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My decision to keep a record of our trip included a plan to learn more about the history and present circumstances of the Jewish community there. I had a vague idea of Russian Jewish History (I was Hodel in Fiddler on the Roof after all!). Vague topics were floating in the back of mind such as the Khazars, the Pale of Settlement, pogroms, something about the assassination of Alexander II, Kantonists, Stalin’s Night of Murdered Poets and Doctor’s Plot, Trotsky, the Six Day War, Refusniks…
In order to sort out the facts, I launched an internet search which more than a month later is still in progress. Every piece of information leads to another question and another search. The story is too hard, too long, and much too complicated to put on this blog but I encourage you to look into it yourself.
There is no doubt that the situation for Jews in Russia is better now than it has been in its perhaps 1000 year history but still it is something of an enigma. Freedom of religion is accepted, but I found no synagogue listings in the long list of religious organizations in newspapers or magazines. There are several synagogues in Moscow but even the large ones are not overtly visible.
Masorti Olami (the world organization of Conservative Judaism) lists a congregation in Moscow on their web site. An email address, a name and a phone number are given, but no address. Weeks before our trip I sent an email to the e-address listed but received no response whatsoever. I assumed that making contact once we arrived would be easier. I was able to make phone contact and was given an address.
Connecting with the modern Jewish movements in Russia was important to me. I had visions of sending JTS cantorial students there to lead Shabbat services. I hoped to set up pen pals for our BHC beit sefer students.
We knew the area and had no trouble finding the street but when we arrived, the address was two large buildings; one a music school, the other an apartment building. There were no signs listing the synagogue or service times. We concluded that the Friday evening gathering (there was nothing on Shabbat morning) was held in someone’s apartment but we had no idea which apartment. The security guards of both buildings knew nothing of any Jewish gathering. After wandering around for a half hour or so in hopes of seeing someone with a kipah, we gave up.
A day or so later I mentioned the incident to colleagues and when they heard the term Conservative Jewish Congregation, they started laughing and told me there was no such thing. It seems that it even the Moscow Jews don’t know about it.
We visited the Grand Choral Synagogue of Moscow on a weekday. It is situated a few blocks from the former KGB building where so many people including a lot of Jews were tortured and killed. It is on a small, side street and although it is a big building and topped by a Star of David, it is not easy to find. On this weekday thetraditional synagogue now has the outward appearance of being now ultra-orthodox with classes for adults and children being taught in the style of a Chabad yeshiva. (Click on photos for more information.)
Having booked a hotel (a gargantuan thing from the Soviet era) walking distance from the Grand Choral Synagogue in St. Petersburg, we were able to attend Shabbat morning services. The cavernous sanctuary offered tefillah to about 100 people maximum. An ultra-orthodox minyan was held in another part of the building and though the main service was a traditional one, the rabbi, and Torah reader and many of the congregants were ultra-orthodox.
The cantor was good and the five-voice, male (of course) choir sang (very beautifully) music from standard repertoire – Sulzer, Lewandowsky, etc. I sat with a few others in the women’s balcony and watched as Edwin was called to the Torah for an aliyah. We were invited to lunch but as the men and women were seated separately, we declined and left after making Kiddush.
My inconclusive conclusion is that there may be a movement of liberal religious Judaism in Russia but it is hard to find. The only beit sefer for children that was apparent was run by Chabad. Perhaps because of lack of skills the traditional synagogues have become ultra-orthodox as Chabad and other such organizations are able to subsidize the salaries of rabbis and Torah readers thus offering trained clergy to shuls which otherwise cannot afford it.
The invitation to Edwin to teach a course in Jewish music is proof that there is some desire for knowledge of Jewish topics. His class was offered in the Department of African and Asian Studies of the Moscow University. The institute is called Hebrew University and operates on a grant from an American donor. The faculty teaches a handful of topics: Jewish history, Hebrew, Kabbalah, etc. A visiting professor comes each year from Hebrew University in Jerusalem to share their expertise.
