‘The Taste Of Freedom’


They weighed about a pound, came in a plain paper box that had stored sugar, looked like dried cookies and weren’t worth very much.

But to Yuli Edelstein they were priceless.

He would have kosher-for-Passover matzahs for Passover in the Siberian gulag that year, and in the next two years. Each year would be a new adventure, a new “miracle … always a happy ending,” he said.

He was a refusenik who was expelled from university at 21 when he applied for an exit visa to Israel, a convict after being sentenced in 1984 to three years deep inside the Soviet prison system on a trumped-up drug charge, a typical secularly raised Soviet Jew who had taken on a religious lifestyle, a hero of the Jewish resistance to the communists’ anti-Semitic regime who after moving to Israel became a Knesset member and then its speaker.

But back in the 1980s, he was in a Moscow jail awaiting transfer to another facility thousands of miles away.

It was a few weeks before the start of Passover.

It was time for the hour-long meeting that family members were allowed with enemies of the Soviet state who were about to be shipped away. Edelstein’s wife Tanya brought a parcel that contained some of the food items on an approved list: sugar, sweets, sausages.

Matzah was not on the list. So Tanya took Edelstein the box of matzahs baked in Moscow’s main synagogue, and broke them into small pieces that would look like dried cookies.

Possession of the matzahs was illegal, a risk for both Edelstein and his wife, a risk that many Jews had taken in the days of Communism and Nazism and other perilous times.

It was worth the risk, Edelstein told The Jewish Week in a phone interview last week, because matzah “was something physical you can do to effect a connection to the Jewish people,” a tangible reminder of slavery in ancient Egypt, “the out-of-slavery part.”

Edelstein, now 56, was born in Chernovitz, Ukraine, and raised in Moscow. His parents eventually converted to Christianity; his father is a Russian Orthodox priest.

Influenced by his maternal grandfather, who secretly brought home scraps of matzah for Passover every year and in his 80s started to teach himself Hebrew, Edelstein became interested in Hebrew, in Israel, in Judaism. He made a connection with Chabad rabbis who continued his Jewish education in the Underground.

As an observant Jew, Edelstein would not eat chametz on Passover.

Taken by train over the next several weeks to a labor camp near the Mongolian border, “moving all the time,” stopping at various prisons along the way, Edelstein had to closely guard his precious box. The putative cookies were “very attractive for other prisoners who were in the stealing mood,” he said.

He didn’t let the box out of his sight. “Thank God, no one managed to steal it,” he said.

Pesach came aboard the train. “The whole Pesach I had matzah,” he said.

By himself, he recited the parts of the Haggadah that he had memorized, from the days he had run seders for his circle of dissident friends. “That’s how I spent the night,” he said.

The next year at Passover, Edelstein was in a prison hospital, under treatment for a bad fall he had taken off a guard tower; the next year, in a labor camp near Novosibirsk.

Each time Tanya managed to smuggle him some matzah. Each time, the only Jew among his immediate inmate population, he made a seder alone.

In the hospital, he was still in bed, “in very bad shape. I couldn’t get up. No Haggadah, no other Jews — me and the matzah,” he said.

In the Novosibirsk labor camp he befriended “a young thief,” a non-Jewish inmate who worked at an outside construction site where there was less-intensive security.

The prisoners, sometimes bribing guards, arranged to get messages to relatives, and to receive packages that they would surreptitiously spirit into the camp. Edelstein’s thief friend “was very glad to be part of the operation” – for a cut of the stash.

Edelstein had passed to Tanya a message that he would need matzah again.

The morning before the first seder, Edelstein, nervous that he might not have matzah that year, learned that a package from his wife had arrived.

At nightfall, the thief returned from his work detail, looking like a pregnant woman, a parcel for Edelstein hidden under his coat.

Inside were cheese, meat, fruit.

No matzah.

“Is this all?” Edelstein asked.

“Sure, that’s all.”

“Are you sure? You brought in everything?”

Yes, said the thief.

Edelstein kept asking. The thief “started shouting.” Was Edelstein accusing him of stealing?

Finally, the thief said, “Yes, there were some stupid cookies” — the pieces of matzah Tanya had again disguised. “Who needs these cookies?”

Edelstein, of course, did. Tomorrow, he told the thief, “you bring the cookies into the camp.”

The “cookies” arrived the next day in a plastic bag. Edelstein had his matzahs for his second-night seder, which he again “said to myself” from memory.

Did the matzahs, obtained with danger attached, have a special taste?

“I don’t want to romanticize it,” Edelstein said. Matzah is matzah. Then he changed his mind: “When you’re in prison, everything tastes different. The taste of freedom.”

By the next Passover, in May 1985, Edelstein was out of prison, freed because of Western pressure orchestrated by Tanya, who had gone on a hunger strike on her husband’s behalf.

In 1987, on the eve of Israeli Independence Day, he arrived in Israel, where he served in the army and became active in politics, founding the immigrant-oriented Israel B’Aliyah party with Natan Sharansky, serving as Minister of Immigrant Absorption, being elected Knesset Speaker in 2013.

He and Tanya, “of blessed memory” — she died in 2014 at 63 after a long illness — raised two children. He would tell them the story of how he ate matzah in the gulag. The story of the Jewish deliverance from slavery, he said, “is not necessarily [only] about things that happened in Egypt.”

Now Edelstein, who lives in Neve Daniel, south of Jerusalem, again leads his own seders. The matzahs at his table are from Israel.

As a sign of religious freedom in the former Soviet Union, handmade shmurah matzahs have been made for the past dozen years at the Tiferet Hamatzot factory in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. Usually less expensive than matzahs from the United States or Israel, those from Ukraine have become a Pesach bestseller abroad in recent years.

For Edelstein, his matzah of choice comes from Eretz Israel.

“Why would I bring it from outside?” he said.