The legendary rail journey across Russia allows tourists to see towns, nature and Jewish communities in action — and can easily be done without breaking Judaism’s dietary laws
By ROSSELLA TERCATIN | The Times of Israel
MOSCOW — Long before we met, my husband Isaac and I had both wanted to travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway. The legendary, historic train ride covers 9,259 kilometers (5,753 miles) from Moscow to Vladivostok.
A few months into our marriage we felt that it was now or never, and so we decided to make a honeymoon out of it. By traveling during the Jewish holidays in the fall, we would have the opportunity to spend them in the various Jewish communities along the route.
Isaac and I are both halachically observant Jews, and journeying in weeks when every other day is either Shabbat or a festival — days on which things such as public travel, spending money, or using electricity are forbidden — would not be easy. But what better way is there to get to know a foreign country, and its Jewish history and life, than sharing holiday meals with the locals?
Over the summer we spent weeks creating an itinerary by aligning the dates of the holidays with possible rides and stops. By early August, our final plans were set.
Our first challenge was to book the flights and the train tickets. Luckily, Russian Railways had recently released an English version of their website, forcing the travel agencies that previously were the easiest option for non-Russian speakers to slash their inflated prices. All in all, the tickets were lowered by nearly 50 percent — from about $900 to $500 each.
After we had our tickets, we emailed Jewish institutions in the different cities to let them know we were coming, and cross-referenced their addresses with possible apartments or hostels to ensure that we’d be staying within walking distance.
Finally we packed warm layers — along with a kilo of chocolate, crackers, cookies, salami and peanut butter as basic kosher victuals. We also brought a pot, pan, knife, and a cooking utensil so we could prepare our own kosher food.
The day after Rosh Hashanah we left our home in Jerusalem.
St. Petersburg provided a soft landing. After weeks of striving to figure out synagogues, accommodations and kosher meals, the former Russian capital provided an all-inclusive solution: We lodged in the small guest house in the historic Grand Choral Synagogue compound, which also features a charming kosher restaurant and a little kosher supermarket which also sells souvenirs such as rabbi-shaped Russian dolls. (No, we did not buy one.)
The Grand Choral Synagogue itself is an imposing 1893 Moorish-style building. Congregants recalled how during the dark times of the Soviet Union the synagogue was run by a government-appointed puppet rabbi with an embarrassingly limited knowledge of Judaism. We learned that behind the scenes, rabbis who had studied in the great European study halls fought to keep true Judaism alive.
Our first night in Russia had all the romantic trappings we’d dreamed of: We saw a ballet at the illustrious Mariinsky Theatre, took a walk through the city and ate pelmeni — delicious meat-filled Russian dumplings.
On Shabbat night, we were invited to a meal at the local Moishe House, a Jewish organization that subsidizes part of the rent for a group of people in their 20s, in exchange for a commitment to organize events for their peers. Founded in America, Moishe House has become very popular in the Russian-speaking world.
We were excited to meet young Jews from the city. We were also curious to experience a different side of the Jewish community than the one that thrives around the Grand Choral Synagogue, which is affiliated with the Chabad movement — possibly the main force behind today’s Russian Jewish revival.
The residents kindly ordered kosher food for us since the Moishe House, a spacious apartment on a central boulevard, is not kosher. About 15 or 20 students and young professionals showed up, and the conversation covered a vast array of topics, from Vladimir Putin, to their relationship with Judaism and Israel; from the latest movies, to their proud attachment to St. Petersburg.
Indeed, the former capital of the Russian Empire is as scenic as any historic European city, with exquisitely decorated palaces whose bright colors defy the gray of the sky.
To get to Moscow, we had planned on taking a fast train that covers the 650-kilometer (400 mile) journey in less than four hours. They were all completely booked. And so we found ourselves on what would be the first of many overnight rides, in a packed double-decker red train full of Chinese tourists and buzzing like a beehive.
We arrived in Moscow 36 hours before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Our hotel, a big square building with old fashioned carpets, could not have looked more stereotypically Soviet — but it was close to the Jewish Community Center in the Marina Roscha district, where a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend had suggested we could attend services.
Despite the metal detectors and guards at the entrance, the building was teeming with life. At 11:30 a.m., the main hall was hosting the fourth round of Shacharit (the morning prayer service) of the day. Several people were engaged in Torah study. The entryway wall featured pictures of almost 30 Chabad-affiliated Jewish sites in the Moscow area, and a map of the dozens of Jewish communities around the country.
