Czech Jews use Passover to reconnect


PRAGUE, March 7 (JTA) – Karolina “Rachel” Harries is in a quandary.

The 25-year-old Czech interpreter says she feels Jewish, but will not be attending a formal Passover seder.

“I used to go to Pesach celebrations, but it was a social thing more than anything, as it is for most people here in the Czech Republic,” she says, using the Hebrew word for Passover. “Pesach is about tradition, which is what I like about it, but I am not religious.”

Harries, who says she feels Judaism has “too many rules that don’t make sense,” has a Jewish mother who was secular.

She remains ambivalent herself about her Jewishness.

She is far from alone in the Czech Republic. After suffering more than 60 years of repression, first at the hands of the Nazis and then under a Communist regime, many Jewish families have assimilated themselves into wider Czech culture.

For Prague’s official Jewish community, Passover is an opportunity to draw in young people like Harries whose families have faded from the Jewish scene. It expects around 300 people, including tourists, to attend its two sederim.

But Prague-based Rabbi Yehuda Yesharim, from Israel, accepts that there are many young people in the community who have yet to be reached.

“It is very important for us to help them with the traditions of Judaism,” he says. “We are very open to all kinds of people and would like them to come to our events like Pesach.”

However, even those young people already deeply committed to their faith won’t necessarily make their way to the official celebrations in April. Zuzana Pultrova, who works in the Canadian Embassy in Prague, takes Pesach very seriously. A convert to the modern Orthodox branch six years ago, she will be working hard in the run-up to Pesach.

“I can’t clean my parents’ house of chametz because they are not Jewish, so I will be doing it for a doctor friend of mine who is very busy,” says the 30-year-old, using the Hebrew term for food that is not kosher for Passover.

She too plans more intimate Pesach celebrations than the seders offered by the official community.

“We can always go to the seder in the community, but I think it is nicer to go to someone’s house and celebrate with six or eight friends.”

In Pultrova’s case, the evening follows an Orthodox approach to Passover, with extensive readings of the Haggadah and intense discussions. But Zuzana recognizes that many others in the Czech Republic conduct what she calls “Pesach-style” seders where the evening takes only the form of casual conversation about Passover accompanied by a few glasses of wine.

“I believe the official Jewish community offers what it should offer with Pesach celebrations. It’s just that many people don’t want to take it up because they prefer their own way,” she adds.

David Stecher, an Orthodox Jew from Prague, also accepts that many prefer to stage their own informal seders, if they celebrate at all. He makes a point each year of inviting at least two new faces to a formal seder at his flat in order to introduce them to Jewish traditions.

“Some people are afraid to come to a community event perhaps because it is something new,” says the 32-year-old who works with the Czech Council for Survivors of Nazism.

“There are people whose parents never told them they were Jewish when they were children because they had quite hard times under Communism. Since the Velvet Revolution,” as the 1989 fall of Czech communism is called, “some young people have been trying to find their Jewish roots but are still afraid of coming directly into the community,” he adds.

Sylvie Wittmann, who co-founded the liberal Jewish group Bejt Simcha in Prague 10 years ago, believes there is a middle way that can attract young people in their 20s and 30s into the fold.

“I think Pesach can be attractive for young people if you make it attractive,” she says. “I think seders which are too formal and are conducted only in Hebrew can lack meaning for those who do not understand Hebrew.

“On the other hand, informal seders where people just chat and socialize miss the point of Pesach which I believe should be an educational ritual. At Bejt Simcha, we provide a slightly shortened reading of the Haggadah and always include explanations in Czech.”

Bejt Simcha expects about 60 to attend its official seder, a number that may swell to 100 if the Czech Liberal Jewish Union joins in as expected.

For Wittmann, the issues raised by Passover are highly relevant in Czech society.

“Pesach is very important especially for people who have experienced Communism. There are parallels between Egypt and communism here – we were in slavery and now we don’t know what to do with our freedom,” she adds.

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