Happy Passover from Moscow!

Recently Michael and I went to the first Jewish Museum in Moscow. Among the traditional exhibits usually found at Jewish museums such as displays of tzedakah boxes, kiddush cups, and objects used for life cycle events, there was a portion of the Museum devoted to Judaism and Jewish life in Russia and the FSU. Some of the exhibits focused on Yiddish culture, Jewish leaders in the Communist movement, and traditional Jewish professions in the 1800-1900’s. There was also an exhibit focused on the refusnik movement and the desire of many Jews to leave the USSR for Israel, but who were refused permission to leave. A poster caught my eye for a rally in NY sponsored by the Greater NY Council on Soviet Jewry (GNYCSJ). Some of my former colleagues worked for them and I took a picture of the poster and sent it to them.

Carolyn Greene, one of my former colleagues, wrote back,

Sometimes I still have what I call a “pinch me moment” when I need to remind myself how much the world has changed. A GNYCSJ Solidarity Sunday poster on display in Moscow – now that’s such a moment. We had a poster that pictured the Sharanskys (then Natasha and Anatoly), the headline read “they got married because they were in love…and separated because they were Jewish.” And now here I am checking out To Russia 4 Love to read about the latest kosher restaurant opening in the very same city where I clandestinely ate my canned veggies and peanut butter while scribbling notes about refusenik visits on a magic slate to my travel partner.

I had one of those pinch me moments on Sunday when Michael and I participated in matzo baking in the middle of Moscow. We were set up with an English speaking rabbi for one of the seders, and he invited us to his matzo baking. The first and only time I ever participated in a matzo baking, I was very little and don’t remember much of it. The matzo baking facility that we went to in Moscow was in a structure that was originally built as a sukkah, but which is used year round as a multi purpose room. Before Passover it becomes a matzo baking factory. From the time the water and flour are combined until the time the matzo comes out of the oven, the process can take only 18 minutes. The whole process is very serious and regimented: The wheat and the water, which comes from a fresh water well outside of Moscow, are kept strictly separate from each other. The first step is to mix the two ingredients together furiously. The man mixing it was doing it so hard that Michael’s role was to hold the bowl. The next step is to smash the dough until it changes color from brown to white. There is a heavy metal rod that is smashed onto the dough, which is on a metal table. Someone almost lost a finger earlier in the day on that step, so I didn’t volunteer. Michael did and his kipah was flying everywhere. It seemed like a good way to get out anger. Finally, the dough is cut into circles and people stand around rolling it into flat round circles, which are then baked. Half the table is amatuers, and the side closest to the oven are the professionals who fix it up. Then someone takes a mini rake and makes holes in the dough and it is sent to the oven outside. Whew! The 18 minutes passed quickly. Our second round was done in 14 minutes.

The first seder we are going to is at the Rabbi’s house who invited us to the matzo baking. He and his family speak English as their first language, but they have many guests and I think the majority of the seder will be in Russian and Hebrew. The second night we are co-hosting with my friend Liz. She was in Israel recently and brought a kosher brisket into Russia. I am so excited. One of the guests is a professional chef. We were discussing who would make what. We both volunteered to make matzo balls, but when he said that his secret ingredient is schmaltz (chicken fat), I realized I was way out of my league. It will be nice to create our own seder with a fun mix people of interesting people.

At the end of the day it still seems miraculous to be celebrating Passover openly in Russia. In the 1960’s matzo baking was banned in the USSR. At later times in the USSR matzo baking was credited as one of the things that helped Jews know their identity. Even if their families didn’t know why they were eating matzo or the matzo wasn’t kosher according to Jewish law, it was consumed during Passover. In the 1970’s and 1980’s matzo baking was the only source of income for Moscow’s Choral Synagogue. Some Jews would only come to the synagogue around Passover to buy matzo and that was their only expression of Judaism. They didn’t attend synagogue the rest of the year for fear of repercussions from Soviet officials, such as losing one’s job. Times have changed dramatically. This year there are five kosher markets from which to purchase kosher for Passover items. I bought things at all of them, but I would still trade all five for the kosher for Passover section at Fairway in NY.

Just as the Exodus from Egypt was a miracle, so was the opening of the gates of the FSU to allow Jews out and to openly practice their religion. May we continue to be blessed with miracles and see them for miracles in our lifetime. Michael and I wish you and your loved ones a very happy Passover.

From Russia with Love,
Heather

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Bunker Tours

In the States I am sure there are bunkers, but I have never heard of any that give tours. In Russia, World War II and the Cold War seem to loom larger in people’s minds today than in America. WWII was fought on Russian soil and the Nazis got very close to Moscow. Even today Russia still has a Cold War mentality – them versus the West (US, NATO, etc). All the metro stations were even designed to be bomb shelters. So it is not surprising that you can take tours of bunkers!

