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 café 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.


  1. Wylie didn't just "almost jump out the open window of our apartment", he almost jumped out the window of our third-floor apartment. After that, we learned our lesson and always kept the door to the room with the cage closed, so that even when he managed to get out of the cage, he couldn't do any harm to himself. It was more annoying that I needed to crawl into the cage to feed/pet him. The cage in general was kind of ridiculous, and I think he would have been a heck of a lot happier with us (and we'd have been less frantic) without it.

    1. Mory - I completely agree. The cage was a huge fail from beginning to end. Stressful and expensive to buy, and worse than worthless. In future, if a vet ever tells me I need a cage, I will have a more in-depth conversation about it.

      Anyway, like I said in the post, I don't think ANYONE could have done any better caring for Wylie. You were handed some pretty complicated kitty circumstances and you did absolutely as well as anyone can do. I'm really grateful.

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