Photo Credit: Rabbi Zamir Isayev’s Facebook
Rabbi Zamir Isayev’s selfie at Khoda Afarin Dam, on the international border between Iran and Azerbaijan, June 3, 2021.

The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once said, “Sharing food is the first act through which slaves become free human beings. One who fears tomorrow does not offer his bread to others. But one who is willing to divide his food with a stranger has already shown himself capable of fellowship and faith, the two things from which hope is born. That is why we begin the seder by inviting others to join us. That is how we turn affliction into freedom.”

Rabbi Zamir Isayev, the representative of Vaad L’Hatzolas Nidchei Yisrael, an American Jewish organization in Azerbaijan, described how his group shares their food with strangers during Passover: “Usually, hundreds, maybe thousands of Israeli tourists come to Azerbaijan for Passover. Some of them are from Azerbaijani families and some are regular Israelis. There are fewer these days because of the pandemic, but still, they come. We also see many Jews from Ukraine and Russia who came here. Baku and Azerbaijan are very multicultural. They know it would be safe for them here.”


Rabbi Isayev continued: “On Passover, we eat a special variety of Charoset as Mountain Jews. It’s a special variant of Charoset. We make it with apples, potatoes, and walnuts. We eat meat and rice wrapped in cabbage leaves. We eat eggs, chicken, and hazelnuts. We also do green soup and dip our matzo in it. We eat legumes on Passover, like the Sephardim.”

According to Rabbi Isayev, the atmosphere in Baku is very festive right now: “This year, Ramadan and Nissan coincide. We say to Muslims, Happy Ramadan, and they reply Happy Passover. They know it’s Passover and we give them matzo as a gift. On Novruz, a traditional holiday that celebrates the Persian New Year and the coming of Spring, they give us their Novruz sweets. After Novruz, we have Passover and give gifts to our neighbors.”

“They know that we are cleaning our homes,” Rabbi Isayev pointed out. “They’ve known for centuries, we clean our dishes. They know that we don’t eat chametz on Passover. They say Happy holiday. Friends are beginning to call and say Happy Passover, and we say, Happy Ramadan. Today, I got a call from the Ministry of Religious Committees. They invited me to go to the liberated territories the day before Passover. I told them I could not join them because I would be busy with bedikat hametz. They told me they understand and wished me a happy Passover. I wished them a Happy Ramadan.”

“Before Passover, all the Jewish communities are giving Passover food and matzos and wine and other food and special meat and chicken to the members of the Jewish community that need help. We give out a lot of gifts. This year, we’ll be giving hundreds of packages to a lot of people. Thank God, this year more than any year, in almost every community in Azerbaijan, they are doing this. Every year they do it, but this year, it’s amazing. Our organization also gives financial aid for the Seder.”

“We have a lot of opportunities to do a lot of mitzvot,” Rabbi Isayev said. “Right now, I am working on it. I already ordered three or four cows and hundreds of chickens. On Sunday, I started working very hard to provide people with kosher food for Passover, hundreds of families. In our communities, we usually do this. And every family can get free handmaid matzos from Israel.”

“I wish this Passover will end the wars and bring us peace,” the rabbi concluded. “We are very hopeful that shortly, the war in Ukraine will end and the refugees will go back home. I hope they will stop killing each other. It is hard for us, Azerbaijanis. We are a peaceful country. It is hard for us to watch, as Azerbaijan has just liberated its own territories. We know very well the meaning of war. As Azerbaijani Jews, we wish on every country to live in peace, and let peace come to every region in the world.”


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Rachel Avraham is the CEO of the Dona Gracia Center for Diplomacy and an Israel-based journalist. She is the author of "Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab Media."