On a spring afternoon about 35 years ago, young Ilya Blokh accompanied his older brother and the siblings’ father by streetcar in Moscow to their grandmother’s walk-up, second-floor apartment several kilometers away.
Ilya’s babushka, Faiga (Fanya was her Russian name), had stacked some square, “clandestinely” produced, machine-made sh’murah matzahs, which she had bought at the capital’s Choral Synagogue, on the living room table. For a few hours, she played some Yiddish music on her record player. First, Ilya’s aunt closed the windows’ curtains against prying eyes, and the adults talked about slavery in ancient Egypt and its similarity to the anti-Semitic communist era of Joseph Stalin.
That was Ilya’s first Seder.
It was, he says, the first Jewish event he ever attended.
Though the gathering in Faiga’s home did not take place on one of the first two nights of Passover, and featured no Haggadah, no Four Questions, no Four Cups of Wine or other Pesach rituals, her goal was to recognize an important Jewish holiday and to teach her mishpachah a little about the Jewish tradition in which she had been raised, Blokh says. “She wanted us to feel connected as Jews. She tried to keep the tradition alive.”
What he and his relatives experienced that afternoon probably reflected the limited Jewish exposure to Judaism of “98 percent” of Jews who came of age in the USSR during the atheistic days of the Soviet Union, says Ilya, who was about six then; he came to the United States with his family a few years later, became interested in Orthodox Judaism a few years after that, went to Chabad schools and summer camps, and now works, as Rabbi Eli (short for Eliyahu) Blokh, as executive director of the Chabad of Rego Park. That Queens neighborhood, and adjacent Forest Hills, are home to tens of thousands of Jews with roots in Uzbekistan and other parts of the former Soviet Union.
Most come from Jewish backgrounds similar to Rabbi Blokh’s. It’s a neighborhood full of parents and grandparents who grew up in a Jewish desert, and took advantage of the religious freedom in the US to offer their children the religious education denied to them and have turned their new home into a flourishing Jewish area; people like Rabbi Blokh have made Rego Park-Forest Hills bloom.
I live in that ethnically diverse neighborhood, daven with these émigré Jews, eat in their restaurants, and regularly hear their stories about life in the homeland they left behind.
Rabbi Blokh credits his grandmother, who came to the US during the late 20th Century wave of Jewish immigration, bringing her beloved Yiddish records along, with sparking his interest in Yiddishkeit.
Faiga would share “warm” stories of her childhood life growing up decades earlier in an Orthodox home.
During the height of communism’s persecution of religious practice (of any religion), her family had found it impractical (and dangerous) to participate openly in any Jewish activity. Seder meals and holiday worship services were known to be a popular time for raids of apartments and synagogues.
Hence the closed curtains at Faiga’s “Seder.” You didn’t know who might be watching, who might contact the KGB.
But the risk did not dissuade Ilya’s grandmother from hosting her Passover afternoon of music and matzah – which concluded with no visits of uninvited government agents.
And those few hours made an impression on young Ilya. On the streetcar ride home, his father never offered an explanation of what his sons had seen or heard, or on the Pesach “celebration” significance. No one mentioned that it had taken place during Passover, or that it was the closest thing to a Seder that was possible for most Soviet Jews then.
But, Rabbi Blokh told me, his grandmother, who died 25 years ago, understood that some sort of Passover observance was important; he understood that as part of the Jewish minority in communist Russia, he was different from other Russians. He understood that a Seder presented a message of Jewish triumph over persecution.
At the Jewish day school he attended in New York City, he later learned the details about the history and message of the Festival of Freedom.
The first “real” Seder he attended was at his family’s new home in Brooklyn. Educated at the Brooklyn day school, he, as the most knowledgeable Jew in the family, led their Seder from the time he was ten. “I was the in-house ‘rabbi.’ Subsequently, in Queens, as a Chabad shaliach and community activist, he and his wife Shulamis have hosted a communal Seder every year for their area’s Russian-speaking community. Every year, that is, until 2020, when the social distancing requirements of the COVID-19 pandemic made a mass gathering unwise; with the disease raging a few months ago, he did not know what type of communal Seder would be possible this year.
Rabbi Blokh says Faiga’s “Seder” is in the back of his mind this time of year each year. His ten children and émigré friends have heard the story.
He doesn’t want to exaggerate the role that that afternoon played in his latter decision to enter the rabbinate. But, he says, “it planted a seed. It was a starting point. It piqued my interest in Jewishness.”
Steve Lipman, a resident of Forest Hills, was a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week from 1983 to 2020.