoplehood men tality of the students. They spoke of the Jewish people as having one heart, and the land of Israel being anywhere where the people of Israel live (they joked that they have their own Western Wall here in Moscow – built next to the synagogue out of stones from Jerusalem). At first they didn’t seem eager to speak but eventually they seemed to warm into the conversation and they ultimately thanked us by telling us that they got a lot out of it.

The students come from varied backgrounds – one is an accountant, two are dancers, one is trained in theater, one in marketing, one in vocal music, etc. They come from Russia and Belarus. After our program was over they had a few minutes to ask some questions about ourselves, American Reform Judaism, etc. They asked very serious and very big questions: “How do American Jews relate to the Holocaust?” “Is there anti-Semitism in America?” “How did you become interested in studying Judaism?” We answered the questions to the best of our ability, but I hope we aren’t the only people they have a chance to ask about these questions, as we are far from authorities. They all seemed interested in my interest in Yiddish and one person asked me if there are native Yiddish spekers in the US and about the history of Yiddish literature. I wish I had time to answer all of these difficult questions but was pleased to have a chance to share some thoughts.

After our lesson we went upstairs for a cup of tea (Russia is apparently the third most tea-drinking country in the world, after England and Japan) and met some people in the workroom who were preparing for the seder. They were peeling quail eggs to use on the seder plates and we offered to help. When one woman asked if she could take a picture of us, we agreed provided that we could take a picture of them. They were very nice, cheerful, and excited to have us there.

When we left Machon it was to take a shared van to a metro to the bank, where we learned that Daniel’s bank card had been destroyed and returned to the Bank of America, because he didn’t tell the b bank that he would be traveling.
We went out for lunch at a Russian restaurant where we ate the last chametz of the week – black bread, pancakes stuffed with mushrooms, and a famous Russian drink called kvas – a fermented mildly alcoholic beverage made from black rye or rye bread. Its origins go back 5,000 years to the beginnings of beer production. Kvass has been a common drink in Eastern Europe since ancient times and is mentioned in the Old Russian Chronicles in 989. At one time it was more usual for peasants and monks to drink kvass than water. Kvass is marketed as a patriotic alternative to coca cola and is undergoing a kind of revival in Russia. In response, Coca-Cola launched its own brand of kvass in May 2008, and Pepsi has also signed an agreement with a Russian kvass manufacturer to act as a distribution agent.

After lunch we went to a museum of a bridge that was found in excavations in the 1970’s. The bridge was built in the 1500’s for a river that no longer exists. We saw tiny coins smaller than a fingernail, pots and pans from the 1500’s and household goods. After the museum we strolled briefly along the Red Square. We hope to go back and see it in greater detail at a later point.

We took the subway to the neighborhood where we would be attending our first seder – the seder for the Jewish English-speaking Ex-patriots group (JEEPS). The seder was located in the beautiful home of Andrea Wine, a historic building with an apartment exquisitely decorated. It was stunning and opulent – paintings on the walls, high ceilings, crystal drinking glasses, a zebra skin rug in the foyer. The guests were also prestigious – Israeli ambassadors to Russia, the owner of an international bakery company, the head of the Jewish Studies Program at Oxford University. The hostess was dressed to the nines in tight-fitting black pants and a chic white top, her hair done up in an elaborate fluffy style, her wrist graced with golden bracelets, her lips painted brightly. We chatted with the guests for a while and then began the seder itself – we were merely guests at this seder, as it was led by the Oxford professor, The seder moved quickly and felt like an American one, but we could not stay for long because we had to catch the train to Lipetsk. We took our leave as politely as possible in the middle of the maggid, and the hosts sent us off with some matzah. On our way to the train we picked up some cheese and chocolate as part of a complete and healthy dinner.

We were surprised by the train car – we barely fit in it with our luggage – two beds on top and two seats below our compartment, which the three of us were to share with one other traveler. We ate our dinner and planed for the Lipetsk seder together. Then, we pulled our sheets onto the beds and nodded off to sleep.

FSU Journal Day 3

Day 3

The train ride was surprisingly comfortable – four people in a closet-sized chamber, but with the door closed and the lights off, we lay on our shelf-like beds and slept soundly. I awoke in the morning as Emma pulled back the curtains to reveal a tree-lined landscape speckled with snow. As the music – a ten-minute warning before we reached the station – sounded, we put our belongings together, crammed our cheese, chocolate, and matzah into our bags, and left the train.

We were met by a gathering of smiling faces. Olga, an older woman with a fur-lined red coat and a fancy-looking pair of boots greeted us in Hebrew - we later learned that she studied some Hebrew last year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. We drove through Lipetsk to our hotel – on the way passing roads like “Soviet Road” “Revolution Road” and “Lenin Road” and a very prominent, large memorial to those who fell in World War II. Emma told us that while Moscow is making an effort to return streets to their pre-Soviet names, many smaller cities are quite content to keep the street names as they were before the fall of the Soviet Union.

When we got to the Lipetsk Hotel, we sat in the lobby and got down to business, asking for details about the seder and what we should expect there. We were told that we would be leading the seder ourselves, that the community would be excited to participate in something fun and unorthodox, and that the community rents out a restaurant for the whole night and really looks forward to the event. The families will be of all ages and we will be sitting at the table for young adults, next to the youth group table.

