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Russian Jews Don't Cry

uri norwich's story posted on March 21, 2013 at 6:19 pm. uri emigrated from Novosibirsk, Russia to New York, United States in 1977

Back in August , 2012 and February 15 of this year, I posted some excerpts from my then newly published book “Russian Jews Don’t Cry”. It continues attracting many new readers. I'd like to offer to you another small excerp. Once again, it's related to experiences of many immigrants who went through Ladispoli, and to upcoming Holiday of Passover.


'...Almost two weeks passed by when I remembered the Rabbi Hersh’s invitation to a Saturday night supper. Our friend Alex flatly rejected the invitation, citing his disdain for anything associated with Israel. Well, I preferred not closing any doors on anything that categorically, leaving myself open to anything new to be learned. Alex still warned us not to screw it up pointing out that Saturday supper most likely meant Friday night, since the Jewish Saturday was starting on the night before. Alex happened to be right. With that in mind, Danny and I walked on the warm Friday evening to the Hersh’s house.

He lived in a private villa, across a small creek in the newer part of town. We walked across the bridge and found the right house on Via Roma. Hersh himself came up to a small iron gates to greet us. He seemed pleased and happy to see us again. Inside of a small front yard every possible spot was busy with children toys. He led us by the small steps up to the front door and pointed out to a tiny washroom.

“Have you ever celebrated the beginning of Shabbat, the Jewish Saturday?” he asked us softly.

Well, maybe tonight you could learn something new…”

But first, we washed our hands in a quite weird way. Apparently, it was prescribed by the ceremony: we spilled some water from a tall pot on one hand, then on the other, and dried them against a special towel. Hersh led us into a large living room where we found sitting around a long table an older bearded man, dressed in black and looking just like our Rabbi Hersh, and two children, we saw the other day in the square. A young woman was standing near the table. Hersh introduced us to his wife Rachel and his children. Then he introduced his guest as Mr. Friedman visiting from Milan.

As soon as we sat down, Rachel came closer to the end of the table where two silver candlesticks were standing and lit the candles. Then she recited a prayer, keeping one hand against her eyes, as if protecting herself from looking at the flames, and sat down in her chair. Hersh, in his turn, recited something of his own and explained that he thanked god for bread we had on the table. That table had more than just bread. I wasn’t sure if he thanked god for chicken soup, humus, some fish and horse reddish, and the bottle of red wine too. We certainly knew who to thank for this smorgasbord — Hersh and his wife.

After the first hunger was gone, Mr. Friedman decided to interrogate us a bit. Somehow, I managed to switch him quickly onto himself. He originally immigrated to America from Riga, Latvia, a few years back. After awhile he happened to be on business in Milan and decided to stay there. At some point he felt that he got the call from above — he lifted his eyes to the ceiling — to be in Italy and help his fellow Jews from the Old Country in finding their roots, in finding their way to god while they were waiting here. He and his newly found community from Milan was supporting with money and any other help the Cultural Center in Ladispoli. In fact, the Holiday of Passover was coming soon and they were planning a big celebration in the Center. He asked if we could help setting it up. Sure, we could, and why not.

Hersh was keeping quiet up to that very moment, playing a role of a polite host. Mentioning of approaching Passover Holiday reminded him of his primary mission in Ladispoli.

”By the way,” he started shyly, “what do you guys know about Passover?” he looked at us clearly awaiting an answer.

We knew the Passover story pretty much back from the Old Country. My own family never really celebrated any Jewish Holidays. At least, not until my Aunt  decided to leave the Soviet Union. By that time, I was already in high school. My Aunt’s family became active in the “awaiting exit visa community” and started celebrating quietly all major Jewish Holidays. Our city, imagine that, with over one million inhabitants, didn’t have even one Jewish temple. All celebrations were happening in private apartments and very quietly. There was an Old Russian saying:

          “Let a sleeping dog sleep,” reflecting in a nutshell the situation.

