MOSCOW — When he was 11 years old, Mikhail Chlenov would go to Moscow's Choral Synagogue to buy matzah for his grandparents.
It was the early 1950s, when the Soviet regime's anti-Jewish policy reached its most severe stage. But the authorities tolerated the sale of matzah and outside the synagogue, the Russian capital's main Jewish center at that time, the line to buy it was long.
"Matzah used to be the only visible symbol of an individual's involvement in Judaism," says Chlenov, chairman of the Va'ad, the Jewish confederation of Russia.
Chlenov is convinced that Judaism survived in the Soviet Union mainly because of matzah. Rabbi Berel Lazar, chief Chabad Lubavitch emissary to the former Soviet Union, agrees. "What kept Yiddishkeit alive in Russia was the food, most importantly matzah."
The state could forbid its Jews to perform major Jewish rites but it "could not tell them what they should eat," says Lazar.
Yuriy Kheyfetz, 74, recalls that some 60 years ago a Jew would come to his Moscow house to bake matzah for his family and a few Jewish families who lived nearby.
"My parents were not observant at all," says Kheyfetz. "We never had a seder at home and until very recently I didn't even know what it is. But for some reason, my parents were not giving up the tradition of baking and eating matzot once a year."
Before World War II, many Jews across the Soviet Union could have matzah for Passover only if they baked it at home.
Sometimes several families organized a temporary bakery at someone's house to provide Jews in a neighborhood with fresh matzah. This was more or less the way most Russian Jews baked matzah in Jewish shtetls before the 1917 revolution.
During Stalin's regime, the Soviet government occasionally allowed Jewish communities to obtain matzah from abroad. But more often, top Russian officials prevented Jews from importing matzah.
In some cases, matzah was considered by the secret police to be a powerful tool of "anti-Soviet and Jewish clerical propaganda."
In 1939, Rabbi Levi Zalman Schneerson, father of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was dismissed from his post of Chief Rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, for distributing matzah to needy Jews and for receiving matzah from a foreign Jewish community.
For his "anti-Soviet crimes," Schneerson was sentenced to exile in Central Asia, were he died a few years later.
In the '70s and '80s, the production and sale of matzah was the only source of income for the country's largest synagogue — the Choral Synagogue in Moscow.
"Private donations could hardly cover even the synagogue watchman's salary," says Russia's Chief Rabbi Adolph Shayevich, who also has served as the Choral Synagogue's rabbi since 1983. "We could function solely due to matzot sales. And it was quite enough."
After World War II, a matzah bakery opened in downtown Moscow. But customers had to bring their own flour.
"People were coming with the flour in glass jars, in pillowcases or just wrapped in newspaper," Shayevich says.
A few days later, Jews would come to pick up fresh-baked matzah. Meanwhile, the practice of private apartment bakeries continued.
Rabbis knew that nearly all matzah produced in the Soviet Union was nonkosher because it was made with regular flour. But they had to approve it as kosher because this was only matzah available to Soviet Jews, says Shayevich.
In the early '80s, the Moscow bakery was allowed to purchase about 150 tons of flour annually from the state.
Jews from across the country came to buy matzah at the Choral Synagogue.
"Some were buying a kilo or two for the entire community, so that everyone could have at least a small piece," Shayevich says.
The synagogue also was mailing each year dozens of matzah packages to communities in Central Russia, Siberia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, he says.
"Most Jews would come to the synagogue only once a year for the express purpose of buying matzah," recalls Shayevich.
During the rest of the year, the majority of Jews would not dare to show up at the synagogue for fear of losing their jobs or being expelled from school.
Because production of matzah was officially allowed, the unleavened bread was the only symbol of Judaism that many Jews knew.
During the Soviet era, authorities just winked at the matzah production and sales, says Shayevich. "They understood that they could not fight it, and after all this lasted only a few months a year."
In fact, sometimes matzah was sold at a general grocery store in Moscow. There it was called not matzah but "diet bread," just as Orthodox Christians' Easter cake was officially labeled "spring cake."
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian Jews discovered the taste of Israeli and American-made matzah.
"Twenty percent of Russian Jews are going to eat matzah" this year, says Lazar.
Now, four bakeries in Israel are working overtime to make matzah for sale in the former Soviet Union. Last year, the Lubavitch movement imported 15 tons of matzah to Moscow alone. This Passover, Moscow Jews will eat more than 100 tons of Israeli-baked matzah. Lubavitch emissaries will distribute another 330 tons to 80 towns across Russia.
Imported matzah is favored because locally produced matzah costs twice as much as Israeli matzah and kosher flour remains unavailable in Russia. A new bakery that opened in Moscow last year uses kosher flour imported from the United States to make matzah.
Lazar believes that Israeli-made matzah has a symbolic meaning.
"This would show people that they are connected to Israel" when they realize that the matzah they eat tastes the same as in Israel, he says.
A Jewish woman waiting in line to buy matzah at a Moscow synagogue agrees.
"This Pesach my daughter and I will be eating similar matzah," says 48-year-old Bronya Lerman, whose daughter emigrated six years ago. "But I will eat mine in Moscow and she in Israel."