Along with Olga were two young women who were to give us a tour of Lipetsk in the afternoon. Both are members of the Lipetsk progressive Jewish community, and both speak English – which is probably why Olga asked them to give the tour. Viola is studying to be an elementary school English teacher and she spent last summer working in Wildwood New Jersey, and Katya is a high school senior who hopes to go to Moscow for school next year – she has spent time studying abroad in England and Ireland to improve her English. Olga is very proud of their linguistic accomplishments.

We went up to our room to change, and then met Emma at the hotel’s café for breakfast. We both had salad as it was the only option on the menu that was both vegetarian and kosher for Passover. We’ve notice throughout that Emma and later also that other members of the Lipetsk community don’t keep kosher for Passover and they eat pasta, cake, pakcakes, and vodka – really anything chametz except bread – which does make some kind of sense. While we were at breakfast Emma showed us the banners of Russian sports teams that were hanging on the wall.

After breakfast we met Katya and Viola and they took us on a tour of Lipetsk. We began by walking to a park. On the way, Katya told us that Lipetsk is home to 500,000 people – it is a small and spacious city filled with building, some of which are very ornate and some of which are Spartan-looking. The roads are wide and the cars are mostly old. We saw from a distance the steel factory for which Lipetsk is famous – it is the largest such factory in Russia and was built to supply the military for World War II. Many people in Lipetsk are employed by the factory, but because of the economic crisis many were fired recently.

We walked to the park, where there is a spout of sulphate water from a mineral spring believed to be beneficial for health. It tastes like rotton eggs, and we each took turns sampling it and wincing. The park is pleasant and in warm weather I can understand why it is a popular place to go. In the park there is a building where pensioners play chess and cards and socialize with one another.

After the park we visited a statue of Peter the Great which was erected in 1996 to celebrate 300 years that the navy has been at Lipetsk. Lipetsk is on a the Voronezh River, and Peter the Great, who studied ship building, founded the city as part of his naval efforts. In 1703 he ordered the construction of a cast iron factory in Lipetsk for making artillery shells. Scenes from the founding of Lipetsk surround the statue – Peter the Great entering the town and signing a charter. At the top, Peter the Great strides boldly forward. Emma took the opportunity to tell us a bit about the history of Peter the Great and how he opened a window to the west, reformed the government, and Europeanized the Boyars by making them cut off their beards. She said that he was very great but could also be very cruel – at one potential uprising he killed all participants to demonstrate that he didn’t want any disobedience. He liked European science, culture, and order but he didn’t like emerging European notions of democracy. Peter the Great (1672-1725) ruled Russia from 1682 until his death. He implemented reforms aimed at modernizing Russia, in terms of military and government and also in terms of society – he required that his courtiers, state officials, and military dress according to Western tastes. As a young monarch he traveled around Europe in hopes of creating an anti-Ottoman alliance, and there he learned much about shipbuilding and Western culture. He saught to end arranged marriage and changed the Russian calendar to the Julian Calendar. He declared War on Sweden in order to obtain control over the Baltic Sea and become a naval power in the Great Northern War. He also founded St. Petersberg, and moved the capital to this city with its European atmosphere. When he attacked the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War of 1710, Peter’s campaign was a disaster. Nevertheless Peter’s northern armies captured what is today Latvia and Estonia from the Swedes and occupied Finland. In October 1721 Peter was named Emperor of All Russia, a title that was recognized by Augustus II of Poland, Frederick William I of Prussia and Frederick I of Sweden, but not by the other European monarchs who were afraid that Peter would claim authority over lesser ‘kings’ because of his imperial title. Peter also reformed the Russian Orthodox Church, erecting the Holy Synod, a council of ten clergymen, to take the place of the Patriarch. He implemented a law that no Russian man could join a monastery before the age of 50 because he was concerned that too many men were evading the army by joining monastaries. In 1722 Peter created the Table of Ranks - precedence was determined by merit and service to the Emperor in a strictly measured fashion, and not by birth. The Table of Ranks remained in effect until the Revolution in 1917. He also introduced a decree on compulsory education that dictated that all children of the nobility, of government clerks, and lesser ranked officials must learn basic mathematics and geometry. He abolished land and household tax and introduced head taxes that were applicable not only to property owners but also to serfs and paupers. Peter the Great died of bladder problems that led his bladder to be infected with gangrene. Emma went on to tell us that if you study Russian history you will find that just about every other tsar wanted reform and every other tsar fought against it. In a similar pattern, every other High Secretary of the USSR was bald.

We next went to the synagogue which is run by Chabad. It was built three years ago. We walked around the inside a bit – there are classrooms and pictures of East European Jewish history on the walls. I was impressed at the magen David at the top of the building – the Moscow center just said “cultural center” on the door and outwardly shows no signs of being Jewish.

We took a Lipetsk bus to go to our next destination. Emma told off two boys who said “fuck you” very loudly on the bus. “We have Americans here and you are making a bad impression” is what I think she said to him. Afterward she told me that we were probably the first foreigners these boys had ever met.

Our guides took us to the Lipetsk historical museum. The building looked like a mansion with grand windy staircases and long elegant windows covered with white chiffon curtains. We started by looking at pictures of life in the Russian gulag – prison. Emma carefully explained the pictures to us as we walked through. Our next stop was a room about the early history of the USSR. We looked at political cartoons where capitalist was beating the worker, at newspaper headlines, typewriter, and other artifacts. Emma kept us informed with anecdotes about the history – for instance there was a law about World War II that the Soviet Union must win and that no one may turn back from a fight. This was a very cruel law because if a small number of soldiers encountered a large army they were forbidden to retreat and guards would stand in the back and shoot anyone who fled the fight in panic.

