Excerpts from “Passover Nights,” Hava Shapiro (1925)

Hava Shapiro (1878-1943) entered the “Garden of Eden” – the world of Hebrew learning and literature – as a child in Slavuta, Volhynia (modern-day Ukraine) in the Pale of Settlement. Calling herself Eim Kol Hai (“Mother of All Living,” like the biblical Eve), she became a partner to the male creators of modern Hebrew literature. Over a four-decade career, she wrote fiction and reported for the Hebrew press, as well as kept the first known Hebrew diary by a woman. 

Reading for the front of the Haggadah – Preparations

At home, the great preparations for the days of Passover began – immediately after Purim. Grandfather would begin checking his long beard after each meal, touching it with his fingertips and checking it for fear of breadcrumbs. All the closets and crates and chests were opened, and we took out all the drawers and belongings whose purpose and very existence we knew nothing of all year long [...] 

A week before the festival is matzah-baking day at our house: a great holiday for us. Our studies cease completely. Extensive preparation bustles around us. In the large kitchen, long tables covered with white cloth are set up across the length of the room. All along the tables, from end to end, women wrapped in white aprons with new kerchiefs on their heads stand like a trained army. From time to time, the female supervisor brings in the dough from the room next door, carrying it aloft. She divides it into pieces, according to the number of women helping. Each one receives her piece and tries to best the others in smoothing and rounding the matzah, nicely, nicely. And grandfather hurries. He stands at one end of the table right next to the oven, his face ablaze and in complete concentration. Around him are the other men involved in the work. They are rolling little iron wheels, with sharp edges that are white with heat, over the matzahs. Their sleeves are rolled up, and with marvelous speed they are rushing to stretch the prepared matzah onto the baker’s shovel while the baker, who stands in front of the oven, stretches out the shovel at regular intervals, his face aglow, his long khalat [Russian, robe] unbuttoned, and his yarmulke falling off his head [...] 

Reading for before the Four Questions: 

I also know “the Questions” [of the Haggadah, typically asked by the youngest boy] by heart, but no one pays any attention to me; the main attraction is my brother. Inside I am seething. I would have asked them even better than he did. But me, they send to sit with the women. Only my mother sees my pain and consoles me with the wonderful caresses of her eyes. 

Reading for before the Magid:

Another Passover Eve in the capitol of blessed Ukraine [in 1919]. 

The days of Passover approached and [unruly brigades of soldiers] were still guarding the inhabitants [...] With every passing evening came new attacks, murders, and “searches,” and with each new day, new threats. Come evening, you couldn’t be sure whether you would live to see the light of the next day. And in leaving your house you had no idea whether you’d ever return to it. And thus we lived and prepared for the holiday [...] 

These messengers of destruction devised something special for Passover. They captured the most prominent Jews, placed them in detention, and announced that they would not be released alive unless their fellow Jews released the “wealth” under their control and the arms that had been turned over to the [Jewish] youth serving in the self-defense units [...] 

As chair of the local branch of the Histadrut ha-tziyyonit [the Zionist Organization], I was placed on one of these lists [...] Miraculously, this became known to my friends in the nick of time. They were able to rush over and warn me, and I was able to seek refuge in the house of an acquaintance. There I stayed, locked up and alone in a sealed room. 

[On the first night of Passover], I left my room. My gentile acquaintance, a friend of my father, took pity on me and agreed to bring me to the house where I knew my mother was staying. 

Dressed in men’s clothing, wearing a round miter on my head like a papka [Russian, priest], my acquaintance led me through the streets that were devoid of even the shadow of a living creature [...] 

[When we reached the house], I called out my name in a whisper outside the door, but my muffled voice sounded to them in their agitated state, of course, like that of a disguised Cossack. 

Footsteps were heard. I raised my voice slightly. The door opened, and confused and terrified stares fastened upon me. In my confusion, I forgot that my clothes would likely frighten my relatives. Only my mother recognized me immediately and charged toward me; then the others also recognized me. Joy and gladness, hugs and kisses. 

“In the same way that a second ago our terror was turned into joy, so shall all the troubles in which we find ourselves be turned into gladness, and we shall all go out from darkness into light [me’afeilah le’orah – in the closing blessing of the Maggid section of the Haggadah],” said Mother, her face aglow, and our hearts were suddenly filled with shining, warm hope. 

*Source: Originally published in Ha’Olam, English translation in “To Tread on New Ground”: Selected Writings of Hava Shapiro, eds. Carole B. Balin and Wendy I. Zierler (Wayne State University Press, 2014).

Prepared by Rabbi Carole B. Balin for Haggadah "For Our Freedom" 

Rabbi Carole B. Balin, Ph.D.

As a prolific reseacher, writer and teacher, Rabbi Carole B. Balin, Ph.D. is known for her fresh ideas, authenticity and way with words. She is the first woman to earn tenure at the NY campus of her alma mater, Hebrew Union College, where she is professor emerita of history. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wellesley College, she earned a doctorate at Columbia University and honed her spiritual practice at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. Chair of the Jewish Women’s Archive board, Carole speaks and publishes widely on gender and the Jewish experience. She is currently at work on a narrative non-fiction book about shifting Jewish identity as told through the stories of bat mitzvah girls since the first one in the US in 1922.


haggadah Section: Commentary / Readings
Source: “To Tread on New Ground”: Selected Writings of Hava Shapiro, eds. Carole B. Balin and Wendy J. Zierler (Wayne State University Press, 2014).