Father Men's Parish of Novaja Derevnja

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For the Jews like a Jew, for the Greeks like a Greek: the Parish of Novaja Derevnja in the 1970s, by Olga Bukhina, August 2004

My talk about Father Alexander Men is neither theological or ecclesiological, nor any kind of “logical.” Nevertheless, I will start with the passage from the Scripture. It is from the First Letter to the Corinthians, and it defines a topic of my talk. “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law…, so as to win those not having the law… I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel...” (1 Corinthians 9, 20-23).

This passage for me is the best description of Father Alexander’s work which he had been doing in his parish for many years. I will be talking about a very specific time in the parish life, probably because this moment is particularly close to my heart. I joined to the parish and was baptized by Father Alexander Men in 1976. I would like to describe the life of the parish of Novaja Derevnja in the late 1970s. I do believe that it is quite relevant to the situation of today, and I hope that I will be able to show it. It is a little bit difficult for me to talk about it when Pavel Men is sitting right here because he knows it much better than I do. Nevertheless, I will try to show the parish life through the eyes of someone who was a twenty one years old then. Father Mikhail Meerson mentioned that Father Alexander had a lot of friends, and every one of them thought that he or she is his very special, personal friend. I was so young and scared in those days, so I was able to avoid this mistake. I was so young, so naïve, and probably so stupid that I even could not imagine Father Alexander being my friend. I considered him to be a teacher. That was a good position for me at that time which gave me a chance to learn a lot.

For many of us these were the relationships of a teacher and a student. We came to the Church when we were very young and naïve. Our background was such that none of us had any experience of religious life. We did not know very well why actually we were going to the Church, and what the Church was about. I am talking particular about these of us who were from the Jewish families. We came from totally secular Jewish families; our parents stayed mostly away, as far as you can imagine, from any religious issues as well as from any, generally speaking, Jewish issues. The idea of the generation of our parents was to be as assimilated as possible into Russian culture. In our families, we spoke Russian, read Russian literature, and did not care much about our Jewishness. But in the mid-1970s this attitude, for many reasons, did change. First of all, anti-Semitism, more than before, intervened into everyday life. I do not want to go into the details of politics, immigration to Israel, etc., but as the matter of fact, it became very difficult not to feel yourself belonging to this particular ethnic group. I need to specify that when using the word “Jews,” I mean it in a pure ethnic sense. For the entire Soviet period, Jewishness has had almost nothing to do with religion, nothing to do with Judaism. From the early 1970s to the mid-1970s, a lot of people of Jewish descent, from ethnically Jewish families, came to the parish of Novaja Derevnja.

Novaja Derevnja is a small village outside of Moscow. In the 1970s, this little church, as many other churches of that time, had been pretty much filled with the local old ladies, but suddenly it was occupied by a bunch of young boys and girls in their early twenties. They looked very strange and different from the “normal” church crowd. It is necessary to understand that in Russia everyone can quite easily tell who is Jewish and who is not. Russian Jews look very different from ethnically Russian people, and as a result, they are quite visible and easy to recognize in the crowd. The old ladies in the church unmistakably knew who we are.

It was a very difficult situation. We came to the church knowing nothing about the church – how you were supposed to behave there, what you were supposed to do. We knew only that the long skirt was an appropriate thing to wear and that girls needed to have a headscarf. We hated the skirts and headscarves, because normally we would be wearing pants and, of course, wouldn’t have any headscarves whatsoever. For the boys, it was a little bit easier.

The old ladies would look at us with the severe disapproval. It was very clear that they did not like us. So, the parish was clearly divided into two parts which had nothing to do with each other. I would compare this with oil and water which cannot be mixed together. Father Alexander was, obviously, in the middle of this. He belonged to the both sides. Both parts were listening to him. He was a priest for all of us, old and young.