The next room was about World War II. Posters boasting “We will go to Berlin!” were interspersed with reproductions of army tents and pictures of soldiers. In Russia World War II remains a significant part of national identity – 13% of the population perished during the war. We passed a giant World War II memorial on our way from the Lipetsk train station, and we’ve been told by others on similar trips that World War II was omnipresent throughout the FSU.

The next two rooms were art exhibits. The first was of a painter who used broad firm strokes to create his art. Trees in bright yellow formed a cage behind which you could see cities. He also painted a lot of still lives of food and especially fruit – a bowl of strawberries for instance. A portrait of the painter hung on the wall. He looked through a window into the distance while behind him a stern but elegant pile of lines and curves was lit dimly from the sunlight streaming through the window. It looked like limbs, or perhaps just abstract shapes, like metal or water. Emma thought that this abstract piece might represent the painter’s art. The second room was of Russian landscapes. Some snowy and barren, some with hills and trees and wheat. The sky was gray in most pictures but where there were people they seemed quite happy. In one a monk reclines and dips his feet into a river, a look of ecstasy gracing his face as it reaches toward the sky. In another, a little hut covered with snow sits modestly in a barren landscape. As we were leaving a woman who worked in the museum approached Emma and asked her to translate as she asked us which paintings we’d liked and told us which were her favorites. She seemed very peased to have foreign visitors – I guess it isn’t every day that tourists visit the Lipetsk Museum.

We went out to lunch and chatted a bit with our guides. We learned that Viola is originally from the Ukraine. She lives her as does her sister, and one of her cousins lives not far away, but the rest of her family is still in the Ukraine. She doesn’t know if teaching is really her calling, she likes to work with children but she also loves to travel and might be interested in working in the tourist industry. She has been abroad as part of her university, she and a group of students spent the summer at Wildwood studying English and working in housekeeping. Katya has lived in Lipetsk all her life, but her family is from a small town two days away by train. She still has a grandmother there who she sees about once every two years. Katya studied English at school and in an exchange program in Ireland. She won a contest for an English language learning organization and was able to go by herself for two weeks to England to study English there as well. She told us that she has two certificates in English and her English is probably the best of any of the high schoolers in Lipetsk. Next year she hopes to go to Moscow for university and eventually she wants to move abroad and go into business. Both women seemed excited to practice their English skills with us. At the end of lunch Daniel, Emma and I did some last-minute preparation for the seder. We had wanted to do an acting activity but Emma couldn’t find a good text in Russian for it on the internet, so the three of us hurriedly wrote it on our own. Daniel and I told a simplified version of the exodus story broken into scenes, and Emma translated as we told. We printed the translations and quickly changed into our fancy Pesach clothes and took a cab to the restaurant where the seder would be held.

We were greeted enthusiastically by Olga who was dressed to the nines in a glittery dress and bright lipstick. The restaurant is called “The Cave” – it has stone walls and wooden doorways, kind of a mock medieval feel. The community rents it out for Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Channukah, and Purim – the community funds don’t cover it but instead they charge each member for the event, and the members give extra as a fund for those who can’t afford it. It is a big room and was arranged with the tables all around the walls so there was space in the middle. A table was set up in front where we would stand and lead the seder. It all reminded me a bit of a Bat Mitzvah reception, with microphones and a DJ seated behind us.

We went over some last minute details about the seder and presented Olga with some gifts for the community. Olga I the community’s jack-of-all-trades and matriarch. She teaches them Hebrew, leads their services, and brings people together. She said that the community has something like ten different clubs – two Hebrew classes, a youth group, a kabbalat Shabbat group, a women’s group, a group for lovers of Jerusalem, a group for lovers of singer-songwriter music, and classes for children, among others. She says that it is not good for one person to do everything and she tries to divide the responsibilities – she’s designated a youth group coordinator for instance – but that she is basically the community’s leader and expert. She is very proud of her community, which she says is growing. She told us that many members of the community have prominent positions in Lipetsk – one is a lawyer, one runs the Lipetsk hotel, etc, but it seems that many others are factory workers, which is how most people are employed in this city. She told us that the community had won a grant to bring together Azirbijani, Armenian, and Jewish youth. In fact, three different people proudly told us of this program and their hopes of its continued success.

Olga introduced us at the beginning of the seder (in which about 45 people – children, youth, adults, and elderly – attended) and told everyone that the seder is very important and they should be patient though they are hungry and appreciate the ritual. Then, she handed us the microphone, sat down, and it was just me, Daniel, and Emma in front of the crowd. We were nervous at first – Emma told us her knees were knocking – but we started to get the hang of it after a while. We went through the seder, explaining briefly as we went through each piece, singing some pieces and saying others, and sometimes asking congregation members to read sections in Russian translation, and at the maggid we had each table act out a different scene from the story. Everyone participated enthusiastically and this was a definite highlight for us and for the community. We made it to the meal a bit hurriedly as Olga told Emma that we should be quicker because many people had come straight from work and were tired and hungry. Nevertheless we did all of the pieces of the seder before the meal enthusiastically if a bit quickly.

We never finished the after-meal part of the seder as the festivities that followed seemed important to the community’s traditions and we didn’t want to put a damper on the celebrations. First, as we at our salads (they had ordered special vegetarian food for us) Olga talked about the importance of the Jewish community as a place where people help each other and support one another and are intimately connected. She spoke many times throughout the evening about the importance of the community and about how she is so proud of her Jewish community. Then, the community wished happy birthday to a member – a group of five or six community members stood up and recited a poem about the member, gave speeches, and sang songs before giving her a necklace as a gift.

