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.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Moscow (Part XV: The Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center)


At the Jewish Museum, I went to the ticket counter and proudly held out 400 rubles.

The museum is located in what clearly used to be a sprawling warehouse, and it has a cool “New York loft apartment” feel to it, with exposed brick walls and all the displays under one vast, airy  roof. It is quite large, with lots to see and read; I spent two hour there and by far did not see everything (in particular, I did not see their youth center, nor the “Center for Tolerance” section of the facility).  But what I saw was really, really interesting and well-done.

Exterior of Moscow's Jewish Museum. Photo from Wikimedia Commons, provided by the museum itself.

First, visitors go up a ramp into an enclosed theater with large, comfortable seats in concentric circles, with large screens all around on the circular walls. There, the museum shows a film that summarizes the events of the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible), establishing for all visitors, Jews and non-Jews, that this museum is about a people with a long history and a rich heritage, a people that has many stories about itself and that has challenges maintaining their traditions and heritage when they are scattered all over the world. I appreciated that they started with the “positive,” and that they didn’t jump right into something like the Holocaust.  In any case, the seats moved around to make it “experiential,” and if you ever go there, be prepared to get wet during the section about Noah’s Ark.

Experiential theater-in-the-round about the Hebrew Bible. This and all other photos taken from the Museum's website.
One then goes out into the exhibits about Jewish life in Russia over the last several hundred years, which go more or less chronologically, though I think at one point I went the wrong way and went through  the 1800’s backward. There is also a section on the different Jewish holidays, which I think is a serviceable introduction  for people who don’t know much about them, and a section on Jewish traditions in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, with photos of families lighting Shabbat candles and such.

Wherever possible, the curators clearly did their best to make the exhibits engaging and to use as many senses as possible; for example, in the section on Jewish synagogues and prayer, they have a soundtrack playing of a man chanting Kol Nidrei, which gave me chills because, of course, it’s the same tune they use in every synagogue I’ve ever been in for Yom Kippur. These are MY people!  Many of the different eras of Russian-Jewish history were addressed through documentaries, showing real film clips from the times. In a section about political turmoil in the early 20th century, there is a “coffee shop” where you sit at tables with various statues (Jewish people) and you can read the newspapers and pamphlets that are on the table - quite clever. Most, though not exactly all, the exhibits came with English translations.

Interactive maps of Jewish migration from the destruction of the Second Temple until today.
Then as now, urban Jews sat in coffee shops and talked about local politics.

The section about life in the Shtetl was very good, although I did accidentally jab my toe into the platform holding up some peddler’s wares, and to this day I have a bruise under the nail of my second toe - an injury I sure didn’t need! But in any case, there were two things I learned about, that I hadn’t realized I was confused about. The museum showed me I’d been confused AND cleared up the confusion at the same time.

First, about Shtetl life. I’d always gotten two kinds of stories about it, passed down  from my grandmother, who lived in one, and through other cultural exposures such as playing in "Fiddler on the Roof" or visiting Yad Vashem. I realized now that I’d never really understood how it was that the Shtetl was both a sort of Golden Age of Jewish life in Eastern Europe and Russia, and also a place where Jews suffered from anti-Semitism and were poor and had difficult lives.

Here I learned that for hundreds of years, Jews lived in Shtetls and, for the most part, did have relatively good lives (compared to the non-Jews around them) because they were some of the only literate people in society, and because they were relatively autonomous. They could practice Judaism as they pleased. Until they couldn’t. Starting in the late 1800’s, in particular when Russia annexed Poland, anti-Semitism became more rampant, the Shtetls became less autonomous, and, for all sorts of economic and cultural reasons, more young Jews started moving into cities, where they had more opportunities but were no longer protected by the “togetherness” of the Shtetl - they were more exposed. And then, of course, following the Revolution in 1917, it was forbidden for them to practice Judaism at all (just as it was forbidden for anyone to practice any religion, including Christianity.)

