“Next year, in Jerusalem!”

So goes the saying at the end of every Passover seder, symbolizing the freedom of the Jewish people from the Egyptian pharaoh. Before my most recent seder this year, the last time I uttered this phrase was two years ago as a freshman at Carleton. This time in Moscow, I heartily proclaimed it in Russian while clinking glasses with everybody around me. After this latest seder, I felt the urge to shout “Next year, in Moscow!” with the hope that I may do this again in the future.


I decided that this year I was going to attend a seder dinner in Moscow long before my plane landed. I was anxious to reconnect with my religion, but besides that, I thought a Russian-style seder in Moscow would be an interesting cultural experience for any person, of any background. Hours before the start of the seder, I went to the Moscow JCC in the Mar’iina Roscha neighborhood of Moscow to buy myself a ticket. The JCC is a beautiful new building, constructed in 2001 after the older synagogue nearby burned down in the ‘90s. After conversing with employees of the JCC, I learned that President Vladimir Putin allocated government funds for its construction and personally attended its opening.

There were two seders on the Friday of Passover and I bought my ticket for the “discount” one, to take place in the basketball gym. The other ticket, three times the cost of mine, was in the main reception hall and featured dressed-up waiters and full service. I was anxious to see what my set up would be like. When I reentered the JCC a couple of hours later, the security was tight. The first time I arrived, there were metal detectors, x-ray machines, and plain-clothes guards in the foyer, but now the entire street was sealed off and there were three police cars with officers around the outside of the building, with one policeman inside it.

Since it was Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest when use of all machinery (including electronics) is prohibited, the indoor policeman’s electronics were either muted or turned off. This is also why I don’t have any pictures from this evening, as use of cell phones and cameras violate the laws of Shabbat.


The atmosphere of the JCC was overwhelmingly vibrant and welcoming. It was like being at a wedding where all of your family members have reunited for the first time in several years. Whereas earlier, the building was quiet amidst preparations, now every square foot was filled with people chanting in prayer, greeting one another and laughing together. There were senior citizens, young children, people in normal street garb, people in traditional religious outfits, conversations in Russian, and conversations in Hebrew and Yiddish. An entire of corps of rabbis was on the second floor of this six-story complex leading Shabbat prayers amidst the hundreds of people schmoozing about. When prayers concluded and the lead rabbi set about wandering around, shaking hands with everyone who smiled at him, he shook hands with me and greeted with a “Shabbat shalom”. Now, it was time to file into the seder dinner.


When I walked into the basketball gym on the top floor I was very nervous, for right away, the only seat available was two to the left of the rabbi. Even though I speak Russian, I was concerned about him potentially asking me for help and my not comprehending him. I took my seat amidst 70-80 others. I gather the average age of the room was somewhere around 60 years old; the youngest person I met that evening was 32. I was also the only foreigner in the room. The rabbi was an older man named Moishe who commanded a wonderful sense of humor, but not a whole lot of charm. The person sitting to my left, a Jewish man from Dagestan named Azilii (Азилий), by the end of the night became a good friend. He showed me the ropes of seder in Russia, and I wanted to take a picture with him but he would not do so because of Shabbat.


The feast was different than any I had been to before in my life. Even though I knew the prayers and the story of Passover, the minutia of this seder dinner were totally new to me. Take this difference for example: at my seders in the United States, we dip parsley (bitterness) in salt water (tears) and then consume it to remember the suffering of our Jewish ancestors in Egypt. We don’t eat a lot of parsley, since the act is symbolic by nature. In Moscow, we dipped large chunks of raw white onion into salt water before eating it, and this truly almost brought me to tears. I ate what I felt was a sizable chunk of onion and put the rest of it down, but Azilii tapped me with his elbow and just shook his head, instructing me to eat the whole thing!


The dynamic between the rabbi and the participants was also new to me. Whereas at home the leader of the service is aided by the participation of those in attendance, in Russia this participation means something else. When the wine was beginning to be served, for instance, Moishe said to the four waitresses that the table of older women will have juice instead. The open rebellion amongst the Jewish babushki was swift, merciless, and very loud. Without actually using curse words, they thoroughly cursed out the rabbi who in turned raised his own voice and futilely tried to talk over them. “We will have wine, because you will have wine!”, they shouted. Moishe lost that battle, and this shouting match is something that I will never forget.

The rest of the night proceeded with sporadic outbursts of rebellious participation (“I’m hungry, let’s eat already!”) and of Azilii shaking his head in frustration at me when they happened. This was always followed by a request for me to fill his glass with wine. Oh, and the sheer quantity of wine was a noticeable difference between my American seders and this Muscovite one: can you guess which one wine features more?


In concluding, I am deeply pleased that I went to a seder in Moscow. Beyond the physical aspects of this new experience, it was personally significant too. I felt more connected with my religious traditions, and perhaps most of all, this was a watershed moment for my comfort level with Moscow. After a week here where everything was new, I participated in a tradition that I’ve known for my entire life. Although it was with strangers, the bond I felt with everybody in that room was inspiringly strong, and Passover made me feel more at home than ever in Moscow.



Article written by kapnicks

One Response

  1. Paula Wolyniec
    Paula Wolyniec at | | Reply

    Great blog post, Schuyler! Colorful and insightful. It’s interesting to me that you found big differences between celebrating Seder in Russia versus the U.S. Years ago I spent a summer in Ireland, and although I’m not Catholic, I saw big differences in Catholicism in Ireland versus Catholicism in the U.S. It would be interesting to read theories as to how those differences came about over time.

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