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No Jews in Moscow

An illuminating look at Russia from the new series where genealogist Rivka Goldblatt delves into the more interesting corners of the JC Archive

    So how did they live, so many years ago, before electricity, telephones, or modern transportation?

    In 1856, L.M. Rothschild visits Russia on a business trip. He is about to find out exactly what life is like in this large and forbidding country.

    It is Russia before communism, the Russian Empire of the Czars, where the army rules and the commoner listens to what he is told.

    NO JEWS IN MOSCOW.

    DEAR SIR,—Having lately returned from a journey to St. Petersburg and Moscow it may not be uninteresting to your readers to learn some few particulars concerning our brethren in the two Russian capitals.

     

    Does Mr. Rothschild know that 161 years later, people would still read of his trip?

     
    No Jew, as you know, is permitted to live in St. Petersburg, and I am unable to say whether there are any tolerated by special favour of the court. There are, however, a large number of Jewish soldiers in the garrison.

    They have four synagogues, one in each of the four principal barracks. I visited the largest, and found there, in a small room adjoining the synagogue, a teacher, who of course was a soldier, engaged in instructing 18 boys.

    They just studied the Bible, with the commentary of Rashi. The teacher seemed to me exceedingly dejected, not so the rabbi, likewise a soldier, chosen by his comrades from their midst, and who enjoys the rank of an officer in virtue of his office, who seemed, in his uniform, quite a jolly good fellow.

    They have also a chazan, who is likewise exempted from service.

     

    Mr. Rothschild visits the synagogue in the army barracks, and notes that it has 1000 seats and 15 Scrolls of The Law.

    There are a lot of Jewish soldiers in Russia. But no Jew can even visit Moscow.

     
    Wishing to visit Moscow as a Jew, I applied for permission to the police, but was refused, as, being contrary to law.

    At the ministry my application met with the same fate. I now had recourse to the highest authority in these matters - the military governor of the capital. I represented to him that, previous to entering upon this expensive journey I enquired of the Russian consul whether I and my clerk, both Jews, would be permitted to visit Moscow as such for the purposes of trade, and that, upon his assurance, that we should have no occasion to deny our religion, we undertook the journey, and that, should I meet with a refusal on account of my religion, I should hold the Russian consul in London responsible for all the expense incurred in consequence of his misinformation.

     

    In Rothschild’s words, “the remonstrance produced the desired effect”. He gets into Moscow.

    Foreign Jews can’t visit Moscow in 1856, but Russian Jews can stay for up to two weeks. These visitors can only stay in one place:

     
    A kind of hotel, kept by a Gentile, who has on the premises a schochet and a chazan, also a synagogue. I visited the building and thanked God that I was not obliged to take my lodgings there.

     

    With that description, and a comment noting that the rules are easier now that the Czar has died, L.M. Rothschild slips out of our life again, back into history.

    And I think of my Russian friend, and how much – and how little – Russia has changed in a century and a half.

     

    Rivka Goldblatt is a genealogist specialising in Jewish family history. Her website is here.

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