Happy Paskha, Pesach, Peisach, Passover!

Happy Paskha, Pesach, Peisach, Passover!

Paskha, Pesach, Peisach, Passover —

The first three words are the Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish for Passover.

Gefreshte Matzos time is coming! (Gefreshte means “fried in eggs” in Yiddish.)

In the Soviet Ukraine of my time, the 1960’s and 70’s, nobody who or whose children had what to lose—job, school, Communist Party membership, or, in extreme periods, freedom and life—would dare to be seen entering the synagogue.

Technically it wasn’t banned. Moreover, freedom of religion was a constitutionally protected right. In fact, our passports said we were Jewish. And here is the crux of the matter—Jewish was a nationality, as Russian or Uzbek or, had it been in their passports, French. No connection to religion. So, what would one do in a synagogue? Anyway, it was far better, and certainly far safer to stay away.

To be fair, the same applied to Easter, known as Russian Paskha, and the St. Vladimir Cathedral. Some “old fogies,” rumor had it, had not yet shaken the tentacles of religion off their feet. They snuck their Paskha bread into the church to consecrate it, whatever that meant.

I did not personally know souls brave enough to defy the rules, let alone be accepting of religion. Overflowing houses of worship in the fading Soviet Union, only a decade after we emigrated, were a mind boggling sight. An overnight mass epiphany?

Paskha bread is a loose cultural equivalent of matzos, in terms of its religious significance. In Russia it’s a round cake called kulich, in Ukraine it’s paska, a cake in the shape of an uncompleted pyramid. Pay attention: one-letter makes the difference between the word for the holiday or the bread – you could say ‘happy Paskha’ but not ‘happy paska’.

Anyway, neither paska nor matzos were sold in Soviet stores. Imagine our shock upon arriving to the U.S. at supermarket aisles dedicated to kosher food—available all year! The restive worm of fear of being watched had not fallen asleep right away but, awestruck, we walked down these aisles like we would in a museum. And other items, even salt, could be kosher! And not only Jews bought them!

Back in Kiev, some of my gentile friends’ elders did bake paska, not hiding the deed but not advertising it, either. Matzos, though, was kept hidden from outsiders. In the spring, a former landsman delivered a supply to my bábushka. The stack sat on a special plate, covered with a white waffle-cloth towel pre-boiled and ironed. If there were any matzos left at the end of the week, bábushka made gefreshte matzos, just for me.

As the Soviet Union liberalized to such a degree that it allowed the synagogue to produce matzos every season my father started ordering matzos – plenty to savor the gefreshte kind each Peisach day. He was approaching retirement and therefore somewhat less apprehensive. There is no way to fit the description of that annual project into a post but you can read about it in Babinsky, Gnoyensky (1904 – 2004). 9: Khrushchev’s Thaw; Sputniks; Shortages.

Happy Peisach!

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