I started my talk with the quotation from Apostle Paul because it was something very special in Father Alexander’s personality – his ability to be a Jew for the Jews and a Greek for the Greeks, everything for everyone. Ethnically Jewish, he was raised in the Christian tradition. For him Christianity was just a norm of his life. He knew everything about it. Of course, he was an Orthodox priest, but also it was very important that he grew up as a Christian. He grew up surrounded by the best of the best of the Russian Orthodox tradition. As a child, he spent a lot of time with the priests and secret nuns of the Underground Church of the 1930s. Father Alexander fully incorporated this tradition into his life. At the same time, ethnically he was Jewish, which was written in his passport (in the Soviet Union, everyone’s ethnicity was indicated in the passport: Russian, Georgian, Tatar, Jew, etc.). This was very important for us. It helped to bridge the gap between us and the Church.

Let me explain how I decided to become a Christian and how I got to the Father Alexander’s parish. A few years before that, my cousin, also Jewish, who was much older than me, decided to be baptized. She came to one church in Moscow. Some of the parishioners were educated and young people; there were not only old ladies there. Nevertheless, the priest did not recommend that my cousin baptized in his church because, being the only person of Jewish descent, she might feel uncomfortable there. He advised to go to that particular village near Moscow where Father Alexander was. It was a very wise advice. She got baptized in the church of Novaja Derevnja, later her daughter got baptized, and eventually, through them, I also went to see Father Alexander.

For me, the little church in Novaja Derevnja became the most welcoming place in, I would say, the entire Soviet Union of that time. It was the ideal place for the girl who came from the family of intelligentsia, and was ethnically Jewish. I definitely felt more at home there than in other churches. Going to the church could be a very frightening experience, mostly because of its rules and regulations. These were quite archaic and strictly traditional. Never forget to take the candles by your right hand only, never use the left hand because the angel is on your right side and the devil is on your left. If, by mistake, you brought the candle to the icon by the wrong hand, two dozens old ladies immediately started hissing at you.

At that time, the parish had two priests. Every Sunday, one priest would lead the Liturgy and give a sermon in the end. Another priest would hear confessions. There were so many parishioners in the church that the individual confession could be nothing but very short. So, before that, a priest would give a special sermon about all possible sins. If it would be Father Alexander’s turn to do this, that sermon became the most important part of the service for me. Most of the parishioners would listen to this sermon just before the beginning of the Liturgy. The crowd would be exactly half and half – the old ladies from the villages all around and the young city folks. Somehow, Father Alexander’s words worked exactly the same way for both parts of the crowd.

He was talking about the most important things – sins, of course, but also death, families, spouses, children, parents, responsibilities, compassion, and tolerance. He talked often about death. He repeated again and again that we should be ready for death because death can come any moment. Any day can be your last day. These words somehow were equally important both for the old and for the young. That was his major gift – to put his words together the way that they would be heard by everyone, both by the old lady and by the twenty years old girl. Both of them would hear the same message – I need you, I love you, Christ needs you, Christ loves you, you are welcome here, you are welcome to the church, the church is your home, the church is the place where you can be yourself. You do not need to be somebody else. To have right to be here, you do not need to change. That was a message of Christ which Father Alexander gave to us.

A particular example that he gave stood in my mind. If your husband it not a Christian, what should you do? Should you leave him? Should stay with him, and force him to be baptized and get a church wedding? I did not think then that one day it would be a problem of mine. I remember that Father Alexander would address this problem again and again, week after week after week. If you love him, that is what is important. If you have peace in your home, that is what is important, he would repeat. I believe that the half of the women in the church was married to unbelievers. Now I am married to someone who is not a Christian, and now I remember these words of Father Alexander. If you, parents, have peace with the children that is what is important. If you, children, have peace with the parents that is what is important. This might sound totally trivial, but, believe me, it was not trivial, neither then, for these old ladies, nor now, for me.

