MOSCOW, March 27 (JTA) — Did you know that the United States’s ambassador to the Russian Federation is Jewish? Alexander Vershbow, who is a career diplomat, and his wife, Lisa, arrived in Moscow in July 2001. The next spring, with the chill of winter still in the air, the Vershbows planned their first Passover in Russia. “The idea to host a seder at our residence came naturally,” says Lisa Vershbow. The family has two sons; one was then in high school, the other in college. “We have often invited family and friends to our home in Washington, so it wasn’t surprising that we’d want to do the same in Moscow.” It’s always a challenge to prepare the many courses prescribed for a seder, but there were even more challenges involved in making the seder at Spaso House, the American ambassador’s official residence. The residence has two full-time chefs, who prepare the foods for frequent receptions — often with as many as 300 guests, and for official breakfasts, lunches and dinners, often for 24 people per meal. The year’s biggest event, the Fourth of July reception, welcomes 1,500 people. Every year, approximately 12,000 guests pass through Spaso House. Cooking is done in a restaurant-style kitchen in the basement, and the food is brought upstairs on a dumbwaiter. “The Spaso House head chef is a delightful man, who has lived in Moscow for years,” says Vershbow. Vershbow, too, is a good cook, who enjoys preparing food for her family. She came to Moscow equipped with her mother’s Passover recipes. Though the residence’s head chef is skilled at preparing a variety of cuisines, he was unfamiliar with Passover fare. “But he proved equal to the task, making marvelous charoset from my description alone,” Vershbow says. “He roasted the shank bone and the egg to beautiful perfection,” she continues. “He searched the Moscow open-air markets for whole horseradish root, and bought our matzas at the Jewish community center, since they are not sold in grocery stores here.” Unfortunately the matza balls proved difficult to get right. As anyone who’s ever attempted them can confirm, matza balls can easily become cannon fodder. In recent decades, many home cooks have avoided this potential catastrophe by relying on commercial mixes. Needless to say, these user-friendly mixes are not a staple item in Russian markets. But Vershbow’s mother saved the day by toting six boxes of matza ball mix from Boston. “During our first Passover, the chef, in his effort to create perfectly round spheres, over-handled the dough, producing some rather tough matza balls,” says Vershbow. “The following year, I found that by describing them as similar to French quenelles” — finely textured dumplings — “he produced the perfect consistency.” Light and airy, they practically floated above the soup, she says. Every spring since they arrived in Moscow the Vershbows have hosted a seder in Spaso House’s state dining room. They’ve invited between 40 and 50 people each year. They set up four or five round tables, each seating 10 guests. Identical seder plates grace each table. At the beginning of the service, Lisa Vershbow lights the candles and recites the blessing from her table. “A number of previous ambassadors have hosted seders here,” says Vershbow, whose husband is not the first Jew to serve as U.S. ambassador to Russia. But non-Jews have hosted seders at Spaso House, too. That began in the 1980s, when Russia was still part of the Soviet Union and U.S. ambassadors made a conscious effort to support Moscow’s Jewish community. Now, Vershbow says, Jews are not suffering from the kind of harsh discrimination they faced earlier. The local government supports the Jewish community, and there are few instances of anti-Semitism. Because the ambassador can choose whether or not to host a seder, there has not been one every year at Spaso House. Those that have been held have always been kosher, and larger-scale than the Vershbows’. Usually they have been led by a Russian rabbi. The Vershbows’ seder is a little bit different. “It is very significant that this is truly the first time that seders have been conducted in Spaso House, where the ambassador himself has led the service,” Lisa Vershbow says proudly. “Because my husband and I are hosting seders at the ambassador’s residence, they must be more official than the ones we held at home,” she continues. “However, the point of our seders is not to be political, but rather to have a chance to celebrate the holiday with the friends we’ve made in the Jewish community here, just as we would do in Washington.” Their guests typically include musicians, journalists, businesspeople, authors, artists and academics. They also invite the dozen or so Jewish families stationed at the American embassy and other colleagues who are interested in attending a seder. With such a varied group of people attending their seders, the Vershbows have put together their own Haggadah, because they couldn’t find one suited to their needs. “In the Spaso House storeroom, I located several boxes of Haggadahs from previous seders,” says Vershbow. “But none of them were exactly what we were looking for.” Some of the Haggadahs were in Russian and Hebrew and others were English and Hebrew, but none included all three languages, she says, adding that she prefers her Haggadah to be in the Reform Jewish style she was used to. Vershbow is an artist — she designs and creates metal jewelry, working in a studio she’s set up in a carriage house behind the official residence. So she took on the challenge of creating what she could not find. “Along with the help of one of the young officers in the Embassy’s political section, I cut and pasted together an elaborate trilingual Haggadah, and then had ample copies made,” she said. “I drew the illustration for the cover to give it a finished look.” The cover shows a Passover plate, complete with ceremonial items, plus a kiddush cup full of wine and two silver candlesticks. Cyrillic mixes with English and Hebrew on its pages. “In Washington, we usually held our seder on the first night of Passover,” she says. “But here in Moscow, we switched to the second night, so it wouldn’t interfere with the personal family seders of members of the American embassy staff, who would be guests at our official one.” Trying to make their guests feel comfortable, the Vershbows serve Ashkenazi holiday dishes family style. Along with the ritual foods — matza, charoset, parsley and hard -boiled eggs — they always serve matza ball soup. “Our second course is roasted lamb with vegetables, because my mother always serves lamb,” says Vershbow. “For dessert, we serve angel pie, a lemon custard and meringue confection, a tradition started by my mother-in-law, who got the recipe from the original ‘Joy of Cooking.’ ” Spaso House’s state dining room is a wood-paneled hall lit by a Venetian chandelier. The building was originally an elegant, spacious mansion commissioned by a wealthy Moscow merchant. In 1917, after the Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviet government appropriated it for official use. The Russians rented it to the U.S. government in 1933, the year the United States established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. The Vershbows are the 22nd ambassadorial couple to live in Spaso House. Because her husband’s tenure as ambassador is due to end in late spring or early summer, this will be the couple’s fourth and final Passover in Moscow. Over the years, Lisa Vershbow has not only met many fascinating people, she’s also made lasting friendships. She has given several lectures on her craft, exhibited her jewelry in Russian museums, and been featured on Russian television. So it’s with mixed emotions that she’s anticipating this last Spaso House seder. As she plans to recite “next year in Jerusalem,” Vershbow hopes to celebrate Passover 2006 at home in Washington. Believe it or not, she’s looking forward to doing all the cooking by herself.
U.S.’s Moscow ambassador hosts seder