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Supper at Adin Steinzaltz Yeshiva, Moscow, Russia, May 1990

Supper at Adin Steinzaltz Yeshiva, Moscow, Russia, May 1990. Photo: Doron Bacher.
The Oster Visual Documentation Center, ANU - Museum of the Jewish People.
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Russian: Москва (Moskva)

Capital of Russia since 1918. The political, economic, and commercial center of Russia.

Jews were forbidden to reside in Moscow until the end of the 18th century, although many Jewish merchants from Poland and Lithuania visited the town on business. A few Jews had arrived during the Russian-Polish war of the 17th century as prisoners. Among them were some who converted to Christianity and remained in the city. Peter Shafizov, one of the most important advisors to Czar Peter the Great was of Jewish origin.

The First Partition of Poland in 1772 brought a number of Jews to Moscow, particularly from Shklov, which was then an important commercial center in Belarus. In 1790, Moscow merchants requested that the presence and commercial activities of Jews in the city be prohibited; a royal decree forbidding Jewish merchants from settling in the inner districts of Russia was subsequently issued in 1791. However, they were still allowed to reside in Moscow temporarily in order to trade and Jewish merchants continued to play an important role in the trade between Moscow and the Southern and Western regions of Russia, as well as in the export of Moscow's goods. As a result, Russian industrialists in Moscow tended to support granting rights to the Jews of the city.

In 1828, certain classes of Jewish merchants were authorized to remain in Moscow on business for a period of one month only (in 1832 all classes of Jewish merchants were allowed to stay in the city for up to half a year), and could stay only in one inn, Glebovskoye Podvoriye. The inn was a charitable trust which had been handed over to the Moscow Town Council so that its income could be used for the maintenance of a municipal eye clinic. Because it was the only place that Jewish merchants could stay while they were in Moscow, they were forced to pay exorbitant prices to stay at the inn. With the ascension of Czar Alexander II in 1855, restrictions were eased; Jewish merchants of the first guild, university graduates, army veterans, and certain medical professionals were permitted to live anywhere in the city.

The first Jews to settle permanently in Moscow, who became the founders of the community, were cantonists (Jews who had been conscripted to the military as children) who had finished their military service, some of whom had married Jewish women from the Pale of Settlement. In 1858 there were 340 Jewish men and 104 Jewish women in the entire District of Moscow. From 1865 to 1889 Rabbi Chaim Berlin served as the chief rabbi of Moscow, and in 1869 the community invited Shlomo Minor, one of the outstanding students of the Vilna rabbinical seminary, to serve as the Kazyonny Ravvin (Government Appointed Rabbi).

In 1871, the Jewish population of Moscow was estimated at around 8,000. This number grew to about 12,000 in 1882 and 35,000 (over 3% of the total population) in 1890, just before the expulsion.

The governor of Moscow, Prince Paul Dmitriyevich Dolgorukov, was known for his liberal attitude towards the Jews and (after receiving bribes and gifts) the local administration was willing to overlook their occasionally illegal presence in the city (for example, in the cases of those who falsely claimed to be merchants and artisans). While anti-Jewish persecutions and decrees were gaining momentum throughout Russia after the ascension of Czar Alexander III, the attempts to expel the Jews from Moscow were delayed. This peace proved to be temporary when Prince Dolgorukov was removed from office, and Grand Prince Sergei Alexandrovich was appointed in his stead. One of his explicitly-stated goals in taking office was "to save Moscow from the Jews." Shortly thereafter, on March 28, 1891 (Passover Eve, 5651), Jews began to be expelled from the city.

The expulsion from Moscow came as a deep shock to Russian Jewry. Within a short period of time, approximately 20,000 Jews were expelled from Moscow. The poor were sent to the Pale of Settlement on criminal transports and generous rewards were offered for the capture of any Jews hiding in the city. A considerable number of those expelled arrived in Warsaw and Lodz, and began to rebuild their businesses. At the height of the expulsion period, the authorities closed down the new Choral Synagogue, which had just been built in 1891, as well as 9 of the 14 prayer houses. It was not until 1906 that permission was granted for the Choral Synagogue to be reopened.

In 1897 there were 8,095 Jews living in Moscow (0.8% of the total population. Additionally, there were 216 Karaites living in the city). In 1902 there were 9,339 Jews living in the city, with half of them declaring Yiddish as their mother tongue; the overwhelming majority of others declared it to be Russian. In 1893 Ya'akov (Iakov) Mazeh was elected as the rabbi of Moscow, and remained its spiritual leader until his death in 1923.

Increasing numbers of Jewish students arrived in Moscow during the end of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century in order to pursue higher education. In 1886 there were about 298 Jewish students in the city, and in 1911 there were about 700. Additionally, after the outbreak of World War I, streams of Jewish refugees began arriving from the German-occupied regions. They took part in the development of war industries, and some amassed large fortunes. In a short period of time, Moscow became a center of Jewish life and culture. Hebrew printing presses were set up and a large Lithuanian yeshivah was founded in the town of Bogorodsk, near Moscow. The Hebrew theater Habimah performed its first play in 1917 (its masterpiece, Sh. Ansky's "Ha-Dibuk," would premiere in January 1922). Authorization was given for the publication of a Hebrew weekly, "Ha-Am." The founding conference of the Organization for Hebrew Education and Culture, Tarbut, was held in Moscow in the spring of 1917. While these cultural activities continued through the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the new regime rapidly shut down most of the institutions of Hebrew culture in Moscow. The Habimah Theater was more fortunate; it continued to exist and was protected several prominent members of the Russian artistic and literary world, who defended it as a first-class artistic institution.

