In 2018, Jews all around the world start their Pesach (Passover) celebrations on March 30. It is one of the most important Jewish holidays because it commemorates their liberation by God from slavery in Egypt and their freedom as a nation under the leadership of Moses. To help you get in the holiday spirit, this edition’s special feature is dedicated to Jewish Moscow!
Although the history of Jews in Moscow (like everywhere else in Eastern Europe) has certainly been a very turbulent one marked by violence and repression, today the community is thriving, growing and actively rediscovering the city’s Jewish heritage.
Brief history of Jews in Moscow
From the beginning of the 16th century to the middle of the 17th century, Jews were excluded from Moscow due to religious enmity towards them. However, with the separation of White Russia from Poland and its addition to Russia proper in 1772, the numerous Jewish populations of White Russia came under Russian rule. They were indeed the first Russo-Jewish subjects. With the further addition to Russia of Polish territories, Jews from other governments came to Moscow. All these temporary visitors were permitted to stay only in a certain house, known as the "Jewish Inn”.
From the year 1827, during the reign of Nicholas I, Russian Jews were compelled to serve for 25 years in the army and many such Jewish soldiers were sent to Moscow. Thus, the Jewish population of Moscow started to increase rather suddenly.
During the reign of Alexander II, the Jewish population of Moscow increased still further. The ghetto was abolished and certain classes of Jews (artisans, merchants, and persons possessed of a higher education) were even given the privilege of unrestricted residence. In 1890 the Jewish population numbered more than 20,000. However, in March 1891 an imperial decree was promulgated ordering the expulsion from the city and government of Moscow of all Jewish artisans, brewers and distillers. Thousands of Jews became impoverished and several hundreds adopted Christianity.
During the Soviet period the authorities’ attitude towards Jews varied greatly, ranging from a struggle against the anti-Semitism of the Tsarist era to even greater and more explicit demonstrations of intolerance by bureaucrats in everyday life.
Starting in the late 1980s, a flood of Russian Jews left the country for new homes around the world - nearly three-quarters of Russia’s Jewish population emigrated! This resulted in a dramatic decrease of Moscow’s Jewish population but, fortunately, after decades of Jewish emigration from Russia, today a new generation of young Russians is learning about their past with the help of a number of cultural organizations. These days, it is possible to see people wearing a “kippah” (a brimless cap) and “payot” (sidelocks) on Moscow’s streets. During Hannukkah, on Ploshchad Revolyutsii the chief rabbi of Russia lights the first candle on the Hannukkah menorah.
The Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center
The pride and joy of the Jewish community – and indeed of the entire city – is the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center. Opened back in 2012 in the building of the Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage (the monument of Constructivism designed by Konstantin Melnikov and Vladimir Shukhov), the center has by now become the venue for the most high-tech multimedia museum in Russia.
Meeting the requirements of the modern culture and society, the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center represents a cultural and educational complex with its permanent exposition. Exhibition, research, educational, children’s and Tolerance centers function as well.
The permanent exposition presents the history of Russia starting from the period of Catherine II the Great down to our days with the help of examples of the culture and everyday life of the Jewish people. Unlike many traditional historical museums, the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center is interactive. Twelve themed halls designed by the leading company in the sphere of exhibition design – Ralph Appelbaum Associates – are equipped with panoramic cinemas, interactive screens, audio-visual installations created with the use of unique photo- and video-archives, documents and interviews. Major exhibitions introducing the main movements and names in fine arts are also held in the Museum. The catalogues from these exhibitions, exclusive art books, modern literature and souvenirs, designer jewelry and judaica can be found in the museum shop.
Thanks to different research activities, educational programs for children and grown-ups, large-scale exhibition projects, and a wide range of excursions the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center represents a multifunctional cultural institution opened for everyone. Last year, the Tolerance Center at the Moscow Jewish Museum was even awarded the Madanjit Singh Prize for the promotion of tolerance and non-violence. The center was recognized for its wide range of activities, including research and educational programs promoting dialogue between religions and worldviews, with a particular focus on youth.
Independently of the event schedule, all those who wish can get acquainted with the books and albums about the Soviet Avant-Garde thanks to the unique book collection of the Schneerson library. Any visitor who has a library card of the Russian State Library can access it; it unites several museum projects which focus on studying the Jewish book heritage and popularization of knowledge about the Jewish writing culture.
Synagogues Synagogue on Bolshaya Bronnaya Street
The synagogue was built as a private synagogue by pre-revolutionary millionaire Lazar Solomonovich Polyakov. Privately constructed and owned synagogues that served congregations were a familiar tradition in many parts of Europe; in the Russian Empire, great magnates could sometimes get permission to erect private synagogues outside of the Pale of settlement when congregations could not.
The pre-war rabbi was executed by the Soviet government in 1937 and the building was converted into a trade union meeting hall. In 1991, the building was transferred to Chabad Lubavich. In 2004, a renovation was completed and nowadays this synagogue is not just a temple, but also a religious center for the entire community. The building includes classrooms, a bookstore, a lecture hall, mikvah and kosher restaurant that has a wonderful rooftop terrace in the warmer months.
Holocaust Memorial Synagogue
The Holocaust Memorial Synagogue is a synagogue located on Poklonnaya Hill in Moscow’s Victory Park. It was built in 1998 to complement an Orthodox church and a mosque that are also part of the outdoor museum dedicated to the Soviet victory in World War II.
The building of the Temple of the Memory on Poklonnaya Gora, a flat hill in the West of Moscow, between the Setun River and another hill, was constructed and opened on September 1998 in then president Boris Yeltsin's presence.
The architect in charge of the Temple of Memory was Moshe Zarhy (Zarhy Architects) from Israel. In the Holocaust Memorial Synagogue there is a hall with a balcony, offices for the rabbi and a library. The building is also used as a museum and a venue for an exhibition about the history of the Jewish people and the Holocaust
If you're pressed for time we'd recommend you at least visit the Old Choral Synagogue. It's the oldest Moscow synagogue, is a simply stunning building and it's very close to Red Square. This synagogue recently celebrated its 100-year anniversary. It is a very impressive building, constructed by renowned Moscow architect Roman Klein. This synagogue was the only one that continued to operate throughout the Soviet years.
The Maryina Roshcha Synagogue was established in 1925 at Vtoroy Vysheslavtsev and, nowadays, is also called "the Second Moscow synagogue" (after the Moscow Choral Synagogue). The building, completed in 1996, replaced the one destroyed by a fire in 1993. Since 2000 it's also a Chabad-Lubavitch Community Center. There is also a smaller synagogue and community center on L’va Tolstogo Street (in the Khamovniki District).