Out of Bondage

An excerpt from This Jewish Life by Debra Darvick

The Story of Joanna Berger and Sholom and Esfira Ilyasov

When Yakov and Bella Ilyasov walked into my English-as-a-second-language class that first morning, barely two weeks after fleeing the former Soviet Union, I had no idea that ultimately their family would teach me far more than I could ever have taught them. They had escaped bare-bones with their daughter and parents—a couple of changes of clothing, a few books, a classical record or two. But no dolls for their 6-year-old daughter, Emily; no photographs or family heirlooms to give elderly Sholom and Esfira a touchstone in this strange new place called Southfield, Michigan, USA. But for the difference in time, their situation was little different than that of my grandparents—Jewish émigrés hoping for a better life—a life free from fear and persecution.

“Let all who are hungry come and eat,” the words of the Haggadah command us each year. With 10 days to go until the first Seder, I realized the opportunity to fulfill this sacred mitzvah was right before me. I was thrilled when Yakov accepted our invitation to come with his family to our Seder.

My husband and I wrote a modified Haggadah in simple English so Bella and Yakov could follow along. My mother would be there to help us translate readings and conversation into Yiddish for Sholom and Esfira. And Bella spoke enough English to translate for her daughter Emily, whose only language was Russian. In writing that special Haggadah, my husband and I knew we had to tell the story of deliverance in a less lengthy fashion; but even in its shortened form, our Haggadah made clear the incredible tale of escape from bondage, of redemption by God, of the chance for a new life.

My husband and I wrote and rewrote, cut and pasted our Haggadah; the words glowed with new relevance. As we copied and stapled, I wondered what customs, if any, the Ilyasovs would recognize. Would the food be to their liking? Would we feel awkward with one another, or would that abiding link that exists between Jews serve to unite us despite all the barriers?

We went through the entire Seder, telling the story of the Israelites’ escape from Egyptian bondage. This was the first time ever that Yakov and Bella had heard of this cataclysmic experience. What connections were they making? And Sholom and Esfira—what bondage had they endured? Edginess seemed to envelop Sholom. All night he kept touching the blue satin kippah covering his wavy white hair, and more than once I caught him looking around behind him with a wariness that stayed with him all evening. And then, after the children had found the afikoman, after we had sung the last song and were unable to manage another crumb of macaroon, Sholom asked in Yiddish if he could speak. His tall presence filled our dining room. Cautiously he looked left and then right and hesitated once again, as if debating the wisdom of proceeding.

“You don’t have to be afraid,” I said to him. And then, touching his kippah once again, Sholom began and spoke for twenty minutes straight, the words flowing from him like water breaking through a crevice in the ice come springtime.

“It was very interesting to know I was going to Seder. The last time I was at Seder I was maybe 5 years old. It was at my grandfather Yankel’s. We could never have one after that. It was 1925. Or maybe ’26? When I was a child in Moscow, we were not allowed to go to synagogue. We were expelled from the komsomol, the youth organization. In Leningrad it was the same. And when I became adult, if I went to synagogue, I lost my job right away.

“For 70 years I acted with one eye open to make sure no one is watching. At my last Seder, when I was 5, 6, I got to look for the afikoman; it was under my grandfather Yankel’s pillow. When we found it, all the children got a small gift. Just like you, we had a cup for Elijah. I opened the door, and when I came back it was empty; I think my grandfather drank it. I think he was knocking the table from underneath to make the wine spill over on my grandmother’s tablecloth. The cloth was very, very white, and the candles glowed so brightly. But then we no longer had Seder.

“So each Passover we would walk by the synagogue. It was locked up and we couldn’t go inside. But every year on Yom Kippur and Passover we would be in the habit of walking by just to see the Magen David on the wall.

“When we came here to America we went to the grocery store, to the A&P, and right on the store wall was a Magen David. And food! Food for Passover right there when you walk in! So freely was the Jewish kosher food on the shelves. That’s when we knew we were safe in America. But still you look behind you. This kippah I have on my head … it is the first time I wear one since the Seder at my Grandpa Yankel’s. When my grandmother died, I wore a hat because I was told Jews covered their heads. So I covered my head. But the only way to cover your head was with a fur hat. A winter hat. In June.

“You see, in Russia we knew we were Jews but we never had any conversations about it, about Jewish history or things like that. We were Jews, but we didn’t know what it meant until we came here. I told my son he needed to marry a Jew; I wanted to bring my son up as a Jew. Being a Jew meant preparing my son to marry a Jewish woman without knowing what Jewish was. So he married a Jewish woman. But still he didn’t know what it meant. Tonight he knows.

“And tonight I have this kippah on my head. I eat herring and matzah ball soup and see the silver cup for Elijah. But we never saw a Seder like this. In America this is freedom; there are no consequences for going to a Seder.”

We were wrung out when Sholom finished and sat down. Tears flowed down our faces. I looked over at my granddaughters. They were still transfixed. It is one thing to reenact symbolically with charoset, bitter herbs and matzah, the Passover liberation. It is quite another to experience it through an émigré’s whispered retelling. I was grateful my granddaughters were able to experience this so early in their young lives. Never will we dip parsley again and not think of Sholom’s exodus, when, with an outstretched hand, God brought him and his family out of the Soviet Union.

It would have been enough had God brought the Ilyasovs out from Russia and not brought them to America. It would have been enough had God brought them to America and not to our Seder table. And it would have been enough had He brought them to our Seder table and not enabled us to hear Sholom Ilyasov’s tale of bondage and liberation. It would have been enough. Dayeinu. Amen.

Front Cover of "This Jewish Life" by Debra DarvickFor more stories like this

This story is a section from my book, This Jewish Life. The book contains more personal stories like this one. Fifty-four voices enable readers to experience a calendar’s worth of Judaism’s strengths — community, healing, transformation of the human spirit, and the influence of the Divine. This Jewish Life is a year in the life of a contemporary Jew told by a variety of individuals.

To sample more stories like this one, you can return to the Jewish Traditions and Customs page, or check out my book now for entire collection.

 

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