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Observant Jews in Russia Stand Tall in the Face of a Kosher Wine Shortage

August 17, 2006
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As a result of a bureaucratic blunder, new regulations are keeping imported wines and spirits off the Russia market this summer. While the shortage may only be a minor problem for the mostly vodka-drinking Russian population, it could turn into a real issue for religiously observant Russian Jews.

Until the ban on Georgian and Moldovan alcohol imports was implemented earlier this year, the Russian Jewish community relied on a steady source of inexpensive Moldovan-produced kosher wine.

Since the ban, Jews have had to switch to Israeli and French kosher wine because Russia doesn’t produce any homegrown kosher wine.

Moscow’s Chabad-run kosher supermarket’s shelves are now devoid of kosher wine. The extensive selection of kosher wines that once occupied a large portion of the store’s shelf space is now taken up by bottles of kosher grape juice.

The store’s importer promised a wine shipment by July 20, but the date came and went without any new wine.

But at recent Shabbat services at Marina Roscha, Moscow’s largest synagogue and community center, rituals proceed as usual. Other synagogues across Moscow have enough wine for their kiddush cups as well.

According to a source within Marina Roscha, the synagogue has enough old stock to keep going for some time, although technically, its use may not be entirely legal.

But no one seems to mind.

Artem Vitkin, a young Moscow filmmaker and a religiously observant Jew, doesn’t consider the lack of imported kosher wine a problem.

“We don’t drink” kosher wine “because we love wine,” Vitkin said, explaining that his family uses it mostly for ritual purposes.

So far, his stock has lasted. But if he runs out, he could call upon the small kosher wine black market — if it could be called that — that has sprung up in Moscow’s religious circles.

Vitkin hinted that kosher wine could be obtained easily in a local synagogue.

But for those squeamish about breaking the law, there is nothing wrong with drinking kosher grape juice instead of wine to sanctify Shabbat or other Jewish holidays, says Aaron Gurevich, an Orthodox rabbi who heads two small Jewish communities on the outskirts of Moscow.

With the wine shortage, that should mean that bottles of kosher grape juice are selling like hot cakes. But according to a salesclerk at Moscow’s only kosher supermarket, the $3 bottles, imported from Israel, have not seen any increase in sales. This is likely a sign that either observant Jews have stocked up in preparation for the wine crisis or have sanctified the shadowy kosher wine economy for the sake of honoring Shabbat.

The new law was enacted in good faith to fight corruption, and the snag is sure to blow over.

But the situation isn’t likely to be resolved for several weeks.

According to experts in the importing business, all imported alcohol — including kosher wine — is expected to start appearing on the market in September.

And when it does, it is expected to rise in price by 30 percent.

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