I learned about Shtetl history and lifestyles, and also jammed my toe quite thoroughly into the low platform under this barrel.
Another enlightening thing I learned addressed a question that had been in my mind ever since I started interviewing Russian-speaking immigrants to Israel, for my job. I go once a month to different Jewish Agency Absorption Centers, talking with these new immigrants about why they moved to Israel and what their plans are. One particular donor for whom I collect these stories likes to hear that Aliyah is inspired by anti-Semitism, and/or that the immigrants are grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. So I always ask about the Holocaust connection, even though in the back of my mind I wondered what connection there would be, for Jews in countries that hadn‘t been occupied by Germany. And every time, especially when I spoke with Ukrainians, they didn’t tell me about family members who had been in concentration camps, they told me about family members who had either migrated because of World War II (often they migrated several times, to different areas of the Former Soviet Union), or who had fought in the military. Obviously I had a hole in my historical knowledge, and two conflicting questions niggled at me, unarticulated: why were Jews in the Soviet Union affected much at all? And at the same time, how could it be that ANY Jews in this region of the world DIDN’T have relatives in concentration camps? (Now, I’m like “duh,” but again, the questions were nebulous, unarticulated -- I didn’t know that I didn’t know.)

At the Jewish Museum in Moscow there is a very moving section about the Jewish community’s role and sacrifices during World War II: how many Jews fought for Russia in their army, how many hundreds of thousands of Jewish soldiers were killed, how the Jews in the Russian army fought doubly hard because they were fighting not only for Russia, but also because they had an inkling of what would happen to them if Germany won the war. I had never truly considered World War II from the Russian viewpoint before, let alone the even more specific Russian-Jewish one. Now I understood why, when I asked about the Holocaust at Israeli Absorption Centers, the Russian translators used the word “Catastroph” to refer to the war.

FYI, the gift shop at the Museum has some nice knick-knacks, but all the books were in Russian. No English. In this case I think that’s fair, since the museum really is marketed more, I think, toward non-Jewish Russians than to international tourists, though I do highly recommend it to visitors. It‘s a truly excellent museum. Next to the gift shop is a kosher cafĂ© that looked like a nice quiet place to sit, with all that exposed brick and all.
The Jewish Museum store has little to offer English-speakers, but is otherwise very respectable, with many books in Russian about Jewish culture and history.

On my way out of the museum two interesting things happened.

First, I saw what clearly was a Chabbad rabbi leading a group of teenagers through the museum. Finally - someone who speaks Hebrew!  The teens looked like it was a secret thrill to have an American stranger talking to their rabbi in Hebrew, and it really is very cool when you think about it. Anyway, he confirmed for me that yes, the synagogue where there would be communal Shabbat meals is quite nearby, and did I know that in addition to the Israeli table, there would be, this week, a Shabbat table set aside where the language would be English? I said I’d certainly keep an eye open for it! He also showed me that the kosher grocery store, Pardes, was just a block away.

Second, I checked my email (thanks, free museum wi-fi!), and found that the friends taking care of my cat were having a difficult time. The cage I’d bought for him turned out to be very easy for him to escape. He’d almost jumped out the open window of their apartment. They had made a makeshift cover for the pen, but still, he had found a way to escape from underneath. The tin of litter that the vet had recommended using was not adequate and they were planning to go to my apartment to get the litter box. Meanwhile the cage was full of litter. And Wylie seemed unhappy, “brooding,” and they didn’t feel they could devote the time he needed to interaction and affection. He wasn’t eating and they were basically force-feeding him wet food and his painkiller. Perhaps he’d be better off at a shelter?

I promised I’d try to find an alternative solution for him, because if they were specifically asking about putting him in a shelter, it sounded like they were very overwhelmed by the intensive care he needed, and I’m not the sort of person to just leave my problems dumped on good folks who are overwhelmed by them. I told them that it’s OK if Wylie is brooding as long as he’s safe, and I know they are doing their best and I have confidence that no one could be doing better than they were, but I’d try to find a new place for him. I posted on Facebook that I’m looking for solutions for my cat, and then walked home. Shabbat was starting soon, and I still didn’t have my credit card code, and now my toe hurt and I needed to find a new place for my cat to rehabilitate. But at least I’d finally seen a Moscow attraction, and it had been one with personal meaning.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Moscow (Part XIV - "How was the weather?")


