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A Holiday Popular in Soviet Times, Simchat Torah Still Draws a Crowd

October 21, 2003
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During Soviet times, when the Communist regime persecuted people for practicing religion, Simchat Torah was the most popular holiday among Moscow Jews.

Thousands of Jews would come to Moscow’s Choral Synagogue to dance, sing and have a shot or two of vodka under the open sky.

Former underground Jewish activist Rabbi Zinovy Kogan called the celebrations a “Moscow miracle.”

“I still don’t know why each year Simchat Torah would get the largest crowd” of all Jewish holidays, said Kogan, who later became chairman of the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations in Russia.

“This wasn’t just a holiday like others; this was a mass demonstration of Jewish pride,” he said. “This was the day when people weren’t afraid of showing up near the synagogue, something many wouldn’t do on any other day of the year.”

It’s now more than a decade since anti-Semitic restrictions in Russia ended, and Simchat Torah celebrations in the former Soviet capital now resemble those held elsewhere in the world, Kogan said.

On Sunday morning, some 200 Jews gathered at the Moscow Memorial Synagogue, where Kogan led a Reform service.

At least one of the congregants recalled the times in the 1980s when, as a college student, he would come to the synagogue on Simchat Torah. This year, Boris Freidlin, now a doctor, 38, came to the synagogue with his 6-year-old son.

“Back in the old days we did it mostly out of protest,” he said. “This year I came with my family, which I wouldn’t do back then. I’m just doing what I am supposed to do as a Jew, what my great-grandparents would most probably want me to do on this day.”

On Saturday, Shlioma Ezer, 80, visited a synagogue for the first time in his life.

“I haven’t been to a synagogue before, not that I can remember,” he said to a rabbi standing amid a large crowd at the Marina Roscha Synagogue in Moscow. “And I haven’t heard a Yiddish word in 30 years.”

Ezer said he always felt Jewish and never changed his identifiably Jewish first and last names. As an engineer for the military in eastern Russia, being Jewish harmed him less than it would have elsewhere in the country, he said.

Ezer said he recently read a book on Judaism that made him want to see how a holiday is celebrated in a synagogue.

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