A Passover Tale


‘Your Matsa’ by Alexander Roitburd, 2017 (Titre original : Вам Маца), Wikiart


March 14, 2022

    Liliane and I are going to welcome Ukrainian refugees.


    I had left my contact information with a Jewish association that is looking for places to house families who have fled the war. This morning I received a call from a certain Esther who wanted to know more about the accommodation we were offering. I gave a brief description: an independent studio, adjoining our apartment, of about 350 square feet, fully furnished.

    Esther’s first question was whether it was kosher. I answered that no, it was not kosher, “But is it could be koshered?” she insisted.

    The question was rhetorical: everything can be koshered, of course, but Esther wanted to know if we were ready to welcome observant Jews. I answered curtly that we were not, that the studio was not kosher, that it could not be made kosher, and that I did not want any Orthodox Jews anyway.  

     My intransigence had the effect of cooling my relationship with Esther considerably. She did not expect such a reaction. Her association was desperately looking for hosts, she was stirring up all her networks to find some, I had offered myself and here I was imposing a constraint.

    I can’t explain it to myself, but it’s visceral: I have an inexplicable aversion to religious people, whether they are Jews, Catholics, Muslims, or anything else…

Before hanging up, Esther asked me to send her some pictures of the studio. She also wanted to know if I expected any financial compensation. Of course not. I just told her that we could not take care of the guests she sent us: they had to do their shopping and provide for themselves independently of us.  

    I wonder now if my anti-religious intransigence put an end to the adventure. I regret it a little. Liliane, to whom I shared my conversation with Esther, seems rather relieved.

March 16, 2022

    I think I was right to insist on not having a religious person in our house. Yesterday, a friend of mine told us about the Uman pilgrimage, which welcomes thousands of Jewish pilgrims from all over the world to Ukraine every year. They are fanatics. Of course, there are many Ukrainian Jews among them. Since the beginning of the hostilities, a large part of them have been welcomed by Israel. But, if I have understood correctly, there are the diehards, those for whom this country remains forbidden until it recovers the whole of the Holy Land. It is mainly these people that the association has brought to France. Our friend warned us: they were going to insist on giving us a few specimens of this species, there were many requests and few accommodations.

    These words had the effect of making Liliane reconsider her decision, and more: even if we were guaranteed the most atheistic of Jews, non-Jews in a way, she did not want to hear any more of this story. We had welcomed a succession of Ivorian migrants in recent months and she wanted to rest. If Esther ever called again, I had to inform her that the studio was no longer available, that my wife had promised it to a friend in need… And besides, I had no explanation to give, but just to say Niet.

    It bothered me to go back on my proposal. For me, a word is a word, you don’t betray a commitment. I didn’t agree with Liliane, we argued. I don’t like that.

March 21, 2022

    After a week without any news, I received a call from Esther this morning: were we still in agreement? And if so, when? She suggested a couple with a child of about four years old, a non-religious family, well behaved, vaccinated… “Yes, of course,” I said, taken aback. “No problem. I’ll call back to confirm after I talk to my wife.”

    Liliane was upset, of course, but we couldn’t refuse. Now we had to come to terms with the situation, willy-nilly. And so we had to prepare the studio, tidy it up, do a complete cleaning, put in sheets and towels. It’s a lot of work, but as I said to Liliane, doing a good deed means accepting the negative aspects. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a good deed…

    So I called Esther back and suggested that they come on Wednesday, the day after tomorrow, around 9 am. I recapitulated once again all my requirements. She reassured me. There would be no problem. We were going to put everything under contract with an insurance company. The association would take care of everything that was not related to housing and would provide them with what they needed: food, transportation, papers, etc.

    How long could we take them in, she asked me: would three months be okay? I haggled for two months, then we would see.

March 23, 2022

    They were supposed to arrive at nine o’clock. At a quarter past ten, there was still no one. Liliane got upset. Obviously, she regretted our decision. “And first of all,” she suddenly said, “how is it that these people were able to leave Ukraine, when all able-bodied men are requisitioned for the defense of their country?” Don’t I find this suspicious? Are they real refugees and not freeloaders?

    I call Esther to ask her what’s going on: they should have been here an hour ago. She tells me that they are on their way with their driver, they will be here in about ten minutes. I am surprised that she is not with them. She is sorry, she has too much to do, she could not make herself available.

