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Chapter 4 Religious Life In a virulently atheistic environment, with anti-religious norms, ideals, and legislation, maintaining a religious lifestyle became increasing difficult in postwar Belarus. It meant observing the Sabbath on a day on which one was obliged to work and celebrating Jewish holidays that called into question one’s allegiance to one’s country. There were also enormous difficulties in obtaining the necessities for celebrating the holidays , whether matzot for the Passover or etrog for Sukkot. Jewish religious institutions were proscribed so instead of gathering for prayer in legal synagogues religious Jews had to worship in illegal shtiebels and they also had to find substitutes for the mikveh. Communities that had all but been annihilated in the Holocaust now had to suffer the humiliation of the annihilation of their cemeteries, or simply their neglect and desecration, and pious individuals could no longer be assured of a Jewish burial at the end of their days. With hardly any shochets to provide the religious Jew with kosher meat, he often had to forego this luxury. Jewish religious weddings and circumcisions had to be performed in secrecy. In describing this bleak story this chapter also depicts the self-sacrifice and devotion to his faith that characterized the observant Jew in postwar Belarus and his tenacity in continuing to practice his religion whatever the risks and consequences. i5.5 Smilovitsky 00 book.indb 87 2014.07.01. 15:09 88 JEWISH LIFE IN BELARUS The Sabbath, the Jewish Holidays, and the Problem of Matzot for Passover The Sabbath and Jewish holidays Jewish holidays defined the rhythm of life of the Jewish community, influenced the public mood, and helped cultivate national self-awareness. As the war had disrupted this rhythm, it became vitally important for observant Jews to restore the observance of Jewish holidays as a prerequisite for the renewal of a full religious life. But these holidays were, of course, a source of trouble for the authorities. These were the days when practising Jews and “fellow-travelers,” who otherwise were considered to be loyal citizens of the Soviet regime, revealed their true feelings and attitudes. The persistence of these attitudes upset the ostensible harmony of the Soviet system and cast doubts on its supposed ideological unanimity. Saturday, the Sabbath, remained the major day of religious observance. The influential secular Zionist thinker, Ahad Ha’am (1856–1927), once wrote: “More than the Jews kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath kept the Jews.” The Sabbath was observed as much in the privacy of the home than in the synagogue, thus making it difficult for the authorities to control. On Rosh Hashanah1 and Yom Kippur,2 much time was spent at prayer in the synagogue , though on the other holidays the major part of the celebration was among family and with friends. This was especially true of the Passover3 seder, when families gathered for the traditional ritual meal at which the haggadah was read aloud. On Hanukkah4 and Purim,5 the celebrations in synagogues were considered less obligatory than the home parties, the traditional games, the dressing up in costumes, the giving of presents and tzedaka6 to the poor. 1   Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is a solemn two-day festival on which the shofar (ram’s horn) is blown in the synagogue. It starts the Ten Days of Penitence that terminate with Yom Kippur (see below). 2   Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the most solemn and important of the Jewish holidays. Its central themes are repentance and returning to God. 3   Passover, the spring festival, celebrating the Exodus from Egypt. 4   Hannukah, the winter eight-day Festival of Lights, celebrating the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem following the victory over the Selucid Empire in the second century BC, and the miraculous lasting of the oil to keep alive the eternal flame in the Sanctuary. 5   Purim, the festival celebrating the deliverance from Haman’s plot to annihilate the Jews of ancient Persia in the sixth century BC, as described in the book of Esther. 6   See the section on “Tzedaka: Supporting the needy” in the present chapter. i5.5 Smilovitsky 00 book.indb 88 2014.07.01. 15:09 89 Religious Life Knowing that the authorities held a strongly negative attitude toward Sabbath observance, practising Jews preferred to give it a low profile and to make all the necessary arrangements without asking for assistance or permission from local bodies. The authorities did their best to make observant Jews work...


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