People were gathering quietly, trying not to attract unnecessary attention from the KGB. A bakery on outskirts of the city was paid off and converted for Passover into a temporarily matzos baking shop. Everyone could come over there with her own flour, where some volunteers were baking matzos for her. Again, people were taking great precautions not to attract unwanted attention from outsiders. That was why a bakery always had to be in some forsaken corner of the city. I remembered taking a predawn bus and making my way to that bakery still under cover of darkness. I was to leave my flour with a volunteer and come back sometime in the evening and under the other darkness again to collect my flat sheets of unleavened bread.

Hersh was intensely listening to my Passover experience from not so distant past, and then abruptly asked,

”Do you believe the Passover story?” Then just like before, stared at me awaiting an answer.

”Nice fairy tale…,” I said.

“What about the Ten Commandments then...The Word of G-d?” he seemed getting right up high on his horse. He was smiling now. I quickly wiped out the smile from his face.

“I think the Word of god had some metaphorical meaning in the dark ages…but today…” Hersh didn’t let me finish,

”What are you saying? It doesn’t work today? There is no Word of   G-d…Did I understand you right?” I nodded. Hersh didn’t want letting it go.

“Then how could you explain the miracle of you being here — the miracle of you getting out of the Soviet Union? This is just like it was in ancient Egypt. This is the second Exodus from slavery of sorts Don’t you think? ” I thought he made a mistake saying that. I looked at him and quipped back,

”Then how could you explain hundreds of thousands of Jews killed during the Great Inquisition of the Dark Ages, and millions had been killed not long ago during the Nazi Holocaust? Where was your god with his Word?” I looked at him and continued,

”The god’s Word is no more than a word of a man saying it, for what it’s worth. A man saying it and claiming it was the god’s Word? All lies, I do not believe any of it. That’s how I look at it.”

Hersh looked challenged now. I piqued his interest. After all, he went to a religious school to confront people like me.

It started getting late. Hersh’s wife Rachel took their children already upstairs to bed long time ago. Mr. Friedman was keeping quiet all this time and Danny was obviously bored. Apparently, it didn’t bother much Hersh. He got up and walked to a bookshelf on the far wall.

”Here, take a look,” he handed me a black book titled “The Five Books of Moses. The Torah.”

He flipped open the very first page and stuck his thin finger at something.

” Think about what it says over here,” and he read aloud:

-        In the beginning G-d created the heaven and the earth.

-        Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of G-d hovered over the face of the waters.

-        And G-d said: 'Let there be light.' And there was light.”

Hersh stopped for a second, looked at us and continued,

“You see, everything is created by the G-d’s Word. The G-d said this, and then the G-d said that…and so on…There is no man speaking for G-d. Well, take the book; see if you can try to read it. We would talk more about it sometime soon.” He handed me the book.

“And by the way, tonight’s Shabbat celebration, the seventh day of the week, the day of rest, is also stated right here at the beginning,” Hersh quickly opened the book again and pointed to the next chapter where it said:

“G-d blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, for on it He abstained from all His work, which G-d had created to do.”

On the way back home, or at least how we called our apartment on Via LaSpezia for now, we were talking about our discussion about god. The moon was brightly shining down on us with its majestic blue light. We could hear a gentle sea roaring only a block away from the road. It was a busy Friday night for locals. Young kids were riding motor scooters in pairs —girls in the back, tightly squeezing their drivers in front of them. Spring was in the air.

“Listen Danny, with all that god talk, do you realize we are here only an hour away from the Vatican?”

It didn’t register with him, judging by his empty look.

“The Vatican…Hello? Doesn’t ring a bell? That is where the Pope lives, the head of the church. I heard every Sunday he speaks at a big square in Rome. Let’s go, check it out this Sunday.” Danny nodded in agreement.


For those interested, you can find the book at Amazon and Barnes & Noble for Kindle and e-readers and in paper print.


Amazon link:


Barnes and Noble link:


Coming soon in iTunes for Apple readers.

Best regards, Uri Norwich