/The Soviet Campaign to Eliminate Passover

The Soviet Campaign to Eliminate Passover

The Soviet Campaign to Eliminate Passover
“Red Haggadahs” were published in the 1920s with the explicit goal of replacing
belief in God with faith in Communist Russia.
One of the most unusual episodes in the long history of anti-Semitic persecution is the Soviet
anti-Jewish campaign of the 1920s. Utilizing formerly Jewish converts to the new secular
messianism known as Communism, under the leadership of a former Rabbi, Shimon
Dimanshteyn, the Soviets embarked on a bizarre yet creative program of anti-Jewish
Some of this was expressed in traditional media, such as the Jewish version of the Russianlanguage magazine Bezbozhnik (literally, “The Godless”), published in Yiddish under the
appropriately Talmudic title Der Apikoyres (“The Heretic”). Communist youth were enlisted to
organize lavishly catered Yom Kippur dances and stage anti-Jewish plays. Recognizing the
powerful hold that religion had on Soviet Jews, the Jewish Section of the Communist Party
(Yevsektsiia) also attempted to co-opt the population by capturing and transforming Jewish
traditions and texts, including the Passover Haggadah. Called “Red Haggadahs,” several were
published in the 1920s with the explicit goal of replacing belief in God with faith in the Soviet
Union, and they have been the subject of recently published studies by Dr. Anna Shternsis of
the University of Toronto.
The traditional text, read at Seder tables for
generation after generation, reads “We were slaves
to Pharaoh in Egypt, but Hashem our God took us
out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. If
the Holy One, Blessed be He, did not take our
ancestors out of Egypt, then we, our children, and
our children’s children would remain slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.”
The officially atheistic Soviet Union could not tolerate such a passage, so the text of a Red
Haggadah read instead: “We were slaves to capitalism until October (Soviet shorthand for the
Communist Revolution of 1917) led us out of the land of exploitation with a strong hand.
Were it not for October, we and our children would still be slaves.” Instead of God’s
destruction of Egyptian army, the Soviet Haggadah describes success of the Red Army;
instead of washing hands for ritual purity, the Communist text eliminates “rabbinical laws and
customs, Yeshivot and schools that becloud and enslave the people.”
The Communist Youth movement
organized distribution of
forbidden hametz on the rst day
of Passover. sefer tora
At the Seder’s conclusion, Jews famously proclaim “This year we are here – next year in
Jerusalem!” Following the Red Haggadah, participants at the Seder are urged to pronounce,
“This year, we have revolution in this land – next year we will have a world revolution!”
By 1930, the notoriously antisemitic Soviet leader Joseph Stalin lost patience with the quixotic
and typically unsuccessful propaganda efforts of the Yevsektsiia. Under his influence, the
attacks on Jews and Judaism grew far more vicious and deadly, and celebrating even
Sovietized Passover Seders became dangerous, entering a phase of persecution that is
unfortunately familiar to students of Jewish history.
The Red Haggadahs of the 1920s, however, testify
to an unusual period when overt government
discrimination was milder. In her research Dr.
Shternsis transcribed the childhood memories of
Samuil Gil, who recalled how the Komsomol
(Communist Youth) movement organized
distribution of forbidden hametz on the first day of
Passover: “We were given the task of going to Jewish homes and throwing a piece [of bread]
into the window of ten different houses. The one who was fastest would receive a prize. We
enjoyed the game very much, especially when the old, angry women ran out of their houses
and ran after us screaming ‘apikorsim![heretics]’ We felt like heroes of the Revolution and
were very proud. In the evening, though, we would all go home and celebrate the traditional
Seder with all the necessary rituals.”
Gil’s experience, specific to the unusual conditions of 1920s Ukraine, is also illustrative of the
eternal pattern of Jewish history: “In every generation, someone rises to destroy us – but the
Holy One rescues us from their hands.” Just as this truism is affirmed, so too may the

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