The institution is situated directly across the street from Red Square in a beautiful, new renovated building. It is a small institute sharing space with the rest of the Department of African and Asian Studies. Offices are shared. Classes move from room to room. Often they are held in offices where administrators are working and phones are ringing. If there aren’t enough desks, students sit on benches for 3-hour classes. There are no complaints about the inconveniences from the students.
Edwin’s class was held two evenings each week. The days changed each week because of scheduling conflicts and lack of space. The class was taught in Hebrew and most of the students had no problem keeping up. Many of them had spent time in Israel and it was often the case that one parent lived in Israel and one in Russia. However there were also students with no Jewish connection at all.
There were about 15 students in the class. I say “about” because there were different students in each class. After a couple of weeks Edwin asked why some of the students were not attending regularly and was told that the students must take a full degree in a non-Jewish subject in order to graduate from the university. Any classes that they chose to take in Jewish studies are extra and on their own time. Thus the students were carrying a full load of classes and then coming as often as possible to the classes offered by the institute. We were told that the number of students and the attendance in Edwin’s class was usually large. The students were open, intelligent and interested. If we needed help, the students were our best source.
A Jewish presence can be found here and there in State museums which now display works by Jewish artists previously banned. There are Kandinsky’s and Chagall’s here and there. We saw a fabulous temporary exhibit at The Mikhailovsky Museum in St. Petersburg called “American Artists from the Russian Empire.” Several paragraphs into the introduction there is a hint these artists left Russia because they were Jews.
It is believed that there are more than 1 million Jews in Russia today. Quite a number came back after making aliyah to Israel. Some were never Refusniks but also never joined the Party. Some kept some sort of Jewish identity. Some chose or were forced to assimilate. Religious freedom is the law now in Russia. Churches are being built and people attend. The ultra-orthodox Jewish movement seems to be attracting some. Secular Jewish studies attracts a few college students. Perhaps the modern Jewish movements are also growing and because of the winter and difficulties with language we just weren’t able to find them. My search continues now that I’m back in Jerusalem.
There’s no shortage of places to shop in Russia.
What is probably the most famous and most expensive shopping center in Moscow takes up the entire east side of Red Square across from Lenin’s mausoleum, and is known as GUM. The building has housed markets of one sort or another for hundreds of years. The present building was completed in 1893 when its steel framework and glass roof, designed by Aleksander Pomerantsev and Vladimir Shukov, were quite an architectural wonder.
Stalin used the building as a headquarters for state planning. During the days of the Soviet Union, the top floor was a secret clothing store called Section 100 which was open only to the most elite party members.
Other shopping centers around the city are newer but no less extravagant. Looking for a computer cable we were directed to a brand new shopping center with dazzling escalators, glass floors and fish ponds.
The shopping centers and streets are full of shoppers. One would never know that many of those shoppers remember days when shop shelves were empty. The level of prosperity seems very high both in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
My favorite spot for browsing was the Izmaylovo Flea Market which is the best place to find traditional Russian crafts such as the red, gold and black lacquered trays and bowls, matryoshka (nesting) dolls, Russian wool and silk scarves, Gzhel and Uzbeki ceramics.
Even in winter, the huge market is open each weekend and is found in Ismaylovo Park. The flea market is located beside a huge cultural-entertainment complex built in the style of Tsar’s Palace called Kremlin (fort) Izmaylovo.
The market square now known as Red Square was built in the late 15th century as ordered by Ivan III. The original wooden stalls burned so often that it became known as Fire Square. It acquired the name Red Square in the 17th century from the Russian word krasnyy, originally meaning “beautiful” but the word came to mean “red.” The name Red Square has no connection to its bloody history or to Communism.
Standing in the center of square looking south is St. Basil’s Cathedral. To the west is Lenin’s Mausoleum with the Kremlin behind it. To the north are the Historical Museum and Resurrection Gate. To the east are Kazan Cathedral and GUM shopping center. (Click on photos for more information.)
Ulitsa Varvarka (Varvarka Street) runs along the Moskva River and is home to several beautiful churches. It takes its name from St. Barbara (Varvarka) Church which is named after one Barbara who reportedly killed her father for her Christian beliefs in the 4thcentury and afterward became the patron saint of Moscovian merchants who built a church in her honor. The street is home to such treasures as the Monastery of the Sign with its green and gold domes was erected in 1684 and the blue domes decorated with stars which tops the Church of St. George, built in 1657.
