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Holiday Feature: Jews in Russia Reinterpret Meaning of Pesach – Again

When David Karpov attended his first Passover seder here some 15 years ago, it was easy for him and other newcomers to grasp the holiday’s main themes of slavery and redemption.

Soviet Jews, themselves suffering from oppression, had no trouble making a connection between their lives and what they read in the Haggadah, says Karpov, now a Lubavitch rabbi in Moscow.

“Fgypt was the Soviet Union, the Pharaoh was its leadership and Moses was the State of Israel which helped to redeem people,” explains Zinovy Kogan, executive director of the Congress of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Russia, an umbrella group for Russian Jews.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the mass departure of Soviet Jews to Israel — the wave often referred to in the Jewish state as the “Big Aliyah.”

The abolition of most restrictions on emigration — a move associated with the policy of glasnost, or openness, instituted by then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev — seemed to be a fulfillment of Passover hopes and dreams.

In the Western hemisphere and in Israel, a mass campaign for the liberation of Soviet Jews was inspired by another Passover symbol, the phrase Moses addressed to the Pharaoh: “Let My People Go.”

As with so much in this fast-changing part of the world, the meaning of Passover seders has changed several times during the past decade and a half. And with the possibility of a significant rise in aliyah because of the surge of anti-Semitism that followed the collapse of the Russian economy in August, some here are wondering if the themes of this year’s celebrations will shift yet again.

During the Soviet era, Passover seders actually inspired some Jews to consider emigration.

“For some, those seders were an eye-opener. People would come with no wish to emigrate and leave full of information and other people’s personal stories,” says Kogan.

Large seders held at private apartments became common in the early 1970s, says Mikhail Chlenov, president of the Va’ad, the Russian Jewish Federation, another umbrella organization for Jews here.

Indeed, the 1970s and 1980s were like an ongoing Passover, says Kogan.

“Some people were leaving, some stayed behind and continued the struggle. The idea of Pesach, exodus and freedom permeated the air,” he says.

As if the Soviet authorities themselves wanted to convey the message of Passover to those who had come to a seder, police, tipped off by the KGB, would sometimes break into an apartment to check the identity cards of those in attendance.

The atmosphere of secrecy that surrounded those seders sometimes generated amusing situations.

Kogan recalls what happened while at a seder attended by a visiting American Jew.

As was common in those days, there were not enough Haggadot to go around. Not wanting to be disgraced, the hosts gave out other Hebrew books that were in their home — prayer books, even copies of the Megillah, which is normally read on Purim.

The American noticed that not only were some guests following books that had nothing to do with the holiday; others, having no knowledge of Hebrew, were holding the books upside down.

Clearly astonished, the guest made his own assumptions and told the host, “Don’t you see? These are all KGB agents.”

But the lack of basic knowledge did not prevent people from tuning in to the seder’s message.

“To many of us, the Passover Haggadah was a manual for emigration,” says Kogan.

He recalls how seders in the late 1980s and early 1990s coincided with emotional sendoffs people gave their friends who were about to leave for Israel.

In more recent years, as aliyah from the former Soviet Union began to subside, seders took on a less dramatic character: They became events to teach Jews about Jewish history, about community-building and about Hebrew.

“Everything is open now,” says Karpov. “Every single aspect of Judaism is available to anyone.”

This includes aliyah, but as Karpov notes with regret, Israel is no longer the most popular emigration destination for Russian Jews — an increasing number go to other countries, particularly Germany.

And says Karpov, “even those who go to Israel are rarely motivated by a spiritual quest.”

Many agree that Russian Jewry today is more about spiritual rather than physical redemption.

But Kogan and others say this year’s seders could harken back to Soviet-era seders.

Responding to the rise in public displays of anti-Semitism, many people are again wondering whether to emigrate.

“The atmosphere to some extent reminds me of the times of the Big Aliyah,” says Chaim Ben-Yakov, a Moscow rabbi.

Ben-Yakov, a 31-year-old native of Moscow, immigrated to Israel 10 years ago. Last year, he returned to work on behalf of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, an international organization for Reform Judaism.

But despite the rise in anti-Semitism, he does not believe that bad times for Jews are coming back, at least not in Moscow.

“It’s more about freedom of choice, the exodus from an inner Egypt,” he says.

For Chlenov, the current situation of Jews in Russia is comparable with a different part of the story of the exodus: the 40 years of wandering in the desert.

“Many people have a feeling that we’re still the generation of slaves that keeps wandering. It takes time.”

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