Reviving A Family Passover

Memories of religious practice in Soviet Russia

I grew up with Soviet Jewish traditions, which is to say that our family practices can be generously described as spotty. My great grandfather, whom I never met, was a deeply religious man. When he passed away his friends came over for a wake and my great grandmother gave them his prayer books along with his tallit and tiffelin, and that was the end of religious practice in our family.

Every spring, though, we got matzos through some underground channel. My grandmother (and, occasionally, my Communist grandfather) got on the phone to talk to some people with strange-sounding names, after which some members of the family were dispatched to a different part of town. They brought me along a few times.

We took the tram number 3 in the direction opposite of downtown, and picked up the round sheets of crunchy matzos. The sheets were so big that it took two people to carry the bag. I’m not sure what happened at the pick up; I don’t believe I was ever allowed into the apartment of the matzo makers. I remember walking down the street and looking at the metal bars guarding the basement level windows of this historic neighborhood of our eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkov.

Kharkov’s Choral synagogue is the second largest in Europe. Soviets turned it into a sports club

The matzo makers were arrested in the late 80’s, during Perestroika. At that time private enterprise was already allowed and freedom of religion was openly discussed. Our suppliers continued making the unlevied bread, like they did all their lives, only allegedly they didn’t have the proper business licence. Our last Soviet Passover was a bust. Then again, by then we were in too much hurry to do anything Passover-related.

All the years we had matzos, we ate them as a Jewish treat alongside bread. Sometimes my grandmothers made matzo balls for her chicken soup, and they made them with hand-crushed matzos as matzo meal did not exist in the Soviet Union. Sometimes they made made matzo brei, or fried matzos, and that was my favorite. I once told my girlfriends from our apartments that we had matzo brei, and when my grandma found out she turned a bit pale. She’s been through a lot, my grandmother, she lost her job in the days of the Doctors’ Plot, for instance.

I first heard of Passover Seder when my uncle from Moscow bragged that my teenage cousin went to some secret Jewish meal that took hours. Apparently no one was allowed to get up to answer the phone during the dinner, so when her parents called to check on her the phone just kept ringing and they were worried silly.

My grandmother was delighted to hear the story, and I thought life in Moscow was so exciting, and that if I don’t get to immigrate, I will at least move to Moscow. You get the idea about my ability to ask questions.

The cover of “Red Haggadah” published by the Soviets in 1927 as an effort to coopt Jewish religious practice

After we left the Soviet Union, we spent a half a year in refugee camps in Austria and Italy, and in Italy I attended my first Seder. It was in a large room filled with fellow Soviet Jews who had no clue. We were all eager to learn about Judaism, but the Haggadah read to us during the ritual seemed a bit forced. Seder makes more sense when celebrated in a more narrow circle.

I do remember being served something referred to as gefilte fish that was more like cardboard al dente. Not to sound like a brat, but my grandmothers made excellent gefilte fish, and gefilte fish can be quite excellent when it doesn’t come from a jar. I learned to keep my mouth shut about that one because if I mentioned that it was one of my favorite dishes, my American friends made disgusted faces.

Once we were able to celebrate openly, I made my fair share of mistakes when cooking Passover dinners. I made pilaf once, for instance, only to find out later that the rice is not kosher for Passover because it expands in size. I later learned that it might be OK because Sephardic Jews had been eating rice all year long for ages.

I have some Separdic surnames in my family tree, so I can claim that heritage too, but still, I try to be more conservative when cooking the Passover meal. I try to imagine what my great grandmother would had made, and how would she make it had she moved to the US. I make chicken soup from scratch, gefilte fish, of course and another one of my year-long favorites, the beet salad which takes boiled beets, grated, walnuts in small pieces, equal amounts of sour cream and mayo.

Turns out beets can be used as a substitute of shank bone or zeroah, a ceremonial item on the Passover plate. I made the salad once, only we ate it instead of looking at it. Live and learn.