There is no way to begin to see all the museums in Moscow and St. Petersburg. We merely skimmed the surface and were overwhelmed by the size and richness of the collections. One of the three buildings which make up the Pushkin Museum holds the Impressionists Collection. Matisse’s (1869-1964) “Goldfish” is there as well as pieces by Picasso (1881-1973) including one that I had never heard of, “Old Jew and a Boy,” and Renato Guttuso’s (1912-1987) “Rocco with a Gramophone.”
We spent two days in the Tretyakov Galleries. The original gallery was a given to the city of Moscow in 1892 by the wealthy merchant Pavel Tretyakov whose brother also donated pieces. Paintings, drawings, watercolors [especially beautiful are those by Isaak Levitan (1861-1900)], icons and jewelry. The 20thcentury gallery features Russia’s avant-garde artists. I really loved the Primitivist works with their bold shapes and colors. The collection of Soviet pieces is staggering. Across the street from this prestigious gallery stands a statue of Peter the Great on a ship. It is one of the largest statues in the world. Quite a contrast to the high art inside the gallery but very fun!
While in St. Petersburg we visited The Russian Museum, also known as the Mikhailovsky Palace Museum, which displays the history of Russian art from the 10th century to the present. It opened in 1898 and grew enormously in size after the 1917 Revolution when “nationalization” brought the acquisition of numerous private collections. The museum now holds about 400,000 exhibits both permanent and temporary collections. The Chagall below is part of the permanent collection. A fabulous exhibit now on display is “American Artists from the Russian Empire” which consists of work of Jewish artists who fled Russia at the turn of the 20th century.
We couldn’t seem to get to the Kremlin until a day or so before we left Russia. Guidebooks stipulated specific entry hours. The weather was bad and no photos were allowed inside the many buildings. The Kremlin (kreml means “fortress”) was the Citadel of the Tsars, the headquarters of the Soviet Union and is now the home of the Russian president. The original structure was chosen for its location on the Moskva and Neglinnaya rivers by Prince Yuiy Dolgorukiy in 1156. In the 15th century Italian architects were commissioned by Ivan III to build the new complex including the Church of the Assumption (which holds the 12th century painting of St. George, the oldest Russian icon) and the Faceted Palace. The entry to the Kremlin is through the Trinity Tower. Napoleon marched through this gate in 1812 but left defeated a month later. The State Armory was constructed in 1844-1851. The priceless imperial collections and diamond fund are found there. In the 1920s Stalin destroyed several churches and palaces of the Kremlin. In 1955, parts of the Kremlin were reopened to the public.
Hearing as much music as possible was naturally high on our list of things to do in Russia. Seeing a ballet was way up there on my list but scheduling issues did not allow us to see any ballet at all. Pity but it seems that the ballet calendar is more active in the spring and summer than in the winter. The Bolshoi is undergoing repairs so we only saw it from the street.
The musical performances were in general excellent from the St. Petersburg Mariinsky Opera House to the violin trio who played Bach every day in the subway station under Red Square.
Opera tickets were readily available. Rather than standard repertoire we opted for operas that were less familiar. We saw two operas in Moscow and one in St. Petersburg.
Dialogues des Carmélites, Francis Poulenc, (1889-1963) Russian premiere performed in French by The Helicon Opera, Moscow.
Based on a factual event which occurred at the end of the Reign of Terror in France in which 17 Carmelite nuns were guillotined. (For more about this event Google Martyrs of Compiegne.)
The cast, orchestra and crew consisted of well over 100 people. The opera was performed in a small, sold out hall (about 300 people). Voices overall were excellent and the orchestra very good (OK the brass had a few slip ups but that’s nothing new). The beautiful choral music was exquisitely performed.
Unfortunately the stage direction was almost non-existent or silly except for the final scene. The staging for this scene was so bad that we will never forget the performance.
