I was a very hated kid. Remember, it was the years of Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire speech, all those movies: Red Dawn, Red Gerbil, Red Hamster… and I felt like I was the Big Red Kid. My parents had expected that after the anti-semitism of Russia that kids were going to love me because I was Jewish, but that’s not how it worked out at all. I was Russian in their eyes; I had a big fur coat and big fur hat and I was clearly the enemy.
So I decided to write a satire of the Torah. We were all being force fed the Torah and the Talmud and the kids had to chant and memorize this stuff that didn’t mean really anything to many of us. So I wrote my own version of the Torah which was called the Gnorah; Exodus became Sexodus, you know, all that kind of stuff. It was a very raunchy, horny kind of book that only an 11- or 12-year-old could write. And it became… I wasn’t popular exactly, but my first friends were made because of that. Other kids felt that there was a kind of, ‘Oh, this guy has something to show us.’
Gary Shteyngart, on arriving in Queens and enrolling in Hebrew school [x]
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by Kadya Molodowsky
The shofar blower keens a melody,
An old melody to God.
A sky without stars,
Primordial darkness lost in darkness,
The shofar blower keens a melody:
Teki’ah, Teru’ah, Shebarim.
The blackness—a wind, a wall,
There is no congregation,
No quorum at all.
The shofar blower keens a melody,
An old melody:
Near him, an extinguished thorn,
As he stares into even blacker darkness,
The shofar blower keens a melody,
An old melody,
The thorn shall begin to burn,
A flame shall inscribe on a wall.
Above him, a sky without stars,
And primordial darkness,
And deadly venom.
But this does not interrupt,
Does not silence the horn:
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The Cheburashka Project
The purpose of this project is to examine a generation of Russian Jewish immigrants who came to the U.S. as children in the late ’80s and early ’90s. This generation uniquely absorbed several worlds of influence during its formative years- the impact of a Soviet Russian background, the experience of immigration, an immersion into American culture, and a shift in what it means to be a Jew. As this group becomes the first generation of Russian Jewish adults raised in America, they will both set the tone for their communities and represent them in the larger American cultural landscape.
The goal is to create a portrait of this generation through two methods:
- survey a subsection of the U.S. Russian Jewish population who came to the U.S. as children (participate in the survey!)
- feature individuals representing diverse experiences and perspectives in a short documentary film
"Sometimes children were forced to perform antireligious actions in school that were organized in the form of a game. Many respondents reported that the idea of Passover was connected with various unconventional activities. Samuil G., who took part in these events in a shtetl in the Ukraine, remembers:
[W]e had many interesting activities taking place in [Yiddish] school. First, older children, the komyugistn [Komsomol members] would come to conduct some activities for us. They explained how religion oppressed the masses in other countries. We played many interesting games together. For example, on the first day of Passover, they would gather us together and give each of us ten pieces of bread. We were given the task of going to Jewish houses and throwing a piece into the window of ten different houses. The one who was the fastest would receive a prize. We enjoyed the game very much, especially when the old, angry women came out of their houses and ran after us screaming ‘Apikorsim!’ [‘Heretics!’]. We felt like heroes of the revolution and were very proud. But in the evening we would all go home and celebrate the traditional seder with all the necessary rituals.”
— Anna Shternshis, Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (2006), p. 41.
More on Red Passover
Despite the antireligious content of the Red seders, they were distinctly Jewish events, organized for Jews, by Jews, and, equally important, they were conducted in Yiddish. Even the building in which the event took place was frequently a former synagogue. Most Jews did not perceive these activities as anti-Jewish. They saw them as Soviet Jewish events, created for their entertainment, and also as traditional holidays. Even after the most successful Red seders, which were attended by large audiences, the majority would go home and celebrate traditional Passover seders. Furthermore, those who conducted the Red seder often hurried to conclude the event since their families were waiting for them at home to celebrate the traditional seder.
Anna Shternshis, Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (2006), p. 39.
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Mi asapru, mi adabru,
Hey, hey, lomche dreydl,
Ver ken visn, ver ken tseyln
Vos dos eynts batayt, vos dos eynts batayt
Eyner iz Karl Marx, un Marx iz eyner,
Un mer nit keyner.
Vos dos tsvey batayt, vos dos tsvey batayt
Tsvey iz Lenin-Trotsky
Un eyner iz der Karl Marx,
Un Marx iz eyner, un mer nit keyner.
Vos dos dray batayt, vos dos dray batayt
Dray iz internatsional, tsvey iz Lenin Trotsky,
Eynts iz Karl Marx, un Marx iz keyner, un mer nit keyner.
Who will tell me, who will say
Hey, hey, turn the dreidel
Who can know, who can count
What does one mean, what does one mean?
One is Karl Marx, Marx is one
There is no one else.
What does two mean, what does two mean?
Two is Lenin-Trotsky
One is Karl Marx,
Marx is one, and there is no one else.
What does three mean, what does three mean?
