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Do they know it’s Pesach time in Eastern Europe?

Only half of the Jewish populations of Hungary and Poland attend a Passover seder, the lowest rates among 12 European countries tested. But that proportion might actually be a sign of a Jewish renaissance in Eastern European countries.

Isabel Sawkins

According to data from the second survey on discrimination and hate crime against Jews in the EU, undertaken by JPR for the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) and consisting of the responses of over 16,000 Jews across Europe, nine out of ten Jews in Italy attend a Passover seder most or all years, followed closely by Jews in Belgium (86%), the UK, France and Austria (all 77%), and the Jewish populations in Spain, Germany, Denmark and Sweden (all above 70%) And then there’s Eastern Europe, clearly falling behind: only 54% of Hungarian Jews and 45% of Polish Jews say they celebrate Pesach. Don’t they like Passover in Eastern Europe?

It’s not just about celebrating Passover where we see this pattern;  low levels of ritual observance among Jews in Poland and Hungary can be seen more widely, including their likelihood to light candles on Friday nights (29% and 21% respectively, compared to 47% across Europe) and their attendance of synagogue services weekly or more often (14% and 12% respectively, compared to 23% across Europe). Yet it’s still worth noting that as in all twelve EU countries examined in the data, Passover seder remains the most frequently observed ritual of all rituals examined among self-identifying Jews in Hungary and Poland.

In all twelve EU countries examined, including Hungary and Poland, attendance at a Passover seder is the most frequently observed ritual among self-identifying Jews

The low rate of ritual observance in Poland and Hungary stands out at first glance, particularly when compared to other countries across Europe. However, when considered in the broader historical context of the Communist legacy of both nations, these numbers possibly provide evidence of a renaissance in religious observance.

Jewish life behind the Iron Curtain

Communism was implemented in different ways in Poland and Hungary, but one common trait in both countries was the anti-religious doctrine. Across Central and Eastern Europe, religious communities were suppressed and attacked. In Poland, for example, the Catholic Church often suffered from harassment and persecution because of its position as one of the main rivals of Communism; indeed, Pope John Paul II is often credited for politicising the Polish population during his visit to the country in 1979 and sparking the beginning of the end for Communist rule in the country.

The history of Jewish life under Communism is well documented in JPR’s 2011 report, Jewish life in Poland: “The Soviet-imposed system, though initially responsive to some Jewish concerns, soon turned hostile to most Jewish aspirations to preserve their own separate identity, and occasionally lapsed into overt antisemitism. On the other hand, however, the communists were ideologically opposed to the traditional standard-bearers of antisemitism: the extreme nationalist right, and by keeping them at bay, provided the Jewish community with a basic sense of security.”

A Jewish concert and Havdala in Krakow, Poland, 2018

Few Jewish communal organisations existed during this time. In Poland, for example, there was essentially only the Social and Cultural Association of Jews in Poland (Towarzystwo Społeczno-Kulturalne Żydów, TSKŻ), a secular organisation which had access to the Communist leaders, and the Union of Congregations of the Mosaic Faith (Związek Kongregacji Wyznania Mojżeszowego, ZKWM) which provided religious support for the community. Moreover, as acknowledged in JPR's report, it was particularly difficult to provide such support and facilitate festival observance and participation “since even importing matzot [unleavened bread for Passover] often involved sensitive negotiations in government offices”.

In Communist Hungary, the picture was similarly challenging: educational and cultural provisions were severely limited, Jewish pro-Zionist activists were arrested, and much of Hungarian Jewish engagement, such as the bi-monthly Új Élet (New Life), had to promote the Communist party line. Any celebration of religious festivals was difficult, if not dangerous, to arrange.

The ‘low’ rates of Jewish ritual participation in Hungary and Poland, including attendance of a Passover seder, are in fact a significant leap forward

When considered in this context, the ‘low’ figures on Jewish ritual participation in Hungary and Poland that we see today, including attendance at a Passover seder, actually represent a significant leap forward. Indeed, they can be considered as evidence of a renaissance and resurgence of Jewish life in these countries, alongside other sources of evidence and journalistic claims. In Poland, for example, there are suggestions that Holocaust commemoration has helped revive Jewish life. In Hungary, major changes have taken place in Jewish society since the collapse of Communism, which have resulted in a significant increase in the number of people who are willing to identify as Jews, even if the depth of that identification is questioned by some of the more traditional elements in the Hungarian Jewish community.

Whilst the numbers for Pesach observance in Poland and Hungary have not reached the levels of those in other European countries surveyed, this is understandable given the half-century of religious suppression and persecution under Communism. And while 50% might appear to be a low rate of participation in the eyes of Jews living elsewhere, for the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe these figures are a reason for celebration – and they do, in growing numbers.

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Isabel Sawkins

Former Research Fellow

Isabel Sawkins

Former Research Fellow

Isabel managed JPR’s research panel and survey research programme in the UK. She has an MA in Political Sociology (Russia and Eastern Europe) from University...

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