Life & Culture

Seders to remember: Why were these nights different from all others?

Seder night is always distinct from the rest of the year. But some, as our writers recall, are especially memorable


Our flight from Kyiv

We live in the centre of Kyiv, the centre of Europe, and my husband is the Chief Rabbi of Kyiv.

On February 24, 2022, we woke up to the sound of bombing outside our window. It was unbelievable.

We then realised the huge difference between Israelis and non-Israelis: Israelis, like us, are used to sounds of air sirens and bombings and the drill of going to a safe place. Non-Israelis are not used to it.

There are no bomb shelters in Kyiv and the alarm was so weak that we couldn’t hear it. In Israel, the alarm turns your soul. It could wake up the dead. Here, people were panicked. It was total chaos.

We opened the three buildings that belong to our community in Kyiv. Each of them has a basement. We had food and mattresses and about 150 Jews and non-Jews came and stayed there, some of them for two months.

Five days after the war started, someone senior came to my husband and said that the Russians were bringing in Chechen warriors, who were known to be antisemitic and very cruel.

He said that while he knew my husband wanted to protect the Jewish community, by staying in Kyiv, my husband would be putting a target on the community’s back, so he should leave immediately.

We were evacuated through Romania, where my husband met with local diplomats to establish a humanitarian corridor for products to be brought in. We then drove to Hungary to establish another humanitarian corridor. Only then, did we go to Israel.

Even though we had evacuated, we took care 24/7 of our community in Kyiv and of those who had fled to other countries.

We wanted to be in Kyiv and help the Jewish community get through Pesach, but as the festival
was approaching, my husband was advised not to go back to Ukraine.

The only ones who were still in the Kyiv community were the elderly Holocaust survivors and men of army age (18 to 60) and their families. Organising Pesach there was extremely difficult, but we found someone to do the Seder for them and get some kosher le Pesach products.

At the same time, we organised a big Seder in Tel Aviv for those who had made aliyah to Israel from Ukraine. Rabbi Eli Naiditch, a Chabad rabbi in Tel Aviv, found a donor, a location and supplied the kosher food and wine. It was so heartwarming. We were grateful to Jewish people all over the world for the tremendous ahavat Yisrael (love for a fellow Jew).

We were hugging every person we met like a survivor from a sinking ship. We cried a lot, out of gratitude for having survived, out of sorrow for what had happened to our beautiful city, for the people who were losing their lives and for the unknown. How would we live now? By what means? In which country?

At the Seder, we felt in a way like we were coming out of Egypt — because of the process of evacuation, of experiencing the war, of running for our lives. We understood the Jews of 2,000 years ago, coming from Egypt with just the clothes they were wearing.

We sat in one big circle — all 70 of us — and each one told the horrifying story of his or her escape.

One of our community saw a Russian paratrooper land in front of him. The paratrooper pointed a gun at him and this man said Shema Yisrael and prepared to die. The commander of the Russian paratroopers just looked at them and told them to turn the car and go. This is how they were saved.

The year before, we’d had a beautiful Seder at the JCC in Kyiv for 400 people, clad in their best clothes, sitting at beautiful tables. A year later, we were refugees, telling each other stories of our evacuation and escape, living on a couch at friends or family, some of us having lost our source of income.
We were making jokes that last Seder in Kyiv, we all had wished for: “L’shana haba’ah b’Yerushalayim” but our words were taken out of context! I mean, we had meant Yerushalayim of course, but not like this.

Rabbanit Elka Inna Markovitch was talking to Gaby Wine

A new life in Amsterdam

On March 4, 1999 we packed up our house and moved from London to Amsterdam. Just three weeks later it was Pesach. What were we thinking?

Well, not a lot, to be honest. We’d had a year of traumas. Our son was stillborn, and then my husband was made redundant.

The hunt for a new job wasn’t easy, and the only one that came up was in Amsterdam. He started work in October, flying back and forth at weekends. I was home with a toddler, preparing for a stone-setting and an international house move.

We were both cracking up. I fell out with several friends who’d told me that a new start was just what I needed.

Pesach was a mere detail to add to the stress.

As we settled into our new home, we unpacked the Pesach plates and cutlery alongside the normal ones.