Three means Internationals, two means Lenin-Trotsky,
One is Karl Marx, and there is not one more.
Efim G. remembers a song of the Red Seder conducted in his shtetl of Parichi. Oral testimony in Anna Shternshis’ Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (2006), p. 37-8.
"This song is a parody of a traditional Passover song. The original words say ‘One is God, two are two scrolls of Torah, given to the Jews on the mount of Zion, and three are the number of the Jewish fathers [Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob].’ Efim G. actually thought that this was a Soviet Jewish song. He did not know that this was an adaption of a much older Jewish song until he came to the United States in 1989, where he was invited to a traditional Passover dinner."
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Haggadah shel pesakh (Story of Passover), cover from the second edition. Drawing by Alexander Tyshler. Moscow, 1927.
In 1921 the Central Bureau of the Bolshevik Party’s Evsektsii sent instructions to all local branches to organize “Red Passovers.” Popular brochures that came to be known as “Red Haggadahs” were published, specifying how to conduct the alternative celebrations. Many were written by local activists following a series of centrally directed patterns. One of these was the Komsomolishe Haggadah (Komsomol Haggadah), published in Moscow in 1923 by Moyshe Altshuler. Traditionally the start of Passover (an eight-day holiday during which consumption of bread or leavened products and yeast is forbidden) is marked with the Bdikas khometz—a search for all remaining traces of leavened food, followed by its burning. In Altshuler’s Komsomolishe Haggadah, this ceremony was transformed as follows:
Ten years ago the working class of Russia with the help of peasants searched for khometz (leaven) in our land. They cleaned away all the traces of landowners and bourgeois bosses in the country and took power in their own hands. They took the land from the landowners, plants and factories from the capitalists; they fought the enemies of the workers on all fronts. In the fire of the great socialist revolution, the workers and peasants burned Kochak, Yudenich, Vrangel, Denikin, Pilsudskii, Petlyura, Chernov, Khots, Dan, Martov, and Abramovich. They recited the blessing: “All landowners, bourgeois and their helpers—Mensheviks, Esers, Kadets, Bundists, Zionists, Esesovtses, Eesovtses, Poaley Zionists, Tsaarey-tsienikes, and all other counterrevolutionaries should be burned in the flame of revolution. Those who are burned should not ever survive, and the rest should be given to us and we shall transfer them to the hands of the GPU.
The Komsomol Haggadah combines all enemies of the Soviet regime as khometz, and recommends burning them. Equating antagonists who were notoriously anti-Jewish, such as the commander of the White Army Alexei Denikin, to Jewish Soviet opponents, such as Bundists or Zionists, was a popular method of Soviet propaganda.
Every seder ritual was transformed in the Soviet Haggadah. The traditional hand-washing and blessing before the meal became a political statement:
Wash off all the bourgeois mud, wash off the mold of generations, and do not say a blessing, say a curse. Devastation must come upon all the old rabbinical laws and customs, yeshivas and khaydorim, that becloud and enslave the people.
Some Soviet Haggadah texts … simply replace “God” with the “October Revolution”:
We were slaves of capital until October came and led us out of the land of exploitation with a strong hand, and if it were not for October, we and our children would still be slaves.
The Komsomol Haggadah argues that Passover is not a celebration of real freedom but rather of spiritual slavery, because the holiday comes only from heaven. In contrast, genuine freedom is in the hands of the proletariat, and therefore one must celebrate May Day.
Instead of the story of how the sea was divided, we speak about the brave heroes of the Red Army near Perekop. Instead of the groaning of the Jews in Egypt and God’s miracles, we speak about the real sufferings of the proletariat and peasants in their resistance against their exploiters and their heroic struggle.
In 1927 Altshuler’s Haggadah was reprinted with minor changes. The second edition featured a new illustrator—Alexander Tyshler (1898-1980), who worked for the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre. Although it still mocked traditional Judaism, the pictures were milder and included more positive images of Jewish workers and soldiers. Instead of ridiculing religious traditions alone, the second edition incorporated other “hostile” elements, such as Zionists, bourgeois Jews, and even Soviet bureaucrats. Judaism was now seen not just as a religion but rather as a banner under which all Soviet enemies were united. In other words, from an anti-Judaic piece of propaganda, the Red Haggadah eventually became anti-Jewish in general.
 The phrase “ten years ago” refers to the October Revolution of 1917 and is taken from the second edition, which was published in 1927.
 The first edition Di komsomolishe adds that all other shlim-mazls (losers) and parasites should be burned in the flame of revolution.
 GPU is the acronym for Gosudarstvennoe politicheskoe upravlenie, or State Political Administration (secret police). The entire sentence refers to a customary saying that is pronounced when one burns khometz before Passover: “Any khometz, or leaven, that is in my possession that I have not seen, have not removed, and do not know about should be annulled and become ownerless, like dust of the earth.” The particular expression rephrases the saying by identifying khometz with the representatives of ideologically hostile political parties.
— Anna Shternshis, Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (2006), p. 27-34.