Then, the dancing began. The DJ played some music beginning with Hava Negila and then going into a mix of American contemporary and oldies-style music mixed with Russian pop and even a few Yiddish songs. We barely had a chance to eat because we danced so much – everyone was on the floor, from young to old. One older man, who told Emma to tell me he was originally from Odessa, asked me to dance many times. He danced wildly and enthusiastically and at one point showed off his Russian dancing for me, falling over as he squatted on the floor and kicked his legs. At another point as we were sitting at the table a boy and a girl from the youth group approached us and asked us to dance. The boy, Zachar, took my hand and led me on the floor for a slow dance, while the girl danced with Daniel. I was sent right back to middle school as he put his hands tentatively on my waist and I on his shoulders and we rocked back and forth and spun in a circle in awkward but pleased silence. At one point he asked me in English “Do you speak any Russian?” and I said “No. Do you speak any English?” “No” Then silence. Later he said, “Good music.” And I said, “yes.” After a while I said, “You dance well” and he thought for a while before producing the words, “Thank you.”

All evening different people came up to us to introduce themselves and to complement and thank us. The youth director, Matvey, told us that we were the best team of HUC students they’ve ever had here – the best prepared and the most enthusiastic. Several people complemented my voice as well. When we were seated with the young adults – who were very friendly and excited to chat with us, with Emma’s help, they poured us several shots of vodka (not Kosher for Passover but we decided that we didn’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable so we didn’t point it out) and told us to drink with them because it pulls people together. I took small sips and no one seemed to mind that I wasn’t drinking much. They poured Daniel’s glasses high though and he drank them without flinching.

The dancing went on for a long long time and was great fun. It was interrupted only once when the afikomen was found and Olga presented the winner with the puzzle Daniel and I brought from Israel, and gave stickers we brought of the aleph bet to all of the students. She quizzed the community with questions like, “What was the name of Moses’s sister?” and when she finished with the quiz she told everyone how proud she was of them – I imagine that she taught everyone the answers to these questions herself. At one point some people from the youth group asked if we would have our picture taken with them and we and the youth group (about eight students and the director) went into the foyer for group photos. One member of the youth group had Emma translate as he told us that it means so much to them for us to come and it really shows them that someone cares about them and what they are doing and it is so important. He hopes to go to school in Israel and eventually go to American and live with his aunt in Chicago. It seems that few of the young people here want to stay here.

At 11:00 PM we called for a taxi and to the protests from the few people who remained that we were leaving so early, we left with many embraces, and exchanged e-mail addresses with many people who hope to visit us some day.

All night certain people had been excited to be near us – Katya danced with me a lot and sat close by to practice her English – I will write her an e-mail as soon as I get home and hop she will stay in touch with us. Emma was terrific and really made everything possible. She was with us all the time and translated every word unfailingly. It was because of her that we were able to communicate almost seamlessly with the community and know what was going on.

At the end of the night as we entered our hotel room she said to us, “I don’t think you understand what your visit means to these people and how hard it is to be a Jew her even now. You have done something very important for them by coming – it is not a small thing.” She’s right that we can’t understand – but perhaps we are beginning to see. Leonid has only been to this community once, so even though they are a strong community and some of them have been to Israel on MASA, they are really mostly on their own, trying to discover Jewish practices under Olga’s guidance and hold together their identity and their community.

FSU Journal Day 4

Day 4

In the morning after breakfast Daniel and I planned for the Kabbalat Shabbat service we would be leading in the evening and took some time to rest. At 1:00 PM we met Mattvey, the youth group coordinator, and Emma, and walked with them to a restaurant for lunch. Mattvey is a chef – he graduated from a two year cooking degree program and works as a chef though his hobby is working with computers. With Emma’s help, we talked to Mattvey for a long time about a number of different subjects – it started off as a light conversation about cooking, life, movies, etc., but eventually became a very serious and informative talk. We learned that there is a lot of tension between Chabad and the progressive community. This is something we had learned about Chabad in the FSU generally – ((incidentally if you want to read a good summary of contemporary Jewish culture in Moscow there is a terrifically useful chapter in it in David Shneer and Caryn Aviv’s work New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora)) Matvey told us that Chabad claims it has the only legitimate form of Judaism and it does so in a noninclusive way – the Chabad Rabbi sad that a Jew married to a non-Jew is as toxic as a person with AIDS. 80% of the Jewish community in Lipetsk is intermarried and the progressive community welcomes non-Jewish family and friends as members of the community. Chabad has more money, government recognition, and international clout, while the progressive community here is more or less on its own. Chabad meets in a beautiful new synagogue and the progressive community in a small room in an office building, though the Chabad community is only a few years old and the progressive community was founded fifteen years ago.

We asked how much Jewish history the community knows and found that they know very little, and that the Holocaust is barely taught in public school. Certainly the Jews here are more aware of Holocaust history than are their non-Jewish counterparts, but that knowledge seems limited, and knowledge of Jewish history outside of the Holocaust is all but nonexistent.

Daniel and Mattvey talked at length about whether one needs to follow commandments to be a Jew. Mattvey argued against the Chabad model and Daniel mostly agreed with him that Jew should not feel obliged to follow all of the commandments in order to consider themselves Jewish. Moreover, he encouraged Matvey not to think of himself as practicing Judaism as defined by Orthodoxy incorrectly, but instead to think of himself as practicing progressive Judaism correctly.

