Happy Passover from Moscow!

Recently Michael and I went to the first Jewish Museum in Moscow. Among the traditional exhibits usually found at Jewish museums such as displays of tzedakah boxes, kiddush cups, and objects used for life cycle events, there was a portion of the Museum devoted to Judaism and Jewish life in Russia and the FSU. Some of the exhibits focused on Yiddish culture, Jewish leaders in the Communist movement, and traditional Jewish professions in the 1800-1900’s. There was also an exhibit focused on the refusnik movement and the desire of many Jews to leave the USSR for Israel, but who were refused permission to leave. A poster caught my eye for a rally in NY sponsored by the Greater NY Council on Soviet Jewry (GNYCSJ). Some of my former colleagues worked for them and I took a picture of the poster and sent it to them.

Carolyn Greene, one of my former colleagues, wrote back,

Sometimes I still have what I call a “pinch me moment” when I need to remind myself how much the world has changed. A GNYCSJ Solidarity Sunday poster on display in Moscow – now that’s such a moment. We had a poster that pictured the Sharanskys (then Natasha and Anatoly), the headline read “they got married because they were in love…and separated because they were Jewish.” And now here I am checking out To Russia 4 Love to read about the latest kosher restaurant opening in the very same city where I clandestinely ate my canned veggies and peanut butter while scribbling notes about refusenik visits on a magic slate to my travel partner.

I had one of those pinch me moments on Sunday when Michael and I participated in matzo baking in the middle of Moscow. We were set up with an English speaking rabbi for one of the seders, and he invited us to his matzo baking. The first and only time I ever participated in a matzo baking, I was very little and don’t remember much of it. The matzo baking facility that we went to in Moscow was in a structure that was originally built as a sukkah, but which is used year round as a multi purpose room. Before Passover it becomes a matzo baking factory. From the time the water and flour are combined until the time the matzo comes out of the oven, the process can take only 18 minutes. The whole process is very serious and regimented: The wheat and the water, which comes from a fresh water well outside of Moscow, are kept strictly separate from each other. The first step is to mix the two ingredients together furiously. The man mixing it was doing it so hard that Michael’s role was to hold the bowl. The next step is to smash the dough until it changes color from brown to white. There is a heavy metal rod that is smashed onto the dough, which is on a metal table. Someone almost lost a finger earlier in the day on that step, so I didn’t volunteer. Michael did and his kipah was flying everywhere. It seemed like a good way to get out anger. Finally, the dough is cut into circles and people stand around rolling it into flat round circles, which are then baked. Half the table is amatuers, and the side closest to the oven are the professionals who fix it up. Then someone takes a mini rake and makes holes in the dough and it is sent to the oven outside. Whew! The 18 minutes passed quickly. Our second round was done in 14 minutes.

The first seder we are going to is at the Rabbi’s house who invited us to the matzo baking. He and his family speak English as their first language, but they have many guests and I think the majority of the seder will be in Russian and Hebrew. The second night we are co-hosting with my friend Liz. She was in Israel recently and brought a kosher brisket into Russia. I am so excited. One of the guests is a professional chef. We were discussing who would make what. We both volunteered to make matzo balls, but when he said that his secret ingredient is schmaltz (chicken fat), I realized I was way out of my league. It will be nice to create our own seder with a fun mix people of interesting people.

At the end of the day it still seems miraculous to be celebrating Passover openly in Russia. In the 1960’s matzo baking was banned in the USSR. At later times in the USSR matzo baking was credited as one of the things that helped Jews know their identity. Even if their families didn’t know why they were eating matzo or the matzo wasn’t kosher according to Jewish law, it was consumed during Passover. In the 1970’s and 1980’s matzo baking was the only source of income for Moscow’s Choral Synagogue. Some Jews would only come to the synagogue around Passover to buy matzo and that was their only expression of Judaism. They didn’t attend synagogue the rest of the year for fear of repercussions from Soviet officials, such as losing one’s job. Times have changed dramatically. This year there are five kosher markets from which to purchase kosher for Passover items. I bought things at all of them, but I would still trade all five for the kosher for Passover section at Fairway in NY.

Just as the Exodus from Egypt was a miracle, so was the opening of the gates of the FSU to allow Jews out and to openly practice their religion. May we continue to be blessed with miracles and see them for miracles in our lifetime. Michael and I wish you and your loved ones a very happy Passover.

From Russia with Love,

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4 Responses to Happy Passover from Moscow!

  1. Katy DesChenes says:

    What an interesting post, Heather, and I’m so happy you were able to have the matzo making experience. I am going to send your post to our Jewish friends in MA and Costa Rica who will appreciate hearing about the history and, thankfully, changes here. Enjoy the seders!

  2. emilykeeler says:

    Beautiful! חג שמח!

  3. Julia Levy says:

    very powerful experience.

  4. Adina says:

    a very thought provoking and moving entry – thank you for sharing!

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