The set was interesting being mainly one wall with moving panels. For Scene One a panel opened to reveal a fireplace indicating a living room. Other panels revealed windows and doors for various scenes. I’m including three pictures of how the panels moved for the final scene of the opera. The top of the panel lifted. The movement is shown by the diagonal yellow line and arrows. The opening took the shape of a cross and revealed the nuns walking up a ramp to the guillotine linking the martyrdom of the nuns to crucifixion of Jesus.
Perhaps the most beautiful music of the opera is this final chorus in which the number of voices is reduced one by one with the death of each nun until there is none. In an act of egregiously poor judgment the stage director chose to have the soldiers bowling in front of and at the bottom of the ramp. Yes. I said BOWLING!!! They stood at the foot of the “cross” and rolled a ball down an alley. The ball crashed into pins (which were exposed in the opening where the fireplace had been in Scene I) at the exact moment of the crash of the guillotine (off stage). The rumbling of the balls almost obscured the beautiful chorus and completely upstaged the depiction of the tragic deaths of the nuns.
OK, I get it. The soldiers were playing a game of bowling similar to the soldiers playing a game of dice at the foot of the cross but this is opera and the music is more important than anything. We were so distracted by the bowling that the horror of 17 nuns being sent to the guillotine was completely lost and all I could think of was that I hoped the bowling ball would jump out of the alley and land in the timpani.
Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), performed in Russian at the Mariinsky Theater, St. Petersburg.
From the beginning of the opera it is clear that the libretto (not Shakespeare’s Macbeth) of Lady Macbeth itself has problems. Shostakovich, being torn between telling a story and making a political statement, wrote a fragmented and burdened opera. The result of the political statement was that it was banned in the Soviet Union for 30 years. Shostakovich’s use of verismo can compete with the best of the Italians who made this style popular. Shostakovich was accused of writing a “pornophony” by critics because of his portrayal of sexual content in the music. That being said, the music, especially that written for the orchestra and the soprano in the title role is often exquisitely beautiful. The orchestra was top notch and the singing was excellent. The role of Lady Macbeth is a tour de force and was performed at the highest level. The sets and costumes were beautiful and worked very nicely. Again the stage director made poor choices deciding push the graphic content to the point that the audience giggled in embarrassment.
The Opera house itself is a full Baroque masterpiece. We sat a few seats from the lavish tsar’s box. The opera played to a full house and the subtitles were in English.
La finta giardiniera (“The Pretended Garden-Girl”), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) performed by Helicon Opera, Moscow.
Mozart composed this opera buffa at the age of 18 years. The plot is typical opera buffa and even with the libretto in hand, it’s hard to make heads or tails of the story other than to say that a lot of people spend the entire opera running after the wrong people but in the last scene everything works out as it should. The music is charming. How could be Mozart and be otherwise? It’s a great ensemble work with everyone getting nice music and a chance to shine.
Edwin and I decided to go back to the Helicon Opera our last night in Russia because at least musically speaking, our first experience had been worthwhile. (We resisted the temptation to take our bowling shoes!) Plus neither of us had seen La finta giardiniera. Because of rush hour in the subway, we arrived after the box office had closed but the head usher allowed us to slip in without tickets. As the theater is small the seats were excellent. Singing was good but not as high a level as in Dialogues des Carmélites. The horns were still having problems but otherwise the orchestra was fine. Again the stage directing was ridiculous with everyone getting shot at the end and then coming back to life.
Mozart is always a nice way to spend an evening.
Why would anyone go to hear a concert of a modern American composer in Moscow? I asked myself that question for three and a half endless hours of the An Evening of Music by Morton Feldman (1926-1987) performed at the Moscow Conservatory of Music. If you aren’t familiar with Morton Feldman’s music, well what can I say? He was a major 20th century composer of experimental music which is typically quiet, slow and way too long. Edwin loved it. It’s not my cup of tea but I don’t believe we could have heard a more perfectly performed concert than we heard that evening. Those who stayed till the end and stayed awake gave a standing ovation to the excellent performers.