We asked Mattvey if he wants to stay in Lipetsk or move away and he said he wants to stay – he can have a good job and a good life here. He told us that people are always thinking that life is bad in Lipetsk and would be better in Israel but Mattvey thinks that life here is good - he feels connected to the Jewish community here and has economic opportunities as a chef that might not be available to him elsewhere. He also feels connected to Jews around the world because he has family and friends in Israel, France, England, Belarus, and Ukraine. He has done training as a youth group leader and has gone to Jewish camps, so he has connections with Jews throughout Russia and the FSU. But ultimately Lipetsk is his home and where he wants to be.

After lunch we took a bus to a run down office building, and in a small room about the size of the living room in our Jerusalem apartment, we found the home of the progressive community. Apparently they used to be in a larger space but recently downsized because of the economic crisis.

We were visiting for a youth group meeting – about six youth groupers sat round a table and we were to answer their questions about Judaism, American Jewish life, and ourselves. They started by asking about youth group in America, and we answered their questions about its structure and size. Very quickly, though, Olga pushed the conversation toward how these Jews learned that they were Jewish (and when) and what this means for them. The stories were incredible and really beyond my expectations. Several of these teenagers had spent most of their childhoods not knowing that they were Jews. One boy, Zachar, learned that he was Jewish two years ago. His grandmother lives in Israel and when he was growing up his parents told him that his grandmother was in Australia. One day two years ago Zachar’s parents were talking about Israel and Zachar asked why they were talking about this subject. They revealed to him that his grandmother was actually in Israel and that the family was Jewish. He didn’t get involved in the Jewish community right away, but when he learned about MASA, Naaleh, and other such programs he went to Olga to ask her to be a reference for him, so that he can leave Lipetsk for Israel. As he was preparing by learning Hebrew, he realized that the Jews were just normal people and that he liked them, and he became involved with the youth group. Almost everyone in the room had similar stories – they learned that they were Jews recently and got involved in order to go on an Israel program. If it weren’t for these programs they wouldn’t have pursued their Jewish identities at all, but now they are active and learning and leading their lives as Jews. Only one of the students, Katya, had been involved in the Jewish community since she was little. She said that her mother has always had Jewish friends, but she doesn’t think she is really Jewish. She’s been a member of the community since she was seven and it is a major part of her life. When she was little she used to play Jewish songs on the keyboard for the community.

We asked if everyone wants to leave the community and Olga told us that most young people do not want to stay in Russia. I asked if this was sad for the community and she said that the goal of the community is to teach and foster Judaism and as long as the kids stay Jewish she considers it a success wherever they are. Many go to Israel, but a large percent do stay in Russia. The reasons that they want to go to Israel became progressively more clear to us as the conversation wore on. The Lipetsk economy is not good, and Israel offers a way out. Also the education in Israel is better. We gave them opportunities to ask us questions and Zachar asked Daniel how long he had been in Israel. “Did you serve in the US army then?” he asked. Mattvey explained to Zachar trhat in the US military service is not required and Zachar explained to us that many boys try to get to Israel because the conditions in the Israeli are much better than the Russian army, so they escape the Russian army and go into the Israeli one. We learned that Russian young men are drafted into the Russian army which has extreme hazing practices including beating, rapes, and death. Insufficient supplies, poor pay, and absence of proper training are only a few of the problems that make the Russian army such a terrifying possibility for Zachar and boys like him. Many young Russians escape from the draft through bribery and influence. They go to college to postpone the draft and after college they run away or pay money so they won’t have to go. Those who do go to the army are already disadvantaged – they don’t have the money for bribery. So it’s easy to understand why making aliyah seems like an attractive option.

Daniel asked what the students like about being Jewish and they said it has to do with the sense of community. People here would do anything for each other and are a family. They also said that being Jewish is interesting. Russians are very invested in conformity, but in the Jewish community it is possible to ask questions, talk about interesting and unusual subjects and learn new things. This makes Jews more interesting to these youths than are other people.

The youth group meeting was a surprising and really incredible conversation in which we began to understand what being Jewish means here. We later learned that other groups did not face similar stories of people discovering their Jewishness and wanting to make aliyah, and these stories might be more prevalent in Lipetsk than elsewhere – it’s hard to tell. Olga learned that she was Jewish fifteen years ago, and knew nothing about what that meant. She founded the Jewish community originally just so that Jewish people could meet each other and see other Jews. But the community came to realize that nothing would really happen for them if they couldn’t teach the children. Then Olga began to study Judaism. She has a degree in social work, but her office is lined with other certificates as well. She graduated from the Melton Institute of Jewish Education at Hebrew University, took part in a JCC leadership training institute in Vilna, wrote two award winning programs for her community, and much more. Single-handedly she teaches whoever wants to know what it means to be Jewish and sends the young people on Israel trips so that they can learn more. She is strong and even a bit bossy but is also incredibly talented and knowledgeable – she is a guitar player and songwriter, she is a leader of prayer, a teacher, and administrator, and a fundraiser. And she is a much loved matriarch who has built the community all by herself.

The kids thanked us warmly for our visit but I don’t think they learned nearly as much from us as we did from them – I will be thinking long and hard about them and what it means for them to be Jewish in Lipetsk.

