Home > Uncategorized > Why Pesach is THE holiday of former Soviet Union Jewry…

Why Pesach is THE holiday of former Soviet Union Jewry…

April 3, 2012

A nice Pesach story to set the mood, as told by Ted Comet, Executive Vice-President of the World Council of Jewish Communal Service:

Passover is in many ways the holiday of FSU Jewry. Its message resonates for the Jews in that part of the world unlike anywhere else. The themes of slavery and freedom, of the promise of spring after a long winter of misery and oppression, mean much more to those who experienced life behind the Iron Curtain and then witnessed the USSR’s collapse, than to those who have known freedom all of their lives. Even today we hear older Jews tell of what matzah meant to them in the dark years when it was (often inexplicably) available:  Of waiting patiently in line outside local synagogues with other Jews to get their kilo of matzah, of actually tasting the bread of freedom, closing their eyes as they did so, and imagining how perhaps one day they too would experience redemption.  Often, older Jews speak with tears in their eyes of how, during those few days during the year, by touching the matzah, and then tasting it, they were reconnected to their roots and memories of seders with their grandparents, even as they were supremely aware that their fellow Jews around the world, at this very moment, were sharing this very same experience. Eating Matzah was one of the few demonstrable Jewish acts that was not expressly forbidden, and it bound each of them to the Jewish People worldwide.

A vignette of Passover in our early days of FSU work:

As Jews began to identify, we knew that holiday celebrations were particularly meaningful to them. If libraries and books appealed to their intellect, and welfare services began to address their physical needs, we were constantly on the lookout for things that would encourage them to engage in, and nurture their Jewish identities through experience and emotions. Reclaiming the Jewish calendar became a priority for them, and therefore for JDC. We sent hanukiyyot and shofarot, graggers and candles.  And we sent in people who could help plan holiday events in the early days. It was community organizing at its best.

Passover seders were the highlight of those early communal celebrations. They were not elaborate events- a hall was rented, food prepared by volunteers, children learned songs, and the turnouts were massive. Elderly Jews who still had memories of sitting at their grandparents’ seders, together with the next two generations of their families together discovering, or rediscovering, a common heritage.

In the early 90’s we joined together with the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation and Hillel International, to found Hillels in the FSU. The students embodied all that was special about FSU Jewry during this period: enthusiastic, creative, and determined. While many of their parents made tentative moves into communal Jewish life, attending an occasional program, and often educating themselves in the privacy of their own homes, the younger people had no inhibitions. They were not ashamed of what they didn’t know- that was meaningful only as a catalyst to learn more.  When it came to Jewish life, they may not have been familiar with the fine points of ritual, or the proper pronunciation of the liturgy, but those were minor details. To be a Jew was to live as a Jew, to experience, and not just to observe and “learn about”.  Inviting them (instead of foreigners) to organize and lead communal Seders did not intimidate them at all. Instead, it was a challenge. They were prepared to devote their time and energy to learn how to do it, and then to create the environment appropriate for this event in each city, town and village where they were welcome.

The specific story today is about Sasha and Luda, two Hillel students in Ukraine who accepted the task of creating a Seder in a small town in the northern part of the country.  They attended two week long seminars to prepare them, and they were “ready to roll”.  Whatever they lacked in knowledge they made up in enthusiasm.

Luda had been to her first Seder the previous year. She was raised knowing that she was a Jew, but the term was essentially devoid of any significance. Other than a stamp on her internal passport, there was nothing that distinguished her from her neighbors. She came to Hillel for the first time by accident. Literally. She fell on the street in front of the rented hall where Hillel was holding an event and was brought inside to sit down and catch her breath. A few questions later she was smitten, and Hillel became a central part of her life.

Sasha had never been to a Seder. In fact, he was only told that he was a Jew when he was 19 years old. His parents were hesitant about identifying publicly as Jews, as they were still skeptical that the post-Soviet openness, then in its infancy, would be sustained. Somehow he became aware of his roots, became connected, and volunteered with Luda to run one of the communal Seders.

Four days before Seder night they came to the chosen town. It had an estimated 700 Jews. Sasha and Luda hoped to attract between 150-175 Jews to the Seder. Others told them they were overly optimistic, but they were undeterred. They came with some money to rent a hall and buy some Seder staples, and brought along about 150 haggadot in Hebrew and Russian. The first order of business was to rent space to accommodate a crowd.

