Away For the Holy Days: Yom Kippur in Moscow

By Jennifer Bleyer

Published November 19, 2008, issue of November 28, 2008.
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On the morning of Yom Kippur a few weeks ago, I woke up in a hotel built during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II, marched past the tempting smells of blini and raspberry jam drifting from the dining room, crossed a bridge over the Moscow River, skirted a corner of the Kremlin wall, proceeded along Ulitsa Varvarka past several 17th-century churches and the Znamensky Monastery, dodged sharply dressed Moscovites cruising the sidewalks on their way to work and spotted a gold Star of David atop a squat white dome behind a cluster of other buildings. I dug out my little pocket map. Yes, that would have to be it. The Moscow Choral Synagogue.

I was in Russia for the first time, having tagged along on a work trip of my husband’s, knowing it would coincide with Yom Kippur. I hadn’t done anything but cursory reading about the current state of the country’s Jewish community, but since there had not been a Yom Kippur in the past 20 years that I hadn’t spent praying and anxiously checking the clock against a grumbling stomach, I was sure that I would end up somewhere in Moscow where other Jews were doing the same.

With the help of the hotel concierge, I found the Moscow Choral Synagogue. Built in the late 19th century, it’s a stately butter-yellow building with grand white columns. It was operational during the Soviet era, although the government annexed parts of it (those parts have subsequently been returned and renovated). Walking in, I had to pass through an airport-style metal detector, something instituted in 1999 after a number of antisemitic incidents in the country, including a young neo-Nazi bursting into the synagogue and stabbing one of its directors. The main sanctuary was a vast, opulent space with intricately carved columns, dark wood prayer benches and a shimmering mosaic framing the Torah Ark. It was early, but the synagogue was quickly filling up, underscoring the fact that an estimated 230,000 Jews still live in Russia. I climbed the steps to the women’s section. A zaftig white-haired woman clucked at me in Russian, directing me to a free seat. I opened a prayer book and settled in for the day.

After years of intermittent travel, I’ve realized that nothing makes me feel as wistful about being Jewish as celebrating holidays with a pocket of Jews in some distant land. It’s the stuff of unalloyed pride and poignancy. Of course there are merits to living in a place where the entire public school system shuts down for your holiday and every cab driver can name the occasion you’re observing (and even wish you a “Hag Sameach,” Happy Holiday). But celebrating a holiday far from the hubs of global Jewish life is weirdly affirming in its own way. Maybe it’s that slight sense of being under siege (but not too much, thankfully). It lets you imagine yourself a Maccabee in revolt against the Hellenists, a Jerusalemite during the Roman siege, or a Marrano surreptitiously lighting Sabbath candles under the table. It makes you feel that being Jewish is something rare, rebellious and worth fighting for.

One day, just before Passover, I was riding a city bus in Rome. An old Italian woman tapped me on the shoulder, asked if I was Jewish and inquired about whether I had Seders to attend. A few days later, I was in her family’s airy apartment along a narrow cobblestone street, seated at a long lace-covered table and learning Sephardic Passover melodies. Another time, I was in Ethiopia during the High Holy Days and found Addis Ababa’s only synagogue, a small second-floor place near the center of town. I went there at the start of Rosh Hashanah and found a polyglot assortment of demure Ethiopians; boisterous Yemenite businessmen whose families had been trading in Ethiopia for generations; young Israelis in shorts and sandals who were headed for a whitewater rafting trip on the Blue Nile, and one quixotic Orthodox doctor from Long Island who had lived and worked in Ethiopia for years and was regarded as a saint by those he treated at the local hospital. After services, one of the Yemenite businessmen invited everyone to his house for a giant banquet.

There also have been times when I patched together a celebration myself. When my sister was living in Nairobi, I visited her during Hanukkah and we hosted a makeshift party. Her one Jewish friend there attended, as did a handful of Kenyans who were delighted to be introduced to potato latkes. During Passover a few years ago, I visited a friend’s remote hippie community in the Costa Rican jungle. Like any good hippie community, it had a fair number of disaffected young Jews among its residents. We baked our own matzo in the outdoor oven and had a moonlight Seder in which an impassioned sing-along of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” figured prominently.

I recalled those experiences during Yom Kippur in Moscow, looking around at the few hundred people who crowded into the synagogue. There were five heavyset, doughy-faced old women with babushkas tied under their chins, sitting snug together in a row, stoically following the service. There were teenage girls, the beneficiaries of solid post-Soviet Jewish educations, alternately praying and chattering in Russian. There was a middle-aged woman next to me who had carefully coiffed hair and shiny high-heeled boots. She explained that like many people her age, she had not been taught to read Hebrew. Still, she treated her Russian-Hebrew prayer book with ginger care and concentrated on the Cyrillic translations.

In addition to the Orthodox Ashkenazic service in the main sanctuary, there were small side sanctuaries with services for Jews from Georgia and Jews from Azerbaijan and Armenia. In the hallways during breaks, I found some teenagers who spoke English, and they told me about the subtle antisemitism they lived with and their efforts to connect with their Judaism. A friendly young woman named Aliza Leah told me that she was already 10 when she’d found out she was Jewish. By then, her parents had long ago shed their Jewish identities, so she enthusiastically pursued religious education on her own. “The way we survived,” she said, sharing her family lore, “is that my great-grandmother married an important KGB operative. When Stalin had many Jews arrested and killed, this KGB operative was able to protect her.”

Evening came. The synagogue grew more crowded as young people who hadn’t been able to take off the workday arrived, in jeans and leather jackets, in time for Neilah, the concluding service of Yom Kippur. The choir sang forcefully. The rabbi gave a sermon. Everyone looked weary from the fast, but remained standing. The shofar was blown, and we came to the end — “Next year in Jerusalem.” A voice inside me murmured, “Or Istanbul, Dublin or Beijing… wherever some interesting cluster of Jews soldiers on,” as everyone retreated into the brisk Moscow night.

Jennifer Bleyer is a former reporter for the City section of The New York Times and the founder of Heeb magazine.

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