I was excited when the American Women’s Organization I am involved with offered a trip to Stalin’s bunker used during World War II in Moscow. Getting there was an adventure in itself. We have friends who have a car and drive themselves around the city and offered us a ride. Driving in Moscow is not a task for me! Michael and I jumped at the opportunity to catch a ride. However, Russia has many streets with the same or very similar names. They entered what appeared to be the only street with the name into their GPS. Lo and behold, we did not end up at the bunker but in the middle of an industrial complex. Thankfully they had a map in the car and are as good map readers as they are drivers and were able to find the street where we needed to go on the map. We were a few minutes late, but seemed to only have missed a long lecture that we were able to get the five minute version of afterwards!

The bunker itself was sort of disappointing. People speculate that Stalin was there a few times when the Nazis were particularly close to Moscow. There was a tunnel that connects the bunker directly to the Kremlin. It is sealed off now. In the bunker was a recreated room that was set to look like Stalin’s war room with a map of the battle lines, a desk, and a game table. They were all replicas. The other part of the bunker was turned into a Georgian restaurant and conference center that can be rented out. It didn’t feel very authentic.

The following weekend we joined the British Women’s Association for a tour of the Cold War Bunker in Moscow. Immediately it was clear that it would be more exciting than the previous week’s tour. The Cold War Bunker was built in the mid 1950’s. They created a building on the outside to resemble other buildings on the block. Inside the part of the building that was above ground was reinforced concrete. To get to the actual bunker you have to walk down 18 floors (and we walked the 18 flights up to exit) to a depth of 65 meters below ground. The bunker was built to withstand a nuclear attack, and 100 to 600 people worked there on a daily basis.

We were shown a video that I would describe as a propaganda film. It gave a history of tensions between the US and the USSR during the Cold War. Let’s just say it wasn’t told from the point of view I learned in school.

At one point volunteers were requested for a simulation. Naturally, I was the first to volunteer, but I should have thought about the task at hand in advance. I had to sit at a desk and was given keys and told buttons to press to set off a simulation of a nuclear explosion. There was a video where a Russian city was bombed. As retaliation my job was to turn a key and press a button and blow up….New York! I can’t say I enjoyed watching a nuclear explosion hit the center of NYC.

The highlight of the tour was a room where there were Kalashnikovs and military equipment that we could try on. The guns are much heavier than I imagined. We were able to sit at desks in USSR military uniforms.

Thankfully the Cold War is over and the bunker is now a museum and of course in true Russian fashion you can rent it out for a conference or turn it into a dance club for the night.

From Russia with Love,
Heather

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Snow in Moscow in Late March!!

As I read through Facebook updates it appears Spring has sprung in Chicago and New York. However, in Russia we probably have six more weeks of winter. It has been snowing for the past three days, with snow predicted for the next five days. Here are some pictures I took this morning outside my apartment. As you are eating your ice cream and drinking your beer outside, please remember that not all of us are able to wear shorts and summer dresses.

Also, happy birthday Mom!

From Russia with Love,

Heather

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Jews backed Putin, says Russian Chief | The Jewish Chronicle

Jews backed Putin, says Russian Chief | The Jewish Chronicle
By Heather Jacobsohn, March 8, 2012

The Chief Rabbi of Russia, Berel Lazar, believes that most Jews voted for Vladimir Putin in the Russian election this week.

In the wake of Sunday’s vote, in which Mr Putin won his third term as President after spending the past four years as Prime Minister, Rabbi Lazar said that Mr Putin has a good record of fighting antisemitism and returning synagogues back to the community.

Rabbi Lazar, who is head of Russia’s Chabad-Lubavitch population, said: “People are happy and believe that Putin was the best for the future of the Jewish community in this country.”

Rabbi Lazar acknowledged there were some Jews involved in the demonstrations against Mr Putin and who supported other candidates.

However, he called into question the motives of those protesters, arguing that “nobody could say that anything was wrong, so I think that a lot of the young people that didn’t vote for Putin didn’t have anything against him. It was more that they want something happening, some excitement.”

Other Jewish community leaders are reluctant to speculate on how members of their community voted.

Spokesman for the Russian Jewish Congress Mikhail Savin said that statements concerning Jewish support for one particular candidate “don’t have any sociological confirmation because there were no opinion polls on this topic. These polls are hardly possible; the Russian Jewish organisations prefer not to interfere in politics.”

Meanwhile, a prominent Russia analyst told Ha’artez this week that Mr Putin was good for Israel. “It has always been important for him to maintain good ties with Israel,” said Stanislav Belkovsky, director of Russia’s National Strategy Institute. “Even if another leader were to replace Putin, he would be loyal to Israel because these days Muslim immigration is a bigger problem for Russia than antisemitism.”

