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Passover Feature (7): Matzah Played Central Role in Survival of Soviet Jewry

March 21, 1997
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When he was 11 years old, Mikhail Chlenov would go to Moscow’s Choral Synagogue to buy matzah for his grandparents.

It was in the early 1950s, when the Soviet regime’s anti-Jewish policy reached its most severe stage. But outside the synagogue, the Russian capital’s main Jewish center at that time, the line to buy matzah was long and tolerated by the authorities.

"Matzah used to be the only visible symbol of an individual’s involvement in Judaism," says Chlenov, chairman of the Va’ad, the Jewish confederation of Russia.

Chlenov is convinced that Judaism survived in the Soviet Union mainly because of matzah.

"What kept Yiddishkeit alive in Russia was the food, most importantly matzah," says Rabbi Berel Lazar, chief Chabad Lubavitch emissary to the former Soviet Union.

The state could forbid its Jews to perform major Jewish rites but it "could not tell them what they should eat," says Lazar.

Yuriy Kheyfetz, 74, recalls that some 60 years ago a Jew would come to his house in Moscow to bake matzah for his family and for a few other Jewish families who lived nearby.

"My parents were not observant at all," says Kheyfetz. "We never had seders at home and until very recently I didn’t even know what it is. But for some reason, my parents were not giving up the tradition of baking and eating matzot once a year."

Before World War II, many Jews across the Soviet Union could have matzah for Passover only if they baked it at home. Sometimes several families organized a temporary bakery at someone’s house to provide Jews in a neighborhood with fresh matzah. This was more or less the way most Russian Jews baked matzah in Jewish shtetls before the 1917 revolution.

During Stalin’s regime, the Soviet government occasionally allowed Jewish communities to obtain matzah from abroad. But more often top Russian officials prevented Jews from importing matzah.

In some cases, matzah was considered by the secret police to be a powerful tool of "anti-Soviet and Jewish clerical propaganda."

In 1939, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, father of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was dismissed from his post of chief rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, for distributing matzah to needy Jews and for receiving matzah from a foreign Jewish community.

For his "anti-Soviet crimes," Schneerson was sentenced to exile in Central Asia were he died a few years later.

In the 70s and 80s, the production and sale of matzah was the only source of income for the country’s largest synagogue — the Choral Synagogue in Moscow.

"Private donations could hardly cover even the synagogue watchman’s salary," says Russia’s chief rabbi Adolph Shayevich, who also has served as the Choral Synagogue’s rabbi since 1983. "We could function solely due to matzot sales. And it was quite enough."

After World War II, a matzah bakery opened in downtown Moscow. But customers had to bring their own flour.

"People were coming with the flour in glass jars, in pillow cases, or just wrapped in newspaper," Shayevich says.

A few days later, Jews would come to pick up fresh-baked matzah. Meanwhile, the practice of private apartment bakeries continued.

Rabbis knew that nearly all matzah produced in the Soviet Union was non-kosher because it was made with regular flour. But they had to approve them as kosher, because this was only matzah available to Soviet Jews, says Shayevich.

In the early 80s, the Moscow bakery was allowed to purchase about 150 tons of flour annually from the state.

Jews from across the country came to buy matzah at the Choral Synagogue.

"Some were buying a kilo or two for the entire community, so that everyone could have at least a small piece," Shayevich says.

The synagogue also was mailing each year dozens of matzah packages to communities in Central Russia, Siberia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, he says.

"Most Jews would come to the synagogue only once a year for the express purpose of buying matzah," recalls Shayevich.

During the rest of the year, the majority of Jews would not dare to show up at the synagogue out of the fear of losing their job or being expelled from school.

Because the production of matzah was officially allowed, the unleavened bread was for many Jews the only symbol of Judaism they knew.

During the Soviet era, authorities just winked at the matzah production and sales, says Shayevich. "They understood that they could not fight it, and after all this lasted only a few months a year."

In fact, sometimes matzah was sold at a general grocery store in Moscow. There it was called not matzah but "diet bread," just as Orthodox Christians’ Easter cake was officially labeled "spring cake."

Many Jews jumped at the idea of the diet value of matzah.

"I’m buying matzah because it’s good for my diet," says one woman in her 40s at a Moscow synagogue. Years ago, she explains, her mother said the family was eating matzah a few weeks a year simply because it was healthy food.

A former KGB officer recently said in an interview that in the early 80’s, he saw some matzah confiscated from Western tourists by customs officials at the Moscow airport. Part of it was later sold through Moscow stores as the "diet bread."

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian Jews discovered the taste of Israeli and American-made matzah.

This year "20 percent of Russian Jews are going to eat matzah," says Lazar.

Now, four bakeries in Israel are working overtime to make matzah for sale in the former Soviet Union.

Last year, the Lubavitch movement imported about 15 tons of matzah to Moscow alone.

This Passover, Moscow Jews will eat over 100 tons of Israeli-baked matzah. Lubavitch emissaries will distribute another 330 tons to 80 towns across Russia.

Imported matzah is favored because locally-produced matzah costs twice as much as Israeli matzah and kosher flour remains unavailable in Russia.

A new bakery that opened in Moscow last year uses kosher flour imported from the United States to make matzah.

"Sadly, production here is more expensive than abroad," says Lazar.

Apart from the price, Lazar believes that Israeli-made matzah also has a symbolic meaning.

"This would show people that they are connected to Israel" when they realize that the matzah they eat tastes the same as in Israel, he says.

A Jewish woman waiting in line to buy matzah at a Moscow synagogue agrees.

"This Pesach me and my daughter will be eating similar matzah," says 48-year- old Bronya Lerman. "But I will eat mine in Moscow and she in Israel where she’s been living for six years already."

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