Pesach pastimes

A taste of the Seder around the world

By Chandrea Serebro

From Buenos Aires to Madrid and finding the way home

Buenos Aires, known for its glamour and energy, saw its first Jewish community established in the mid-1800s and still today there is a strong Jewish community. Ayana (Natalia) Jazanovich was born and spent her formative years growing up in Buenos Aires. “My parents were children of European parents who left Europe before WW2 and although they grew up knowing they were Jewish and spoke Yiddish, there was no connection with tradition.” Thankfully, however, Ayana’s parents decided to bring up their children as Jews, so the children attended one of the many Jewish schools in Buenos Aires and the family was part of a conservative community. They were largely traditional – “We celebrated the holidays and went to shul on Friday night – but we drove there!” And Pesach was a big deal. Seder nights were a big event – first-night Seder was always spent with family, and the second Seder was shared with friends. “We didn’t keep kosher but we didn’t eat bread on Pesach. My grandma would buy us matzah, and I remember the smell of gefilte fish wafting through her house, particularly at Pesach time. Even though I was born during one of the most horrendous dictatorships Argentina has known, I have very happy memories there and many of them around the Jewish holidays. On Seder night we would read some of the Haggadah in Spanish and sing the songs we had learned at school – we all loved it. I remember every year using a family heirloom matzah cover that was so special to us. My great-great-grandmother from Romania made it in 1888. She gave it to my great-grandma, who passed it on to my grandma ,who then gave it to me. It brings the Pesach of old alive, every time we use it.”

When Ayana was eight, the family left Buenos Aires and moved to Madrid. “Suddenly, we went from a 100% Ashkenazic environment to a Sephardic one, where no one knew what matzah balls or gefilte fish were at all! The Sephardic community was an Orthodox one, although not everyone kept Shabbos. Suddenly, I discovered that one goes to shul on Pesach, and I learned about the burning of chometz at school. I felt my whole world opening. At home, my parents continued practising a more conservative variety of Judaism, and I kept my parents’ traditions until I was 30, when I started becoming very interested in Yiddishkeit and decided to become Orthodox.” Suddenly, Ayana discovered how difficult it was to keep kosher in Madrid. Meat was not always available, it was difficult (but not impossible) to find kosher produce at the supermarket, and yet, somehow, Pesach was still Pesach. “The two or three kosher stores would bring lots of kosher for Passover products – even kneidel for the few Ashkenazi Jews there! Chabad would sell Matzah Shmura and every Pesach my grandmother (who moved to Israel soon after we moved to Spain) would send us a huge parcel full of sweets and cakes, especially for my son.”

“Seder nights at home became a very cherished moment for my son and my friends (I had almost no family left in Spain when I eventually left). We would read the whole Haggadah in Hebrew and explain everything in Spanish to make sure everyone understood how special and different those nights were from all other nights.” Ayana learned how to clean and organise the house before Pesach. “My Chabad friend and the local Rebbetzin were vert kind and taught me how to plan things and not stress.” Ayana and her family even had a Pesach ‘halacha’ that everyone needs to take a long nap before Seder “so we can all fully enjoy the night”.

Eventually, three years ago, like most of her friends and family, Ayana and her son left Spain and moved to Israel, and she had the opportunity to spend her first Pesach in Jerusalem with her ‘adoptive’ Israeli family. “It was my first time as an adult spending Seder night away from my home and I loved it! It made me realise that each family has their traditions, but in essence, we all connect with the same spiritual energy, and we are all one people. No matter where in the world we are, or whether there is gefilte fish on our Pesach table.

A Seder night of snow and surprises

Malky Zejger was born in Israel, and at only six she moved with her family, Chabad Shluchim Rabbi Yonatan Benyamin and Elka Inna Markovitch, to Kyiv, Ukraine, where a Jewish community of 20 000 Jews lives strong. “Very few of them are observant, some of them are ‘kosher style’, but most of the community are not. Moreover, there are a lot of people in Kyiv that don’t even know that they are Jewish; because of shame, because the grandmother passed away and didn’t tell her kids, or because they don’t know what it even means to be Jewish at all.” Kyiv is the capital of Ukraine, filled with tourists, many of them Jewish, of all kinds – people who come on their way to Uman, Chassidim who come to discover or tour their dynasty’s history, businesspeople, people who come for medical tourism, or adoption. Ukraine is a full and lively place of all-sorts. “Because my father is the Rabbi of the city, every holiday was a big deal. And the holidays were always my best part about being a young Shlucha. My siblings and I never fully relaxed at the events. We were always busy. Always checking to see that everyone was being attended to; giving up our chairs to someone else if there were not enough places; we were the Mashgiach (Kashrus overseer) if it was needed; and of course, we entertained the kids.”

Pesach, says Malky, was the hardest holiday of all. The logistics were hectic, and the Markovitch family was always planning meals and everything that goes along with it for some 400 people. They had to think about everything. The kosher food; natlot for washing the hands; finding ways of ensuring people will be entertained during the Haggadah and not leave; ways of how to deal with people who want to be nice and bring you a box of not-kosher-but-nice chocolates. “We were on top of it. We, the kids, knew how to deal with every situation and it actually taught us and prepared us so much for life.” Usually, there were two Seders. One was a public Seder, and the second was for Malky’s family alone, afterwards, when they arrived home after the communal Seder. “I never knew that second part, because I was too tired when we came back home and fell asleep right away with my other siblings.”

But one Pesach was different. “Everything was planned, as usual, only Hashem had different plans for us.” That year, Kyiv saw a massive snowstorm Erev Pesach, with so much snow that everything was closed, including the streets, stores, and services. “It’s Erev Pesach, and guess what has not yet arrived? The Matzah!” The city has all but shut down, there is no one to talk with to try and find a solution. The only concrete option in hand was the worst-case scenario, which was to use the very last box of matzah from the year before to give each person a small piece of matzah to fulfil the mitzvah, like the miracle of the jug of oil (from the Chanukah story).

Meanwhile, the weather deteriorates, and the guest list reduces steadily from 400 to 350 people, then to 250 people, and they brace for even less. It is three hours until Pesach. The Markovitch family is galvanised. They instruct the restaurant workers to pack up all but 100 places and go home, the Rabbi is on the phone all day trying to find a way to locate the matzah (which thankfully had arrived in Kyiv and was delivered to one of four storage facilities), and the Seder steadily approached.

Candle lighting arrives. “It’s the girls from the family, and maybe seven more ladies. We are all trying to smile and be relaxed, and interestingly, we actually are. It is an odd atmosphere, and somehow even fun! A mere 15 minutes before the Seder starts, our long-awaited matzah arrives – by helicopter! We all breathed a sigh of relief, anticipating a small, homely Seder. But suddenly, people, from nowhere, started to come one after the other and we already had no space! We sat two people per chair, and yet, somehow, it was comfortable. Magical, almost. It turned out to be the best, funniest, craziest Seder we ever had! We had over 250 people, and all of us felt that we were sitting just with our close friends and family. We were so united, a family sharing a Seder inside, while outside the storm raged on, but couldn’t deter us.”


At the time of writing, Rabbi and Mrs Markovitch were in the Ukraine prior to the conflict breaking out. At date of going to print, Rabbi and Mrs Markovitch had just landed in Israel to safety. We join the world in praying for the safety of the Ukrainian and Russian people, and a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

When Ashkenaz and Sephard meet

Despite the approximate 15 000 Jews remaining in Istanbul’s peaceful relationship with their Muslim neighbours, extra care and consideration must be taken with any expression of Judaism, no matter how small, due to the high levels of anti-Semitism that persist there. Wearing a kippah or your tzitzit visibly is not possible because it is not safe, and any community installation like the Shuls and the schools can open only with a strong security presence. “After the bombing attacks of 2003 which saw two Jewish installations attacked, this way of life has become the way it is for the Jews in Istanbul,” explains Ethel Nathan, who now lives in Israel with her family. “It is a mostly traditional community, and Pesach is one of the chagim that is practised by the majority of the community, and time spent together is enjoyed by all.” Istanbul Jews are mostly Sephardim, but a few of the minhagim that they practise are from the Ashkenazim – and this includes not eating kitniyot. “Before Pesach, as all the Jewish mothers around the world do, we clean the house in a frenzy and cook the meals in the Ashkenazic way in our Sephardic kitchens!” There are six kosher butchers and kashrut organisations which provide kosher products and foods, but still keeping Pesach requires effort. But, says Ethel, especially in that environment, it is “priceless” to be able to celebrate Pesach and to have the family together at one table for the joy of the Pesach Seder – sans kitniyot and all.

Related posts