On Hanukkah, hundreds of Jews gather in Moscow’s Red Square. The historic and colorful pedestrian area is home to some of Russia’s most well-known buildings, and is a bustling site for tourists today. Though the temperature is below freezing and it is snowing so hard that Anita Grinblat can’t see the person standing right next to her, no one is ready to head home just yet. They have come to light the menorah together in the center of Moscow, and to share the beauty of Chanukah with their neighbors.
Thirty years ago, this scene would have been unimaginable. Russia was part of the USSR, and being Jewish was prohibited. Jews could not celebrate traditions openly, let alone share that they were Jewish. With rampant anti-Semitism, many Jews faced daily discrimination.
“Other people might have known that I was Jewish because my last name is unusual in Russia,” says Anita. “But I didn’t recognize myself as Jewish. My parents never talked about it.”
Four years ago, Anita found herself in a deep depression, and she began to explore her family roots. She found her family members in Russian Jewish databases and she read about Jewish traditions. She reached out to her local Jewish community, who immediately embraced her. “I finally found myself on solid ground — at the right place, at the right time, with the right people,” says Anita.
Today, Anita, her husband, and their 10-year-old daughter are active members in one of Moscow’s Jewish communities. There are 30 Jewish communities throughout the city and surrounding suburbs, as well as synagogues, Jewish schools, and kosher restaurants. Anita’s favorite is Pardes, a small restaurant located at the back of the kosher store, which serves a delicious “Shmuel Burger.”
“If you didn’t know about it, you’d never find it,” she says.
She also loves Jerusalem, a restaurant that serves almost any cuisine you might want — from hummus to matzah ball soup, and from sushi to Caucasian grill.
On Shabbat, Anita and her family head to their synagogue, where they have an open invitation to the community-wide Shabbat dinner. Sometimes they go, and sometimes they enjoy family time at home. There is a lecture every Shabbat about the weekly Torah portion, given by the community’s rabbi. During the week, Jewish professionals come to speak about various topics.
Anita is the deputy head of digital production at one of the largest department stores in Russia, and she is impressed by how well the Jewish community utilizes technology and social media to publicize events and bring people together. Anita is part of a Facebook group that brings together Jewish mothers in Russia and in Israel, who share their advice and life journeys with one another.
Recently, one local Jewish woman organized a soccer championship that brought people together from all 30 Jewish communities in Moscow. On the day of the game, it was pouring rain, but that didn’t stop anyone from playing. More than 120 people participated in the event.
Today, Anita says that anti-Semitism is no longer a concern in Moscow. “Because of the Internet, people are more open-minded and interested in learning about other cultures. When I take off from work for Jewish holidays, everyone is respectful,” she says.
According to Anita, the Moscow Jewish community’s biggest challenge is encouraging its members to give back — whether financially or with their time or skills. “It’s easy to take, but inspiring others to give is most important,” she says. “But I think we’re getting a lot better at giving.”