There was a real difference between this church and many other places. Sometimes, because Novaja Derevnja was about two hour’s trip away from Moscow, I would go to some church in Moscow, but often it was an quite unpleasant experience. Two things worked against me – age and ethnicity. The Russian Church was not a place for the young people at that time. Because of the political pressure, many priests did not want to deal with young people. The Soviet authorities did not approve it. On top of it, being ethnically Jewish, you were in the most inconvenient and awkward position in the church. People’s anti-Semitism never falls asleep in Russia. Plus, the state anti-Semitism was on a rise. For the majority of people, you were “neither-no,” neither a “proper” Christian, no a “proper” Jew. For other Russian Orthodox Christians, you were somehow a wrong thing because of the extremely long anti-Semitic tradition in the Russian Church. The typical attitude was that a Jew who had converted to Christianity was a potential traitor, because eventually he would be on the wrong side. There is a Russian proverb saying that a baptized Jew is not better than a pardoned thief. This notion is very deep in Russian culture.

At the same time, even after being baptized, you, nevertheless, belong to the secular Jewish community. Baptizing cannot change the fact that you look like a Jew (remember, in Russia, everyone can tell a Jew from a Russian just by looking, and in addition to that, it written in your passport – “Jewish”). For other Jews, you were also a traitor but of the different sort. You moved to the camp of enemies – those who organized pogroms. Historically, in the Russian Empire, the Church, unfortunately, was a major persecutor of the Jews. So, to be a baptized Jew was a very uncomfortable position which is best described by the expression “between the rock and the hard place.”

Father Alexander was able to create some sort of an oasis where you can be a Christian while being a Jew. That was a wonderful experience. The parish of Novaja Derevnja was only a part of it. Father Alexander did it through his books. In his first book “The Son of Man,” the book about Christ, he portrayed Christ like a Jewish teacher. I was really able to learn a lot about Judaism reading Father Alexander’s books about Christianity. For me, it was an amazing experience because I did not know much about Judaism. I had tried to learn something about Judaism before I came to the Church, but it was really difficult in the 1970s in the Soviet Union. For me it did not go much further than studying Hebrew, visiting the synagogue occasionally, and trying to read some parts of the Talmud. But from Father Alexander’s books on history of religion, especially from his book about the Old Testament, I was able to learn a lot about the historical tradition of my ancestors. I was able to understand a lot about who I am from these books.

The late 1970s was a very interesting period when we tried to combine together both of these traditions, Judaism and Christianity. We tried to be as good Jews as we can. We organized the Seders for the Passovers, celebrated some other high holidays, and time to time went to the synagogue (the only one in Moscow at that time). Some of us were studying Hebrew in the underground groups. I remember that my Hebrew teacher, also a Christian, after he would collected a fee for the class (3 rubles, a very low price even then) would say, “The class is over but now I want to give you some extra, without payment.” And he would start teaching us “Our Father” in Hebrew. In the same time, we would go to the church every Sunday, read Christian books, study the Bible, and slowly get used to the fact that we are the members of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Eventually, people made their choices. Some left Russia for Israel or the US and sometimes, left the Church as well. For others, this experience was a chance to become better Christians than they would be otherwise. It was much easier that way. Otherwise, we would be just thrown into the Christian environment without any understanding our roots and our particular place in the Church. Father Alexander once was asked (not by me but by a friend of mine) about the place of Jews in the Church. This young wonam said to him that she feels very uncomfortable because every time she goes to the church, she feels that she does not belong here because she is Jewish, and it is a Russian church. He answered to her, “Please, always remember that it is not you who are coming into their church. It is they who came into your church. Remember that historically, the Church of the Apostles was a Jewish church.” Yes, the Apostles were Jews, and the early Christian Church was a Jewish Church. It was a very important message for me. Since then, I never feel myself alien or inappropriate in any Christian setting. I feel that I always can say, “Welcome to my Church, brother and sisters.”

