ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 142

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A story of hope

Ukrainian Jews celebrate Passover with fresh start and new Haggadah

‘For Our Freedom’ includes vivid illustrations by Kyiv-born Israeli artist Zoya Cherkassky-Nnadi

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

An illustration by Zoya Cherkassky-Nnadi in 'For Our Freedom,' a new Haggadah in Ukrainian, an initiative of Project Kesher, available for Passover 2023 (Courtesy Project Kesher)
An illustration by Zoya Cherkassky-Nnadi in 'For Our Freedom,' a new Haggadah in Ukrainian, an initiative of Project Kesher, available for Passover 2023 (Courtesy Project Kesher)

When Ukrainian Jews sit around the Seder table this week, celebrating Passover very differently than in the past, they’ll be able to use the first Ukrainian-language Haggadah.

The new Haggadah, “For Our Freedom,” is an initiative of Project Kesher, a global Jewish feminist organization that has been supporting Jewish identity and renewal for women from the former Soviet Union for the last 23 years.

Project Kesher’s Israeli chapter found itself inundated late last winter, when thousands of Ukrainian women and their children escaping the Russian invasion came to Israel.

The organization is currently supporting some 3,000 Ukrainian women, said Rabbi Olya Weinstein, Project Kesher’s executive director in Israel. “It was very stressful. Women came without their husbands and without their belongings,” said Weinstein.

Reacting to the influx of Ukrainian families, Project Kesher added a new roster of programming to meet their needs, filling in gaps left by the Israeli government’s response.

The organization established its own Hebrew-language ulpan classes and additional networking groups for translating help, career advice and absorption tips.

“We’re working 24/7,” said Weinstein. “The situation is unpredictable.”

Jewish Ukrainians who fled war zones in the Ukraine, arriving on a rescue flight at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, March 17, 2022. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Some of the Ukrainian refugees, here on a humanitarian basis, will participate in a Seder this year for the first time in their lives.

The majority, however, are coming from Jewish communities around Ukraine. They don’t want to read the Haggadah in Russian, she said. They want to speak about freedom and free choice in Ukrainian.

As described in a JTA piece about the language of the Haggadah, most of the prayer books and Torah texts used until now by Ukrainian Jewish communities were created in Russian, the language largely spoken by Ukrainian Jews. But the invasion last year prompted many Ukrainians to switch languages as a sign of national solidarity.

“As far as we know, all Haggadahs were never translated to Ukrainian,” said Weinstein. “The Jewish world in Ukraine assumed that everyone speaks Russian and that was fine until this war.”

The main text of the Haggadah is based on “A Different Night,” a 1997 Haggadah created by Noam Zion, who also served as an adviser to this edition, along with rabbis from the Masorti movement and Hebrew Union College.

An illustration by Zoya Cherkassky-Nnadi in ‘For Our Freedom,’ a new Haggadah in Ukrainian, an initiative of Project Kesher, available for Passover 2023 (Courtesy Project Kesher)

This Passover, “For Our Freedom” is available online at haggadot.com. It will be printed next year.

The Haggadah includes traditional texts alongside prayers for the defenders of Ukraine, prayers for peace in Ukraine and passages from Ukrainian writers.

In addition to the varied readings, the Haggadah includes audio files of Passover songs sung by Ukrainian cantors and rabbis, with female clergy as well, in order to bring Ukrainian women’s voices to the fore, said Weinstein.

Much of the Haggadah’s commentaries and translations into Ukrainian were provided by Michal Stamova, a musicologist who directed the Masorti youth movement Noam in Ukraine and came to Israel after the Russian invasion last February.

It’s also the first gender-equal Haggadah in Ukrainian, and features the vivid artwork of Ukrainian-born Israeli artist Zoya Cherkassky-Nnadi, whose paintings in the last year have illustrated the dramatic and tragic shifts in Ukraine since the Russian invasion, reimagining the Kyiv of her youth under siege.

An illustration by Zoya Cherkassky-Nnadi in ‘For Our Freedom,’ a new haggadah in Ukrainian, an initiative of Project Kesher, available for Passover 2023 (Courtesy Project Kesher)

Cherkassky-Nnadi immigrated to Israel with her parents from Kyiv when she was 14, studied at a prestigious Tel Aviv arts high school and circulated in art circles for her first decade and a half in Israel. She is not religious — she’s an avowed and vocal communist — but found a sense of hope in illustrating the Ukrainian Haggadah.

“At its essence, the Haggadah tells a story of hope, expressing the idea that people at the lowest position imaginable can find their way to the promised land,” said Cherkassky-Nnadi. “This sense of hope is what keeps Ukraine as a country and its people together and holding on.”

Cherkassky-Nnadi’s paintings add women around the Passover table, something that doesn’t exist in classical Haggadah texts, said Project Kesher’s Weinstein.

This isn’t Cherkassky-Nnadi’s first Haggadah. She participated in another one back in 2002, learning then about Jewish art and the tradition of illustrations for the Seder text.

“It was very emotional to return to a Haggadah, as the first illustrator working on a Ukrainian translation,” said Cherkassky-Nnadi. “It was clear to me that the illustrations would be connected to war and the yearning for freedom of the Jewish nation and the Ukrainian nation would be entwined in one another.”

An illustration by Zoya Cherkassky for
‘For Our Freedom,’ a new haggadah in Ukrainian, an initiative of Project Kesher, available for Passover 2023 (Courtesy Project Kesher)

Weinstein, 42, has been working with this corner of the Jewish world for many years, since immigrating to Israel from Russia 23 years ago on her own.  Her family remained in Russia, until this latest war.

This Passover, said Weinstein, she will be celebrating the Seder with her husband and children, along with her mother, brother and his family for the first time in more than 20 years.

“This will be the first family Passover of all of us together,” she said, “The world has changed.”

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