In Moscow, reveling in Simchat Torah

In Moscow, reveling in Simchat Torah

MOSCOW ““ It’s a few minutes to midnight in the Marina Roscha synagogue and the vodka is flowing.

Strains of Hebrew dirges fill the cafeteria where hundreds of people line tables that stretch across the hall. Suddenly, a black-garbed figure bounds onto the head table, singing fervently, clapping his hands, and testing the table’s breaking point with each leap toward the ceiling.

Berel Lazar, Russia’s head Chabad rabbi, breaks into a sprint along the tables with little concern for the white plastic bowls of pickled mushrooms or the carefully covered challahs in his wake. He goads the masses to stand and clap and sing.

Lazar is not alone in that feeling.

Across Moscow, Russian Jews poured into synagogues to celebrate the pinnacle of the October holidays with the dancing and singing cacophony of Simchat Torah, a holiday that resonated even during the decades of Soviet oppression.

For those years, Judaism hummed below the surface of Soviet life. Holidays such as Rosh HaShanah or Passover, if they were marked at all, were celebrated in whispers behind double-thick doors in gray apartment blocks.

But in Simchat Torah, Soviet Jews found a holiday that resonated with both their sense of identity and the pangs of oppression. People came out by the thousands to streets in front of the synagogue, a rarefied and bold public display of faith.

“They couldn’t care less what the police had to say,” Lazar told JTA. “They would stop them, arrest them, harass them, but they still went out in the street.”

Now, with active and thriving synagogues and Jewish life flourishing in Russia, there is no need to dance in the street. The party has moved inside to the prayer halls, Moscow’s new centers of Jewish life.

In recent years, the solemn and furtive celebration of Yom Kippur has gained more credence in a country where communal and boisterous Judaism has always been more enticing.

“The main point is always the synagogue, and the synagogue was off limits for 99 percent of Jews in the Soviet Union,” said Pinchas Goldschmidt, Moscow’s chief rabbi. “Yom Kippur as a culmination is much more difficult to transmit to the next generation.”

But Simchat Torah has always been there, and the October fervor still peaks when vodka and prayer mix with Torah and toasts.

From the oldest to the scores of young children darting through the crowd, this year’s Simchat Torah celebration presented a wide cross-section of the Jewish community in Russia.

“In this room there are tycoons and paupers,” said Avraham Berkowitz, a Chabad rabbi and former executive director of the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities. “Those who go to the soup kitchen and those who donate for the soup kitchen are finding common ground in the celebration of Judaism.”

Also in the hall is a new generation of young Russian Jews, the first educated in Jewish schools, and they line several long tables. One such former student represents a view that may be the cement that solidifies the next phase in Russian Jewry.

After a few shots of vodka chased with pickled herring, Andrei Birinberg, an insurance salesman by day, says he goes home every night to his Jewish family, and though they aren’t religious, they are still Jewish.

“When you leave the house, you don’t stop being a Russian,” Birinberg said. “It’s the same with Judaism. No matter where you are or what you do, you stay a Jew. That’s what Simchat Torah is about.”


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