Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Moscow (Part XVIII - Prayers)


The Marina Roscha Jewish Center is simply huge. The building in which the synagogue is located contains not only the tremendous, grand sanctuary but also a library, classrooms, and a Judaica store. The Center also includes multiple other buildings, including a Chessed (Jewish Welfare) building, an elementary school, and girls’ and boys’ high schools. And there are other synagogues around the city! Wow.

The women’s section is a U-shaped balcony. It turns out that that though Shabbat started at about 6:40, we wouldn’t be starting Kabbalat Shabbat (the Friday night prayer service) until 8 pm! So much for missing part of davening!

Meanwhile, there was nothing to do but observe the people. Downstairs in the men’s section, which seats, I believe, about 300 people (maybe more?), a few dozen men were sitting in various pews, reading or talking. In the back, at a long table, a rabbi was giving a shiur to about 50 men. At first there were only a handful of women -- I guess most women in the community know not to come until later -- but eventually there were, I estimated, about 70 women in attendance (indeed, dressed to the nines) and about 200 men.

Despite the fact that this was a tremendous Chabad institution, it had a Young Israel vibe, with the kids running around, bored women in the back shmoozing, men in the back shmoozing, etc. I suppose once Orthodox Judaism reaches a critical mass of mainstream institutionalization, it starts to look the same no matter who is running it.

All the books’ translations were in Russian, and announcements were in Russian. No surprise there, but it meant there wasn’t much for me to read or do while I waited.

I was worn out and very thirsty. There weren’t many people who could talk to me because of the language barrier, and I started getting bored. As time continued passing and the shiur downstairs didn’t finish, I thought of just going home, but  . . . . There would be chicken. I finally went in search of a cup of water, and was so desperate that I took a used plastic cup from a table in the back of the women’s section and just rinsed it off to use it. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

At first no one spoke to me, but eventually I managed a stilted mostly-English conversation with a woman who said she works in finance, and after a traumatic life event a few months ago, she decided to look into religion and has been coming to Chabad every night for three months, and also attends a class during the week.

I mentally divided the congregants into three categories: Lubavitch chassidim (I later found out that about 100 shluchim and their families live in Moscow. They hail from all over the world, and some are from Russia itself); “knowledgable about Judaism Russians” -- people who didn’t look chassidic but clearly had been attending synagogue here for many years and felt at home both with the community and with the rituals; and “not knowledgable about Judaism Russians,” people who were at their first service, or their 10th, or maybe their 20th, who were at various stages of familiarity with the prayer books. I liked this a lot, that all these people were praying at the same place.

Then the services started, and I was so happy I’d stayed. Directly below me somewhere was a LARGE group of children who recited the prayers with great gusto, in unison. I was moved by this -- Jewish children, praying together in public in Moscow, with raised voices.  A miracle!

(The next morning I paid closer attention and discovered that it was a group of about 20-30 little boys, whose Rebbe stood nearby goading them to show enthusiasm, and apparently giving candies to whoever said “Amen” the loudest. Well played, Chabad.)

Finally the services ended and we all wound down the stairs to the ground floor where multiple tables were laid out for the Friday night meal. I asked around and found that the “English-language” meal was in “the restaurant,” an enclosed room on the side. So that’s where I went for my Friday night Shabbat meal experience in Moscow, so happy that I was about to get my chicken, and a bit nervous and curious about who I might meet at this meal.

Moscow (Part XVII - On the Way to Marina Roscha)


As I neared the Jewish Center, I must have turned left a little too early, and got a little lost. Where the Center was supposed to be was an entrance to a place that looked like it might be what I wanted: there was a guard outside (common to Jewish institutions in places with lots of anti-Semitism), and I saw a man in a black hat walk inside. But when I asked for "Marina Roscha" and "Rabbi Friedman," the guard didn't seem to know what I was talking about – or perhaps he just didn't understand what I was saying. Looking back, I'm thinking that perhaps this place had some sort of small, private congregation inside, but it wasn't the place I was looking for.

Eventually two Jewish men (wearing kippot) walked by, and the guard motioned for them to help me. When I said "Rabbi Friedman" they nodded and gesticulated in understanding, motioning that I should follow them. So I did, for two blocks, and here is what I thought about on the way, because while both men were wearing kippot and tzitzit, one of them was smoking, which is forbidden on Shabbat:

Thanks to my work, I know a little bit about Russian-Jewish history and culture. Not a lot, mind you, but a bit. During the 70 years of the Soviet regime, no one was allowed to practice religion in Russia. Jews were arrested if they taught Judaism or attempted to engage in any communal rituals. So a lot of knowledge was lost over the generations. By the time Communism fell, most Jews in Russia had nothing positive with which to associate Jewishness. To them, being Jewish just meant that your grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and that you lived with a stigma. Being a Jew wasn't information one volunteered to neighbors. It was more an unfortunate fact of life than something to be proud of.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, large Jewish organizations such as Chabbad, the Jewish Agency, ORT and others set up house in Moscow and other formerly-Soviet areas and started teaching Jewish history and heritage. A lot of Jews from Russia took the opportunity to move to Israel, but today there are something like 800,000 Jews who still remain in the former Soviet Union. In Moscow, there has been something of a Jewish Renaissance: several Jewish day schools, several synagogues, a few kosher restaurants, a kosher market, a yeshiva, a seminary . . . it's now possible to live a full Jewish life in Moscow.

