Simhat Torah: Russian-Jewish stories about the holiday - excerpt

Rabbi Jonathan Porath didn’t make countless trips to Russia. He counted them – 175 trips from 1965 through 2019. The following is an excerpt from his book centered primarily on Simhat Torah.

 ANNOUNCEMENT OF ‘Hanukkah in Siberia’ winter festival in Tumen, Siberia, December 1995. (photo credit: Courtesy)
ANNOUNCEMENT OF ‘Hanukkah in Siberia’ winter festival in Tumen, Siberia, December 1995.
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Rabbi Jonathan Porath didn’t make countless trips to Russia. He counted them – 175 trips from 1965 through 2019, spanning the entire modern-day experience of Soviet and post-Soviet Jewry. His book, Here We Are All Jews: 175 Russian-Jewish Journeys, published last month by Gefen, recalls some of the most memorable incidents from that remarkable series of trips. In honor of this week’s holiday, The Jerusalem Post is proud to share the following excerpt, centered primarily on Simhat Torah. Some slight edits have been made to better fit the current format.

Elie Wiesel’s book on Soviet Jewry – The Jews of Silence: A Personal Report – electrified a generation, especially younger Jews. His report on his 1965 visit to five cities in the Soviet Union during the High Holy Days was nothing less than earthshaking. 

As Glenn Richter, the founding national coordinator of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, wrote, “For my contemporaries in high schools and universities in the 1960s, Wiesel’s passionate outcry was the first of three shocks that would galvanize our nascent public student Soviet Jewry movement into a tidal wave of action. Wiesel ended The Jews of Silence thus, ‘What torments me most is not the Jews of silence I met in Russia, but the silence of the Jews I live among today.’”

Not yet the icon he would later become, Wiesel reinforced his written, searing recollection of his visit with Jews in the USSR in talks to our Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) members. We immediately connected with him and his message.

A year after The Jews of Silence was published, the Six Day War propelled us into a deep-rooted connection with Israel and our own Jewish identities. And when, a year later, Arthur Morse’s While Six Million Died exposed the relative silence of our parents’ generation during the Holocaust, we vowed that our generation would not be guilty of the same sin.

 KEEPER OF a hidden Torah scroll in Orenburg, Russia, 2008. (credit: Courtesy) KEEPER OF a hidden Torah scroll in Orenburg, Russia, 2008. (credit: Courtesy)

Wiesel was our moral compass. In between our numerous demonstrations at the Soviet mission to the UN, the SSSJ produced a stark white-on-black lapel button challenging the Jewish community that asked, “Are We ‘The Jews of Silence?’”

Wiesel’s description of Simhat Torah in Moscow was breathtaking and overwhelming, particularly the scene of thousands and thousands of Soviet Jewish young people filling Arkhipova Street in front of Moscow’s Choral Synagogue in a demonstration of Jewish identity, feeling and joy. I was incredulous. I had visited Moscow not so long ago and did not see a hint of such numbers, especially among younger Jews. I had met older folks but almost never any of my contemporaries. Who were they? Where did they come from? What propelled them to come to a synagogue for a Jewish holiday?

Did you ever read a book that changed your life? I had. Directly as a result of reading The Jews of Silence, I resolved to return to Moscow for Simhat Torah and to see for myself. This decision led to my meeting Wiesel and our forming a decades-long personal friendship. 

“He who has not witnessed Simhat Torah in Moscow has never in his life witnessed joy!”

Elie Wiesel

Moscow Simhat Torah diary

“He who has not witnessed Simhat Torah in Moscow has never in his life witnessed joy!” When I read Wiesel’s words echoing the Talmudic description of Sukkot celebrations in the Temple in Jerusalem thousands of years ago, I knew I had to see the celebration with my own eyes. I had traveled nearly 5,000 miles from the US for this one evening. Would I experience that joy as well, or had I come in vain? Perhaps what Wiesel had seen a few years ago was the exception, and no one would show up this year. There was no way to know other than to be there.

As I recorded in my diary for Sunday evening, October 14, 1968: “I arrived at Arkhipova Street in front of Moscow’s Choral Synagogue at 5 p.m. The crowds have already begun to gather. They are of all ages; the older folks go inside, while the younger people remain outside. The interior of the synagogue is foreign territory to them, unfamiliar and unwelcoming, while the dimly lit street has become a giant Jewish pedestrian mall. Standing amid the masses who are streaming there that night makes it seem somehow ‘safe,’ almost tolerated by the authorities. Surrounded by throngs of people, I feel a sense of intimacy, like being at a giant outdoor family wedding.”

The previous year, the authorities had set up giant Klieg lights in front of the synagogue to illuminate and expose the crowds, to discourage and frighten them off, but not this time. Activists reported that government agents were there as well, monitoring the crowd, but we do not care.

