Translating the holiday

Russian immigrants tell their Pessah tales: Ancient Jews left their homes during Pessah, and so will we.

russian hagadah 88 (photo credit: )
russian hagadah 88
(photo credit: )
A long line of people waits at the cashier at Laguna, one of many Russian markets in Rehov Agrippas. The customers are waiting patiently for their turn, holding large shopping baskets full of food. "There are no large, chain supermarkets, such as Tiv-Ta'am in Jerusalem, so before holidays there are always tons of customers squash inside the small shops," explains Leonid, a 40-something man who says he is a regular at Laguna. According to the saleswomen, just as many customers come to stock up before the Jewish holidays - such as Pessah and Rosh Hashana - they also shop for holidays exported from Russia, such as New Year and May 9, the day of victory over Nazi Germany. "Holidays are holidays, and any reason to be happy is actually good enough for us, as any person needs as many happy and festive days as possible," smiles Irina, who has been working at Laguna for two years. So what does the standard customer at Laguna, Vilnus, Admark or any other Russian grocery store have in his shopping basket? A lot of heavy Russian black bread for starters. For many the bread is perhaps the essence of nostalgia for Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev and Minsk. There are dozens of different brands of Russian black breads that compete with each other. Elizaveta Raisman, 35, is holding five loaves of her preferred brand, Borodinski. "We will be celebrating Pessah, of course," she explains, but her family will consume bread and bread products during the "dry" week. "We are not religious. And we will eat bread during the week, but not on the Seder eve. But for us it's a tradition rather than a religious duty or obligation," she explains. At the Raisman family's Seder there will be gefilte fish, red caviar, pickled mushrooms, clear soup with kneidlach and tziplyata tabaka (grilled chicken Georgian style). The Raismans' Seder meal is not exactly traditional Ashkenazi fare, but it is definitely an interesting interpretation of it. Some Russian immigrants in the store say that along with Yom Kippur, the Pessah Seder is one of the most cherished Jewish traditions. These holidays were honored throughout the years despite anti-Semitism, the threat of the Soviet regime and the assimilation that alienated many Russian Jews from their roots and traditions. Nadejda Rabinovich, a 72-year-old retiree from Kiev, recalls that her mother, unable to purchase a new set of dishes for Pessah, used to perform hagala (dipping in boiling water). "She was boiling the saucepans and pots and she complained that the procedure was not quite right, as she couldn't go to the rabbi for that purpose," she says. "She prepared gefilte fish from codfish, as it was the only thing available at that time and complained about not being able to purchase the carp, then she prepared the tzimes [carrot stew] and complained again, about the tzimes of the Jewish life that for her was forever lost after the revolution," smiles Rabinovich. Like many Soviet women in the Twenties and Thirties, she was named after Nadejda Krupskaya, Vladimir Lenin's wife (Nadejda in Russian means hope). Other customers at Laguna deli are not all that nostalgic about the holiday and its meaning. Many come to buy bread and hametz (unleavened) products, but were actually planning to travel during the first hag (when Seder takes place) and the adjoining weekend. "The ancient Jews left their homes during Pessah, and so will we," jokes Leonid Mann. He came with his family from Krasnoyarsk, a large city in the West of Siberia, 14 years ago. This Pessah he and his family will meet in Anatalya. "It's too depressing staying at home during the holidays. We do not have a large family here in Israel, in fact, we do not have any family at all. It's just me, my wife, her parents and our two kids. We are Jews but we were raised in [the former] USSR, without any knowledge of Jewish history and traditions. And although we understand that we have to embrace this holiday and be happy during it, for us it's still a bit foreign and strange. "My kids speak perfect Hebrew, but reading the Haggada in Hebrew is impossible," he continues. "Also, here in Jerusalem it is very quiet and empty during the holiday. This is also strange for us, since in Russia the holidays are celebrated in a different manner. That's why we are going to spend a few days in Turkey, but we have to buy the bread for the last couple of days." And then there are the families who feel comfortable celebrating Pessah, but will also celebrate the Christian Pasha, celebrated a week after the end of Pessah, on April 23. Michael (not his real name) is a Jew, but he and his Christian wife have decided that there will be no religious dictates in their family and each spouse will be learning about the holiday of the other. Their 12-year-old daughter believes she gains from celebrating the holidays of both religions, Michael laughs, but then admits that the situation might become problematic later on. As the line at Laguna moves along, more and more people tell their personal Pessah-related stories and share their plans for this holiday. The general picture conjures up the colorful and checkered mosaic that makes up Israeli society. Happy Pessah!