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It’s in Airbus, it’s a Boeing, it’s an Ilyushin!

It really is miraculous that there are now four direct flights daily between Moscow and Tel Aviv. I had my choice of airlines to fly to and from Tel Aviv including El Al, the Israeli airline, and Aeroflot, the Russian airline. I chose Aeroflot because they had better flight times and I have miles through them. When I booked my ticket, the Aeroflot website stated the plane would be an Airbus.

Lo and behold, I board the plane and it is no Airbus: it is a Soviet plane – an Ilyushin! As soon as you walk on board it is very clear. The first sign you are on a Soviet plane is that the middle aisle has no baggage space overhead, it is just the ceiling of the plane. Second sign, the seat numbers are on the back of the seats so you can’t see them until you’re past them and have to fight your way back. Even the Russians don’t seem to understand this. Third sign, the fan and light are on the seat in front of you, not overhead. Fourth sign, if the person in front of you is reclining you cannot open your tray. Fifth sign, the bathrooms are only in the back of the plane. The first one I went into didn’t even have a working light. Luckily, the next one I tried had a functioning light.

The way back to Moscow, I also flew an Ilyushin. However, I was so exhausted, I was too tired to worry that I was flying in a Soviet plane (though I’m told the most reliable one)!

See below for some pictures of the plane.

From Russia with Love,
Heather

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Israel Mission and Tel Aviv

In February, I had the opportunity to spend three weeks in Israel working for a previous employer, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. It is the central coordinating body for American Jewry, representing 52 national Jewish agencies from across the political and religious spectrums. Every year the Conference does an annual mission to Israel for its leadership, and I was helping to coordinate the program and logistics.

The first sign I knew I was in a very different place from Moscow is that there was an 80°F temperature difference. When I left Moscow it was -10°F and in Tel Aviv it was over 70°F. That was a good way to get my trip started, but then I barely saw the outdoors for two weeks after that because I was so busy. There is a ton of work that goes into the mission and a typical work day was from 9:00 am – 1:30 am. Once I even worked as late (as early?!) as 4:30 am. The hotel turns two adjoining rooms into an office where we set up desks, computers, printers, copy machines, etc. The office was 4 doors down from my hotel room, therefore my exercise was also limited. Sadly, I did not see the outdoors much, although I managed to go out for ten minutes for fresh air at least twice. The lead up to the mission is intense, but once it starts it is a whirlwind of excitement.

Luckily, I had a great partner in crime, Roz, and we kept we each other sane through the whole experience. We sat about 1 foot away from each other and were forced to bond quickly. The hotel is kosher, which means room service, which is what we ate for practically every meal (not nearly as exciting as it sounds – you get sick of the menu very, very quickly), and it can only deliver meat or dairy at a time. I love meat and since the meat in Russia isn’t great I jumped at every opportunity to get it. Lucky for me, I was able to convince Roz to do meat for dinner almost every night. She even called room service on Friday afternoon to see if they would save me a portion of chulent (a beef stew traditionally eaten on Shabbat) for Saturday night when we returned to the office to work. Not only did they save me one portion, but they saved me three!! We even had some friends bring us in burgers and schwarma!

During the mission itself there were some great speakers. I won’t bore you with the details. Here are a few articles if you want to read further.

Opening dinner with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/152926#.T09C12CmlIt

An article about our day trip to Jordan to meet with King Abdullah II http://www.jpost.com/DiplomacyAndPolitics/Article.aspx?id=258802

An article about the speech by President of Israel Shimon Peres (Peres on Iran: When We Say ‘All Options,’ We Mean It): http://www.timesofisrael.com/peres-on-iran-when-we-say-all-options-are-on-the-table-we-mean-it/

In the gallery below are a few pictures of some of the speakers and our day in Jordan.

Michael was able to join me in Israel for the last session of the mission and we then spent the weekend in Israel. We spent Friday afternoon wandering around the Old City of Jerusalem and walked the ramparts (the Old City walls). We then headed to Tel Aviv. Again, we failed at the beach vacation! Although we did sit on the beach our last night for a drink, we were busy walking to the port, Old Jaffa, checking out a few museums, and of course eating! My most favorite restaurant was an all you can eat Kosher Brazilian steak house. Have no doubt about it, I out ate Michael.

We are safely back in the cold of Moscow, although it has been in the 20’s since my return, which feels almost tropical compared to what it was like before I left. I have switched from my heavy jacket to my lighter pea coat.

From Russia with Love,
Heather

 

 

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News About Jews

My second published article for the UK’s Jewish Chronicle.

http://www.thejc.com/news/world-news/63355/world-forum-jewry-do-what

World Forum for Jewry, but to do what?

