My soviet seder from hell

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-25-10

Twenty-five years ago, in April 1985, I had the seder from hell in the world’s largest prison – the Soviet Union. My friend Danny and I landed just before Passover in Novosibersk, emboldened after meeting in Moscow with the legendary Yuli Kusharovsky, a man the KGB secret police targeted for teaching Hebrew. Seeing his and his fellow “refuseniks'” courage, watching them carve out meaningful Jewish lives amid great oppression, made us confident we would complete our mission to make seder with Jewish professors fired because they applied to emigrate to Israel. Alas, we were wrong.

In those bad old days, a new Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, had just emerged. We assumed he was no better than his dictatorial predecessors. Anatoly Sharansky’s name was on everyone’s lips, but we were sure it would be years, if ever, before he would be freed. Kushavorvsky and others seemed particularly worried about their heroic young friend Yuli Edelstein, recently jailed on false charges and ailing in prison. Many feared he would not survive.

From Novosibersk, in the heart of Siberia, we traveled 20 kilometers to Akademgorodok, the academic suburb. We approached an apartment building, laden with matzot and other gifts, ready to swoop down as heroic angels from America and the Jewish people on the professors who awaited us. In Moscow, we had knocked on doors, said “Shalom Aleichem,” then been embraced by strangers who instantly became brothers. But here a menacing man sporting a huge Russian fur hat blocked us. We said we had come to visit a friend. He said, “This building is not for ‘foriginers,'” comically mispronouncing the word with a hard g. We insisted, but he was adamant – and intimidating.

Devastated, we returned to our hotel just before the holiday – with no seder, no seder plate, only the first-time understanding in our American-charmed lives of what it meant to feel unfree. Scrambling, we improvised a seder plate. Finding an egg in the hotel’s breakfast room, we charred it using the cigarette lighters we carried to burn the messages we wrote each other when we wished not to be overheard. The “shank bone” was kosher salami brought from New York, ripped to look rectangular, not circular. Karpas, the green vegetable, was fittingly, dried fruit, because there was no spring in still-snow-covered Novosibersk – nor any sense of renewal. We made charoset from the dried fruit and some nuts – an awful concoction tasting more like mortar than my grandmother’s sweet mush. But we hit a wall with marror, the bitter herbs. Finally, we realized we were so bitter about how the Communists treated our fellow Jews and human beings we needed no more marror at the table.

During this, the smallest, most pathetic, depressing, homesick seder of my life, never before had the words and rituals so resonated. When we said shebechol dor va’dor, that in every generation enemies rise up to try knocking us down, we instinctively raised our voices and looked up, not at the Lord above, but at the KGB microphone we assumed was hidden in the ceiling vent; during the trip we were followed frequently and would be detained once.

The feast of freedom, the human yearning for freedom, took on tremendous meaning for me in the pathetic hotel room at what felt like the end of the earth. Still, I lacked faith. I did not believe the redemption the Haggadah promised would come. The names of Sharansky and other heroes had been etched in the bracelet on my wrist – and in my heart – for so long, I assumed they would stay there forever, just as every academic expert I knew assumed the Soviet Union would last. I never believed that within a few years Sharansky, Edelstein and other Prisoners of Conscience would be freed, the Soviet Union would crumble, a million former Soviet Jews would live in Israel, our national homeland, or that today, I, a kid from Queens, would serve so casually on Jewish community committees with these giants.

From this celebration of freedom in the land of the unfree, I learned that Jewish tradition is renewable. In every generation we experience the ancient rituals differently, even as we connect to each other and our proud past. In 1985, I considered the Soviets the modern Egyptians. Today, I read the four sons as mapping out modern Zionist challenges, with the Wise Ones – from Left, Right and Center asking “what are our principles,” “who are we,” “who will we be”; the Wicked Ones disdainfully disassociating themselves from our collective Zionist project, saying “yucch”; the Simple Ones mystified by the craziness swirling around Israel and Zionism today, simply saying “duh,” and, the vast majority at least, not being able – or not even bothering – to ask.

From this little taste of oppression – which lasted only three weeks and was blunted by the power of the precious American passport tucked safely in my money belt – I learned that history is correctable. I never thought the Soviet Union would fall even as I witnessed the beginning of its end. Similarly, a few years ago, many of us thought Palestinian terror would never end – and were so dumbfounded when it petered out we never even mounted the victory celebration Israel deserved for smashing Yasser Arafat’s terrorist infrastructure.

And from my Siberian Seder I learned that peoplehood is redemptive. We have great power in our solidarity as a people, as a nation. My membership in the collective enterprise called the Jewish people sensitized me to Soviet oppression when many of my professors were still enthralled by Communism and appalled by America. Moreover, by belonging to the Jewish people I had a small role in the great historical movement which resulted in Communism’s collapse.

For too many of us, the seder is a rote ritual, done on automatic pilot to discharge some family and ancestral obligation. May this seder instead be like my Soviet seder in hell was – ironically, a seder of renewal and relevance, part of a great historical correction, a seder of redemption.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book The Reagan Revolution:  A Very Short Introduction was recently published by Oxford University Press.

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