Photo for illustrative purposes, taken from through Google Images.

But it's a community going through a lot of changes very fast. You have a lot of Jews who have no interest in Judaism whatsoever, and many who are curious and will do things like go to classes at Chabad to learn what they can. They may or may not take on Jewish practice, at a rate comfortable for them.

In places where Orthodox Judaism has enough of a core, "mainstream" group of adherents to comprise its own subculture – places like Boston, New York, and certainly Jerusalem, all the places I've ever lived – there's a certain assumption that for a person interested in living a life of Orthodox practice, certain rituals or practices come before others. For example, a person who makes public statements about their Orthodoxy by wearing tzitzit would never be smoking after sundown on Friday night. If you are "religious enough" to be wearing tzitzit, which is a very public statement, obviously you must be fully Sabbath-observant.

But in a city where Orthodox Judaism is in a state of rapid change, there are no assumptions. A man who isn't interested in fully observing the laws of Shabbat may very well decide he's interested in wearing tzitzit. Very likely, Chabad teaches that tzitzit is one of the first things a person should take on, since it's easy and doesn't involve any sacrifices (like giving up smoking on Shabbat) or investment of time (like a lot of Jewish rituals). Chabad is more concerned with people keeping a mitzvah,  than in whether that mitzvah makes a public statement about one's "level" of observance. (I am using quotes because I think "levels" of observance is a false construct – I think Jews who wish to be engaged in Judaism are each doing the best they can, and no one can say who is on a “higher“ level than another.)

So I completely understood how it could be that a man in a kippah, with tzitzit swinging side to side, might be smoking on Shabbat. But it still felt strange to see, I have to admit.

Anyway, we got to the Jewish Center, and I checked my coat (a shule with a coat check!) and with simple English and gesticulating managed to find out that the entrance to the men’s section was one flight up, and the entrance to the women’s was two flights up.

On each landing were groups of kids wearing Shabbat finery and running around the halls rather than sitting inside the sanctuary. This made me feel at home. I also noticed that the stairwell railings had little knobs on them, to prevent kids from sliding down them. This also made me feel at home. Kids are kids, whether they speak Russian, Hebrew, or English!

Photo from, through Google Images

I got up to the third floor and entered one of the largest sanctuaries I’ve ever seen.

Moscow (Part XVI - Chicken)


Back in my hotel room, I seriously contemplated skipping the Friday night experience at Chabad. Frankly, the process of showering early enough so that my hair would dry on time, but then not being able to nap because my hair would dry all flat from the pillow, seemed overwhelming when I was so tired and just wanted to sleep. I'd heard that Russian women dress really nicely and always wear makeup (which was true, from what I‘d seen so far) and it felt like too much effort to make myself look good, shlep to the Chabad house, and then pray and eat and talk to people. The opportunity to just sleep all evening was tempting.

In the end I decided that I'd have to go with wet hair, and took a nap first. Part of the reason I wanted to go to Chabad was to see how this particular slice of Jewish Moscow looks, and to meet people who actually live in Moscow. I wanted the cultural experience, one I'd never have a chance to experience again. But what truly compelled me to pull myself together, frankly, was the knowledge that there would probably be roast chicken at the meal. That felt like a simple but wholesome, warm food that I could eat.

I have a friend who jokes, whenever she forces herself to go to a social situation that she doesn't want to attend, that "at least there will be cookies." I didn't feel like dragging myself outside, but at least there would be roasted chicken! I love roast chicken.

So I napped, and as the sun was going down I showered, feeling bad that I might miss the start of the prayer services; again, I'd probably never be back to Moscow, so this was my only chance to soak in the Shabbat experience here.

Then something positive happened: I checked my email one last time, and my friends had sent me my credit card codes! They’d gone to get Wylie’s litter box, and had found my codes just where I’d said they’d be. I didn’t celebrate yet -- I’d have to wait until after Shabbat to confirm the codes actually WORKED in this foreign country, and that nothing else was going wrong -- but this was a step in the right direction. I was 95% ready to breathe a sigh of relief.

Shabbat started around 6:40 pm, which is when I left the hotel, in search of the Marina Roscha Jewish Center.