In my last blog I mentioned that Jewish life is back in Russia and tonight I’ll expand on that, but it’s already late in Moscow, so it’ll have to be brief.
The Messianic congregation where I spoke is one of several in the city, which has a Jewish population somewhere between 150,000 and 300,000, making it one of the biggest Jewish cities outside Israel. Messianic congregations are always pretty small and usually have a solid percentage of non-Jewish members, but there were lots of Jewish faces in this group of 75-80. I loved the worship service, with prayers and songs in Hebrew, so I could stop trying to figure out what was happening in Russian. We went through a nice balance of the traditional Shachrit service—enough to really enter in, but not overdone. They did a song break to recorded music, with a couple of enthusiastic guys leading from the front. Hasidic and Messianic songs, with one I’d never heard before that was particularly moving:
Rachem na Hashem Elohenu
Rachem al Yisrael amecha
Rachem v’al Yerushalayim ir’cha
Rachem rachem rachem
“Have mercy, please O Lord our God, mercy on Israel your people, and mercy on Jerusalem your city. Mercy, mercy, mercy.”
The words are especially poignant here in Russia, site of so much Jewish suffering and Jewish hope for centuries.
The next day we caught a wide view of the city from Sparrow Hills and the main campus of Moscow State University, which is one of seven nearly identical, colossal, Soviet-era buildings in the city. The vibe around the University is cheery despite the bleak sky, with families returning from a kiddie ski slope with kids in tow, along with lots of other folk strolling about, but the architecture exudes an undeniably sober triumphalism. From there we went down to the historic, artsy Arbat neighborhood, and then on to another neighborhood nearby that’s become the hub of Jewish life in Moscow since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And it’s a thriving hub. We visited the Jewish Community Center, with people coming and going the whole time we were there, walked through the synagogue, ate at the Kosher restaurant, and checked out the bookstore. On one book, I deciphered the Russian title and author, “Exodus” by Leon Uris, and remembered the whole drama of that title, when it was banned by the government and passed from hand to hand among Jews yearning to reconnect with their heritage and people. Now Jews in Moscow can buy whatever books they choose, come and go freely to their community center, or visit the nearby Jewish Museum with state-of-the-art exhibits on life in the shtetl (more on that below), the Holocaust on Soviet soil, and a Tolerance Center. (According to Wikipedia, Vladimir Putin donated one month’s salary to help build the museum, which opened in 2012.)
The exhibit on World War II—the Nazi invasion and resulting Jewish devastation, followed by Soviet victory—is deeply moving, especially from the vantage-point of Moscow, which nearly fell early in the war, but lived on to serve as headquarters for the heroic effort against Hitler. After scenes of death and destruction, an old Jew who had witnessed the fall of Berlin as a young soldier tells his story. His Jewish officer shouted at him, “We won—it’s over!” and the soldier apparently didn’t respond with enough excitement. His officer cursed and said, “Don’t you get it? This means we will live!” And the video fades out on that clear note of simple hope.
“Shtetl” takes on a different meaning after this visit. It refers to the Jewish towns of the Russian Empire, which are captured in the American imagination by Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof. It’s also the name of the excellent, charming (and reasonable) Kosher restaurant at the Community Center—a more positive spin. The Museum reports that for most of its history, the shtetl was a place of stability and relative comfort for the Jewish people, not a Golden Age like medieval Spain, but a stable place where Jews could live good and productive lives. Only toward the end, with the resurgent anti-Semitism of the late 19th century, did it become the scene of pogroms and renewed exile, which in turn became a source of the Zionist vision, but that’s another story.