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.