Saturday, September 06, 2014

Moscow (Part XXI - Money and a Plan!)


Shabbat ended, and it was time to get money! I was so scared something would go wrong – the PIN wouldn't work, or something else –  that I delayed finding out by first going back to the supermarket to finally get the banana that I hadn't been able to purchase the first time. If I was going to be in deep trouble, alone in Russia with no money, at least I should have a banana for strength!

One specific thing that terrified me was the suspicion that once I took money out of an ATM using my new card, when my Israeli credit card company saw that someone was using the card in Russia, they might cancel the card.

So after the supermarket, I nervously approached the ATM machine in the lobby of my hotel, with the goal of taking out, all at once, more than enough to cover the rest of my trip which, in addition to two days of visiting the offices of The Jewish Agency, would include: paying back Rusina; a little touring; a meal or two at kosher restaurants; a few Matrushka dolls; money for a cab back to the airport; and money to spare, just in case.

The ATM had a limit of 5,000 rubles (500 shekels, or around $140) per transaction. In a panic about having the card canceled, I made 4 withdrawals, one immediately after the other, for a total of 20,000 rubles. I couldn't REALLY afford to spend the equivalent of 2,000 shekels on my vacation, but the idea of spending ANY more time in Russia without access to money was spooking me.

Each time those 5,000 rubles came out of that machine, I can't tell you how relieved I was. I gave 10 rubles to the receptionist to pay for the internet they'd given me for free on my first day, then went back up to my room and divided the cash into separate bundles, one for Rusina, one for dolls from the Matrushka museum, one for the cab ride to the airport, etc, to make sure I stayed on budget and would be able to make it home!

I was feeling physically better, and I had 20,000 rubles in my wallet to enjoy – this vacation was getting back on track!

I was leaving Tuesday morning, so I had two days left to tour – but also had meetings scheduled at The Jewish Agency. So I needed to plan carefully how to see the Kremlin AND the Matrushka Doll Museum AND get to The Jewish Agency for my meetings. Unfortunately there was just no time to see any other sites, including the beautiful subway stations that I'd so much wanted to see. At least I'd gotten to see the incredible Bolshoi (as awful as it was, for me), and the amazing Jewish Museum.

Here was my new plan:
  • Since the Matrushka Doll museum was out of the way, and I needed to be at The Jewish Agency office by noon, I decided to leave the museum for Monday so I wouldn't be late to work.
  • Sunday: Take the subway to the Kremlin, walk through the Kremlin and Red Square to The Jewish Agency, which is on the other side. That way, I could sort of tour the Kremlin and Red Square while on the way.
  • Jewish Agency meetings from noon until 8 pm.
  • Meet Golda Leah for dinner.
  • Monday: Matrushka Doll Museum, then more meetings at The Jewish Agency in the afternoon.
  • Leaving Moscow Tuesday morning.

That was the plan, anyway.

Moscow (Part XX - Shabbat Day)


In typical Chabad style, the prayer services on Saturday morning started at 10 am (very late by most standards). I showed up at noon, and they were still at Torah reading (that is, about halfway through the service). I was glad I'd slept in! There was a bar mitzvah that morning, and at the end of Torah reading the women in the balcony threw down candies at the bar mitzvah boy.

I felt happy and proud that I was raised to be able to follow an Orthodox service, and could walk into any synagogue, even in a place as "random" (to me) as Moscow, and follow along.

After the service, everyone who was staying for lunch went down to the same side room where the English-language meal had taken place the night before. It was a much smaller crowd this time. Although their doors were just as "open to all" as they'd been the night before, in practice the only people who normally bother to go to the Shabbat morning service are people who have a certain commitment to Orthodox Judaism.  Additionally, it seems that the elderly tend to go to bed early on Friday nights, but make sure to attend synagogue in the morning.

So it was a much smaller and much older group of people this time. Additionally, unlike the night before when everyone sat where they wished and the presiding "shluchim" had everyone introduce themselves, at this lunch meal the men and women sat at different tables, and the entire "program" for the meal was one rabbi after another giving divrei Torah (sermons) – in Russian, naturally. I felt like Friday night was all about Chabad doing outreach, and Saturday lunch was Chabad being themselves – which is fine, but it didn't feel as exciting as the night before.

I was very grateful to once again be getting a free, hot, kosher meal, but a bit sad not to have much of a chance to talk to the people around me. Even when there were breaks in the sermons, the elderly women did not seem talkative, and anyway the language barrier was a problem. However, I did meet three very nice women who were younger (20's? 30's? one was divorced with a child – I think she was maybe in her early to mid 30's): Miriam, Golda Leah, and Lilli.

