Thursday, April 16, 2009

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.

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