In the center of the town there was a large building that was a local art school. It had a basement hall that was perfect for the Seder, along with tables and chairs. One of the school’s staff explained to them that the building was the local Communist Party headquarters just four years previous, hence it was outfitted so well. When the Soviet Union disbanded, the Rada, the Ukranian Parliament, outlawed the Communist Party. That accounted for the building’s transformation.

Sasha and Luda worked hard to prepare. They hung posters advertising the event and inviting local Jews. They taught some children Passover songs. They decorated the hall.

Seder night. Advertisements called for a 7 pm beginning. By 6:15, the 168 seats were taken. And people kept coming. And coming. By 7:00, there were more than 300 people squeezed into the hall, and disappointed people in the hallways throughout the building. (Fire “regulations” were related to in those days as advisory rather than compulsory).

The two Hillel students began the Seder, and barely stopped for air. During their explanations there was not a sound in the room. This was punctuated with boisterous singing, mostly without words which were anyway unfamiliar.  Wine.  Questions.  Eggs.  Saltwater.  Matzah. All went off without a hitch.

The meal itself was quite modest, but no one had come for the food. After the meal, Sasha gave a short explanation of the fifth cup of wine, known as the Cup of Elijah.  He explained its folk derivation, and how Elijah was to be the harbinger of the messianic era.  He spoke a bit about the Jewish notion of that period, and Jewish history as a linear concept always moving towards a better end, as opposed to the circular, repetitive concept of history of the Greeks.

When he finished there was a stirring in the back of the room. An older man stood up and pointed his finger at Sasha and began to speak to him in a very agitated way.  Under other circumstances he would have been quieted by the others, but his jacket was full of medals. He was clearly a war hero, and therefore entitled to a modicum of respect despite his rude interruption.

Wagging his finger, he said to Sasha: “Now you’ve lost us. You’ve simply gone too far. Until now, this whole evening brought back wonderful memories to me. I closed my eyes every few minutes and remembered the Seders of my childhood. My grandfather led it in Hebrew, and explained it all to us in Yiddish. I remember the melodies and the smells. It’s been almost 80 years, but it was like yesterday. And your explanations were wonderful.  Slavery.  Freedom.  Spring.  All wonderful. But what is this nonsense about a Messiah? And a ‘messianic’ era? You’ve gone too far. You can’t prove any of that. It’s all a bunch of nonsense.  Made up.  Fantasy.  You lost me. And I bet you lost a lot of others here. Stick to history and Tradition. Leave the make believe out.”

Again, silence in the room. I would expect that most people felt sorry for these two young people who clearly had invested so much in making the evening memorable. In one moment, the good will and positive feelings hung in the balance. This was a test. And a patently unfair one. Age and experience were working against Sasha and Luda. As was the setting: All eyes were now fixed on them. There was a slight pause. And then Sasha spoke. Slowly and respectfully.

“You’re right. This business about the Messiah, and the messianic era, can’t be empirically proven. And yes, it does require a leap of faith, or at least imagination, to embrace it. But I want to ask you about another fantasy, another leap of faith.  One that perhaps for you and me was even more farfetched than this one.

Imagine that you and I had walked down this street together 5 years ago. We would have passed this building. It’s the most prominent building in town. And covering the façade of the top floor is a large stone circle, with a hammer and sickle at its center. You and I would have stopped to admire the building. And then I would have said to you: ‘I know this will be hard to believe- but five years from now, in the basement of this building, in this Communist Party Headquarters, our community will hold a public Seder. A Seder! It will be publicized so that everyone in town will know that it’s going to happen. And hundreds of Jews are going to come out. And two young Jews will lead the Seder. And Jewish children will sing. And families will learn together and experience Jewish Tradition. Not secretly and rushed. But proudly in a public place. And not any public place – in the building that represented our oppressors – the great and powerful Soviet Union.”

Sasha paused a moment to let it all sink in. And then he continued, still in a very respectful manner, looking straight at his challenger:

“Now I ask you: That scenario and the scenario about the messianic era- which strikes you as more outlandish and improbable?”

Absolute silence. The Seder concluded with the singing of Am Yisrael Chai- a kind of anthem of the Soviet Jewry protest movement that speaks to the eternity of the Jewish People.

That seder experience will be repeated next week, this time in JCCs and Hesed buildings, and schools and synagogues throughout the FSU.

Twenty years on we risk taking the wonder of this enterprise for granted. Passover is the time to remember that we should not.

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