Every year at my family’s Passover seder, a special matzo cover decorates our table. To all appearances, this is a standard embroidered matzo cover, like those found in many Jewish homes. But it is anything but ordinary. This cover made its way from Jerusalem to Moscow and back again in the days before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The story of the matzo cover begins in January 1982, with several dozen “Seruvnikim,” activists who wanted to move to Israel during the Soviet period but were refused and sent to prison for their Zionist activity. A group of these individuals, many of them Hebrew teachers, sought to meet my father, Menachem Hacohen. A rabbi and Knesset member from Jerusalem, my father had arrived in Moscow with a delegation of left-wing Israelis, who had been invited by the Soviet government to get a first-hand impression of the regime’s “achievements.”
Soon, my father managed to break away from the delegation and meet with his Jewish brethren. With the refuseniks, he left all of the many religious articles that he had secretly brought with him from Israel: talitot, Bibles, prayer books, tefillin, books for the study of Hebrew.
But he asked to take back to Israel the embroidered matzo cover that he had brought with him from Jerusalem to Moscow.
On the cloth backing of the matzo cover he had written in large letters with a black pen, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Then, he asked the aliyah activists to sign their names on it.
Within minutes, the signatures of about twenty people were collected on the cover. These were refuseniks–those whom the Soviet regime had assured that even if they remained alive that they would never manage to leave the Soviet Union, let alone reach Israel, the destination of their dreams.
While some of the signatories wrote their names in the Latin alphabet, most signed in Hebrew, forming letters that looked like the practice of a first grader making his first attempts at writing. This was another expression of freedom by people who under the yoke of Soviet oppression preferred to return to the language of their forefathers, which though thousands of years old, had remained alive and youthful.
Among those signing the matzo cover were Alexander “Sasha” Cholomiansky, Mikhail Tschelnov, Pavel Avramowitz, A. Gurewitz, Misha Chanin, and Misha Rappaport.
In the center of the cover, a large signature stood out: ״יועל אדלשטיין״ (“Yoel Edelstein”) written in Hebrew with a spelling mistake – ayin (ע) in place of aleph (א). With this signature, Yoel Edelstein took his first steps toward learning the Hebrew language and teaching it. Yoel “Yuli” Edelstein, later a member of Knesset in Israel, a minister in the government of Israel, and presently the Speaker of the Knesset, did not know, in those early days, how to spell his Hebrew name correctly.
But he had a dream. Even after serving time in a Soviet prison for three and a half years, he did not abandon his hope to make aliyah and come to Israel.
Five years after Edelstein had signed the matzo cover, I had the privilege of seeing him, a short time after his arrival in Israel. He was sitting as a guest of honor in the first row at my wedding on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, facing the Temple Mount. Next to him sat Abba Eban, who had raised the flag of Israel among the flags of the member nations of the United Nations to mark the first anniversary of the establishment of Israel.
Two dreams, the heartfelt longings of Jews throughout the generations, had become reality: the emergence from subjugation to independence and from slavery to freedom.
The common refrain “next year in Jerusalem,” which can sometimes seem worn with overuse, never seemed more appropriate. It was a prayer that had been answered.