After being reassured that in order to attend High Holiday services all we had to do was show up, we went to visit the Red Square. One of the recurring themes we explored on our trip was the interconnection between political and religious powers in pre-Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. The large number of churches located on the grounds of the Kremlin was a prime example of how religion has always played a large role there.
Getting organized for Yom Kippur took more time than we had anticipated. Luckily, Moscow turned out to offer the most delicious kosher restaurants. We picked up amazing takeout from a restaurant called Yerusalim (named for the Israeli capital), where we would also break our fast. The food was mouthwatering — and affordable. A meat main course cost between 400 and 700 rubles (six to 10 dollars).
Not surprisingly, Yom Kippur drew hundreds of people to the synagogue. As in many congregations around the world, there was a pretty clear distinction between regulars and occasional goers. However, even the latter seemed comfortable, and most had a Hebrew prayer book in their hands. The service was fast, and the singing was minimal. Outside the prayer hall dozens of kids played and ran nonstop. It was a moving sight.
The following day, before leaving Moscow, we went grocery shopping to stock up on kosher food, starting with a big box of matzah, a staple that Russian Jews seem to appreciate in any season. Many had told us how for the long years under the Soviets their only connection to Judaism was eating matzah.
We made it to the station through the legendary Moscow traffic jams just in time, and schlepped our suitcases through the 54-berth third-class car. When we got to our seats, the top luggage compartment was unreachable — or so it seemed until our very large, very Russian, 71-year-old neighbor helped us. A short while later, he stripped down to his boxers. It was nothing to be alarmed about, we’d find out — over the course of our trip we discovered that many Russian men like to travel with minimal clothing.
We were constantly surprised by people’s friendliness. The fact that we did not speak the language didn’t prevent us from having long conversations using gestures and Google translation.
Isaac’s kippah, tallit and tefillin prompted questions but no hostility. In fact, in our time in Russia, we never came across the problem of anti-Semitism — and local Jews confirmed that usually, neither did they.
In spite of being described by our guidebook as an emerging cultural hub, Perm proved to be the Russian city many had warned us about: in a word, gray.
Its dull atmosphere was brightened only by the warm welcome of the residents of the local Moishe House. In the damp Friday afternoon we toured the city together, and later joined up for Shabbat dinner. Most people did not speak much English, but one of the hosts helped translate.
On Saturday night we caught the train in the middle of a gloomy fog. The train station, however, was fully lit — and guarded by a large number of policemen.
Safety never felt like an issue during the trip. Suitcases had to pass through a metal detector and the train stewards checked each passenger’s passport. We wondered, though, if we would have felt as reassured by the abundance of controls if we were local political dissidents.
The train ride from Perm to Ekaterinburg was only a few hours long. Ekaterinburg is the fourth largest city in Russia, where Boris Yeltsin — the first president of the Russian Federation — started his political career, and where Tsar Nicholas II and his family were killed in 1918.
It was also fascinating, albeit slightly shocking, to see the devotion towards Nicholas II and his family. In 2000 they were canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. The Church on Blood was built in their honor and is surrounded by posters of their pictures, while inside there are typical Russian icons depicting them with halos. Thinking of their rabid anti-Semitism and Nicholas’s complete incompetence in governing Russia, we couldn’t help but shudder at their exalted status today.
Outside the grand Jewish community building stood a richly decorated sukkah with a pine-branch roof. The meal the first night of Sukkot was glorious. The sukkah was adorned with lanterns, and the table was set with real tablecloths and china. Men and women sat separately, two enormous fire cannons heated the space, and all beverages — including water — were served hot.
The next morning, hundreds of people filled the main hall of the synagogue for the service. During the break children played games in the sukkah, people shook the four species, and there were snacks. Then, most of the congregants left and the service continued in the smaller hall. It was a Monday, and someone explained to us that missing a day of work in Russia is not taken lightly.
The following ride to Irkutsk kept us on the train for two days. We were a little apprehensive about the long journey at first, but our fears turned out to be groundless. We gazed out the windows, basking in the glow of the Siberian autumn. Bright yellow, brick red, and deep green trees were punctuated by wooden villages.
I spent time reading (I finally tackled “War and Peace”!), Isaac studied Torah and we had interesting conversations. Many fellow passengers explained to us that Putin might have his faults, but his foreign policy was healing wounded Russian pride. We took lots of naps. Unfortunately, we soon realized that we had made the mistake of bringing very little fruit and vegetables — but at least we were not lacking for matzah and chocolate.
