To me, Passover has little, if nothing, to do with religion. What I believe is that, in its core, the story of Passover is based on a historical event. I believe that many centuries ago the Jewish tribe was kept as slaves in the land of Egypt, and one day, the tribe was permitted to leave Egypt, which they did, and returned to the land of Israel under the guidance of a guy named Moses. The event was so significant that the tribe vowed to retell the story year after year, so the future generations would never forget. The story was told, not written, and retold and, as with any other oral tradition, it had been enhanced many times over until it was finally recorded as The Story (which is what Haggadah means in Hebrew), at that point already greatly embellished with miracles, and that is how we tell it today.
But putting the fairy tale elements aside, the crux of the holiday is that it celebrates freedom.
That’s why it is very personal to me. 34 years ago I used a loophole in the Soviet system and asked the pharaoh of the land to let me go, i.e. applied for an exit visa at the branch of the government called OVIR. The caveat in this pact with the devil was that if the Soviet pharaoh granted me freedom to leave, I would not be allowed to ever come back. The act of applying to leave the best political system in the world branded me a traitor and made me persona non grata. So as such, I was living in limbo for the next 2 months, hoping for the pharaoh’s decision to let me go, meanwhile paying visits to all of my favorite places in the beloved city that, if allowed to leave, I was never going to see again. That day in April, I went to the Museum of Russian Art that is housed in a mansion expropriated from one of the exiled Russian aristocrats after the revolution. I walked out of the museum, crossed the Square of the Arts, turned a corner at Brodsky Street, and walked up to the main drag of Nevsky Prospect where I entered a phone booth, dropped a 2-kopeek coin in the slot, and called my best friend Faina.
“Alla,” she said, ”Did you call home? No? I just called your house; your mom told me OVIR called. You have to go to their office tomorrow and sign the papers. You have permission to leave.”
I remember the rare sunny spring day, which felt so much more intoxicating after a long and gloomy St Petersburg winter. The date was 14 of Nissan, 5736; the eve of Passover.


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