The headquarters of the Yevsektsiya, the Jewish section of the Soviet Communist Party, were located in Moscow, where they published their central newspaper, "Der Emes," from 1920 until 1938, as well as many other Yiddish newspapers and books. The Jewish state theater (known in Russia by its Russian initials, GOSET), directed by Solomon Mikhoels, was also located in Moscow. For a number of years, small circles of organized Zionists continued to exist in the city, which was the central location of the legal He-Chalutz as well as of Po'alei Zion. The Yiddish Theater moved from Petrograd to Moscow in 1920, and in 1925 it was reorganized as the Moscow State Yiddish Theater. In 1926 the Second Moscow University opened a department to prepare future teachers to teach at Jewish schools.

This cultural blossoming came to a halt during the 1930s. The last Jewish school was closed in 1936, while most Yiddish language educational and cultural institutions were closed in 1937 and 1938. The mass arrests from 1936=1938 also claimed a large number of Jews from Moscow, many of whom were party elites.

When Moscow became the capital of the Soviet Union in 1918, its Jewish population began rapidly increasing. In 1920 there were 28,000 Jews in the city, which had become severely depopulated as a result of the civil war. By 1923 that number had increased to 86,000, and by 1926 to 131,000 (6.5% of the total population). In 1940 the Jewish population was estimated at 400,000. In the census of 1959, 239,246 Jews (4.7% of the total population) were registered in the municipal area of Moscow; these numbers are thought to be a gross underestimate, and some opinions evaluate Moscow's Jewish population during that time as being as high as 500,000.

During World War II, from 1943, Moscow was the headquarters of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which gathered together major well-known Soviet Jewish figures in order to assist the Soviet Union in its war effort against Nazi Germany and to mobilize world Jewish opinion and aid for this cause. It published a newspaper, "Eynikayt." The Anti-Fascist Committee attempted to continue its activities after the war, but was brutally suppressed in the years following the war. In 1950 the state security apparatus invented the Stalin Automobile Plant of Moscow (ZIS) Affair, accusing 48 people (42 of whom were Jews) of organizing a Jewish national sabotage group at the plant, led by the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. All ten people who were executed were Jews. Indeed, Moscow's Jews were particularly affected by Stalin's anti-Semitic campaigns after the war. Many of Moscow's Jews were fired from their jobs, arrested, and even executed after being falsely accused of various plots against Stalin and the state.

When Golda Meir, the first diplomatic representative of the State of Israel, arrived in Moscow on September 1948, a spontaneous mass demonstration of Jews in her honor took place on the High Holidays near and around the Moscow Choral Synagogue, angering Soviet officials. Later, the Israel delegation to the Youth Festival, held in Moscow in 1957, was the first opportunity that Jewish youth from Israel and the USSR had to form personal connections.

By 1970, there were three functioning synagogues in Moscow, the most historically significant of which was the Moscow Choral Synagogue (one of the three would be closed down by the authorities in 1972). In the 1950s and 1960s, The Moscow Choral Synagogue was allowed to issue a Jewish calendar and to send it to other synagogues in the USSR. In 1956 the synagogue's rabbi, Rabbi Solomon Schliefer ,was granted permission to print a prayer book from older prayer books. He named it "Siddur Ha-Shalom" ("The Prayer Book of Peace") and deleted all references to wars and victories (for example, the prayers said on Chanukkah and Purim). He is said to have printed 3,000 copies, but it was rarely seen in other synagogues in the Soviet Union. In 1957, Rabbi Schliefer was given permission by the authorities to open a yeshiva on the premesis of The Great Synagogue. He called it "Kol Ya'akov" ("The Voice of Jacob") and for several years a small number of young and middle-aged Jewish men, mostly from Georgia, were trained there. Nearly all the men learning there trained to be shochatim (ritual slaughterers), and the number of ordained rabbis did not exceed 1 or 2. By 1963 37 students had passed through the yeshiva; 25 of them had been trained as shochatim. In 1965 there was only 1 student studying there. Beginning in 1961, a barrier was erected in the Moscow Choral Synagogue to separate foreign visitors, including Israeli diplomats, from the local congregation and the synagogue's officers were responsible for strictly enforcing the segregation. In 1962, matzah-baking and distribution was restricted in Moscow, as well as in most other areas of the Soviet Union.

Yiddish folklore concerts took place relatively frequently in the city and drew large crowds. A semi-professional theater troupe was established, led by the actor Benjamin Schwartzer, and mainly performed Sholom Aleichem plays in provincial cities. In 1961 the Yiddish journal "Sovietish Heymland," edited by an officially appointed editor, the poet Aaron Vergelis, began to appear as an "organ of the Soviet Writers' Union."The Moscow Jewish Tramatic Ensemble was created in 1962 (which would be renamed the Shalom Jewish Dramatic Theater Studio).

The Six Day War and the subsequent rupture of diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Israel put an end to cultural contacts between the two countries. But many of Moscow's Jews, particularly the younger generation, began demonstrating their feelings of Jewish nationalism more openly. Simchat Torah at the Moscow Choral Synagogue became a time for thousands of Jews to come together and sing Yiddish and Hebrew songs. These Jews began studying Hebrew in small, secret groups and publishing samizdat (underground publications). Jews organized groups to study Judaism and Jewish history, and held Jewish song contests. They also demonstrated and signed petitions against the refusal to grant them exit permits to Israel. A number of these activists ("refuseniks") were arrested for their activities, including Ida Nudel, Yosef Begun, and Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky.