Lea Zeltserman is a Toronto-based writer and the publisher of the Soviet Samovar, a Russian-Jewish culture newsletter.
When my family sits down for our Passover Seder this year, which starts Friday evening, our table will include an uncommon extra. The Seder, which means “order,” has a set procedure, with ritual foods, blessings and readings from the Haggadah. Included are three matzos, the cracker-like unleavened bread symbolizing the hasty flight of the ancient Hebrew slaves out of Egypt. Each is incorporated at a specific point in the evening. But our family puts out a fourth matzo called the Matzo of Hope, which has taken on new meaning this year with the horrific war in Ukraine.
The Matzo of Hope dates back to at least 1972, in the early days of the Soviet-Jewry movement, a global campaign advocating for freedom for Soviet Jews, who weren’t allowed to practise their religion or leave the country. Movement leaders in the U.S. encouraged people to add a fourth matzo to their Seder, and recite a prayer for Soviet Jews. The prayer echoes the traditional words recited over the matzo plate.
My family fled the Soviet Union in 1979. Stripped of our citizenship, we arrived in Edmonton as stateless refugees six months later. We knew little about the global outcry that had made our Canadian lives possible. After the Soviet collapse in 1991, and the ensuing emigration of thousands of Jews, the movement faded into the background, especially for immigrants who were preoccupied with rebuilding their lives in a new country.
In the early post-revolution decades, especially in the 1920s, the Bolsheviks saw Passover as an opportunity to push the new Soviet worldview. Versions of the Haggadah – a red Haggadah – rewrote the Passover story as one of liberation into communism. But following the Second World War and the Holocaust, religious life was severely curtailed and effectively vanished. By the time I was born, most Soviet-Jews knew next-to-nothing of Jewish food, holidays or customs.
However, small aspects of Judaism were sometimes permitted – including, sporadically, matzo baking. News reports through the 1960s tracked its shifting status; it was permitted or not at the whims of the authorities and their desire to convince the world of their openness. A minority of Jews continued using underground connections to acquire matzo, typically snuck home in a pillowcase. In a somewhat ironic twist, the Ukrainian city of Dnipro has become a major global supplier of shmura matzo, a hand-baked, ultra-kosher matzo. That supply is, once again, under threat from the Kremlin.
Dnipro happens to be my maternal grandfather’s birthplace. Both my grandfathers escaped the Holocaust by dint of being drafted into the Red Army, while my paternal grandmother, five months pregnant with my aunt, narrowly escaped the Nazis in Zhytomyr when she was evacuated to central Asia. Jews have a long history in Ukraine. It was home, but a home of antisemitic restrictions, pogroms and eventually Nazi collaborators. I have family members lying in mass graves across Ukraine, and countless more that I don’t even know of. Now, with the war in Ukraine, I watch the clock ticking backwards into a terrifying, dark past – the trains of refugees running west, instead of east, the evidence of war crimes in colour instead of the black-and-white of history books.
I first learned about the Matzo of Hope about a decade ago, and soon began adding it to our Seder. Jews are commanded to tell the Passover story anew each year, as if recounting own personal history of being freed from slavery. For us, that story is not far off our lived reality, with my parents telling my children about how our own family escaped a tyrannical empire.
At one point during the evening, we explain what the various ritual foods represent. We always include the Matzo of Hope, describing how people around the world once came together to demand our freedom, weaving North American-Jewish history into our Soviet roots. If we eat matzo to remember how we fled Egypt, the Matzo of Hope reminds us how we fled the USSR, and the many people who cared enough to make it possible. It’s a slightly obvious cliché, but it’s a comparison that’s impossible to avoid on a holiday steeped in symbolism.
Like many once-Soviet Jews, these past weeks have been consumed with thoughts of the war. It’s impossible not to note how relevant that Matzo of Hope has become again. Impossible not to think of people again fleeing a Ukraine under bombardment, or Ukrainian Jews marking Passover under the sound of explosions, where their grandparents and great-grandparents (some still alive today) once also cowered from bombs and bullets. Our lone square of matzo will again symbolize solidarity, along with a sobering reminder about the circularity of history. And a hope, a very fervent hope, for better Passovers ahead.
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