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To Russia, with Love and Books

In July of last year I boarded a plane headed for Moscow with two hagadot in my suitcase: my grandmother’s, dog-eared and stained, which she’d carried to America along with her brass candle-sticks, and an interactive hagada designed for preschoolers. I was also bringing more than 600 Jewish children’s books (with translations into Russian hand-pasted between the pages) and plans for a three-day education workshop. My 50th birthday was the catalyst for this trip that reversed the steps of my grandparent’s journey of 100 years before. I’d organized a conference with the Egalitarian Minyan of Rogers Park, Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry and the Joint Distribution Committee for Jewish teachers in Moscow. The 44 attendees (all but two of them women), from 40 communities, traveled by train to the Pushkine Conference Center from as far away as the Ural Mountains.

One teacher, Olga, recounted her memory of being torn out of her religious grandmother’s arms because her parents were afraid of repercussions if they showed their Jewishness. But Olga never forgot her heritage. She enrolled her son in a Jewish nursery school, and quit her job as a metallurgist to work at the school so she could learn along with him. “I have no Jewish memories,” she told us. Her story felt oddly familiar. My mother gave up some of her religious practices to become more American, and I, like Olga, was returning to the Judaism of my roots.

We studied Exodus 3:2 together and discussed why God chose the burning bush as a sign for Moses. Svetlana suggested that the Egyptians, and Moses in particular, were so far from God that they needed magic to get their attention. Katya disagreed, suggesting that the burning bush was protecting Moses from the heat of God’s face. Russian Jews today live a similar dichotomy. On the one hand, they need magic to attract Jews who have no sense of communal history, and on the other they want to examine the texts from a purely intellectual approach.

In my bibliodrama workshop, Elina created a midrash about a bracelet in Egypt which was later melted down to build the golden calf She interpreted her midrash as an allegory for the Russian Jewish experience; the bracelet was Jewish culture destroyed during the Communist era. Inspired by a workshop on creating Jewish ritual, we honored Larissa, a bride of two months, with an interpretive version of the Sheva Brachot, the seven wedding blessings: “May you have many children and may you be privileged to travel with them to Jerusalem to see the land of your inheritance.”

Food presented an opportunity to put our theory into practice. On the last day of the conference we baked challah together from a recipe handed down from my grandmother. The challot baked while we shared our final meal, and then the participants took them home to enjoy in their own communities that Friday night.

This journey had brought me full circle. Once upon a time my mother’s zayde was the patriarch leading the family seder with the dog-eared hagada he had brought with him all the way from Kishinev. Now I was the educating matriarch teaching Russian Jews new ways to celebrate the holiday.