Everyone warned me that the weather in Moscow would be terrible. That’s why the plane ticket is so cheap, everyone pointed out; who else is crazy enough to go to Russia at the end of February? “We hope you have a good coat,” they said.

Well, I do have a good wool jacket, in fact, and I wore many, many layers, and gloves, and earmuffs. And between the coat and all the layers and the gloves and the earmuffs, I was perfectly comfortable.

Most of my trip, the temperature hovered just at zero degrees Celsius, or one degree below, during the day. That’s pretty cold . . . but it was sunny, and there was no wind. The absence of wind makes a huge difference.

Given that I was getting over a fever, I actually found the crisp, cold, sunny air refreshing. The weather was absolutely not an issue. (The last day, it snowed a bit, but not enough to get in my way.)

The fact that my boots were extraordinarily uncomfortable for long-term wear was a much bigger problem than the weather.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Moscow (Part XIII - Supermarket)

Click here for Parts I, IIIIIIVVVIVII,VIIIIXXXI, and XII.

I woke up at 11 am, feeling incrementally better than the night before.  At least I was headed in the right direction, albeit slowly.

On my way out of the hotel, I purchased access to the internet for the day, emailed Jerusalem to exert some more not-so-subtle pressure on my friends to go to my apartment and get my PIN code for me, and then headed for the supermarket I’d found next to the money-exchange place the day before.

My first order of business, now that I had some cash, was to get toothpaste. All this time – since I’d arrived a day and a half before – I’d been brushing with water to protect my teeth, and gum to protect my breath. I would have traded my kingdom for some Colgate.

While looking for toiletries, I took the opportunity to examine grocery prices here in Moscow. The store was long and narrow, so I had to walk the entire length of it before I found the dental items at the other end. I picked up a banana and some milk, and looked around at the prices on produce, meat, packaged foods, and dairy products.

Many people had told me that Moscow is an expensive city, but I found the prices here to be quite reasonable.  The prices on the food were certainly no higher than in Israel, and in most cases a bit lower.

Of course, everyone knows that food prices in Israel are ridiculous.

Furthermore, I later found out from someone I met at a Shabbat meal that an educated person in Moscow can expect to make only about $1,000 per month, about half of what an educated person in Jerusalem makes. So if the prices on food were only a LITTLE lower than in Israel, I could see why so many people who had an opportunity to move to Israel were taking it. (The admissions prices to museums, by the way, are also reasonable, all things considered, generally the equivalent of about 35 NIS / $10 or so.)

By the way, it appears that Russians, like many Europeans (I think?) are not in the habit of using floss. There were about four different kinds of toothpicks, and many brands of toothpaste and mouthwash, but no dental floss. Also, by the way, trying to mime dental floss to store employees  feels rather ridiculous.

When I went to pay, the cashier swiped the toothpaste and the milk, but not the banana. She didn’t speak English but motioned that there was something missing from the banana. I figured out that here, you are supposed to weigh the produce in the produce section, get a sticker with the price, and then bring it to the cashier – they don’t weigh it at the cash register. I felt bummed that I didn't even know how to buy a banana in this place, but did recognize that not having a banana was a much higher-order problem than the ones I'd had the day before.

You live and you learn. Weigh produce first. Know your PIN code. Pack your own dental floss. OK.

Now that the shopping was done, I had time to see a tourist attraction. I considered going to the Matrushka Doll Museum, but with Shabbat coming, and my still feeling woozy, I figured it would be smarter to stay closer to the hotel. The Matrushka dolls would have to wait until Sunday or Monday.

Next stop, just a few blocks away: The Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Moscow (Part XII - Trigger Warning)

   Click here for Parts I, IIIIIIVVVIVII,VIIIIXX and XI .

When I bought my ticket for the Bolshoi, I chose the performance on the basis that it was the only night during my trip that they were doing a ballet (rather than opera) and it wasn't Shabbat. It didn't much matter what ballet they were doing, since there was no other night I could see any dance there. I could tell it would be something modern, but didn't really pay much attention to what it would be. Whatever it would be, it would be the Bolshoi Ballet! Amazing!

When I got there and settled in my balcony seat, an incredibly graceful and strong man dressed in a suit was dancing on and around a sofa, full of angst.

