In faraway places, seders offer familiar yet also very different traditions.
By Shari S. Cohen
As families and friends gather for Passover, they look forward to seders with familiar customs, food and participants. But sometimes circumstances take us far from home, and we share a seder with strangers that creates long-lasting memories.
In the Land of Kalashnikovs
Rabbi Shneur Silberberg, outreach director of the Sara and Morris Tugman Bais Chabad Torah Center in West Bloomfield, was a 19-year-old yeshivah student in New York City when he was chosen to organize a seder in Russia. He was one of 100 students assigned by the Chabad Federation to travel in pairs to Jewish communities that had no rabbi.
“We were sent to Izhevsk in the Udmurt Republic, where Kalashnikov rifles are made,” Silberberg recalls. “We went a week in advance to prepare the meal. We had to kasher a kitchen and rented a bar for the seders. We brought grape juice and other supplies and bought local fish for the meal. We had a young translator as we didn’t speak Russian.”
The first night drew 100 people, most of whom were inexperienced with seders. “We had to pick out a few things for an abbreviated seder. They quickly ate the matzah on the table, and we had the sense that we were feeding them. The one song that they knew was ‘Hevenu Shalom Aleichem’ — not a Passover song — but we sang it together.”
Silberberg had traveled widely by then but remembers this Pesach as “the one time I recall missing home. We were in the middle of nowhere and we couldn’t communicate.”
Closer to home, this year Silberberg hopes to visit Jewish prisoners in two local jails, bringing them Passover foods if allowed by correctional officials.
A War-Time Seder in Cairo
Murray Green, a young podiatrist from Detroit, served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps during World War II. Around Passover one year, he was stationed in Cairo. As there was no combat in the area, his work duties were light and one day he roamed the dusty, narrow streets of Cairo. “I saw a Jewish star above a doorway, and a man inside the building invited me in,” he said.
Communication was limited as neither spoke much of the other’s language. However, the Egyptian man was able to invite Green to a seder at the synagogue that night. After returning to his base, Green recalled, “I took a pillow case and put all of the Passover food and other items that had been sent by American Jewish agencies to Jewish soldiers. They (the Cairo congregation) were amazed at the American matzah — how white and clean it was, compared to theirs. They were as poor as church mice.”
The memories were still strong when he told the story to family members in the late 1960s. (Green passed away in 1997.)
European Seders with Army Brass
Naomi Levine’s father, the late Rabbi Alan Blustein, was an army chaplain, and the family moved every three years as he was transferred to new posts. She was born in France and remembers seders during the late 1960s and early 1970s in Nuremberg and Stuttgart. “It was challenging being an observant Jew, especially for Passover,” she said.
The family relied mainly on limited Passover foods from the Army base store and kosher butchers in Munich and Strasbourg. “We could get chicken, salami, matzah and gefilte fish. There wasn’t any kosher ketchup or potato chips,” said Levine of Farmington.
“Usually the first seder was a communal seder with the Jewish soldiers in the area. The very top brass would come to these seders,” said her mother, Judy Blustein, who now lives in Florida. Sometimes the seders were held in the Officers Club, which had to be kashered.
The second seder was mainly family members and friends. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, she remembers including Holocaust survivors at the table. “The rotating chaplains would tell us, ‘Take care of this family.’”
Once a large group of North African Jews who had recently immigrated to France came to the Blusteins’ seder when they lived in Orleans, France. However, their Sephardic Passover customs were quite different. Blustein says that they ate beans, rice and other foods that are prohibited for Ashkenazi Jews during Passover.
When another army rabbi was responsible for the communal seder one year, the Blusteins spent Passover in Lugano, Switzerland, at a kosher hotel with Jews from all over Europe. “On Yontif, they would parade in their finery on the boardwalk. Any place we were was very different,” Blustein remembers.