    I am furious, and I make her feel it. I was supposed to be called yesterday to prepare a contract and insurance, and nothing was done. Esther was supposed to come and act as a go-between, and she leaves us hanging. What language do they speak anyway, these Ostrogoths? She doesn’t really know, Ukrainian, Russian probably, maybe Hebrew. It makes me feel good…  Then I realize. Hebrew?

    They are finally there at 10:30, a young couple with their kid. The driver helps to carry the luggage. We introduce ourselves. There is Davyd, Mariya and little Markus. I show them the studio, which, of course, seems to them a palace (they stayed several weeks in a tiny hotel room). They thank me. They brought us a present, some sweets probably snatched up from the association. While I am talking with them, Liliane takes the little one and gives him a stuffed animal which he is delighted with. She asked them if they were vaccinated, and Davyd showed her his vaccination pass. Three doses of Pfizer, we are reassured.

    I take them to Franprix to do some shopping. The store seems overpriced to them, they only take the basic necessities. I tell them that there is a Lidl, 10 minutes walk away, which is cheaper than the Franprix. They take notes. Davyd speaks a very bad English, and Mariya not a word. The exchanges are laborious. While they walk around the shelves, the kid takes cakes and sweets that he puts in the trolley. The parents put them back on the shelves, except at the end when they let him take one candy.

March 25, 2022

    We invited them to dinner. A little misunderstanding about the time I texted Davyd to find out what time would be convenient for them. We agree to meet them half an hour later, but an hour passes and they are still not there. Liliane has finished preparing everything, I have set the table and uncorked the wine… Finally, I send them another text message: ‘It’s ready.” They finally arrive. Maybe they had problems with their kid. The little Markus is touching.

    We chat, then. Davyd is 31 years old, he wears a short beard, round-rimmed glasses, looking rather nerdy. She is forty years old, blonde. One guesses that she was once a beauty.  She has a 14-year-old son from a former husband, both of whom stayed in Odessa.  

    Davyd, Mariya and Makcus left on February 25 by car. I did not understand very well, I asked: I thought that the able-bodied men were requisitioned and that they could not leave Ukraine. Davyd explained to me that he had dual citizenship, Ukrainian and Israeli. He spent three years in Israel, where he learned computer science.

    They don’t eat much, they hesitate for each dish. I have the impression that they are forcing themselves. Markus left half his plate. He barely touched the ice cream cone we gave him for dessert. This intrigues me. We talk about it afterwards with Liliane: she is sure that they had dinner before coming, and that they only accepted our invitation out of politeness.

April 1, 2022

    I don’t know how Liliane did it, but she managed like a champ: thanks to the contacts, ministers or deputies that she has in her patient pool, she quickly managed to get little Markus enrolled in the school right next door to us.

    They manage to organize themselves, for the shopping and the rest. We hardly ever see them. They receive help from the state, about 26 euros per day, plus packages from the association.

    We introduced them to Katia, a friend who speaks Russian. So we could learn a little bit more about them. Mariya is worried about her mother and her elder son, both of them stayed in Odessa. She starts to cry. A sudden note of reality in what was for us until now only an abstraction…  

April 4, 2022

    In ten days, it’s the Seder. We celebrate it every year with family and a few friends. For a long time now, it has no longer a religious holiday for us. There are no prayers or blessings. It has simply become a traditional holiday to remind us that we are part of the Jewish people, and that the history of this people remains important to us, to our children and grandchildren.

    I would have liked to invite our Ukrainians, but they are going to find, in the premises of the association, the emigrants they met during their journey.

    It is curious. I have the impression that they are really shy. When we suggest that they have dinner with us, they hesitate, say that they don’t want to bother us, that what we do for them is already enough. We have to insist, tell them again and again that we would like to do it. At the table, they remain a little stilted, hardly touching their plate. The little one hardly eats anything. I don’t know how they do it. Liliane tells me that they are traumatized, that it is normal. That we have to wait, not ask them anything, not impose anything.