After the youth group meeting, we had a few minutes to prepare a bit for Kabbalat Shabbat services. In the meantime, community members started coming in casually, bearing bowls of food, looking at pictures from Pesach on Olga’s older-looking computer, talking, and laughing. They pushed the tables to the side and set up rows of chairs facing an ark in which a Torah, donated by a congregation in Brooklyn, NY, rests.

Daniel, Emma, and I sat in front and before we began the service we introduced ourselves in more detail than the previous evening and everyone asked a lot of questions – how long are we in Israel, where are we from, what do we do, etc. They were interested that I study Yiddish alongside English literature at university as those things seemed drastically different to them. They asked if my family speaks Hebrew or Yiddish and where I learned the languages.

We began the service. Olga usually leads the services each week and so they know some but not all of the tunes and prayers but they were eager to participate and to sing along where they could. I led most of the music, and Daniel gave a short drash (translated by Emma) about the Torah portion and the congregation listened carefully, nodding their heads to confirm their understanding. After services, as we folded our talitot, the congregation pulled out the tables and chairs and laid the table with food they had brought – salads, fish, vegetables, a latke-like patty made out of matzoh, etc. We sat down to partake of the feast.

We sat at one end of the table and Olga sat at the head. Across the table she called to Emma “What do they do on Shabbat? Do they have food at synagogue?” and the conversation proceeded – questions from Olga and our responses, with comments from around the table and frequent urges for Emma to take a rest and eat and let another English speaker translate a bit. The conversation quickly moved from questions about our Shabbat to questions about our families – are our brothers and sisters all Jewish? Are they Chabad or Reform? This led into a heated conversation about Chabad, which is constantly insulting the community and challenging their sense of authenticity. Olga often hears complaints about Chabad from her community members but she tries to smooth things over because she wants the Jewish community to be able to present a united front. It’s hard enough to be Jewish in Lipetsk without internal problems – Russians do not like people who are different. Chabad has official relationshops with the government, has a whole beautiful building, but not enough congregants to fill it, and everyone we spoke to seems to feel that the community would be better off with no rabbi than with a Chabad rabbi who competes for their members. Of course we did not speak with any members of the Chabad synagogue, who I’m sure have a different opinion. Nevertheless, it is clear that Chabad is imposing its own views about Judaism on a community that is uncomfortable with them.

We paused our conversation a bit in order to do some singing – in Russian with Olga playing the guitar. They sang a song about Jewish eyes which are filled with tears of joy and sadness – you know Jews anywhere because of their eyes. We heard a song about the “rights of Jewish women” which was called “I will marry Jewish.” In it the women say that it is better to find a Jewish man because he will treat them well –he won’t spend his money and time on alcohol, if he is out late it is because he is working, etc. I’m not sure how well a song like this about Jewish superiority would go over in the US but in a country where “Jew” is still somewhat of a slur, I could see why promoting positive self image is so important.

After singing we again became the focus of conversation. They asked us how we were chosen to go to Russia and we explained a bit about the FSU project and how we are a part of a larger group sent throughout the FSU and had requested to go to Russia because Daniel’s family is originally from there. They asked a question about how we were able to pay for the trip during the financial crisis and as Katya translated she said that everyone is always thinking about and worrying about the crisis. I explained our fundraising activity and they seemed please that our communities were so willing to send us to the FSU and to think that it was a worthy project. As the evening wore on, the conversation drifted to Yiddish. They told me that here only a few older people know Yiddish and the language is dying out. They are very sorry that the young people don’t know any Yiddish and the older people have no one to talk to. Not only did they want to talk about my chosen profession, they seemed especially eager to talk to Daniel in his Rabbinical role. People asked him questions as a rabbinical authority – one woman asked when she should commemorate yartzheit for her grandfather who passed away in the Holocaust – she doesn’t know where or when. Someone else had questions about brit milah. Daniel answered all of these questions adeptly and patiently. I took on a cantorial role, I suppose, in that they asked me to sing some songs for them. I sang a few songs in Yiddish that were easy to learn and these seemed to be appreciated and enjoyed. One congregant told me that I should become a professional singer. In fact, the community veritably flooded us with compliments though they insisted that these were not compliments but truths. They told us that we were the first rabbinical students who they felt really communicated why they had come. They appreciated our enthusiasm and they said that they believe that Daniel is a very special, wise person who will be a natural fit as a rabbi. They told us we should consider ourselves to be part of their community – honorary members who are always welcome to return, and gave us a gift of postcards of Liptesk that we can take back with us.

Soon it was time to leave and we hugged and kissed everyone and tore ourselves away from our new friends in order to pack our bags and catch the train to Moscow. In the hotel as we were packing, Daniel and I discussed that we were able to be so successful because of Emma, who made it possible for us to understand and communicate so fluidly.

On the train we stayed up late, playing cards and joking with Emma.

FSU Journal Day 5

Day 5

The train ride was much more pleasant this time, as it was just the three of us and we knew what to expect. We stayed up late playing cards and munching on matzah and cheese. It was past midnight when we settled down and went to bed. I woke up early in the morning to see out the window rows and rows of dimly lit trees hovering majestically over the snow-dusted ground. I watched the scenery go by for a while – a cluster of large, high-ceilinged homes near agricultural fields, and then trees and trees and trees. Finally, I allowed myself to go back to sleep, waking up a few hours later to the music that signifies the ten-minute warning to arrival. We hastily put on our shoes, threw our playing cards and matzah into our backpacks and left the train.