Lilli was a bit withdrawn, but Miriam and Golda Leah were thrilled to be meeting someone who lives in Israel (Golda Leah had lived in Israel for a year, and misses it badly) and to practice their English. I told them how to find me on Facebook, and we made tentative plans to get together again before I left the country.

One interesting thing I discovered was that many of the regulars at this synagogue had never been given Hebrew names by their parents, and so when they decided to become more involved with Judaism, they asked the rabbi of the synagogue to choose a name for them. Apparently he was partial to the name "Miriam," because I'd met two women who got that name through him. This Miriam told me that at work she goes by her birth name, Mariya, but in the Jewish community she goes by Miriam.

After lunch I went home and slept some more, desperately willing myself to recover, physically, from whatever had disabled me as I left Ben Gurion airport. I also had another concern: yes, I now had the PIN code to my credit card, but what if something else went wrong with it? What if it didn't work?

Friday, September 05, 2014

Moscow (Part XIX - Shabbat Dinner)


I have a great deal of respect and appreciation for Chabad as a movement. Notwithstanding certain issues of concern vis-à-vis some beliefs in their ranks about the Rebbe, I am super grateful that Chabad exists and do what they do. Anywhere in the world that a Jew travels, he or she can always find kosher food and ways to connect to a Jewish community on Shabbat and holidays, because Chabad is there for you with a warm    welcome and warm food. (I keep meaning to send the Marina Roscha Synagogue a donation to cover the costs of my meals; will have to do that soon!)

When I went downstairs, I found that the auditorium was set up with multiple tables, open to anyone who wanted to partake of Shabbat dinner at the synagogue. It appeared that there was a table for Hebrew speakers (the "Israelis in Moscow" group that I'd found on Facebook), a table for younger people, a table for retirees, etc. Once every three weeks, there is a table for English-speakers, and I happened to be there at the right time. I entered the room on the side where the English meal would take place.

The meal was presided-over by a young American rabbi and his Italian wife, both Chabad "shluchim" (emissaries) in Moscow. Every third week they got a babysitter for their kids on Friday night, so they could run this English-language meal. They were extremely friendly and approachable, and set a happy, hospitable tone to the meal.

The one large table was shaped like a capital "T", and I sat at one end. I just want to say here that the food was MUCH fancier than I expected. I expected a more mass-produced, Ashkenazi-kiddush feeling of soggy potato kugel, gefilte fish from a jar, that sort of thing - typical beige food. But the first course was a fancy fish salad and lots of vegetable dishes. There was lots of "color" on the plate.  The first course was so nice that I worried that this was it, the whole meal, and that there would be no roast chicken. But the roast chicken DID come and I was happy. 

The rabbi and rebbetzin had each person introduce himself or herself, and explain what they were doing in Moscow. Additionally, I got to know the married couple on my right, and the couple who had brought their friend, to my left. It was a bit sad for me, when they asked me how my trip was going, not to be able to say "it's going great." Having to say "actually, so far, it's been terrible" is very sad. But there was a certain relief for me of being out with people, feeling nominally better, and having hot food.

There were people who had first come to Moscow to study or work, and had fallen in love with the city and decided to stay. There were people who came to study or work and had married a Russian and stayed for them. There were tourists, such as myself, who were just passing through. One tourist, on a business trip, was at her first-ever Shabbat meal in her life, brought to Chabad by one of her work colleagues. One man – the only other person at the meal who was Shomer Shabbat, other than myself and the rabbi and rebbetzin -- was a native Russian who simply liked to meet new people and practice his English, so he ate at the English-language meal. Quite a hodgepodge of personalities, but all with a positive vibe. 

To my right sat a very handsome, friendly couple who were "regulars" at the English meals; she is a native Latvian, and he is an Israeli who, it transpired, hates other Israelis. He was so happy living in Moscow and NOT Israel.  That's why they were at the English table and not the Hebrew one; he hates other people who speak Hebrew. I decided that I don't need to understand other people to accept them as they are, and refrained from asking him what the hell is his problem and how he could possibly enjoy living in this ugly, formerly-Soviet city more than Israel. If he's happy – well, whatever!

To my left was another handsome couple. I don't remember their story, only that they, too, were "regulars." Between us was their friend Christo, who was sitting to my immediate left. Christo is a native of South Africa who is great at languages and a world traveler, and is now in Moscow teaching English and enjoying Moscow's underground gay scene. His friends had been telling him for years that he should come to Chabad with them, and this was, finally, his first time there. And yes, he knows it's ironic for a person with a Jewish mom to be named Christo, but such is life. Christo and I are still chummy on Facebook, and meeting him was one of the most fun things that came out of my trip.

After the meal ended I stayed with a bunch of the other attendees to keep "schmoozing," and I got to my hotel around midnight. The meal had been a very positive experience and is now one of my favorite memories of my time in Moscow.

Thanks, Chabad.