He was extremely talented. When he was finished, about four other dancers came on, did a dance full of angst, and left, to be replaced by a couple playing out domestic angst in a home (it ended with the woman 
taking a baby out of the smoking oven, handing it to the guy, and leaving).

Here are photos from the ballet, taken by Damir Yusupov, who I think is an official photographer for the Bolshoi (I found the pictures through Google Images):

Although ideally I would have been treated to classical ballet, full of frilly tutus and soaring music, I could appreciate the modern dance. I cannot overstate how talented the dancers were, and if the music and choreography weren't my taste, and if I'd have preferred Swan Lake or the Nutcracker, well, I could still respect what the Bolshoi had chosen to do tonight. Besides, what is a trip to Russia without a ballet full of angst? I felt the whole thing was appropriate and interesting and Russian, through my aching feet, slowly-receding nausea, and slowly decreasing fever. 

When intermission began, I went downstairs and claimed my rightful seat. Tenth row, center aisle at last! Thank God. I also asked an usher for an English program. (None of the ushers spoke a word of English, natch.) It turned out that what I had just seen was called Kvartira, and it had been a one-act ballet. After intermission, I'd be seeing a different 45-minute one-act ballet, Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.

Some of you reading this know what's coming, but I did not. I did not know that when The Rite of Spring debuted in 1913, it literally almost caused a riot, because the music is so discordant and the choreography was so disturbing. Oh no, my immediate thought was "The Rite of Spring – that sounds pretty!" (Looking back, my ignorance is embarrassing but it sure makes for a better story on my blog.)

This performance had new choreography; the show had debuted at the Bolshoi just nine performances ago. The "plot" of the dance revolves around a group of dancers, equally divided between men and women, who live in an incredibly ugly futuristic dystopia; the set immediately brought to mind the film "9." 

The dancers have no water. There is a huge faucet way up in the sky, and the women often stand under it, praying for relief, but it never provides even a drop. Meanwhile, the men force the women to conform the rules of this strange world – for example, each dancer creates a platform based on her height, so that in no time they all become the same height. A creepy drawing of a leader (Lenin?) appears, and the women rip it apart in a display of protest! 

And then, in a scene that should have come with a trigger warning, each of the men rapes one of the women. Then the women hang themselves. Then a creepy medical table is lowered down from the sky, and each woman rolls off of it into a long sandbox, and rolls around in the dust, trailing her hair in it and then whipping her hair back, so the dust is everywhere. The world is dust! The world is full of nothing, it has no meaning at all! Then they all get water and are happy. The end.

That's right, children. After everything I'd been through to get to the ballet, it turned out to be a super-depressing commentary on the Soviet regime and on patriarchy, with scenes of rape and mass hanging. I'm pretty sure my interpretation is correct because on the way out, I found the group of tourists who had arrived late with me, and we'd all interpreted it the same way. Turns out they were Americans who had just been in Sochi for the Olympics, and stopped to see Moscow before going home. 

I learned two things on the way out. First, the beautiful lobby area is full of benches because – and this makes complete sense – putting one's coat back on after the ballet is part of the procedure of leaving, when you live in a place as cold as Moscow. The Bolshoi architects were kind enough to provide ample coat-check space and ample space for putting on boots, hats, and scarves.

Second, they are way behind on the consumerism thing in Moscow. The American group were interested in buying Bolshoi souvenirs – they specifically wanted t-shirts, but would have been happy with anything that cost $50 or less – but the only items available were a few different books (only one in English, and all pricey) you could buy on the way out from a woman at a little table. In New York or London, the entire area between the theater and the Metro station would have been riddled with little souvenir shops with licenses to sell Bolshoi items. Here? Nothing. (Another difference: There were people dressed in formal eveningwear at the Bolshoi. In New York and London theaters, people dress nicely, but you don't see anyone in a floor-length gown.)

Anyway, I hobbled back to the Metro and got off at the station nearest to my hotel. I had a bit of confusion about how exactly to get back, and ended up taking a wrong turn for a short while a couple of times (see my path, in the red line, below), which would not have been a big deal except that my feet felt like they were burning in lava, and I was tired and sick and was just barely managing to see the amusing irony in the fact that after all this, the ballet had been one of the most depressing productions I'd ever seen. I was also not happy to be walking alone around Moscow late at night, because there weren't enough people on the street for my taste. It felt a bit alarming.

