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.