Father Alexander was able to create one body – The Body of Christ, the Church – out of all of us: Jews and Russians, the villagers and the city folks, the intellectuals and academics and the young students like me. The diversity in the parish then was truly amazing, and Father Alexander was the axis which held the parish together. “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col 3:11). In the parish there were the representatives of each and every type of people existing in Moscow and around at that time. The result was, as Apostle Paul said, “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor 12, 13). For me, this “Spirit to drink” was in the books and in the sermons of Father Alexander, and in his way of conveying the Gospel to us, in his way of teaching us how to read and understand the Bible and the Church practice.

Father Alexander was amazingly opened to any new experience, to somebody else’s experience. I believe that it was very important that he was at first preparing himself to a career of a scientist, a biologist. He had that particular type of scientific mind which absorbs any new information, takes it in and puts in a proper place. He was extremely curious about everything new. At that time, my friends and I run an underground psychological seminar, and some of people from the group also seriously got into astrology. There was an ongoing debate among Christians in our half-psychological and half-astrological group. What is astrology? Is this science? Is this acceptable for Christians, or not? We decided to invite Father Alexander to be some kind of a judge. He came for the meeting in someone’s apartment and spent the whole evening with us. We were talking and discussing the issues, agreeing again and again. He took part in the discussion but did not say to anyone, “You are right, or you are right,” because he did not want to force his opinion on us. He wanted us to talk and to think it through. He wanted to let everyone decide for her- or himself.

He also had a very clear understanding what is from the Heaven, and what is from people. What is the God’s words in the Church practice and teaching, what is really essential, the most important, and cannot be skipped? What is the tradition brought by people, different political agendas and particular historical situations? Later, in the late 1980s, I went to Poland for the first time in my life and returned back overwhelmed by new and fresh experience of the Catholic Church, which at that time was really open-minded, very political, and charismatic. Everywhere in Poland I would meet wonderful young nuns and monks. Poland seemed truly full of them; they were the most important and devoted part of these new charismatic movements. It was a kind of a shock for me to meet so many of them. I was confused. I returned back to Russia and asked Father Alexander whether this was the only way to serve God. Is this necessary, was this a God’s idea that the monastic way is the only way and that only people who are totally devoted to Him and decided completely to give up their life for Him could be real Christian. Father Alexander answered that, historically, the idea of celibacy came from people. It did not come directly from God; it is just one of the ways to serve Him. “Do not be too upset with this,” he told me. “There are many other ways. Always look for different ways.”

I believe that what I am talking about now is quite relevant to the world we live in today. It would be nice if every one of us would have some experience of a place of tolerance and love, a place where people of different sorts could be together without killing each other, physically of morally. Then, back in the 1970s, I eventually became a friend to some of those old ladies in the church. They taught me how to sing in the church choir and told me a lot of stories about their lives. They also liked me, I was like an extra granddaughter for them. Simple human relationships emerged from our being together in the church.

The situation in the 1970s was quite depressing, politically and socially. But for me and for many others, I believe, the little church in Novaja Derevnja was an oasis of joy. There were no other place in the world for which I would be ready to get up at 5 in the morning, in the Russian winter, awfully cold, pitch dark, take the subway to the commutes’ train, forty minutes in the train without heat, another twenty minutes in the bus, and eventually walk through the snow to the church. It would still be totally dark, not yet a dawn. Obviously, something very warm existed there if I was able to do all of that on a very regular basis. What did this warmth consist of? Of course, it was a presence of God’s love, first of all, but His love was transmitted to me through my priest and my teacher. He was a person to whom we addressed not “Father Alexander” (‘father” is the very dry word in Russian) but batjushka. I do not know how translate it into English, I could not find an adequate translation. It is something like “papa.” In the 19th century, children would address their biological father like this. It also can be used to address the priest whom you like and respect very much. For many of us, Father Alexander was our batjushka, a member of our families. That is why the 9th of September, fourteen yeas ago, was the most awful day of my life. I lost a very important member of my family.