April 5, 2022

    They often leave the light on at night. Apparently, little Markus needs it to sleep. We offered them a night light, the kind our grandchildren use, but they didn’t want it. They also often listen to music in the evening, quite loudly by the way, and sometimes until late. I wanted to give them a thought, but Liliane talked me out of it. They only do that on weekends, and it’s nothing compared to the noisy parties that our neighbors often have…

April 9, 2032

    Our refugees have taken Katia’s contacts. Apart from the people of the association and their companions in misfortune, she is their only person here. Katia is kind, she devotes time to them and tries to help them. She came to our house again yesterday to see them and chat with them. In fact, she told us, the light that stays on at night is not for Markus. It is for his mother, for Mariya. She has nightmares at night.

April 12, 2022

    Earlier, I passed Davyd and Mariya in the hallway. They were carrying three packages of Matzot, double packages, the Rosinski brand, red and white. Davyd, when I looked surprised, explained that they had been given to them by the association. At least it will save them money on bread.

April 13, 2022

     Liliane is finally happy that our Ukrainians, as we say, have declined our invitation to the Seder tomorrow evening. Twenty-one guests, that’s still a lot. Not to mention the fact that they hardly know anyone, and that we would have to speak English for them to participate a little. They will be better off with their contacts from the association…

    I texted Davyd last night to ask if Tuesday or Thursday of next week would be good for them to have dinner. We would also invite Katia. He didn’t answer until today. It’s something that intrigues me about them, by the way: they never answer right away to a text, an email or a verbal message. It’s as if they need time to decide, to weigh the pros and cons. This week it won’t work out,” he wrote to me, “but next week it will.” I wondered what was holding them back. They have nothing else to do…

April 17, 2022

    What happened yesterday… I don’t understand, I don’t understand anything. Something mind-boggling, completely crazy. Who could have imagined? Last night, this morning, Liliane and I lived in a fog, lost between lines of force that we could not control. There was tonight’s meal, of course. It had to be taken care of, you don’t improvise for 21 people, there was the last shopping to do, the big table with trestles to set up, the cutlery to prepare…

    The cutlery, precisely. We realized while counting and recounting the number of guests that we didn’t have enough dishes. Liliane suggested that, instead of using cups, plastic cutlery and paper plates, we should go and get what we needed from our Ukrainians.   

    So we went to the studio door to ask for them and there we heard music. The same kind of music they like to play on weekends, jazz. Pretty loud, as always. Except that they usually do that at night.

    We hesitated to knock, for fear of disturbing them, undecided for a few seconds. And suddenly, in a totally unexpected way, we perceived, under the sax solo, the accents of a Jewish melody, sung in unison by Davyd and Mariya. A melody that we knew well, words that were also familiar to us.

    It was the song, the prayer that one makes the day before the Seder.

    The Bedika!

    How could this be?

    The curtains had been drawn, but through a slit we could see what was going on inside.

    And we saw.

    Davyd, a kippah on his head, a candle in one hand, a book in the other, was chanting the traditional prayer. In front of him, on a saucer, were gathered some fragments of bread. Mariya, covered with a kerchief, was holding Markus in her arms. She spoke softly to him, showing him the small pile of bread and the candle. Then Davyd brought the candle to the plate and said the ritual words.

    We were stunned: what had happened, what we had witnessed, was simply the epilogue of the search for the Hametz.

    We left.

    What did it mean?

    I don’t know why, but my first thought was that they were preparing to meet their friends in the association the next day. That they were rehearsing in some way. To be ready. This was absurd, of course. The prayer wasn’t read on phonetic, it flowed from Davyd’s lips as from someone who read and understood Hebrew fluently.

    “Jazz,” Liliane suddenly realized. “It was always on Shabbat that they put it on.  It’s to cover their prayers…”

    Was that it? Observant Jews who had gone into hiding and who, because we had said we would not accept frum, had gone underground on the instructions of the association,

We waited for them to join their friends so we could enter the studio and see what was going on.

    We waited for them to join their friends so that we could enter the studio and see what was going on… Well arranged on the shelves, our shelves, in the middle of the books we had left: prayer books, Tefilin, a talit

    Jewish frum among frum who, because of us, had disguised themselves as secular, who had hidden their religion, their beliefs, who had done Shabbat in the shadows and celebrated Pesach in the shadows.

    “Marranos,” said Liliane. “Can you believe it?”

    And she began to cry.

Michael Freund

Michael Freund is the author of  ‘Puzzle du chat’ (Edition Michel de Maule) and ‘La Disparition de Deborah L.,’ published by Editions du Seuil.


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