We were not the only people who consumed their own food in their seats. At breakfast, lunch and dinner time the car filled up with the aroma of sausages, instant soups, and smoked fish. It blended with the smell of sweat, feet and a faint whiff from the bathrooms, creating the famous bouquet of Russian trains.
When we arrived, we were eager to stretch our legs. Luckily, our next adventure was a 12-kilometer hike following the former Circum-Baikal Railway along beautiful lake Baikal, which holds a fifth of the world’s unfrozen fresh water. After thousands of kilometers by train there was something poetic in proceeding on the tracks by foot, finally on our own.
In spite of the chilly temperature a few degrees above freezing (though our hosts kept on remarking on how seasonally warm it was), our Shabbat in a Siberian sukkah was wonderful. Once again, seeing the revival of Jewish life in places where it had been completely suppressed was powerful but bittersweet. After all, what would Russian Jewry be like today, to say nothing of the Jewish people at large, had those hundreds of thousands not been forced to leave their identity behind?
Our next destination, Ulan Ude, was the only city we visited that had no organized Jewish presence. Because it’s a border town, the population is predominantly ethnically Mongolian. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Buddhism has also been going through a revival — and after visiting many synagogues and churches, seeing a Buddhist temple was fascinating.
The supermarkets, though, had very little to offer as far as kosher fare was concerned, and we went through a brief moment of panic thinking we would not be able to put together a festive (and filling) meal for the holiday of Simchat Torah.
The crisis was averted when we found a gargantuan fish from Lake Baikal. We somehow managed to scale, gut and clean it, and had a happy private celebration. With the help of a small bottle of vodka, we danced the traditional hakafot with two copies of the Chumash (the Five Books of Moses) that we had brought with us.
For the last leg of our journey — three full days on the train — we chose to travel second class, which meant four-berth compartments, on the legendary Rossiya, the signature train that covers the full Trans-Siberian Railway in six days. However, while the price was higher, the service was worse. The toilets, which so far had been basic but decent (by the way, no showers anywhere), were especially old and dirty.
On the first morning our fellow traveler was a young man in his 20s who drank copious amount of cola — or so we thought, before realizing that while a large bottle of Pepsi stood on the table, underneath he kept a bottle of vodka.
He soon got drunk, and after a while two equally inebriated friends came to join him. Their behavior became increasingly inappropriate. Luckily, before things got ugly, a matronly looking woman from the adjacent compartment arrived drawn by the noise. She reprimanded the three sternly, and after she was done the two friends left, looking ashamed.
Our roommate fell asleep, snoring peacefully, and would wake up just in time to get off the train. Locals told us that the technique is called “Russian teleportation.” You get on the train, get drunk, pass out, wake up and get off.
With the following fellow travelers we were much more lucky: a young couple, also recently married. He spoke good English, and his ability to impeccably make his bed was mesmerizing. We soon found out he is a former paratrooper, and he and Isaac bonded over the shared experiences of all soldiers.
When the couple disembarked, they were greeted by family members who had brought surprise gifts for us: a jar of homemade pickles, a bag of tea, and a ceremonial knife. We did not even have time to properly thank them. Off the train went.
We were now beyond Siberia and in Russia’s far east. On the third afternoon of the final leg of our journey, the train entered the station at Birobidzhan.
Birobidzhan is the administrative capital of Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region, the world’s only officially Jewish territory outside Israel. Created by Joseph Stalin in 1934, at its peak Birobidzhan counted 30,000 Jews — but hardship quickly decimated the population. Today Birobidzhan has about 75,000 residents, only a couple of thousand of whom are Jewish.
We did not have the opportunity to tour the city, but even just spotting the big Yiddish sign on the station building reading “Birobidzhan” made a huge impression. It was exciting, in the way any Jewish tourist feels when they see random Hebrew lettering somewhere. But it was also emotional, because Birobidzhan had been another tool of persecution.
We arrived in Vladivostok on Friday morning before dawn, under a waning moon. The city bears a vague resemblance to San Francisco — it is on the ocean, hilly, and has imposing bridges spanning the two sides of the bay.
The local synagogue was only recently restored and the community is smaller. They did not hold services on Friday night, and on Shabbat morning there weren’t enough people to complete a prayer quorum. But prayers were followed by lunch, and the small group looked very happy to hang out and play chess together.
Our Russian adventure finished the way it started — with a night of ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre, which opened a stage in Vladivostok in 2016.
The next day, we got on a plane to Tokyo for the last leg of our honeymoon. After 10,000 kilometers by rail, 11 nights on the train, seven Russian cities, and anywhere between two and 54 roommates, Japan beckoned — and it was only a two-hour flight away.
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