We went straight to the hotel to freshen up a bit and from there to the center for progressive Judaism for Shabbat morning services. On the shared van on the way to the progressive Judaism center, Emma asked Daniel where Passover comes from – whether he thinks the historic roots are economic, cultural, political, etc. Daniel gave her a learned answer (he’s getting very rabbinical these days) and a conversation proceeded about different fasts in different religions and about the symbols that different religions use to remind them of core ideas or beliefs. Without objects, it’s hard to imagine what a religion would be. We talked about the prohibition on graven images and why this might have existed – does seeing a picture of G-d so influence the way we think about G-d that it is hard to imagine G-d any other way than according to the depictions? And is this a bad thing? Emma said that it seemed to her that Christians have more objects and symbols than Jews – they have different kinds of fasts that seem to happen more often, they have icons, pussy willows (what Russians use instead of palms for Palm Sunday), crosses, etc. We reminded her of all the objects, ritual and otherwise, that Jews do have, and how they are used to remind us of Judaism’s ideals, but are also in and of themselves powerful because they create the boundaries between holiday and not-holiday. We know it is Passover because there is matzah and a seder plate- if there was no matzah or seder plate but on one day everyone thought about freedom , would it still be Passover? Anyway, it was an interesting conversation and I mostly made note of it because I thought it was interesting to hear people “ask the rabbi” questions about Judaism and religion and to see how well Daniel responded to the responsibility of being the question-answerer.

Services at the progressive Judaism center were quite nice. About 30 people were in the congregation, but we are told that the number is often much higher and people are probably just a little Jew-ed out after their Passover seders. The progressive community in Moscow boasts two rabbis, Sasha and Leonid, and a cantor. This is particularly impressive as there are only six progressive rabbis serving the whole Former Soviet Union area. The congregation itself is quite knowledgeable – one congregant read the Torah, another did the blessings, and all the Machon students were in the congregation as well. The rabbis called me and Daniel up to the Torah for aliyot, which was very nice. The tunes were familiar and aside from the drash in Russian, it was not unlike attending a Reform service in Israel or the US.
After services were over, we went to the oneg hall, where they served different kinds of fish, caviar, matzah, wine, cheese, and dried fruit. We had a little snack and while we were eating several congregants introduced themselves to us. Some spoke a little Hebrew to us, others spoke English. One man in particular had quite good English and we asked him questions about what Jewish life was like during the Soviet Union. He told us that he always knew that he was Jewish but he never knew what it meant to be Jewish, that is until recently. Our conversation was cut a bit short because he had to run off to the Hebrew class that Leonid was teaching, so Daniel and I went up to the Rabbis’ offices to check our e-mail and rest a bit before our next activity.

Emma, who had gone home for the morning, came to the office to join us and we sat in the kitchen with her to have a cup of tea. People kept coming in and out, chatting with us and preparing for various activities. That night they were hosting a deaf seder with an expected turnout of something like thirty deaf Jews, and that afternoon there was to be a youth group Havdalah service. Leonid and a youth group student came to join us as we joked around. We learned a bit about Emma’s curriculum. For the first year of translation school her major assignments involve memorizing passages from her textbook and reciting them – her marks are based largely on pronunciation. We spent a lot of time making fun of the passages she has to recite – “oh I think it is going to rain, let me fetch my umbrella. I’m glad I remembered to wear my mackintosh today.”

Eventually we left the office to go to the Red Square and visit the State Historical Museum. The museum was opened in 1894 by Tsar Alexander III and its lavish decorations include a ceiling paiting depicting a family tree of the Russian monarchs from Olga of Kiev (890-969) to Alexander III (1845-1894). It charts the history of Russia from ancient tribal beginnings through to the Romanov tsars of the 19th century. All of the exhibits were written in Russian, but Emma guided us through much of it and from whatever knowledge we had of Russian history we were able to decipher some of the rest. I was certainly impressed not only here but throughout Russia at the centrality of Peter the Great in the retelling of Russian History. He seems to be the watershed marker between traditional and European Russia.

When we left the museum we intended to go into St. Basils Cathedral, but found that we were too late. Instead we visited the Kazan Cathedral, and went inside during a service. Inside, the church was filled with people holding pussy willows to be blessed for Palm Sunday. The choir sang solemn hymns as we wandered around the building, glancing at women with their heads covered by scarves lighting candles at the altars of saints. At one point, Emma motioned to us that we should stand against the wall, and several priests walked by in a procession, burning incense as they walked. The Kazan Cathedral was originally erected as a shrine in the early 1630’s to mark the city’s liberation from the Poles during the Time of Troubles. It was destroyed by a fire in 1632 and the Tsar ordered the church to be rebuilt with brick. The church was renovated many times until it is now not known how the church originally appeared. In 1936, when the government was preparing the Red Square as a site for military parades, Stalin ordered that all churches in the Red Square should be destroyed, and the cathedral was demolished. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Kazan Cathedral was the first church to be completely rebuild after having been destroyed by the Communists. The restoration was completed in 1993, and now church services are conducted in the cathedral regularly.

