Personal Pilgrimage


Walking up one aisle and down the next, the middle-aged woman knew this was no ordinary trip to the market. She was making preparations for cooking her first Passover Seder, one that would be celebrated in her new home after years of repression in the former Soviet Union.

Alla Ghydar, 53, was determined that everything should be kosher, as is the custom. So with tips from a guide from the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, she and other Jewish immigrants pushed their shopping carts past the Passover displays.

Into the cart went the unleavened matzo, symbolizing the haste with which the children of Israel fled bondage in ancient Egypt. There were bitter herbs to buy, reminding Jews of the slavery under Pharaoh. And gefilte fish. She couldn't forget the gefilte fish. Salted or unsalted? Oh, and the Passover wine.

A decidedly unremarkable scene this hustle and bustle amid the beeps of supermarket price scanners and the metallic collisions of shopping carts. Indeed, it is an unremarkable scene for the vast majority of the estimated 5.3 million Jews in America who, beginning at sundown today, celebrate Passover.

But for Alla Ghydar and 11 other recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union, each step past the Passover displays of a Hollywood supermarket became a pilgrimage, a trek into the hoary past, a realization that they are connected by blood and custom to a wandering people who wander no more.

Arriving from Kiev in the Ukraine three years ago, Ghydar was preparing the Passover Seder, or feast, for her family for the first time. When she thought about it, as she did on this day, tears glistened in her green eyes.

She wore a black dress and had coiffured her white hair for the occasion. Another thing: Now she wore her necklace with a small, gold Star of David for all to see.

"In Russia, this was prohibited all our life. We cannot say, 'I Jew.' We cannot say, 'I Jew,' " she repeated in halting English. "This is awful. Terrible! And now I proud. I Jew and I can say it loud. I Jewish!"

Joining her this day was Maria Moskovich, 72, who arrived from her former home in a Moscow suburb 10 months ago to join her daughter and granddaughter in Los Angeles. It will be Moskovich's first Passover here.

"We were very afraid that we're Jews," she said through a translator, Alla Feldman of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. It was Feldman's idea to bring the newcomers to the market to learn what to buy for Passover. Like Ghydar, Moskovich also wore a Star of David necklace and said she would not have displayed it in Russia.

In the past 10 years, 20,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union have immigrated to Southern California, most of them to Los Angeles, according to the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The federation said there are about 40,000 former Soviet Jews in Los Angeles. About 1,000 new Jewish immigrants from former Iron Curtain countries come to Los Angeles each year.

"The vast majority of refugees really have very little understanding of what being Jewish really meant," said Miriam Prum Hess, a senior associate director of the federation's $2.25-million Refugee Resettlement and Acculturation Program. Only in the past several years in Russia has it been possible for Jews to openly learn and practice their faith and traditions.

For that reason, Passover--a biblically momentous event in which Moses led the Israelites to freedom from slavery in Egypt--is especially poignant for Jews who fled the former Soviet Union.

Traditionally at the Passover Seder, those gathered around the table are asked to think of themselves as slaves in Egypt who had been freed.

"For those of us living in America, it's usually a stretch," Prum Hess said. "For a Jew having lived in the Soviet Union, it's not a stretch at all."

She recalled a Passover several years ago in which she joined an extended family, including grandparents and grandchildren, who had managed to leave the Soviet Union.

"As they talked about what that had been like and what it was now like to be able to so openly celebrate Passover, the room got very, very quiet," she said. "You could see the tears building up in every person's eyes as they were relating their story of freedom."

For the newcomers, a trip through a supermarket to prepare for Passover can be a spiritual event, said Judy Petsonk, author of the recently published book, "Taking Judaism Personally: Creating a Meaningful Spiritual Life."

"Every person who comes out of that Soviet bondage and into the possibilities of America is taking their own journey," said Petsonk, whose grandmother came from Russia in 1905.

But she said that sometimes it can take years before their fear of being Jewish and resistance to anything but a secular life can be possible.

Besides old fears, there are also practical reasons why many immigrants don't take quickly to Jewish life in America--the need to find a job, to learn English, to simply get established in a new country.

That was true for Ghydar. She came here three years ago and settled in a Los Angeles apartment with her husband. Her daughter, son-in-law and 5-year-old grandson live nearby. Her priority after arriving was to make sure that her grandson got a life-saving heart operation. The boy has since recovered. "He's a good boy," she says.

She has been a guest at holiday Seders since her arrival, but now Ghydar says she is ready to act as hostess for the first time. Like the Israelites, whose 40 years of wandering is recounted in Exodus, she has left the wilderness of religious discrimination and denial.

"Now I feel inside this is very important for me," she said. "This touches me. I study now. I know what I should do, what I should cook, what I should buy.

"I prepare first of all matzos. I know now exactly--a piece of bread. I know 2,300 years ago the Jew people have only bread, and this is for life. This is life!"

The tears came back, reflecting an inner flame that burned but did not consume. "I think maybe this is something inside me. I feel it. This is my feeling now. Before I didn't."

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