I am standing in the crush with only a modest knowledge of Russian, looking in vain for an English- or Hebrew-speaker, when a guitar suddenly appears, and we start to sing. It begins to get joyous. We grasp hands on shoulders and circle around and around to the music. Familiar words flow from my mouth: “David Melech Yisrael,” “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem,” “Hava Nagilah,” “Am Yisrael Chai.” They ask me to lead them. I sing and so do they.

In the fervor of the moment, a crowd gathers around me, and I switch to Israeli songs from the Six-Day War: “Machar,” “Sharm e-Sheikh,” and even “Exodus.” I sing “Yerushalayim shel Zahav” (Jerusalem of Gold) in Hebrew – and they sing it in Russian: “Zalatoy Yerusalim.”

“How do you know that?” I ask.

“We listen to the illegal Israeli radio station Kol Yisrael [Voice of Israel] every night,” they reply.

The swell of the crowd is too great, and we break off into a smaller group. I teach them a Chabad song I had learned: “Nyet-ne bayus ya nikavo; tolka Boga adnavo” (“I am afraid of no one, only of the one God”)!

I deliberately whisper the phrase about God, fearing that such songs are off limits and even seditious in the Soviet Union, but in the spirit of Simhat Torah, 19 Soviet Jews in the street that evening are not afraid. They are delighted, and exuberantly shout out, over and over again: “Tolko boga adnavo! Only one God! Only one God!”

I am startled, even a bit fearful, but they are not. I suddenly recall that the synagogue is located only a few blocks away from Red Square, and I could imagine Lenin turning over in his mausoleum grave at the sound of Jews praising God not far from the Kremlin.

My newfound Russian Jewish friends invite me to lead them in singing the same songs over and over again. I meet a 26-year-old girl from the town of Ufa near the Ural Mountains, and greet her with “Shalom!” She says that this is her first time at synagogue in her life and asks me what that unfamiliar word means. She had never heard “shalom” before, and so I teach her: “Zdrastvuyte, da-svidaniya, mir” (“hello, goodbye, peace”).

The entire street is packed from top to bottom, with perhaps 15,000 people or more, including staff from the US Embassy who have come to monitor the event. As there are very few foreigners present, we end up meeting each other. One of them says that from all of the festivals and celebrations he has witnessed during his time in the USSR, including May Day and the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, none compares with the heartfelt joy and spontaneity of Simhat Torah.

His Jewish wife adds that she has been to synagogue more in their year in Russia than in the previous 10 years of their marriage. They were sent to observe but ended up as active participants. He invites me to stop by the US Embassy before I leave, which I eagerly accept. 

As I stand amid the throng, a young man approaches me and begins to whisper a familiar phrase in my ear: “Modeh ani lefanecha” (I thank you), the words of the morning prayer. I ask him how he knows it and he says that his grandmother from Riga taught him. 

 DANCING WITH Russian Jews in Leningrad synagogue, 1973. (credit: Courtesy) DANCING WITH Russian Jews in Leningrad synagogue, 1973. (credit: Courtesy)

I ask him if he believes in God, and he answers “yes.” 

“But aren’t you also a Young Communist,” a member of the state-run Komsomol youth movement? How can you still say you believe in God?”

He responds with a smile: “We all believe in God. We just say that we don’t!” 

Under the Soviets 

He asks me to sing “Avinu Malkeinu” (“Our Father, Our King,” from the High Holy Day services) together with him. Perhaps I have a spare Magen David neck chain? he asks. Regretfully, I had none left to give him. It begins to rain, and we gather under an umbrella. The main synagogue building had closed its doors at the conclusion of services hours ago, but the festivities continue unabated in the street. 

This is the one night of the year when younger Jews, in particular, have the chance to be Jewish and to be proud of their Jewishness, and they want to keep it going as long as possible. I am buffeted with questions. 

“Why did you come to Russia? Is there antisemitism in the US? How old are you? Where are you traveling next?” 

One topic particularly excites them. “What is it like living in Israel?”

I ask them, almost disbelievingly, “Is it really true that I am in Moscow? Can this all be happening to us this evening?” 

When I tell them that in the entire Jewish world, no one is celebrating Simhat Torah with as much heartfelt abandon as we are here tonight, they rejoice even more. A tall, imposing young man stands at the edge of our circle of celebrants. 

Turning to him, I ask, first in Hebrew: “Ma shlomchah?” (“How are you?”) He does not reply so I repeat the same question in Russian. “Kak dela?” Again, no answer, so I ask, “Why won’t you speak to me?” which finally elicits a response. 

He looks down at me almost disdainfully and says proudly, “Ich bin a Yid” (“I am a Jew”)! He wanted to speak only in Yiddish. This is his expression of his special Russian Jewish pride. I admire his steadfastness.

