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.