September 20, 2019

A Russian Pesach

Cantor Svetlana Portnyansky, who left Russia in 1991, can relate to the celebration of freedom that the Passover holiday signifies. She remembers how difficult and dangerous it was to exercise religious freedom not so long ago.

“Practically it was impossible because it was illegal,” says Portnyansky. “There were no places for seders. Most of the time people didn’t know about it at all.”

This year, Portnyansky, along with Sy Frumkin, will lead two nights of Russian-language seders for the local Russian-Jewish community. Over the last few years, the young cantor — who sings for Temple Beth Torah in Venice — has been very involved in bringing in a younger demographic of Russian Jews to these annual services. She has seen “more interest from younger people, 25 and up, bringing their children. I see young faces more and more.”

Portnyansky herself is looking forward to performing at the services this year. She says that the important idea behind these seders is “to get together with our Russian community and to be together.”

Frumkin, who leads the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews and has been very involved in Russian-Jewish causes since 1969, told The Journal that too many Russian Jews grew up not knowing anything more about their own religion than the anti-Jewish propaganda fed to them by the government “so they’re not proud of their culture.”

The Russian-language seder has come a long way since its initial outing, over four years ago, when Frumkin had to translate a haggadah in Russian and have it published himself. The Russian-Jewish activist adds that presiding over the Pesach services every year has been “a very gratifying process because for the first one we didn’t know if anyone would even show up.”

As it turns out, the first outing was too popular — it completely sold out. Frumkin credits Portnyansky as key to its past success.

“She has a tremendous draw,” says Frumkin of the singer. “She gives a concert in Russia and Israel and she sells out instantly.”

Says Alla Feldman, émigré programs coordinator for the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), the demand for Russian Passover programming has been steadily growing since she, Veronica Galterian, and Helen Levin put together the first such seder several years ago.

“One night is not enough because we could only accommodate 150 people, so we’re having it for two nights,” says Feldman, who points out that the venue for this year’s seders has moved to Congregation Etz Jacob in order to better accommodate attendees. Feldman expects to attract about 280 people on each night.

In addition to these official seders, Feldman and the BJE (a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation) have been coordinating Pesach-themed activities — most recently a “chocolate seder” for high school students and a “Jeopardy” game for young adults — to attract younger Russian Jews. But it hasn’t been easy.

“It’s hard work and takes a lot of time and energy, and we have limited resources,” she says, adding that it is essential that the local Russian Jewish community have an outlet to celebrate the holiday.

As for the first two nights of Passover, Portnyansky promises a lively evening of “bruchas, popular songs in Russian and Yiddish, and, of course, the religious songs from the haggadah. And it’s very nice that all people know these songs. We can sing it all together.”

The Russian-language seders will take place on the first two nights of Passover — Wed., April 19 and Thurs., April 20 — at Congregation Etz Jacob, 7659 Beverly Blvd. (on the corner of Stanley Ave.), Los Angeles. For ticket information, call (323) 969-0919.

Here are some other Passover-related services that The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles will help support this year:

*The SOVA Kosher Food Pantry of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles will be distributing Passover kits to approximately 600 Jewish families around the L.A. area. For more information, call (310) 828-0469.

* For the past 16 years, the Clarence Gerber Memorial Passover Program, sponsored by Jewish Family Service (JFS), has participated in a Pesach program with the help of B’nai B’rith volunteers. This year, JFS will conduct model seders for 1,500 people. These seders will offer a holiday experience for those who have no place to go. For more information on attending one of these seders, please call (323) 761-8800.

*The Hirsh Family Kosher Kitchen will provide 1,000 Passover meals. They will also host Seders for Seniors on Tues., April 18 at 10:30 a.m. at nine different sites. Call (323) 937-5900 to find out more.

* The Board of Rabbis of Southern California will provide Passover services and traditional foods for Jewish prison inmates and patients who are hospitalized/ institutionalized. More than 415 individuals will benefit from this program. To learn more about this program, call (323) 761-8600.

* For children, the Board of Rabbis will provide a packet of “Kids Songs for Passover,” compiled by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson and Ruth Lund. To obtain a free packet, call (323) 761-8600.