My cousin, his girlfriend and I went to the St. Petersburg synagogue today for Rosh Hashanah services. There is only one functioning synagogue in St. Petersburg, the Grand Choral Synagogue; there's another synagogue at the Jewish cemetery, but the last time I saw it (a few years ago), it was still in ruins. Since my family is not religious, I had never been to the synagogue before, but nevertheless I knew exactly where to go. The building is located between the two stages of Mariinsky theatre -- I've seen the dome many times on my way to the theatre. The synagogue was constructed at the end of 19th Century in a bizarre mix of Moorish, Byzantine and Arabesque styles; renovated completely in the 1990s, today it struck me as one of the best maintained buildings in the city. The dome, the mosaic walls, the cast iron fence all sparkled brightly in the light of the setting sun.
My cousin had been at the synagogue once when he was ten years old, with his father. He remembers a decrepit building, completely deserted: in his memory, there were four or five people present during the service. My main memory connected with the synagogue is of our grandmother who made the trek downtown every spring -- for Passover -- and brought home matzah. This memory is very vivid because my grandmother, when she grew older, usually didn't travel very far from our neighborhood. Moreover, she always went to the synagogue alone. She brought us along when she went out grocery shopping, to visit relatives, to the doctors' offices, she took us to the swimming pools and music and painting classes, but she never took us with her when she went to the synagogue. Perhaps, she thought we wouldn't understand it. Or perhaps it was safer this way. I'm not sure I can authentically reconstruct her way of thinking about it. But she brought back matzah, and to us, the matzah itself was a big deal, very exciting -- it was so different from our regular food, and then she used to fry it and made a cake out of it.
Today, the building and the courtyard were very crowded. My cousin ran into somebody he knew from school, a sister of his classmate, and I was recognized by one of my mother's friends -- even though she didn't come up to acknowledge this on the spot, but later called my mom to tell her she saw me. I came to the service quite late, maybe halfway through, and had to climb to the second floor because this synagogue maintains the gender separation law. This, too, I had known before entering. I found my cousin's girlfriend up there, on the "Choral" level, and she pointed out a tableau next to the cantor's stand that displayed the current page of the Machzor, the Rosh Hashanah prayer book.
Russian translation of the Hebrew prayers is written in an elevated language with slightly old-fashioned diction. It was sweet but also somewhat amusing, like reading a century old newspaper article. The prayers were in Hebrew, but the sound was completely unfamiliar to me from what I've heard of various services in American synagogues (although I have never been to a Rosh Hashanah service in the US). Here, the prayers sounded a lot like "Ay-yay-yay-yay, Ay-yay-yay-yay" repeated for many minutes at a time. At the end of the service, the prayer seemed to turn suddenly into a popular song as the cantor turned to the crowd, and everyone interrupted their casual conversations for a moment (at least on the second floor people had been ceaselessly mingling with one another) and joined him in singing "Shalom Aleichem" and clapping along.
The service was followed by a reception with cakes and cookies and Coke. We partook of a few treats, and then proceeded to everyone's favorite restaurant Teplo for a lovely meal and more dessert. We played scrabble while waiting for our food, and my cousin's girlfriend won the game by composing words like "Challah" and "Tsahal" (Хала and Цахал in Russian).