Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Let Freedom Reign
Our dinner at a very nice Jerusalem restaurant consisted of appetizers of fried and stuffed mushrooms, stuffed artichokes and spicy Moroccan fish. The main courses were steak, burgers and chicken. Dessert was halvah parfait and lemon tart, tea and coffee. And a very nice bottle of Israeli wine. On the surface, it was a nice evening out for two couples, friends whose relationship goes back more than two decades. Over dinner, as much as I enjoyed visiting and catching up with David and Anna, seeing photos of their kids and finding out what they are doing, and reciprocating about our family, talking about work and recent job changes, politics, and a little reminiscing of stories past, I couldn't help but recognize that this visit was worlds away from our first meeting. Thursday October 1, 1987, I had just landed in Moscow with a friend, Michael. This would be my second trip to the Soviet Union for the express purpose of visiting and helping Jewish refusenicks (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Refusenik), Jews who were brave enough to submit a formal application to leave the USSR, flagging themselves for all sorts of problems socially, legally, politically, and professionally. Despite optimism from perestroika and glasnost, the USSR was still an oppressive society where the cloud of fear and mistrust loomed as a huge as the vast reach of the Kremlin itself. This was especially the case for Soviet Jews whose struggle for freedom had ebbed and flowed along with the tide of international affairs, and who were definitely feeling the heel of the decades of oppression in spite of much publicized hopes. In all of 1987, fewer than 1000 Jews were given permission to leave the USSR. Most of them were long term refusenicks. My trip that October was initially intended to launch the process of marrying a woman my age whose family I had adopted some years earlier. After years of correspondence, I finally met the Steins 1985. I proposed marriage with the hopes of using that as leverage to get her and her family out of the USSR. That year, they were four among the lucky few who had already received permission to leave, and actually had left that summer, so my trip became about helping others. (See the following links for video and stories as background about this chapter of my life, the first from ABC News anchored by Ted Koppel March 25, 1988: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AKu_UyoAHtw , and the second a research project about which I was the subject http://www.js.emory.edu/BLUMENTHAL/Kate.html) Back to Moscow 1987. We arrived two days before Yom Kippur for a seventeen day journey that would take us through Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev and Odessa, and encompass both Yom Kippur in Moscow, the first days of Sukkot in Leningrad and then back in Moscow for Simchat Torah which had become a celebrated outlet for Jews to express their Judaism, under careful watch of the KGB. Toting a new address book in which I had transcribed all my contacts, long before this could be done electronically, I opened it to look for the names of the refusenicks I was to contact, who had been entered among all my friends, family, and others, in code, so that the KGB would neither suspect me nor be able to identify who I was supposed to visit. We followed careful instructions as to which pay phones were believed to be relatively safe to use and not draw attention upon ourselves, or those we were calling, even though it was common belief that no call was really safe from KGB ears. Within hours we were off to meet the Lurie family, long term refusenicks whose matriarch had been allowed to emigrate, but the rest of the family had been refused. Anna, the oldest daughter, had recently married David, a young Jewish activist, and we became instant friends. Getting to know them I felt that David’s story sounded familiar, but wrote it off to my several prior years of involvement and activism. We went about the rest of our visit including being the first to see the legendary Ida Nudel hours after she received her permission to emigrate. Our audio tape of that visit and the accompanying photos showed her immediate transformation from an oppressed slave of the Soviet system to a free woman. We shared a taxi to the synagogue for Yom Kippur eve services, and she left the following week. With the exception of this euphoric experience, most of the rest of the visits with dozens of refusenicks we met were less upbeat. They were appreciative of our help and being there, but still felt the fear and oppression that existed, and they desperately yearned to be free. Our last night in the USSR was back in Moscow, both to be ready to leave on our flight home and to be there for the Simchat Torah experience. Thousands filled the street outside and hundreds, maybe thousands, more inside Moscow’s then only “functional” synagogue. Those outside either could not get inside, did not want to be branded as a potentially bigger troublemaker by actually entering the sanctuary, or were just having too much fun where they were. It was said that the scene outside the synagogue on Simchat Torah was like a big Jewish singles event, resulting in many matches being made. Based on the demographics, that was probably true. But the scene outside was also the meeting point of older Jews, married and not, those who had applied to leave, and those who just wanted a taste of Judaism. We bumped into several leaders of the refusenick movement there, a virtual who’s who of Moscow’s Jewish community. Drawn to some festive singing and guitar playing, we noticed our new, old friend, David, at the center of a circle, guitar in hand, leading in Hebrew songs, something that in and of itself could have been punished by trumped up charges and a prison sentence. But the Jews of Moscow felt just free enough that festival, as they had in the past, to push the envelope, just a little. For a few hours each year, Moscow’s Jews experienced a hint of freedom. Yet the KGB watched very closely and, when they were ready, gave the order to close down the festivities. As we walked from the Archipova St. Synagogue together with David and Anna, saying good bye but not knowing when we might see one another again, I started giving David things that we really didn’t need. Among them, my long wool coat that was keeping me warm in the cold Moscow pre-winter. Initially David refused, but I insisted. I told him to take it, and sell it on the black market if he needed money. He liked that idea as, rather than keeping the money himself, he’d use it to buy an amplifier for his guitar so that when they had clandestine festive Jewish gatherings full of song and dance, more people would be able to hear from further away. David and Anna were allowed to leave not long thereafter. By then, Daniel was born, and they had to leave their families behind initially, not knowing when they’d see them again, but also not knowing when there might be another chance to leave. Now that they were parents, it was all the more urgent that they be free, so they could raise a new generation of Jewish children in Israel, in freedom. After they made aliyah, they visited me in the US, and I’d visit them in Israel. Though we don’t make the opportunity to see one another often enough due to the complexities of life, kids, work, etc, at least today we have the freedom to do so as now we’re living only 45 minutes from one another. Some time after David and Anna were in Israel, I discovered why, when I had met them some years earlier, his story was familiar. It turns out that David was the subject of a 1982 article in Hadassah magazine, the very one my mother read to our family over dinner one night that had inspired me to become active. We learned that David and I share the same birthday, and that Anna’s birthday is the same as our wedding anniversary. Other than the nostalgia of dinner with David and Anna, our story, and reliving my past involvement in the Soviet Jewry movement, it is a story that is particularly relevant this season, on the eve of Passover, the festival of freedom, the celebration of the Jewish redemption from slavery in Egypt. Our tradition teaches that Jews must observe Passover, reliving the Exodus of thousands of years ago as if we, too, were slaves in Egypt. That’s a very hard to do today, unlike in my day when Jews were still largely enslaved in the USSR, Syria, and in other corners of the world. It’s hard to feel as if you ARE a slave leaving Egypt thousands of years ago, when the concept of a refusenick, modern Jewish persecution and enslavement, the idea of living in fear, and even a black market to deal in wool coats to sustain Jewish life is one that is completely foreign and unimaginable. Even the children of these brave Jews who resisted Soviet oppression and assimilation, those living in Israel as free and proud Jews integrated with my kids and the rest of Israeli society, don’t fully grasp the struggle their parents had to endure to bring them to a life of freedom in Israel. As we celebrate this festival of freedom and redemption, looking back on ancient history as if it were the present, it’s important to remember that freedom has a price, but that no matter the price, it is far less than the value. In addition to teaching us about suffering of generations past, Passover teaches us to appreciate our freedom, and never to take it for granted. May we be privileged to have the freedom to continue to recount our redemption as if we had been redeemed ourselves, never actually knowing what that was like. May we have the ability to celebrate festivals together with friends and family, as well as long overdue reunions, but be mindful not to take these for granted, even though we have the freedom to do so.