By Heather Jacobsohn, February 9, 2012

When Alexander Levin, Ukrainian businessman and President of the Kiev Jewish community, announced the creation of the World Forum of Russian Jewry at the UN last month, nobody – including himself – appeared to know exactly what it was for.

In a vague statement, Mr Levin said: “Our goal is to bring together Russian-speaking Jews from around the world in order to save ourselves and other people from the next catastrophe and genocide, to preserve world peace and protect the state of Israel.”

Igor Branovan, a World Forum board member and president of its US branch, was able to be more specific last week. He said the body would seek to provide Jewish education for Russian-speaking Jews, who “through not having very deep Jewish roots by virtue of growing up in the Soviet Union, have a much higher risk of disintegrating” into their larger societies. “Our primary goal,” he said, “is to maintain the Russian Jews within the Jewish communities”.

Mr Branovan denied that the new forum was an oligarch’s vanity project: “I understand the natural skepticism, that’s very appropriate, we will just have to prove ourselves with our actions.”

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New Blog: Kosher by the Kremlin

Check out my new blog  http://kosherbythekremlin.wordpress.com/, which caters to all of you kosher connoisseurs!

From Russia with Love,
Heather

 

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It’s Cold in Moscow!!

Michael and I are settling back into life in Moscow following all of our wedding festivities and the opportunities we had to see many friends and family in the States. I would like to quote weather.com to describe Moscow at the moment as “bitterly cold.” The high today is 10°F and tonight it is supposed to get down to -9°F, which will feel like -23°F. Let me tell you that no matter how many layers you wear, it still feels cold. The weather forecast for the next ten days is just as cold, if not colder.

Despite the weather we have been managing to stay busy and continue our Moscow adventures. The Bolshoi Theatre is one of the oldest and most renowned ballet and opera companies in the world. The building just underwent a 6-year renovation project and finally re-opened in October. One of the more interesting items to be renovated was outside, on the top of the facade, the double-headed eagle of the original Russian coat of arms was installed in the place where the Soviet hammer and sickle had been mounted for decades. As you can imagine, tickets are extremely hard to get for the Bolshoi. Michael happened to be on the website and saw second row seats for Sleeping Beauty that night. The performance was excellent. The sets, costumes, music, performers, and everything about the theatre were absolutely beautiful and artistic.

Last year, Michael and I went to an ice sculpture festival. They are very popular in Russia, and almost every city has their own festival. There are many happening throughout Moscow. This year, we went to one called the Ice Museum. It was designed like a castle with rooms inside and dragons outside. Every ice festival needs an igloo and some animals so those were also there too. My favorite part was the ice bed that had real pillows on it.

I do not why the Russians are so fascinated with cat exhibits, but they are all over this city. Most exhibition centers or large parks, such as the one where we went to the Ice Museum, have cat exhibits. I am not a huge cat fan, but curiosity got to me and Michael finally talked me into seeing one. My advice – skip it! I do not know if the one we went to is similar to other exhibits, but it was a large room that smelled terrible with cats in cages. I think pet stores in America provide more entertainment On each cage is a paragraph describing the cat. The most exciting part of the exhibit was the hairless cat!

Lastly, Michael and I went on a date night to a fairly new restaurant in Moscow. Rarely do restaurants blow me away here. I usually leave thinking the food was mediocre at best, and although I love food, I would not describe myself as a food snob. However, this restaurant was amazing. It is located in the the top floor of a building and provides a 360 degree panorama view of the most popular sites in Moscow including Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Kremlin. The tastiest thing I ate was blue fin tuna tar tar with avocados and a sesame soy dressing- yum!

Enjoy some pictures below from all of our winter activities! I hope you are staying warm.

From Russia with Love,

Heather

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Guest Blog Post: Wedding!

Michael has written a guest blog post about our recent wedding in Florida!  I couldn’t have said it better.

On Wednesday, December 28, 2011, Heather and I got married at Beth Torah Synagogue in North Miami Beach. It was a beautiful South Florida winter’s evening, whose warmth and sun made it seem even farther away from Moscow than the 5700 miles it actually was. The ceremony was small, with only immediate family in attendance, and Heather looked gorgeous (though she usually does, so that isn’t surprising). Although the direct onlookers were few in number, we keenly felt our connections to family members who could not be with us, friends scattered around the world, and thousands of years of history and tradition distilled into the few rituals of a Jewish wedding ceremony. Allowing myself to lapse into a cliche for just a moment, I can honestly say it was the happiest day of my life. And though our time in Florida passed quickly, the feelings we solemnized there are timeless. Below enjoy a few photographs from the actual ceremony.

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