When I became a Jew I woke up
I miss Sim’hat Torah – the non-socially distanced version. It is the only Jewish holiday that contains the word simcha, joy. I miss dancing with the scrolls, the music, even the sacred chaos that is part of it. In some communities, it even has its share of drink – making it a sort of autumn equivalent to Purim.
But, of all the many times I was in the synagogue for Simhat Torah, none could compare to the greatest Simhat Torah celebrations in Jewish history.
Let me take you back to the former Soviet Union. Come with me to the Moscow synagogue on Simhat Torah.
To use an off-season expression, why was this night any different from every other night?
Because every other night Jews in the Soviet Union couldn’t publicly express their Judaism. For some reason, the Soviet authorities turned a blind eye to the Sim’hat Torah celebrations. The Jews gathered in the synagogue – and danced with the scrolls and partied into the night.
I’ve been thinking about it recently – and not just because Simhat Torah is coming. I am thinking of a woman who died last week. His name was Ida Nudel. She died at the age of 90. She was barely 4’11 “- and yet she was one of the tallest Jews of our time.
Ida Nudel was the leader of the refusnik movement – a movement of Russian Jews who had been refused permission to emigrate to Israel.
The Soviet Union had banned Jews from living a Jewish life. It was illegal for Jews to engage in public Jewish activities. It was illegal for Jews to learn Hebrew.
Additionally, it was illegal for Jews to try to leave the Soviet Union and make aliyah in Israel (or move to America). Asking for permission to emigrate meant you lost your job – – and more than that.
Jews banded together in underground support groups. They learned Hebrew and Torah. When they did these things – engage in activities that too many of us would call mundane – they were risking years in prison or in labor camps.
How has the global Jewish community, especially the American Jewish community, responded?
The Shoah had traumatized us, and not just because of the loss of the six million.
What had traumatized us was another kind of loss – and it was the loss of our voices. We had remained silent. American Jews would sit and watch when the Jews were dying.
This time we would not be silent.
It was a popular movement – the Student struggle for the Soviet Jewish community. Note the word “student”. In his autobiography, Yossi Klein Halevi describes his first meeting with Glenn Richter, the charismatic leader of the movement. It was in the streets of Borough Park, Brooklyn.
âWe are at war to save a quarter of the Jewish people. You can tell the difference. This time we will not be silent.
This is how I spent my first teenage years – without being silent. These are, in fact, my earliest Jewish memories. I went to Soviet Jewish rallies and marches. I boycotted Pepsi because they were selling to the USSR and not to Israel.
I made posters, adorned with photos of refusniks and Prisoners of Zion, including and especially Yuli Edelstein and Natan Sharansky, who are today major Israeli political figures. (In his recent delivered along with Gil Troy, Sharansky tells us that he was not ritually circumcised until he was 25. TMI? I do not think so. Brit Milah was illegal).
In the 1970s and 1980s, many rabbis, Jewish leaders and ordinary Jews visited the Soviet Union. We did not go there as tourists. We carried out clandestine missions to help the refusniks. These were the most intense experiences of our Jewish lives. I personally made this trip in 1983. It was at the height of the oppression of Soviet Jews – secretly teaching Hebrew to Russian Jews and seeing anti-Semitic and anti-Israel posters for sale in bookstores.
The movement was so famous that the late Gilda Radner, in her perpetually distraught Emily Litella guise on Saturday Night Live, could say, “What do I always hear about Soviet jewelry?”
On December 6, 1987, 250,000 demonstrators marched in Washington. We demanded from the Soviet Union: let our people go! President Reagan sat down with former Soviet Premier Gorbachev and asked him: what are you going to do about it?
And, the doors opened.
What was the secret sauce for the success of the Soviet Jewish movement?
For many years Ida Nudel worked on behalf of imprisoned Soviet Jews. In 1978, she put up a banner in her apartment that read, âKGB, Give Me My Visa. This simple gesture earned him four years of vacation in Siberia.
One of her closest friends was Jane Fonda. Jane visited him during his four years of exile in Siberia. Jane said of Ida: “I thank her for teaching me a very important thing: never to give up hope.”
Jane Fonda is not Jewish.
Let me share a personal memory with you. When I visited refusniks in Russia in 1983, the late Mary Travers of Peter Paul and Mary was around us. She sang for the refusniks in their small apartments.
Mary Travers was not Jewish.
Let me remind you of Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington State.
Senator Jackson fell in love with the cause of Soviet Jews. He and Congressman Charles Vanik of Ohio sponsored the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which denied the Soviets favorable trade status until they allowed Jews to emigrate.
Neither Scoop Jackson nor Charles Vanik were Jewish.
Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. presented these words in 1966:
We cannot remain complacent by the wayside as our Jewish brethren in the Soviet Union face the possible extinction of their cultural and spiritual lives. Those who rest, while others go out of their way, are tender turtles and buy their silence with shameâ¦ Denial of human rights everywhere is a threat to the assertion of human rights everywhere.
Dr. King was not a Jew.
Those 250,000 people who marched in Washington for Soviet Jews?
Of course, not all were Jews. Certainly not.
Remember that classic ad campaign: “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s rye bread.”
You didn’t have to be a Jew to care about the struggle of the Jews in the Soviet Union.
As Yossi Klein Halevi told me yesterday: âThe genius of the Soviet Jewish movement was to bring Zionism and human rights together – ‘let my people go’ with ‘let my people live’.
The Soviet Jewish community – the survival of the Jewish people and our right to live a full Jewish life – was not just a Jewish issue.
It was a universal human rights issue.
A universal human right is not to be a victim of defamation.
So here’s some good news.
Twenty years ago, before September 11, there was the infamous Durban, South Africa – the World Conference on Racism. The theme of Durban was essentially that Israel was solely responsible for racism.
Durban was an international Woodstock festival of hatred of Jews – with anti-Israel souvenir T-shirts; piles of anti-Semitic literature, including The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, featuring hook-nosed Jews, their fangs dripping with blood; flyers with Hitler saying, “If I had won there would be no Israel and no Palestinian bloodshed.”
It was all a memory of the Soviet war against the Jews, and against Judaism, and against Israel.
On September 22, there will be another conference in Durban, with what will apparently be the same agenda.
At Israel’s request, more than thirty countries are boycotting this year’s conference.
Because they refuse to sit down and listen to lies about Israel and the Jews.
If only I could invite Dr. King to our sukkah, I would ask him to repeat these words:
Those who rest, while others go out of their way, are tender turtles and buy their silence with shameâ¦ Denial of human rights everywhere is a threat to the assertion of human rights everywhere.
That’s why I’ll never, never be silent again.