When I got back to my room, I fell into a deep sleep, without setting my alarm. I needed money and I needed to get this trip back on track, but most of all I needed to get healthy again.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Moscow (Part XI - The Way to the Bolshoi)

Click here for Parts I, IIIIIIVVVIVII,VIIIIX and X.

I was about 15 minutes late meeting Rusina, so when at first I couldn't find her, I feared that she'd given up and left. But she was there, with a hug and a smile and an expression of sympathy. She not only loaned me some money, she also came down into the metro station with me to buy me a 20-ride ticket, and showed me on the subway map how to get to the Bolshoi.

The Moscow Subway System

The great thing about having lived in New York for so many years is that if you have mastered the New York City subway, any other city's system is pretty much a snap. It was easy to work out on the map which lines I should take and where to change trains, and it was easy to match the signs in the stations and on the platforms to the information I'd gleaned from the map.

I should add here that Moscow's reputation for having excellent subway service is well-deserved. The stations are clean, nicely decorated, and well-marked, and the trains came by approximately every three minutes. (Some of the stations are so beautifully decorated that they were listed in "Moscow Top 10" as tourist attractions in themselves. Alas, since my logistical troubles and illness forced me to shorten my itinerary, I wasn't able to see any of them. I'd been hoping to.)

It also offered an incredibly smooth ride; I was annoyed at first to find there weren't poles in the subway cars for short people to hang onto, and then found that the level of "jerking" was small enough that with just a little concentration I could avoid losing my balance, even when the train was entering or leaving a station.

Still, despite my subway savvy, the routes and stations were unfamiliar to me, and so I did a lot of double-checking of signs and maps to make sure I was always going in the right direction. This added time to the trip.

Adding insult to injury, the balls of my feet were starting to hurt like hell. For two days I'd been wearing the same pair of boots (I hadn't packed any other footwear, because why should I? It would be too cold in Moscow to wear flats), and they were getting incredibly uncomfortable.  So now, each step was an effort because I had no energy AND because my feet felt like they were burning off from the inside. I was therefore disappointed to find that each subway platform had only one map to look at, usually at the other end of the platform from wherever I was! Torture.

Anyway, when I got to the Teatralnaya station, it was 6:53. The ballet started at 7. With any luck I'd make it just on time!

I emerged from the subway system into the night air, and saw this (I lifted this photo through Google Images from  a blog called Internet Dating UK but it's exactly what I saw), and knew without needing to be told that this was the famous Bolshoi, just steps away!


For a minute I just stared at it, but time was a-wasting. I approached the entrance at the columns, but saw people in front of me being turned by a guard to a place around the corner. I knew there was only one show at the Bolshoi that night, in the "New Hall," so I motioned to the guard "Here? There?" and he motioned that I should go around to the left side of the building and then straight.

The current Bolshoi Theater building was built in 1821. A little more than a decade ago, it was closed for extensive renovations. In order to be able to continue performances while the building was being fixed up, the Bolshoi  built the "New Stage." I'd seen in pictures beforehand, and knew that even though I wouldn't be in the historic auditorium, I was in for a treat. The Bolshoi had invested a tremendous amount into making the New Hall nearly grand as the old, and the pictures looked just beautiful.

The interior of the Bolshoi's New Stage (photo found through Google Images)

I went around what was clearly the historic, "old" building, looking for an indication of where the "new" hall was. I walked all the way down the length of the Bolshoi and didn't see anything to indicate where I should go. So I walked around the back. Nothing. And around the other side. No entrance.

Now I was back at the columns where the guard had directed me away. I had just wasted so very many precious steps on my aching feet to walk completely around the Bolshoi building.

Exasperated, and noting that it was now after 7, I went through the main entrance and found a human being at a sales booth. I showed her the confirmation for my ticket to the night's performance, and she issued me a ticket with a beautiful design on one side and the Bolshoi logo. There it was, written plainly in black and white: Row 10, Seat 13. My perfect seat in the center aisle!

