This year Elizabeth Gutkin, 76, will celebrate the 20th anniversary of her arrival in Israel. By now, Gutkin, who was born in Belarus and came to Israel from Minsk, has become acquainted with the complicated rituals of the holiday and has learned what Pessah is all about, mostly from her two grandchildren, who were born in Israel.

After burning the hametz in the morning, at night her son will recite the Haggada, pour a glass for Elijah the Prophet and her little grandchildren will search the house looking for the afikoman.

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Born and raised during the Soviet era, Gutkin says that when she first came to Israel in 1990, she hardly knew a thing about Pessah.


“The Soviet regime did a great job of erasing all traces of Jewish traditions and consciousness in Belarus,” she says. “I’m sure that at least one generation ago my family was involved in the very same ritual I grew accustomed to when I came to Jerusalem, but by the time I had grown up, all I knew was that Jews eat matza during Pessah. Nobody had explained the whys and wherefores, so my siblings and I just took it for granted. We ate the matza, but there was no any special meaning to it.”

Many immigrants from the former Soviet Union share Gutkin’s experience. Growing up in St. Petersburg, Anna Zeleznyak, 32, assumed that matza was “some special national dish and that there is a certain country where people eat only matza instead of bread.” However, she remembers clearly that her grandparents always managed to buy some for the holiday.

“This was one of the paradoxes of the Soviet system. On one hand Soviet Jews were denied the basic right to learn about their origins and traditions, yet the distribution of matza in grocery stores and synagogues was permitted,” she recalls.

Moscow-born Svetlana Sorokina, 67, says that during the 1980s matza could be easily found in grocery stores and bakeries.

“It was just lying there along with kulich” – a traditional Russian Easter cake – “and sometimes we would buy both of them, matza and kulich, since there was no religious awareness about the meaning of the holiday and the reason behind the eating of matza instead of bread,” she says. However, in the periphery, such as Bryansk, located 400 kilometers southwest of Moscow, Jews succeeded in passing on tradition to the new generations, despite the fear and repression.

Svetlana Kazakevitch, 75, recalls that her mother-in-law, who was very observant, had a separate set of dishes for Pessah and used to scrub the house meticulously, looking for hametz.

“Our own family wasn’t religious, so we didn’t follow the strict regulations of Pessah, but we definitely knew what this special holiday is all about. We knew about the Pharaoh of Egypt and Moses who led the Jews out of Egypt. Also, matza was always available in our tiny synagogue,” she says.

And yet, even for those immigrants who had some prior knowledge of Pessah and its traditions, the experience of the holiday in Israel is often overwhelming.

“During my first Pessah in Israel I was invited by my daughter’s friends in Har Nof. How surprised we were when they read the Haggada almost until midnight! They kept on reading and singing and performing some strange rituals and we were so amused, because we could never imagine that it would take so long. The singing was beautiful and the kids were very excited, but since we didn’t understand a word, they had to translate everything from Hebrew to English, which was the common language between us. I still recall that first Seder as an amazing and bewildering experience,” Svetlana says, smiling.

Indeed, many immigrants came to Israel with almost no knowledge of Jewish tradition. Although their children have now had an opportunity to get acquainted with these traditions at schools and kindergartens, for the adults, who grew up in a very different world, the week of Pessah – which can be hard even for the native Israelis – can prove overwhelming.

It’s hard to get drawn into the Seder if you don’t really understand the essence of the holiday, says Gutkin, whose grandchildren taught her the fundamentals. Also, whereas many Israelis find it difficult to decide where to spend the Seder – at his parents’ home or hers – many immigrants have a very different problem: typical families are very small with one or two children, and many elderly people live alone and have never experienced the warmth and closeness of a family gathering during the holiday.

“Some of my friends live in hostels or rent small apartments alone. For them the Seder night is just like any other night, only a bit lonelier,” says Gutkin. “To me, this holiday really is all about family and being together. I wish more people would open their hearts and homes and invite each other for the Seder, so that everyone would feel the true spirit of Pessah.”
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