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Sunday
May012016

CELEBRATING THE HOLIDAY OF FREEDOM BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN

When the goyim knew that the Jewish holiday was approaching, they would jack up the prices. * We knew we had to open the door for Eliyahu but the door had to be closed so we wouldnt be sent to Siberia. * Did you know that Mitzrayim has the same numerical equivalent as ס.ס.ס.ר (in Hebrew)? *The seder table brought back many Jews to Judaism. * Fascinating excerpts from an interview with RNotke Berkahan ah that was published in Yediot Acharonot in the Erev Pesach 5733 issue.

By A. Almagor

R’ Notte Berkahan“To tell about Pesach in the Soviet Union? How? Every day there could be turned into a book, and every Jew into a complete library. And we are talking about a Jewish holiday and not just any holiday, but Pesach, the holiday of the Exodus from Egypt.

“Did you know that ס.ס.ס.ר is numerically equivalent to Mitzrayim?

“Where does the name Mitzrayim come from? Meitzarim. And what is a meitzar? It constrains a person’s essence and his intellect; it’s a mitzva to remove oneself from constraints and limitations. There are constraints everywhere and even in the heart of every Jew. 

“And yet, in that double and redoubled darkness of Mitzrayim, i.e., the Soviet Union, a person celebrated the holiday of going out, to proudly proclaim, I am a free man. Could there be a greater experience than this?”

The speaker is a bearded man, about 50 years old, whose outstanding facial feature is his bright, blue eyes. He is Natan Berkahan of Riga, Latvia, and a Chabad Chassid going back generations. “I remember my grandfather would go to see the (previous) Rebbe,” he says. Perhaps his father before him too, but he doesn’t know.

RESPONSE TO PROPAGANDA

I met with him after I asked among the Russian immigrants about someone who could tell me how the Jews of the Soviet Union celebrated Pesach. In Shikun Chabad in Lud, dozens of kippa wearing children’s faces looked blank when I asked for Mr. Berkahan, but when I said, “Natan Berkehon,” they lit up. “Ah, Notte,” and each of them was ready and willing to show me.

We sat in his apartment with a bottle on the table and no other refreshments (“Because it’s Pesach for us already,” our host apologized). A picture of the Rebbe looks down from the wall and my host reminisces:

Pesach in Russia…

According to the Shulchan Aruch you start preparing thirty days before the holiday but for us, it wasn’t thirty days but the entire year. When my uncle made aliya ten years ago, he wrote to us, “We arrived literally on Erev Pesach and nevertheless we did not lack for anything. From the store they brought all the holiday needs and even gefilte fish…”

This letter got passed around to many people in Riga. They handed it around and read it in every house. It was the best response to the government’s anti-Israel propaganda.

VILLAGE VISITS

I wrote to my uncle, “Where is the justice? You have no problem obtaining holiday provisions and you celebrate Pesach for only seven days while for us, for whom it is so hard to celebrate, we have eight days.”

Pesach is matza, of course. I ate only shmura matza my whole life, and so, every year, at harvest time, when the goyim on the kolkhozes got their allotment of wheat, I would go to the villages to buy wheat.

But even those who were not mehader in shmura matza needed flour. And flour was given out only on festive days like May 1 (the workers’ holiday) and November 7 (marking the Revolution) and the like. Jews who wanted to ensure flour for themselves for Pesach began storing it up already from May 1, i.e., from one Pesach to the next. After buying the wheat during harvest season, my family would spend winter nights sitting around the table and picking through the kernels.

And from where did we have a mill to grind the wheat?

We found an ancient handmill by a village goy. In order to bake the matzos we would send the flour to Georgia or Bukhara where Jews had slightly more freedom, or we would wander to a forsaken village in our area, where home ovens still existed and we would buy the right from the goy to use his oven.

With liberalization in 1957 or 1958, things were much easier and contacts were made with the Israeli embassy in Moscow and abroad and we could receive packages. We asked for only an esrog for Sukkos and matzos for Pesach and we received them, but they did not have the taste of the matzos we baked ourselves, secretly.

And wine for Pesach? It is easy for Israelis or those who live in those areas of the Soviet Union where there are vineyards. But we in the north needed grapes and the season for them is the summer, and already then we would start squeezing grapes for wine for Pesach.

 

GOOSE FAT

It wasn’t only those items specific to Pesach like wine and matza that needed to be prepared in advance. Potatoes were bought in the fall for the entire winter as was wood for heating. When these were ready you could welcome winter calmly.

On Chanuka, when it was freezing cold and the geese were fat, some Jews would join together and rent a truck and travel to Shavel (Siauliai) in Lithuania, about 150 kilometers from where we lived. Over there we would buy birds, mainly geese, to collect their fat for Pesach. If you managed to collect two or three kilograms of fat, you relaxed and knew you would have a fine Pesach table.

