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 vosizneias.com 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 Crownheights.info, through Google Images|
I got up to the third floor and entered one of the largest sanctuaries I’ve ever seen.