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In Moscow, reveling in Simchat Torah

Revelers celebrate Simchat Torah in Moscow's Chabad-run Marina Roscha synagogue on Oct. 21, 2008. (Grant Slater)

Revelers celebrate Simchat Torah in Moscow’s Chabad-run Marina Roscha synagogue on Oct. 21, 2008. (Grant Slater)

MOSCOW (JTA) – It’s a few minutes to midnight in the Marina Roscha synagogue and the vodka is flowing.

Strains of Hebrew dirges fill the cafeteria where hundreds of people line tables that stretch across the hall. Suddenly a black-garbed figure bounds onto the head table, singing fervently, clapping his hands and testing the table’s breaking point with each leap toward the ceiling.

Berel Lazar, Russia’s head Chabad rabbi, breaks into a sprint along the tables with little concern for the white plastic bowls of pickled mushrooms or the carefully covered challahs in his wake. He goads the masses to stand and clap and sing.

"He wants to feel a bit like royalty tonight," said one Chabad rabbi staring up as Lazar’s entourage tried to steady the gyrating table.

Lazar is not alone in that feeling.

Across Moscow, Russian Jews poured into synagogues to celebrate the pinnacle of the October holidays with the dancing and singing cacophony of Simchat Torah, a holiday that resonated even during the decades of Soviet oppression.

For those years, Judaism hummed below the surface of Soviet life. Holidays such as Rosh Hashanah or Passover, if they were marked at all, were celebrated in whispers behind double-thick doors in gray apartment blocks.

But in Simchat Torah, Soviet Jews found a holiday that resonated with both their sense of identity and the pangs of oppression. People came out by the thousands to streets in front of the synagogue, a rarefied and bold public display of faith.

"They couldn’t care less what the police had to say," Lazar told JTA. "They would stop them, arrest them, harass them, but they still went out in the street."

Now, with active and thriving synagogues and Jewish life flourishing in Russia, there is no need to dance in the street. The party has moved inside to the prayer halls, Moscow’s new centers of Jewish life.

Across town at the Choral Synagogue, a white-capped rabbi leads a prayer during a brief respite between full-throated Hebrew anthems. It was shortly before 7 p.m. and the banquet was coming together in the kosher restaurant adjoining the prayer hall.

After an "Amen," a dozen Torahs wrapped in crushed velvet were raised to the ceiling as the raucous crowd of hundreds started to spin and twirl again, arms over shoulders. A jagged line of revelers rocked forward and backward, almost plowing into a small girl waving a flag.

A long-haired boy who looks like he would be more at home bobbing his way through a reggae festival than stomping in the staid halls of Moscow’s central house of Jewish worship dances blissfully with the scrolls, collecting kisses from his friends as he spins them round.

In recent years, the solemn and furtive celebration of Yom Kippur has gained more credence in a country where communal and boisterous Judaism has always been more enticing.

"The main point is always the synagogue, and the synagogue was off limits for 99 percent of Jews in the Soviet Union," said Pinchas Goldschmidt, Moscow’s chief rabbi. "Yom Kippur as a culmination is much more difficult to transmit to the next generation."

But Simchat Torah has always been there, and the October fervor still peaks when vodka and prayer mix with Torah and toasts.

Back at Marina Roscha, the oldest person in the synagogue, Pavel Bukhman, sits off to the side of a whirling circle of beard and booze. At 91, he has good days and bad with his heart. Today is a bad day.

But he came to the synagogue anyway, he said, because after a recent religious awakening, he never misses a holiday.

He sits behind a prayer book in a wooden pew with a neatly pressed white shirt and tweed gray jacket all under a minuscule ivory kipah.  He watches the crowd spin around and holds his hand to his chest.

Bukhman said he knew about the celebrations of Simchat Torah in Soviet times but never took part.

"We didn’t go to the synagogue on this day back then, but it was always a good day," he told JTA.

From the oldest to the scores of young children darting through the crowd, this year’s Simchat Torah celebration presented a wide cross-section of the Jewish community in Russia.

"In this room there are tycoons and paupers," said Avraham Berkowitz, a Chabad rabbi and former executive director of the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities. "Those who go to the soup kitchen and those who donate for the soup kitchen are finding common ground in the celebration of Judaism."

One of those tycoons sits front and center near Lazar as the songs continue, and he joins in. Valery Avramson, a Russian construction magnate, said he feels extremely close to the Jewish community in Moscow, and those ties run through the synagogue.

"I came out here to see my friends," he said. "But it’s good to see how these days we see Judaism being practiced so openly."

That’s why he spends his holidays with those who are celebrating, he said, though his ear is never far from his cell phone.

Also in the hall is a new generation of young Russian Jews, the first educated in Jewish schools, and they line several long tables. One such former student represents a view that may be the cement that solidifies the next phase in Russian Jewry.

After a few shots of vodka chased with pickled herring, Andrei Birinberg starts to argue with a former teacher, a rabbi who instructs 55 students throughout the Chabad-run Or Avner school system.

The rabbi, 36-year-old Yonathon Feldman, vocies his theory that for most Jews there are two lives: one in the secular world, one in the religious world. The two lives, he argues, line up for brief moments on Jewish holidays when one truly lives his Jewishness.

Birinberg, an insurance salesman by day, curls up his face and parries back. He says he goes home every night to his Jewish family, and though they aren’t religious, they are still Jewish.

"When you leave the house, you don’t stop being a Russian," Birinberg said. "It’s the same with Judaism. No matter where you are or what you do, you stay a Jew. That’s what Simchat Torah is about."

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