Walking past the gates of the Great Choral Synagogue in Saint Petersburg, Europe's second largest after Dohany Synagogue in Budapest, I am in awe again of yet another building of such impressive grandeur and size in this breathtaking city.
The architecture is a combination of Moorish and Byzantine design, bright red with white carvings and topped with the familiar dome that we've seen across Russia. The building was built between 1880 -1888 and was consecrated in 1893.
We arrive at the small security hut at 6.30pm. Our trusted Trans-Siberian book tells us the synagogue is open until 8.30pm, so we think we've arrived in plenty of time but angry security man tapping on the sign outside the synagogue tells us differently. Sign says last visitors allowed at 6pm but after our unsuccessful trip to the Central Post office (another brilliantly grand building) already that day, I was determined to get in.
I confess, I then told two, just two, very small white lies to get us in and allow us some time inside. Fibs inside a synagogue is bad, fibs to the Rabbi is extra bad but with Yom Kippur coming up, there's plenty of time to repent.
Fib #1, 'we would like to speak with the Rabbi to ask him about Shabbat'. Security man looks a bit confused so I try again, this time throwing in some more key Jewish lingo, 'Rosh Hashanah coming up, we'd like to join service, hear shofar etc. etc.' 'Ah' he says, 'Jewish?' pointing at me. 'Dar [yes]', I reply. 'Jewish' pointing at Mike. 'Dar [yes]', just for today. Angry security man softens and he half smiles, pleased with himself that he's worked it out. Hands together like an open book, he starts rocking back and forth in a universal praying position. Yes, that will do. We'd like to come in and pray. With that we were allowed through the turn style and into the synagogue's large courtyard.
Up the main steps, through the big wooden doors at the front and you are into the reception area of the synagogue. On both side are stairs leading to the women's gallery, to the left a reception desk. And to the right, a shop selling Russian Judaica including these rather fabulous and slightly racist rabbi matryoshka or Russia dolls.
Straight in front are the doors to the main synagogue. All is quiet and the lights are off. Luckily the doors swing open easily and we are standing in semi darkness in the great hall or main synagogue, which can accommodate 1,200 people.
There are still over 100,000 Jews living in Saint Petersburg and there is a vibrant and active community with another seven synagogues across the city.
Back in the main hall, someone spots us, the lights flashes on and a bearded man, who I assume was a Rabbi (though beards are fashionable at the moment so you can never be sure) comes towards us and asks if we need help, first in Russian then English. Feeling uncomfortable to say we'd just sneaked in to look at the synagogue, fib #2 happened and I replied, 'yes, thank you. We are travelling from London and wanted to ask about spending Rosh Hashanah here.' The bearded man seems thrilled and is incredibly helpful. Services will be held in the main shul across Yom Tov and someone will I'm sure have us for dinner if we are stuck. I'm touched by the openness and immediate hospitality.
Despite a bit of faff getting in, I am really pleased we made the effort to come. It is always interesting for us to see and meet people from Jewish communities around the world and we are so often met with such great hospitality. Just over a week later, we experience more Jewish hospitality when we spend Shabbat dinner with the lovely Wagner family in Irkutsk.
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