Thursday 26 September 2019
Few countries have indulged in worse and more persistent persecution of Judaism than Russia. Today, out of a population of 146 million only 200,000 admit to being Jewish even though there is now religious freedom throughout the country. Many others either deny it out of ingrained fear or don’t know they are Jewish because successive wars have destroyed records.
However, there is now a vibrant Jewish presence in St Petersburg – which we wanted to experience. With Nadia, a delightful local Jewish guide to help us, we made visits to three places.
The first was at the Russian Museum of Ethnology, where artefacts, clothing and religious objects are presented in glass cabinets in chronological order. Two 18th Century figures, who were supposedly getting married, set off a discussion over a single male boot on display next to them. Apparently, if a husband wanted to divorce his wife, he took off one boot in the synagogue and threw it out the window – known colloquially as giving the missus the boot. And if your brother died and you were single you had to marry his widow even if you couldn’t stand the sight of her. Furthermore, any kids from that union were considered to be the offspring of the dead brother.
Our second stop was at the Grand Choral Synagogue. Built in 1893 in the Moorish style it is currently the second largest synagogue in Europe. It has a capacity of over a thousand people, although, even on high holy days, is little over half full. It relies on donations from wealthy benefactors to keep it running, along with its team of rabbis, but doesn’t bite its members for money. Being orthodox, women sit upstairs. When we visited, workmen were moving the pews back inside after a wedding had been conducted outside in the courtyard the previous day. With St Petersburg daytime temperatures well under 10 degrees it would have been one very cool wedding.
Much fancier than your average synagogue
Our third stop was, in many ways, the most remarkable. It was at the Saint-Petersburg Jewish Community Centre. Now that doesn’t sound too remarkable until you realise that this poly-funded organisation has been able to attract people of all ages and branches of Judaism that don’t normally see eye to eye, plus people who are simply curious about the religion, and make a happy mix of them. The facility has schools, an auditorium, a gym, pool, library, offices and a kosher style restaurant where pensioners get a free feed. Oldies are encouraged to spend time at the centre so they can meet up with people from their own era, many having lost their families to emigration or the grim reaper. Nikita, the young man who showed us around the centre said he did many jobs there, one of which was the judge in chess competitions among the elderly. Apparently, they have regular run-ins over breaking established chess rules and want to kill each other. “Chess is an emotional game,” Nikita says, with a knowing grin.
Could this exist in Sydney? Or are we too unwilling to compromise?