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Next Year In …

From Kiev to rural Maine, the seder has a distinct flavor in scattered corners of the world. Three of our readers contribute their stories.

How The Jews Of Kiev Got Their Matzah In time For Passover …

Since the early 1960s I was involved in the struggle to obtain for Soviet Jews the right to emigrate and the right to practice their religion. In 1991 I was serving as the head of Operation Lifeline, an independently funded outreach program created by the National Council on Soviet Jewry to support Jewish life in the USSR and former Soviet Union.

Early on the morning of March 18, 1991, only days before Pesach, I received a call from Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, chief rabbi of Kiev. Through Operation Lifeline, I had been sending to Soviet Jews food packages and packages of supplies, to be sold on the Black Market, since the early 1960s.

Rabbi Bleich had an emergency — the community’s matzah machine, built in secrecy in Kiev’s Jewish Center in 1969, had broken down. He needed 10,000 pounds of matzah sent to him. Passover has a special meaning for all Jews; even for those who are not observant matzah is essential.

I had plenty of experience getting supplies into the Soviet Union, but not on such a large scale with such a short time frame. I hung up the phone and called Streit’s matzah factory in Lower Manhattan, which did business with my company, 999 Real Kosher Sausage. Streit’s had already finished its Passover operations.

Next I called the B. Manischewitz Company in Jersey City, which was still baking. When they heard that I needed 10,000 pounds, they were taken aback and wanted to know who would pay for the order. I told them to bill it to me.

Manischewitz started baking right away. The orders were ready within a day or so.

The total cost to purchase and send the matzah was $40,000. I raised the money through appeals to synagogues. Rabbi Alexander Schindler, leader of the Reform movement, raised the majority of the money through Reform synagogues.

My next problem was how to send the matzah to Kiev. They couldn’t go by boat; that would take too long. As my company had a relationship with Pan American Airways, my son Jay got on the phone and starting booking freight on its flights case by case. He got a call from a supervisor who complained that he was taking up all of the cargo space.

Although that supervisor was not Jewish, when Jay asked him if he knew what Passover was and the significance of matzah at the seder, the answer was “yes.” After an explanation of the situation in Kiev, the supervisor agreed to let the matzah go in one large shipment.

All the matzah got there in time.

I got satisfaction from knowing that my entire family worked together to help the Jews of Kiev.

Rabbi David Hill

The writer, a resident of Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, is author of “Serving the Jewish People: My Message to the Generations” (self-published, 2013).

… And How One Jewish Family In Leningrad Got Its Matzah

Grandpa’s birthday came four times a year. In the spring, the second one was special: we closed the doors and ate matzah. I had no idea where it came from, but as long as I can remember, as sure as the loud breaking of the ice on the Neva River and the harsh winds growing milder, matzah appeared on the table.

“Why is Grandpa’s birthday different from other birthdays?” — I was wondering, as the story of Exodus was told in a hushed voice, like a scary fairy tale. Grandparents had just one room, sharing the kitchen, the bathroom and the front door with three other families: should some neighbor figure out what we were doing, that would mean trouble.

As we turned on the radio, the Voice of America filled the room with rambling sounds. Someone across the ocean was interviewing school kids, asking them if they knew about the Soviet Jews sitting behind the Iron Curtain. We couldn’t hear half the words because of the jammers, but isn’t this how the voice of freedom should come to you — muffled and squashed, as someone will always try to suppress it?

The voice of Freedom was barely audible, and the taste of matzah — dry and bland, but that was all we had, plus 50 centuries of history.

Will we ever get out? Ever go to a school where we won’t be pushed, spat on, beaten, called names? Where teachers won’t give us “special” grades? Will our parents ever see a workplace without daily humiliation?

“Some people wanted to stay in Egypt, mind you,” Grandpa was saying, “but who remembers them now? They turned into dust.”

“Grandpa, do you think this country will soon collapse?” Dad flicks me a warning glance across the table: if you ever say it aloud anywhere. … No worry, Daddy. I know.