There are always coincidences and blessings in big cities. A series of mishaps led to Edwin offhandedly picking up a small English newspaper a few minutes after nine one evening. On the front of the paper was a headline that listed a concert by Misha Piatigorsky. Knowing that this is not such an uncommon name to see in Moscow, he thought there was little chance that it could be our friend Misha Piatigorsky who lives in New York City.
We met Misha and his wife Ayelet in Jerusalem when Ayelet was a first year JTS cantorial student studying with me in there. Misha made quite a following for himself in Israel after winning the Thelonius Monk award for jazz composition.
Misha and Ayelet moved to back to New York for the completion of Ayelet’s training at JTS. After graduating she took a position in New York at the West End Synagogue. Misha graciously performed a fund raiser for BHC the summer of 2005.
Back to the story. Edwin handed me the paper and asked, “What do you think of this?” I grabbed the paper and opened it to the article. There was no doubt as there was a picture of our friend.
Misha’s Jazz concert, the last of a thirteen day tour, had begun an hour before at a club in Moscow. We decided to make a dash for the club in the chance of catching Misha before he left.
Finding our way around the subways became one of Edwin’s specialties but finding the building with the club was harder as the address was wrong (not uncommon at all!). We decided to inquire in a hotel and sure enough the club was there.
Misha and the other two members of his trio were in between sets. He couldn’t believe his eyes when we appeared. We were able to catch the second set of this excellent composer and warm, generous performer. Misha played a beautiful composition entitled “Nachlaot” which he had composed during the year in Jerusalem. Nachlaot is a lovely old Jerusalem neighborhood where the Piatigorskys and I myself had lived.
Certainly Misha’s concert was one of the highlights of the trip.
We toured the St. Petersburg Conservatory, a very important institution to Jewish composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For many years Jews had been refused admission to any schools much less those of higher learning. One Jews were allowed into the conservatory Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) who taught at there encouraged young Jewish composers such as Joseph Achron (1886-1943)and Joel Engel (1868-1927)to explore their own Jewish musical heritage for inspiration. This period of openness gave support to the establishment of The St. Petersburg Jewish Folk Music Society in 1908 which collected, arranged and published Jewish Folk melodies. Members of society also composed music using Jewish elements. For more information and musical examples check out www.jewish-music.huji.ac.il click on Song of the Month.
The streets of Moscow are filled with statues of famous Russian writers, musicians and politicians. A stroll on any street might bring one to the house of Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) or Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953).
The Pushkin Museum is in the heart of Moscow. I had heard from Rabbi Millgram that the Impressionist exhibit is outstanding. Not knowing that the museum spread out over three buildings, we entered the original building which was designed to hold a huge collection of plaster casts of classical sculptures for Moscow University. In every room students study and make drawings of these casts. I had not seen many of the originals so walking through the halls was worthwhile. One of the plaster casts was of a work by Luca Della Robbia who lived in the 15th century. The work is entitled “Cantoria.” It is a depiction of Psalm 150 or as Miro calls it, “Halleluyah.” The inscription is the Latin version and each section illustrates a line of the Psalm.
The Psalms are traditionally attributed to King David. A few of the Psalms are listed as a song of David such as the Psalm we sing when returning the Torahs to the Ark: “Mizmor leDavid” on Shabbat and “leDavid mizmor” on other days. Most likely the Psalms were written by a number of people. We don’t really know when they were written but we guess somewhere between the reign of King David about 1100 BCE and 50 BCE.
Della Robbia’s rendering of Psalm 150 was created at least 14 hundred years and perhaps as much as 25 hundred years later. Instruments had not been used in Jewish worship since the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 CE. All this makes it difficult to know exactly what the instruments were. We have coins, freezes, etc. from the period which helps but no actual instruments have been found.
Listed here are some ideas as to the meaning of the names of the instruments.
*Teka shofar – (this one is easy) sound of the shofar
*Nevel - (?) lyre, psaltery, stringed instrument
*Kinor – harp
*Tof – tambourine, drum
*Machol – flute (In more modern Hebrew machol means dance so you can see that the artist used both; flute in one sculpture and dance in another.)
*Minim – (?) stringed instruments
*Ugav – (?) reed instrument, pipe, flute (In more modern Hebrew it means organ and the Latin translates the word as organum. The Targum** uses the word “abuv” which is a pipe made from a reed.)
