Thursday, April 16, 2009

FSU Journal Day 6

Day 6

After a quick breakfast, Daniel and I met Emma in the lobby of the hotel in order to go to the market and look for some interesting Russian souvenirs. The first area we came to was reminiscent of the Israeli shuk or an American flea market – stalls of clothes and household goods, people calling out to us to convince us to look at their wares, etc. The clothing that they were selling was all very Russian in the sense that it was much more fashionable-looking than you might find, say, in the US.

When we came to the end of this area, we paid a small admission price to enter the souvenir and antique parts of the market. Emma assured us that the souvenirs are of good quality and are far cheaper here than at the tourist attractions. Stall after stall sold Gzhel ceramics (a folk art produced in the village of Gzhel since 1802 – it is white with blue designs), metryoshka dolls (Russian nesting dolls – the wooden dolls that open up to reveal other little dolls inside), lacquer boxes depicting famous Russian sites or fairy tales, fur hats, birchbark decorative crafts, wooden toys, plates painted with Russian designs, porcelain dolls, and decorative eggs. We strolled past all of these gifts, calculating how many rubles we had and translating the prices to dollars (about 33 rubles to one dollar). Emma negotiated for us as we purchased a little plate, an egg, a box, and some dolls.

Afterwards, we went for a stroll in the antique segment of the market. Emma told us that she loves to walk through here because the different accents and kinds of things people discuss here belong to another time – the people play chess and discuss history among the artifacts of a bygone era. We saw samovars, swords, photographs, wall hangings, dishes, paintings, and much more. As we walked through the stalls some shopkeepers offered to explain their items to us even though they could tell that we had no intention of purchasing anything. As we were poking around, Daniel stumbled upon a beautiful silver yad (what one would use to read the Torah) sitting on a table next to a Bible with a painting of Jesus on the cover. We picked up the yad and examined the details – two little chassids danced around the top. We asked the price, but as $200 was outside our souvenir budget, we regretfully put our find back on the table for another traveler to find someday. Later we also found a channukiah perched on a shelf of decorative items. One of our finniest finds was at a coin stand, where a man was selling, among other things, New Israeli Shekels (yes, the currency that Daniel and I use every day). Daniel was thinking that if the price wasn’t too high, we could maybe make some money off of this, and he asked the price, but it was roughly equivalent to the 10 NIS coin that we would have been buying. The guy was selling half shekel coins for the same price as 10 shekel coins, and we thought that was kind of a rip off for whoever was buying… so Daniel offered to sell the guy some shekels, but he said he had enough. Too bad. As we were heading out of the antique area, Daniel stopped to admire some amethysts that an old man was selling, and found himself (along with Emma) trapped in conversation with the man, who told him about the process of polishing the stones, and about the superstitious beliefs about the stones being able to give health and fortune.

While we were in the market, Emma called Anya to see if David and Jordan had made it to the hotel, and we learned that they were milling around the same market as we were. We met them excitedly and swapped some stories with them about our travels in Lipetsk and their trip to the Ural mountains and the Western edge of Siberia.

Several days ago I had mentioned to Emma that I would be interested in seeing the place where the Moscow Yiddish Theater had once performed, and so today our first stop was to be the theater and the synagogue nearby.

When we arrived at the synagogue, two older woman greeted us, saying “Chag Sameach!” We went through a security check and at the other side a traditionally dressed man addressed Daniel, Jordan, and David in Hebrew, asking where they were from and if they would like a tour. Our translators looked on as he spoke to us in Hebrew, telling us the history of the building. It was erected in 1883 by the Jewish railroad baron Shmuel Poliakov – it had once been his home. During that time, public synagogues were not permitted in Moscow, but because Poliakov was so influential, he was allowed to open the synagogue so long as only his family would attend. He had a very small family, but he included on the list of those permitted the names of many of his friends as well. I don’t remember the whole history of the building, but as I understand it, the synagogue was closed during the soviet era and reopened as a chabad house, which is how it currently functions. Around the original building, they have constructed a larger structure with classroom and offices, so that the outside of the original building remains, encased in the later structure. In the sanctuary, the man giving us the tour showed Daniel, David, and Jordan that there is a trap door on the bimah that leads to an exit, so that if there is any trouble, the congregants will be able to escape. This is no idle threat, another Lubavich synagogue in Moscow, the Marina Roscha synagogue, has been subject to fire in 1993, bombings in 1996 and 1998 and a stabbing in 2006. This makes Jewish life seem pretty bleak in Moscow, but the synagogue enjoys a large rate of participation (too large, from the perspective of the progressive Jews we talked to) and seems to be a vibrant, active community. When we left, Anna and Emma were very angry though. They told us that the Chabadnik who had spoken to us had pulled them aside and offered them money in order that they would bring their friends to the synagogue. When they told him that they were Reform and that they didn’t think it was appropriate to pay their friends to participate in Judaism, he told them that he would give them the money and they could give their friends presents for participating instead. They left in a huff and spouted to us their frustrations about Chabad and its manipulative outreach strategies. They told us that they are shocked by this idea of Judaism and proud of their Reform practices.