A few weeks before Pesach we started collecting eggs and chickens. We would travel to villages around Riga or waylay farmers on their way to market. I was lucky in that I worked as a stock-keeper in a warehouse that was on the highway. Out the window I could see all the farmers on their way to the city with their wares. Sometimes, before Pesach, my office – four of us Jews worked there – turned into an egg and clucking chicken storeroom. By our eagerness to buy, the goyim guessed that the Jewish holiday was approaching and they jacked up the prices.

Nu, matza, we had. Wine, we had. Chicken and eggs and potatoes, we had, and maror was never lacking in the Soviet Union. And the house was clean and kosher. Everything was ready for Yom Tov.

POVERTY AND LACK

We always lived in privation and overcrowding. Even after 1958 when we got our own apartment, our conditions did not change, and yet for Pesach we always had guests sitting around our table. That’s when I understood the statement, “standing crowded and bowing with plenty of room.”

Who were the guests? Some were old and childless who did not want to conduct a seder, or young people who did not know how to do so, and other Jews. It is a Jewish tradition to invite guests to the seder table, and I personally felt obligated to repay…

In 1942 we ended up in Samarkand in Uzbekistan. It was the middle of the war and starvation and epidemics were rampant. There were corpses in the street and there was little food, but no money with which to buy it. I gave away my bar mitzva watch for kimcha d’pischa.

I ended up at the table of a Jewish Bucharian family, Lubavitchers (because over fifty years before, the Rebbe [Rashab] had sent his students to the Jews of Bukhara and Georgia, to spiritually sustain them). Every Jewish family in Samarkand took a Jewish refugee home for Pesach. They didn’t have food either, but what they had, they shared.

And so, the family and guests sat around the set table which was covered with a white tablecloth on which was lit candles, and our spirits were uplifted but also worried. We had to open the door for Eliyahu HaNavi. However, it needed to remain locked due to fear of the “evil eye.” Until Stalin’s death it was enough for a neighbor to report that a seder was held in someone’s apartment for that person to find himself on his way to Siberia, if not worse.

And yet, there wasn’t a single year when we did not fulfill the mitzvos of the night.

Because it was so hard to observe mitzvos, and because of the fear that Judaism would be forgotten, we tried to turn the seder ceremony into a lesson on Judaism whose impression would remain in the hearts of the participants. This was because among those present were always those who had become distant from Judaism or who were raised among gentiles and the taste of their Judaism had faded from their consciousness.

We did not compose a new Hagada, but aside from the words of Chazal and commentaries, we wove into the traditional text examples from everyday life. The very Exodus from Egypt – Mitzrayim equals ס.ס.ס.ר. And what is servitude? This itself served as an explanation.

Here, in Eretz Yisroel, there is no significance to being a ben chorin (a truly free person), since everyone is a ben chorin or at least could be. Who is a ben chorin? Someone who willingly takes on the yoke of mitzvos!

In the Soviet Union the concept of servitude needed explaining since everyone was enslaved and yet, what was enslaved? The body. 

But the soul? The Rebbe Rayatz already said: Whoever has one world and many gods need fear, but for someone who has one G-d and two worlds, what does he have to fear?

And we would tell of the Exodus from Egypt and hope to leave the Soviet Union. We were enslaved, but in our hearts we were free.

FASTING ON PESACH

I could talk a lot about mesirus nefesh. About a Jew standing strong for his religion and faith and not being budged from it.

My daughter who will soon finish her studies here and become an engineer, was eight years old when on Pesach, the students in her school went on an outing to a forest. What could we give her for the trip? We did not dare to give her matzos. We filled her bag with hard-boiled eggs. The class reached their destination and the teacher decided that all the students would pool their food. My daughter “donated” her meal of eggs into the communal pot but she herself did not take a crumb. She fasted all day. 

The next day, we were called down by the teacher. “Why did your daughter refuse to eat yesterday? Is she sick?” 

We mumbled something and then the teacher squinted her eyes and asked suspiciously, “Was yesterday the Jewish holiday of matzos?”

Pesach helped me preserve the souls of my children so they would not forget their Judaism. And not only the souls of my children, but the seder table aroused the Jewish neshama in quite a few of my guests and brought them back to us; some of them are in Eretz Yisroel now.

A GREAT LOSS

Now I am getting ready for my fourth Pesach in Eretz Yisroel. You see – a spacious apartment, thank G-d, and it is already cleansed of chametz and ready for Yom Tov, and my oldest son already came on furlough from the army and will be with us. There is no lack when it comes to holiday provisions. We go to the store and buy and nobody pursues us.

In Eretz Yisroel there is more isolation than in the Diaspora. It seems that that great trait, Ahavas Yisroel, is being forgotten. This is a great loss. If only as we sit around the seder table we find it again.

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