She pointed me back outside and insisted I should go out the way I'd been before, around to the left. Stymied, I went out again, and this time found a group of about eight other people who all were clearly looking for the same thing I was. Finally, we realized that the grand building on a platform to our left must be New Hall. You didn't REALLY think it would say "Bolshoi" on the building anywhere, even in Cyrillic, did you?

We all went in, checked our coats, and then had more trouble figuring out where to go from there. Up some stairs . . . then up more stairs . . . where an usher (who spoke hardly an English, natch) told the group they have to go up yet ANOTHER flight of stairs. I approached the usher and presented my ticket, and she said "Come this way." She led me silently into the theater . . . onto the first balcony . . . where she unfolded a seat connected to a pillar, and pointed that I should sit there.

A: Where I was supposed to sit. B: Where I was now sitting.

It was 7:10 and I'd lost my beautiful seat, until intermission. I felt like crap, and the anxiety of the past few hours still hung on me like a cobweb. But I was at the Bolshoi, and a very graceful dancer was moving onstage, and there was music playing. I reminded myself that everything I was experiencing was very much a First World Problem. Poor me, I have a bad seat at the Bolshoi Ballet, boo hoo, you know?

Deep breaths, Sarah. Calm down, focus on the present, and enjoy the Bolshoi.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Moscow (Part X - Novoslobodskaya)

Click here for Parts I, IIIIIIVVVIVII,VIII and IX.

Rusina had said that it was a 15-minute walk from my hotel to the Novoslobodskaya Metro station, where I was to meet her, but I didn't want to take any chances so I went down to the lobby at about 5:30 to ask how to get there.

The first thing the receptionist (the same one who had given me free internet a bit earlier) said was "you see train on street?" Yes. I had noticed a network of electrical cables strung over the major streets nearby  -- it did nothing to improve the aesthetics of the city, but did vaguely remind me of the "T" in Boston and therefore felt sort of homey to me --  and periodic tiny "trains" that ran along them, with little antennae-like rods connecting the "trains" to the cables. Hilariously, to make sure I understood what she was talking about, the receptionist made a little V sign over her head, to indicate the antennae. Anyway, yes, I knew about the train.

"Take train to Novoslobodskaya," she said. I replied "I can't. I have to walk. I have no money for the train." She literally rolled her eyes and I realized how absolutely idiotic I sounded, being a tourist with absolutely no money.

The receptionist impatiently said "follow train," so I did. But when I saw the train veer left at a point that I thought perhaps I should be veering right if I was on foot, I tried asking more people for directions (I'd been correct. Also, the station was VERY difficult to find and I never would have done so on my own. Also, the big M signs indicating a metro station are not as obvious in
Moscow as they are in other cities I've visited . . . at least, not if you don't know what you are looking for). Every few blocks I stopped Russian passers-by and said "Metro Novoslobodskaya?" And I learned four things.

First, everyone who had assured me that in central Moscow I'd find plenty of cosmopolitan people who spoke English did not know what they are talking about. Not one single person spoke English.

Second, no one ignored me. Everyone did what they could to point me in the right direction. Some of them did so brusquely, but there were people who were friendly in the sense of stopping and thinking about the best direction to send me, and trying their darndest to explain in English. It was sweet of them to try. Most switched to Russian and I just gave them a blank stare and shrugged, because trying to understand was pointless.

Third, if you are reading this and you have never learned Russian, I guarantee that however you are pronouncing "Novoslobodskaya"in your head is wrong. Every single person, when asked "Metro Novoslobodskaya?" first responded with a quizzical look and then said something like "Noviblublublublublu?" Maybe it was NoVOslobskei, or Novoblintzes, or Novajabotinsky. But however I was saying it, was not right.

Fourth, when you are sick AND you don't know where you are going, a 15-minute walk turns into a 40-minute walk.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Moscow (Part IX - PINs and Needles)

Click here for Parts I, IIIIIIVVVIVII and VIII.

I managed to communicate to the hotel receptionist that I'm having a problem accessing money and I needed to reach friends in Israel. She kindly gave me a code for the hotel's wi-fi and said I could pay her back later (the hotel charges 100 rubles per day for wi-fi access, the equivalent of 10 NIS or $3).