From the synagogue we walked to the theater where once performed Solomon Mikhoels in the famous avant-garde Moscow Yiddish Theater. There wasn’t much to see there beyond a plaque on the wall, but we spent a few minutes reviewing the history of the place, and you can imagine I was tickled to be doing some Yiddish tourism! In brief, let me answer two questions: 1) What was the Moscow Yiddish Theater? The Moscow State Yiddish Theater (which you can read all about in a terrific book by Benjamin Harshav) was founded in 1919 in Petersberg and moved to the new capital of the Soviet Union, Moscow, a year later. Given what we know about the suppression of Jewishness in the Soviet Union it may come as a surprise that such a thing as a state-sponsored Yiddish theater ever existed, but Stalin’s policies shifted dramatically from his initial encouragement of national/ethnic cultures in ways that were in support of the Soviet project to his later insistence that all Soviet citizens must conform to the same patterns and ideals. The theater was founded by Alexander Granovsky, and as a sophisticated avant-garde theater, it became a symbol of secular Yiddish culture in the USSR and the world over. It performed mythical abstract pieces based in Jewish folklore and folk life. Two of the most famous participants were Mark Chagall, who designed sets and costumes for the productions, and Solomon Mikhoels, a very talented actor and director. The theater closed in 1949 a year after Mikhoels was murdered in a Stalinist purge. 2) Who was Solomon Mikhoels? Solomon Mikhoels was a great and famous actor and director for the Moscow State Yiddish Theater. He was also the chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, supporting Stalin against the encroaching threat of Nazism. He traveled around the word trying to garner support for the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany. After the war, Stalin became suspicious of Jewish contacts with other Jews outside of the USSR and with Jewish self-expression generally. He closed the Yiddish theater and the Jewish Anti-Fascist committee, eventually executing all but two of its members. Mikhoels was the first to be executed, in January 1948 in Minsk, in a staged car accident. He received a state funeral.

So, we snapped a few photos, and then we headed to lunch. On the way, we picked up a gingerbread cake, which we are told is a terrific Russian treat, and decided that when we returned to Israel we would have a tea party with it to celebrate the end of Passover. Over lunch we talked about David and Jordan’s trip – we learned about the vibrant Jewish communities they met, and the great need that these communities have for more support. They spoke to us of a para-rabbinic leader of a community who really wants to go back to school but feels he cannot leave because there is no one to replace him and the community will fall apart without him. We learned much about tensions with Chabad. But we also learned a lot of positive things about creative and energetic communities, students going to youth programming, multi-generational rich and warm Jewish life. I asked David if people there seemed as keen on leaving Russia as the young people of Lipitsk seemed to be, and he answered that making aliyah was not something that the students there really talked about. I feel somewhat relieved about this – and then I wonder if the relief is appropriate.

After lunch, we met a friend of Emma and Anya’s, Sveta, and together we visited the Kremlin, a fortress that was built on the intersection of three rivers (only two now remain) – the city of Moscow forms rings around the Kremlin itself, which was the original city, dating back as far as 1147. The Moscow Kremlin has long been the center of Russian statehood, where tsars and hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church lived. The walls, which were built in 1367-1368 were originally white stone, but were rebuilt in 1485-1495 in red brick by Italian workers (Italians were better architects than Russians) who were all executed upon the completion of the city so that they would not reveal its secrets to foreign powers. At the beginning of the 18th century, Peter I transferred the capital of Russia to St. Petersberg, but the tsars continued to be coronated in Moscow. In 1917 yhr Soviet government transferred the capital back to Moscow, and it remains the center of Russian government to this day. Since 1992 the president of Russia lives inside the Kremlin.

We bought tickets to see the famous cathedrals of the Kremlin, and we walked through church after church with paintings on the wall that read like cartoons of stories of Jesus and of various saints, especially St. George. We saw collections of jewelry and church artifacts. In one of the cathedrals, we saw the tombs of statesmen and church officials, some dating back as far as the fourteenth century.

We noticed that the time was going faster than expected and hurried to St. Basils Cathedral in order to get in before the closing, but to no avail. We were just a few minutes too late and the only attraction we were able to see was the entertainment of Emma arguing with the security guard. Nevertheless it was certainly impressive to catch one last look at the outside of this ornate and unusual building.

In place of a tour of St. Basils we went to a chocolate shop so that Daniel could have one last hot chocolate. We joked and laughed over chocolate flavored tea and coffee, and had a terrific time of it. We worked on perfecting our reading skills, tentatively sounding out words spelled in Cyrillic.

Then we went for a casual walk through Moscow. We passed a Russian bath house and went in for a peek. The walls were ornately decorated, but as we climbed the stairs and saw men sitting in towels, we decided to head back down. Daniel and David continued on and were amazed at what they saw – men lounging in towels and dining together on expensive food and drink. Baths are apparently a Russian institution – nowadays especially among the wealthy.

We walked through an area that used to be quite poor but has been renovated a bit – it is located between a convent and a monastery and no one knows why crime was so rampant in between these institutions. We walked past the KGB buildings and Emma told us that her aunt spent two years in the building followed by three years working in Sibera because she had written a letter to Golda Meir. After she returned from Siberia she continued with her activist work and one day she received ticket to Israel in the mail with the message that she was to leave in 24 hours and could not return.

We had dinner at a sushi restaurant that we stumbled upon on our walk. We spent a long time there laughing and joking, teaching silly American slang to our Russian friends, etc. As it started to get late, we took the metro back to the hotel and bid farewell to Emma. She gave us a small gift on our leaving, and we exchanged e-mail addresses – I hope that we will keep in touch.

We left early in the morning for the airport, where we said goodbye to Anya and flew back to Tel Aviv. We were surprised at how familiar Hebrew seemed after a week in Russia!

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