These were the days before sat-navs, but I found my way to Amsterdam’s only kosher shop (shaking with nerves every time I had to make a turning that crossed tram tracks and cycle paths). Once there I gazed in dismay at the meagre choice of goods on display. Years later I discovered that Amsterdam’s Jewish housewives took a coach to Antwerp to buy their Pesach groceries.

For Seder night the family rallied round. My parents and mother-in law came over. We sat among the packing cases. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” It felt like a miracle that we’d made it.

My daughter, not yet two years old, discovered the fun to be had with the song Dayenu. Every chorus was bellowed out, as fast as possible as she raced to say the words before us. And each verse, the list of times the Jewish people got some help from above, made me feel a little bit stronger, more able to cope with the challenge of a new home, a new country, a new life. A few days later I discovered I was pregnant again.

I’d thought I’d never have a seder as traumatic as that one. But then came the pandemic, two seders when the family could not be together. And then Mum died in March last year.

At least, I thought, we could at last be with my dad and brother for Pesach. But no, they both came down with Covid just before Pesach. My brother went to stay at Dad's, and I piled a basket high with Pesach food, and made them a makeshift Seder plate. Then, masked up, I delivered it all in a Little Red Riding Hood-style basket. Did they eat any of it? They were too kind — and ill — to tell me.

Himalayan simplicity

My father-in-law is one of ten and my mother-in-law is one of seven, so my former husband has around 45 first cousins: Seders with even a portion of his father’s family involves Tetris-like chair and table arrangements, loud beautiful singing and very late walks home with babies asleep in buggies.

The most incredible Seder, though, was the one in the Himalayas. Our large group sat on the wide, wooden balcony of a house nestled between huge peaks, with thick forests descending to a gushing river in the valley below.

It made us seem tiny but somehow, not insignificant. Being there was like going back in time: we could more easily see how Passover was experienced in days gone by with sacks of rice near sacks of grain, the task of making our own wine back in September, and the more recent one of producing our own 18-minute matzah in the garden.

We had a vegetarian meal and no bone on the table; were realistic about cleaning, and be resourceful with no chocolate spreads, jams or bought macaroons.

Everything was simplified, and that in itself was beautiful. Sitting in a circle on the floor, singing, on a balcony under a wooden roof with the peaks and the stars visible through the open sides is so different to being in a house around a table. Not great for those who might find sitting on the floor tricky, but magical nonetheless.

A sleeping rabbi

Despite the lateness of the hour, there was little evidence to suggest the finishing line for the seder was anywhere in sight.

I was only eight years old. And although dinner had been cleared away and Haggadahs reopened in anticipation of resuming proceedings, the evening had reached something of an impasse.

For it seemed our honoured host had sunk into a deep, sonorous sleep.
Given the fact that we were his guests and this was an extremely well-respected rabbi, it seemed insolent to disturb him.

In fact halachah compelled us not to do so (check out gezel sheina —sourced from the Tenach and which refers to waking another person against their wishes).

I’d never experienced a gridlocked seder before since we had always been at home. However on this particular Pesach, my late mum accepted an invitation from a lovely rebbetzin she knew through work and of whom she was extremely fond.

As it happened my older brother was away on his gap year and I think Mum particularly felt his absence over yom tov.

That coupled with a chance to spend time with this warm and welcoming family clearly guided her decision for us to seder at their home.

Memories of that night exist in staccato form. I recall lots of guests, huge bowls of chicken soup as well as being asked to pass matzah under the table — though I’m not sure why.

Since the table was wide and I was just a scrawny kid, I do remember negotiating assembled feet to reach out my piece.

But the recollection of waiting for what seemed like ages to finish Seder thanks to our slumbering host endures as the stand-out memory. As does the pivotal moment the rebbetzin, like all strong women, finally decided to take matters into her own hand.

Smacking the palm of her hand on the table she let out an exaggerated sigh and loudly exclaimed how she wished Moshe (not his real name) would wake up.

At which point from somewhere beneath her husband’s curling beard, came a slow growl of recognition. Eyes blinked open. The rabbi offered a dazzling smile to his guests. Then he effortlessly resumed the seder.

The clock nudged 3am before we finally finished . I still remember walking home through the cool hours of a gauzy pre-dawn north Manchester night, longing for my bed. And wondering if this slightly unusual evening had indeed been a dream.

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