Grandpa is silent for a while, examining his empty wineglass, turning it over in his stiff fingers, probably wondering if we are old enough for all this. We are waiting.

“I give you my word.” He says finally.

The year Grandpa died, the ice on the river broke early.

“We are not having matzah this year,” Mom said.

“And where did Grandpa usually get it?,” I asked.

“Bought from the synagogue.”

“And where is it, the synagogue?”

“Please don’t even think of it. It is a Jewish holiday, remember? If you are seen anywhere near the synagogue, your education is over, as well as our employment. Or you could end up in jail, like those stupid kids last year.”

“But I am not going for the celebration. I just want to buy the matzah…”

“Don’t talk nonsense. The place is full of stoolies and hidden cameras. So cut it out. Please.”

Four times a year, two busy streets near the synagogue were closed for traffic, to cause gridlocks right in front of the building. I stepped out with big packages of matzah, squeezed past a truck blocking my way, and started walking to the bus stop. Walking on ice on high heels is no fun, especially with both hands busy.

“How do you know she is a Jew?” I heard a voice behind me.

“See those packs? That’s the stuff they bake. The kikes, they will die for that food.”

“No kidding? I thought they didn’t do anything.”

“Yes, they do, the kikes. Whatever you do, they will still have their way.”

“No kidding? Hey, miss!”

Should I run? But with these high heels I could easily fall and break all the matzah.

“Miss!”

Running was out of the question: they were too close. Whatever! I turned around and forced a smile.

The guy who had called out was young and looked quite sober. The woman was short and fat. Untidy gray hair was sticking out from under her headscarf.

“Where are you going, miss? Want to come with us instead?”

Stoolies! Moles! And too late to run!

“Sorry, I can’t,” I said in a doomed, trembling voice.

“Why so?”

And suddenly, knowing that I was completely helpless, I wasn’t scared any more. I simply didn’t care.

“It’s my birthday,” I said. “Got to go. Sorry.” I turned and walked away. Slowly.

Helen Brook

The writer, who lives in Staten Island, is a native of Leningrad and coordinator of the “Wandering Stars” project that represents émigré Jewish actors and singers. Her writing appeared in “1+30, the Best of myStory,” a collection of essays and poetry published by HIAS in 2012.

A ‘Roots’ Passover
In Maine

The week before Pesach my wife and I will be breaking ground, getting all the equipment ready. We live on a farm.

We bought a piece of land a mile and a half from the road, which we saw advertised in a local newspaper. We have been here for 40 years.

It was very poor land, virgin land; we built a house, a barn, a workshop and made a garden, all with hand tools, a pick and a shovel — we had no power tools. We built them out of recycled materials. We never had a phone, we never had electricity.

We raised three children. Our children have been gone a long time.

We grew everything that grew, a variety of things. Kashrus is no problem: No animals, no milk. We’re vegetarian.

Shabbos is a restful period; I daven and I learn.

For Pesach, there’s very little we need to import. We grow our own vegetables — potatoes, squash, carrots, beets, onions, garlic, cabbage, very delicious, very nutritious. At this time of year, it’s in storage; we have root cellars. We don’t open a refrigerator.

Shmura matzah I purchase at a bakery in Monsey. And wine. Vinegar, horseradish. And some dairy products — maybe desserts, chocolates.

For seder guests, I usually put an ad in the paper: “Wanted, Jews to attend our seder.” We usually get a response. Besides my wife and I, it can be four other people, of different ages. I say the whole seder in lashon hakodesh [Hebrew]. We usually finish by midnight.

We leave two propane lights on.

This is a warm house; it’s very comfortable.

Farming is a great chance to come close to Hashem.

Next week we’ll be planting lettuce spinach, peas, onions, leeks, carrots, beets. We’ll be sorting cabbage in the greenhouse.

The writer, a native of Philadelphia, lives with his wife Dinah Bracha on 20-acre Crossroad Farm in Jonesport, Maine.

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