The end is drawing near, but the singing and joy continue unabated. At 11:15 p.m., unmarked police cars begin driving slowly up the street in front of the synagogue to signal to the crowd that it was time to disperse. Finally, at a quarter to midnight, one of my new-found friends says to me, “Yonatan, it is time for you to go.” 

Jewish power versus Soviet power

With great reluctance, I make my way back to my hotel, overflowing with tremendous feelings of joy and exuberance that I have never experienced in my entire life. I can barely fall asleep from so much excitement and emotion. 

Elie Wiesel was right. If I hadn’t come to Moscow for Simhat Torah, I would have never known what true joy and simcha are. My entire trip was worth it just for this evening and I must return again. Only, I feared that I was witnessing the demise of Soviet Jewry, the last gasp of a dying community. 

In this unprecedented public Simhat Torah gathering, allowed only once a year for a few hours, they are permitted to be Jews; however, on all of the other days of the year, it is totally forbidden. It was inconceivable to me that Simhat Torah could ever compete with, much less triumph over, Soviet power. As events were to unfold, it turns out that I was wrong, but for that, only time and future events would tell. 

The exultation and national renewal in the wake of the Six Day War would catalyze and embolden the demands of thousands upon thousands of Soviet Jews to leave. It would culminate, within the lifetime of many of those with whom I danced on that Moscow street more than 50 years ago, in their exodus to Israel or the West. 

Even for those Jews who decided to remain in the former Soviet Union after the fall of communism in December 1991, these Simhat Torah moments were precious and life-shaping. In the course of conversations in Moscow years later with Jewish academics and professors, many described their first contact with the Jewish people at these Simhat Torah gatherings back in the late 1960s. Perhaps we were even together in the crowd that evening. Only God knows. 

I arrive at the synagogue the following morning at 10 a.m. The mood is festive and joyous. Today it is the turn of the older crowd. Unlike the previous day, today they all speak with me. There is no fear or unease. This is the only day like it the entire year. 

I am flooded with questions. “Where are you from? What do you want to be?” They are very impressed when I tell them I am studying to be a rabbi. 

“Why don’t you speak Yiddish?” they ask me. “Are you married? If you are single, why are you wearing a large tallit?” the prayer shawl that in some communities is usually worn only by married men. I open my shirt to show them my tallit katan (mini-tallit) that I always wear. One of the men breaks into tears at the sight. 

The Guest

Rabbi Yehudah Leib Levin (the rabbi of the Moscow Choral Synagogue until his death in 1971) notices me and refers to me as “The Guest.” They honor me, together with others, as one of those chosen to begin anew the reading of the Torah, which is completed on a yearly cycle. I am not certain how much Torah will be studied that year in the Soviet Union, but we did, at least, mark a symbolic renewal. 

“How do you like our Simhat Torah in Moscow?” I am asked repeatedly. On this day they want to feel like every other Jewish community around the world. I assure them over and over again that it is truly wonderful. They are so happy to greet me, a visiting Jew from the West. I tell them that we have not forgotten them, and they love hearing that. 

Many are gathering outside as well, where they request a spare siddur (prayer book) or tallit. Unfortunately, I have none left to give. No one realized it then, but following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Jews of Russia and the former Soviet Union would indeed resume their place among the world’s Jewish communities.

Their Simhat Torah yearnings would ultimately be fulfilled. Some college-age students have assembled in the street. Three of them speak to me in Hebrew. They are desperate to immigrate to Israel. As we walk, they are constantly on the lookout for the KGB. They stop and check every few steps. One of them stuffs his local address into my glove and returns it to me. 

The words of the Torah echo in my ears: “Don‘t stand idly by the blood of your brothers” (Leviticus 19:16) and “Whoever saves one life is as if he has saved the entire world” (Mishna, Sanhedrin 4:5).

I must do something to help them when I return home. I speak with Nina, who also came last evening. She is also a member of the Komsomol youth league and sees herself as a loyal Soviet citizen. She trusts what is reported in Pravda, the daily, state-run newspaper. She can’t explain why so many Jews were in front of the synagogue last evening, including herself. Supposedly, 90% of Soviet citizens don’t believe in God, but after last night, it is hard not to believe.

As we walk the Moscow streets, Nina is very wary about approaching my hotel. It is dangerous for her to be seen there. Later on that day I meet with David from Poltava, Ukraine. We speak entirely in Hebrew, which he had learned from his father. They have been studying the Bible in the original for the past dozen years, ever since he was 13. He contends that life for a young Jew in Russia is satisfactory.

The big problem is not the government, rather assimilation and the lack of desire of Jews to affirm their own. Here is an undeniably Jewish young man who is not sure if he believes in God or not, a member of the Communist Party and a loyal Soviet citizen who recognizes “the advantages,” in his words, of the communist system. I wonder how many more like him there are in the Soviet Union.■