*Tsliltsley shama – sounding cymbals (shama from same word as “hear”)
*Tsliltsley truah – loud cymbals (truah is the call for alarm or battle)
Psalm 150 is said in each day in morning prayers. What a joyful way to begin the day. It is the last chapter in the book of Psalms (Tehillim in Hebrew), the quintessential book of praises to God.
The author of Psalm 150 calls for simple instruments such as a reed pipe and noisy instruments like clanging cymbals. Instruments used for battle calls and instruments which make sweet sounds like the harp are required. Some instruments require more training to play, some less.
Our Rabbis point out that this list of various instruments underscores the importance of praising God regardless of our circumstances. We are to praise God in time of peace and in time of alarm. We are to praise God if we have elaborate and costly means of praising God but if we only have a simple reed, we are to praise God as well. We are compelled to use our talents and resources, be they simple or extravagant, to fill the air with praise.
A special thank you to one of our young men, Miro Badurina, whose love for this Halleluyah Psalm, inspired me to take a closer look at Psalm 150.
** Targum – Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible written between Second Temple period and the early middle ages.
One day spent traveling through time and space in one of the world’s most magnificent museums was enough to convince Edwin and me that we must come back to The Hermitage. Within its walls we see the history of Russian culture as well as the history of the state. The halls have hosted “Greats” such as Peter and Catherine. Alexander II died from wounds suffered in a terrorist attack here. The Hermitage withstood the Nazi siege of Leningrad. It has continued to evolve in spite of overwhelming circumstances.
Entrance to the museum is from the grand ceremonial courtyard into the Winter Palace. Immediately inside one is dwarfed by the sumptuous Jordan Staircase.
The Hermitage was founded in 1764. Empress Catherine II who reigned over Russia from 1762 – 1796 initiated the collection. It was opened to the public at the end of the 19th century. Before this time the number of visitors to the museum was very small. Special permission from the Court Office was required and only the elite were able to obtain permission. Visitors were required to wear formal attire or full dress military uniforms.
The State Hermitage is a treasure-trove of some 3,000,000 exhibits including:
15 thousand paintings
12 thousand sculptures
600 thousand drawings
600 thousand monuments
And much more.
There is no equal in the world to the rooms and galleries of the Winter Palace and Hermitage. Two centuries of architects have added to the glory of the palace and the Imperial Museum. Some rooms were designed specially to be exhibition halls while others were planned as private living quarters. Sumptuous staterooms and palace suites were designed for royal balls and receptions. One such hall, the Pavilion Hall is home to perhaps the most popular exhibit, The Peacock Clock.
Most of our photos from our tour of the Hermitage are shots of the rooms as no snapshot can express the genius of the masterworks that are on display. Seeing with one’s own eyes these great pieces is a truly awesome experience. A few highlights on display are:
Leonardo di Vinci’s “Litta Madonna”
Rembrandt’s “Sacrifice of Abraham”
Rodin’s “Eternal Spring” (sculpture)
Degas’ “Woman Combing Her Hair”
Gougin’s “Woman Holding a Fruit”
Picasso’s “Guitar and Violin”
The exhibits are overwhelming. One could spend a whole day in each room. We weren’t able to get to many exhibits and some we were only able to breeze by with a promise to return.
I’m inserting a few photos of rooms that are especially beautiful to give a hint of the grandeur of the museum. Click on pictures for more information.
The Pavilion Hall
The Raphael Loggias
The Leonardo da Vinci Hall
The Alexander Hall
The Small Italian Skylight Hall
The Children’s Exhibit
Seeing works of the great masters was an unforgettable experience but especially touching to me was the exhibit of paintings of children as young as five years of age. The Hermitage offers many youth programs including programs for children with special needs. Viewing this very special exhibit brought back memories of art classes which my boys, Joe and Sammy, were privileged to take under the brush of my dear friend Jillian Goldberg. The instruction they received at a very young age has inspired them until today. It is satisfying indeed to see that a grand museum such as the Hermitage understands the importance of instruction and inspiration to children and that the museum is very child friendly.