I emailed my roommate and then sat on pins and needles waiting for her to write back. She was out of town . . . wouldn't be back until at least tomorrow, if then.

I emailed the Buxners. Since they were caring for Wylie, they had the key to my apartment. They could get into my apartment and find the piece of paper with the code to my credit card. Since the card was new, I knew exactly where that paper was, thank goodness.

While I waited for them to respond, I emailed Rusina and asked her to call me. On the phone, she said that indeed I have a problem, since one cannot pay for Metro cards with a credit card, only cash, so I wouldn't be able to get far until I was able to access an ATM. For example, the Matrushka Doll Museum was out of the question until I was able to get a Metro card (or get cash to pay for a taxi – either way I needed cash).

She suggested that while I wait for the Buxners to respond, I go to the JewishMuseum and Tolerance Center. It was just a few blocks from me and I could pay for my ticket with my credit card. Its proximity also meant that I wouldn't be pushing myself too hard, physically.

Relieved to be making productive use of my time at last, I walked to the Museum. Actually, I plodded. Every step was an effort. At first I went the wrong way and though I quickly realized the error and doubled back, I was upset to have wasted the energy, even if it was only a block's worth of steps.

I got to the Jewish Museum. It's located in what clearly used to be a large warehouse, and the entrance was around the other side. I walked the long path around the museum, and discovered that on the other side of the path was . . . a Jewish school. I knew it was a Jewish school because there were about 70 kids playing outside for recess, and all the boys were wearing kippot and tzitzit, and all the girls were wearing skirts. Based on what I knew of the Day School scene in Moscow (thanks to my job), I knew this must be the chareidi school, one of a few different Day Schools in town.

I was tired, but more importantly I was at last seeing my miracle, so I sat on a bench on the path and watched the children playing. A Jewish day school in Russia! They were learning Judaism at school, openly, without having to worry about the KGB arresting their teachers. Who would have thought, when I was growing up, that I'd live to see this? These children had been born after the fall of the Soviet Union. They had no idea how lucky they were, or how special their school is, but I knew. I wished I could hold onto what I was seeing and save it to show my friends and family.

Finally I continued on, step by torturous step, to the Jewish Museum entrance. I went to the ticket counter. The person there spoke English! He said a ticket is 400 rubles (40 NIS/ $12). I handed him my credit card. He swiped it.  

And then he turned a little machine to me and asked me to enter my PIN code.

So I took my card back and walked away.

It turns out that in Russia, as in many other countries (but not in any places I've ever lived), you cannot complete any credit card transactions at all without the PIN code. In the USA and Israel, you just hand over your credit card, they swipe it, you sign the receipt, and you are done. In Russia, they require your PIN (later, a Russian colleague in Israel told me that she was appalled when she discovered how easily someone in Israel could, in theory, fraudulently use her credit card). Intellectually I think the Russian way makes much more sense. But right now, their intelligent credit card security culture meant that I could do nothing, nothing at all, until I heard back from the Buxners and they went to my house to find my code.

I emailed them again. I'm sure I sounded like a mad woman, and in fact, they later confirmed that they thought I was a little nuts, because who goes abroad without money? They didn't yet know all the details of how I'd gotten to this point. But in any case, they were not at home. They were out celebrating their first wedding anniversary and wouldn't be home until late. They'd try to get to my house tomorrow . . .

I called Rusina because I didn't know what else to do. I was so embarrassed; she's not a friend, but a work colleague (though friendly and helpful), and here I was, in the very unprofessional condition of being sick and broke.

She said she'll think, and get back to me. A little while later I got an email from her. I was to meet her at a Metro station about a 15 minute walk from the hotel, at about 6 pm, when she was on her way home from work. She'd feel comfortable loaning me the equivalent of a few hundred shekels, enough to get me started, and then I could go straight onto the Metro and be at the Bolshoi well ahead of the ballet at 7 pm.

I was relieved and grateful, but also nervous. Now I really needed that code, not just to enjoy my travels and be safe but, more importantly to me, pay Rusina back as soon as possible.

But there was little I could do until I met Rusina at the Metro at 6 pm, so I went back to bed for another nap.