Jewish World Review April 5, 2001/ 12 Nissan 5761

The 'Night of Protection'

By Hanoch Teller

The Torah guarantees special protection to the Jewish people on the first night of Passover, referred to as Lail Shimurim, the "night of watching" (Exodus 12:42). Destructive forces are not given reign on this night. The following true story took place before the iron curtain fell, when underground Muscovites joined the long tradition of Jews willing to gamble on this protection.

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- TRY AND OBSERVE Passover in Moscow. There aren't any matzos, kosher wine or meat; gathering together to celebrate a seder is all but illegal.

Recently, forty Jews decided to participate in a communal seder, nonetheless. Each participant carefully considered his decision. Was a one-night ceremony worth all of the inherent risks? Detection by the KGB (and who could avoid it?) was tantamount to arrest and incarceration. Parents would be guilty of religious indoctrination of Soviet youth (a felony) and university students would face immediate expulsion and automatic conscription into the army. Was a seder really necessary to impress upon a Soviet Jew the image of Egyptian subjugation?

Forty Moscow Jews did not view this question as hypothetical. Aside from the heroism called for, parents taught their children the ingenuity of Jewish enterprise. A clandestine matzoh bakery was set up and each fragile matzoh was smuggled out in a newspaper. As for the Four Cups of wine drank during the seder ceremony, friends and relatives helped purchase the huge amounts of raisins needed for making the wine.

While this was going on, some of the participants looked over carefully prepared notes about how to conduct a seder. Cassettes of Passover songs circulated with joy and excitement among the friends.

Zev, the seder mastermind, suggested that since they had never attended a seder before they should conduct a rehearsal. Accordingly, Zev and Sasha secretly convened in Moshe's apartment in preparation for that momentous night. Using makeshift props: water substituting for wine, plates for matzos, a pen for the zroa (shank bone), etc., the mock seder commenced.

IT WAS MORE than a week before Passover, but for the three men sitting at the bare seder table, the excitement was already impossible to contain. By the time they completed three-quarters of the Haggadah, they were hoarse from their hushed singing. But they couldn't stop. Each stanza about the slavery and the Exodus was so rich in meaning for them:

"Appoint watchmen to your city all day and all night"...

Bang, Bang, BANG!! It wasn't a knock at the door, but a thunder-clap intended to unsettle and frighten. The pounding was accompanied by the incessant ringing of the buzzer. The intruders weren't petitioning for permission to enter. Before they broke in they wanted to instill as much fear as possible. You never knew exactly what waited on the other side of the door. How many? How anti-Semitic? Had they brought along the hungry dogs who always managed to get loose for a few seconds...? Five men burst through the door and surrounded the three. They started shoving and shouting: "Jewish nationalist propaganda!" "Obstruction of socialist justice!" "Anti-Communist blasphemy!" "Zionist hooliganism!" etc. Each mouth parroted a different offense.

This went on for almost an hour, waking up all of the neighbors in the building. After examining the identity papers of the Jews, they threatened that one more violation of "anti-Soviet propaganda" would mean immediate arrest.

If the purpose of this raid was to frighten, it hardly succeeded. Of course, initially the three were scared and had trouble falling asleep, but they remained undaunted. Come what may, they were going to make a seder.

RIGHT BEFORE Passover, the forty received permission to use someone's dacha (vacation home) at a relatively safer location, fifty kilometers southwest of Moscow. They made their exodus from the city one by one, each person carrying a portion of the precious Passover cargo. The women worked like an experienced team to render the kitchen kosher for Passover, while the men helped out with the rest of the house. This little home had to double as a minature synagogue and as a dormitory.

When evening arrived, the tired but jubilant men gathered in the dining room for the evening prayer . There were so many different types of Jews assembled in that dacha. For some it was their first time praying, for others it was their first formal prayer service. After they finished, they quickly took their seats around the special table. The air of expectation in that room was almost tangible. All eyes were turned toward Zev who started the Kiddush, sacremental prayer over wine.

Afterwards, Moshe's son Chaim'ke asked the Four Questions, "Ma nishtana halaila hazeh mikol halailos?" There wasn't a dry cheek in the room. Ma nishtana halaila hazeh mikol halailos! "Why is this night different from all other nights?!" On this night forty Jews chose to affirm their Judaism which they knew so little about. To stand up to a calculated campaign against such affiliation. On all other nights they can only dream about being a Jew and "leshana haba'a be'Yerushalayim" (next year in Jerusalem). But tonight, tonight was so different! "We were once slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. 'Maaseh avos siman lebanim -- the actions of fathers presage the events of the children'-- how true it is. Laban (our forefather Jacob's father-in-law) tried to uproot Judaism--and his archetypical descendants are still trying!"

The most attentive participant was dreamy-eyed Simon Eisikovitch. The last time he had attended a seder was fifty years ago, when he was just ten years old. For Simon, the thrill of the seder was mixed with cherished nostalgia--fifty years ago he had asked the four questions. Simon remembered the sequence of the seder and offered instructions to the participants before Zev could read them out.

AS THE SEDER CONTINUED, Zev's face suddenly turned pale. Looking up from the Haggadah he turned to Moshe and asked in a whisper, "Are we expecting anyone else?" Shadows outside the window began moving closer. Moshe, as calmly as he could, arose from the table and drew the shades tighter and double-locked the door. The responsibility resting on Zev's shoulders was awesome. He had not only invited all of the participants but had convinced them to attend. How could he bear the responsibility of causing parents and old people to be sent to Siberia? Zev lamely tried to assuage himself with the thought that it was Lail Shimurim, the Night of Heavenly Protection.

But his conscience kept nagging at him, affording him no relief. The shadows were not disappearing. Simon, unaware of what was transpiring, announced that it was time to open the door for Elijah the Prophet. Zev tried to delay the continuation of the Haggadah, but Simon wouldn't hear of it. "Everyone rise for Elijah," Simon proudly announced. Zev told them that it was cold outside and opening the door wasn't really necessary. "Lately," he assured the group, "the custom of opening the door hasn't been observed..." Simon scoffed at the comment, accused Zev of trying to alter the precious Jewish tradition, and proceeded toward the door. Moshe intercepted him and stared at him for twenty long seconds until Simon finally took his seat.

IT WAS 2:00 IN THE MORNING and Zev was anxious to finish the seder--there was just so much you could rely on this Night of Protection. Everyone wished each other, and promised themselves, the most fervent blessing of the evening: Next Year in Jerusalem!" All of the matzos and Haggadahs were quickly stashed away into various hiding places. Moshe peeked through the shade and found that the shadows had 'passed over.'

Parents of children and university students, potentially the greatest offenders in the eyes of the KGB, were recommended to leave the dacha, and to stay away until the following afternoon. At a quarter to seven in the morning the shadows reappeared, this time with their source in full evidence. Nine of them. They swarmed in like hawks and started searching the premises, not uttering a word. They found nothing, not a clue.

That night, an even more joyous second seder was conducted. Simon finally got to open the door for Elijah for it was veritably a Lail Shimurim.

Rabbi Hanoch Teller is the author of several works on Judaic themes, including Once Upon A Soul, where this story originally appeared. Send your comments by clicking here.


© 2001, Hanoch Teller