We went to dinner in a coffee shop and eventually we were met by the progressive Jewish youth group with whom we were going to do Havdalah. We sat and chatted while waiting for the sun to set, and then we took to the streets. The youth group has a program once a month in which they bring students to different landmarks of the Jewish history of Moscow, explain the significance of the place, and then have Havdalah. This week, they went to the place where the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee held their first rally. There, we read a plaque that told of the committee in Russian, and in Yiddish said the word “gedenk” which means “remember.” The Jewish Antifascist Committee was a Soviet Jewish Organization that operated from 1942 to 1948. Its goal was to call on the Jews of the world, and in particular on American Jewry, to join the struggle against Nazi Germany by supporting Soviet war efforts. The committee was also one of the first institutions to document the atrocities of the Holocaust. It was chaired by Solomon Mikhoels, the popular actopr and director of the Moscow Jewish State Theater. The committee was also considered to be the central representative body of the Jews in the Soviet Union. It had its own newspaper in Yiddish, Eynikeyt (Unity) in which some of the most popular Yiddish writers published. It was dissolved by the Soviet authorities in November 1948 and most of its leaders were executed.

After hearing this sobering story, we walked across the street to a park featuring a giant statue of Freidrich Engels, and stood in a circle for Havdalah. The tune, written by Debbie Friedman, reminded me of how small the world really is. At the end of the Havdalah service, everyone dipped their pinkies into the wine cup and dabbed the wine on their temples. Daniel and I asked Emma what was going on and she was very surprised that we didn’t know. She said it’s a superstition that the wine will grant you luck wherever you place it – if you put it on your temples it will make you smart, if you touch your chest it will bring you much love, if you touch your lips it will make you eloquent, etc. I don’t know where this comes from, but I kind of like it – maybe we should bring it to NFTY or something.

After Havdalah, Emma’s friend invited us back to his apartment for some tea. In all there were seven of us: Emma and her friend, me and Daniel, Leonid and two youth group kids. The friend’s apartment was beautiful – an old building with a painting on the ceiling of the foyer. His dad is a sculptor, and there were photographs of his sculptures on the wall (he does big public monuments). The friend (whose name I don’t remember, sorry) is a very talented photographer, and his art was hanging on the walls as well – they were really terrific. He is now attending an art school, but is thinking about leaving to go into audio production for theater.

Our conversation at the friend’s apartment began with Emma asking me to recount a brief history of Yiddish for her. I thought it was fun that she addressed me with a Yiddish-professor-to-be question, just like she addressed Daniel with rabbi-to-be questions. I explained a bit about the history of Yiddish and she asked whether one might say that Yiddish was more a dialect than a language. This led to a long discussion about the boundaries between dialects and languages: is AAVE a dialect or a language? How about Ukranian? We talked about how people who speak dialects are seen as speaking their language incorrectly, whereas people speaking other languages are seen as speaking their own language correctly – so language is a title of respect. This was a very interesting conversation and everyone was involved in it, commenting on different dialects they know and how different they are from Russian, or how similar, and how people respond to accents that deviate from the normative Moscow Russian. The conversation about language and about Yiddish went on for some time, before we moved to another topic – we asked the students to tell us a bit about how history is thought about in Russia – how do people remember the USSR? They told us that many people are nostalgic for the USSR and hope that it will come back. If you were not a dissident, the USSR promised security that people no longer feel. Also, people tend to remember the good things about the past and forget the bad, which leads them to yearn for a past that was not as perfect as they remember. Obviously Jewish life was not better under the USSR, but apparently some things were better, and we cannot discount that under the USSR there were some stellar accomplishments, and that in contrast to the Russian Empire, the people felt more empowered and in control. Emma’s friend quoted Putin to us, saying, “If you don’t want the USSR to come back, you have no heart, but if you do want the USSR to come back, you have no mind.” People wanting the USSR to come back can also be a problem because many people blame its collapse on the Jews. The government encourages teachers in school not to paint the Soviet Union as something good that they want to return to, and in order to make the USSR seem ‘bad’ they must make the Russian Empire seem, by way of contrast ‘good’ – which causes some problems too. What I found most interesting about this conversation is not only does Russia have no history of democracy, but they aren’t really practicing it today. They have a very low voter turn out and most people just assume that Putin will be their leader and want it that way, as he is seen as strong – one could go as far as to say that they are electing a dictator. A few days later, Jordan asked us if we felt, while we were in Russia, as though the Cold War was still going in – between the visas we needed to get there and the streets named after Lenin, there was something very Cold War-ish about the experience. I am reminded of history classes when we were urged to consider that when historians break time into chunks in order to study it – be it decades or centuries or the reign of a king – the differences between these blocks of time did not emerge suddenly on New Year’s eve of the next time block, but evolved. Maybe Russia is still moving into its next stage, just like 1980’s fashions lingered regrettably long into the 90’s. (OK a bad analogy but you see my point)

Emma asked us whether our experiences in Russia matched our expectations. She told us that she had met another group of Americans, from Atlanta GA, who had unrealistic expectations about Russia and were very surprised. They expected that Russia was very rural and were anticipating seeing bears walking on the streets of Moscow. They thought Russians drink all the time and don’t have access to modern amenities. We told Emma that our experiences weren’t far from our expectations, but we also told her that, not unlike a trip to Israel, we had come to Eastern Europe with the hope and expectation that we would feel some kind of personal connection to the land of our ancestors. And maybe we did, actually, feel that connection. Emma thought this was strange as we aren’t Russian speakers, my family did not come from Russia proper (to the best of my knowledge), and even if our family had come from Moscow itself it would have been generations and generations ago. It didn’t even occur to her that we might have been feeling this nostalgic connection to a Jewish homeland here in Russia, and to me her not thinking about it is as interesting as our thinking about it.

In any case, after tea at the friend’s house we returned to the hotel to sleep in real beds for the night.