There is a certain degree of vanity in novelists, authors of factual books, essayists, serial writers of letters to the editor, and journalists.
We all like to see our names in print – and as often as possible.
But some of us tend to go overboard.
No one who has worked with Rabbi Jonathan Porath, or who traveled with him to Eastern Europe, especially the countries of the former Soviet Union, when the Soviet Union still existed, can doubt the importance of his work in encouraging Soviet Jews to reclaim their Jewish heritage and identities and assuring them that they have been neither abandoned nor forgotten by the Jewish world.
Nor can anyone doubt the enthusiasm that he displayed in helping Soviet Jews to become absorbed in Israel – especially in his own Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramot.
Anyone even remotely involved in the struggle for Soviet Jewry will find something in his book Here We Are All Jews with which they can identify or which will stir a memory.
But Porath’s overuse of the personal pronoun, his quoting of his own writings and speeches, and compliments that he received, tend to mar what would otherwise be an important contribution to a record of contemporary Jewish history.
The narrative would have been much more effective without so many references to what he wrote and said, even though he gives a lot of credit to others.
Just as people born after the establishment of the State of Israel tend to take it for granted and don’t exhibit the fervor of the generation that labored to bring it into existence, so the generation born after the fall of the Iron Curtain takes it for granted that people whose Hebrew, English or any other language is laced with a strong Russian accent are immigrants like any others.
Porath’s book reminds us that they are not, but he may have been overly keen to tell his first-person story.
The struggle for Soviet Jewry
Like people caught up in the struggle for Soviet Jewry, Porath was influenced by Elie Wiesel’s book The Jews of Silence, published in 1966 and written after Wiesel, an Auschwitz survivor, had spent time in the Soviet Union speaking to anonymous Jews who had survived the religious and cultural genocide perpetrated by Stalin and those who came after him.
Many of the people he met told him of persecution and the risks they faced in celebrating Jewish holidays, even though they knew very little about Jewish rituals or history. Yet they clung to whatever they did know, and wanted to know how Jews in other countries were faring.
While their ID cards stated that they were Jews, many were afraid to tell neighbors or colleagues at work that they were Jewish. It was a factor that they could not completely escape or deny.
It was to this environment that Porath made the first of 175 trips, initially as a tourist, then leading youth groups from the United Synagogue Movement, and later as an employee of the Joint Distribution Committee.
His last trip, four years ago, was with a group of grandparents, some of whom had traveled with him as students so many years earlier.
Most of the book is devoted to visits taken before the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and many of the episodes recounted are repetitive, which presumably can’t be helped but could have done with a finer-tooth comb of editing. Similarly, there are also certain episodes in Porath’s life that are relevant to him but are irrelevant to the nature of the book and should therefore have been omitted.
YET, FOR all its flaws, the book serves as an important reminder that Jews living in the free world, who had not done enough for fellow Jews during the Holocaust, joined forces despite their many differences to bring about the freedom of Soviet Jewry.
Those who did go to the Soviet Union will remember how eagerly foodstuffs, clothing, toys, religious books and artifacts and words of encouragement were received.
Sometimes the religious books and artifacts were confiscated by customs authorities before they could be delivered, and stern warnings were issued about smuggling.
Visitors will also remember that when it was not easy to locate Jews, the Jews found them, as was the case with the reviewer of this book, who telephoned a Soviet Jewish activist who arranged to meet her in a park near her hotel.
“How will I know you?” she asked.
“Don’t worry,” he assured her. “You’ll know me.”
She entered the park, and suddenly a man wearing a trench coat appeared in front of her and began to open his coat.
OMG, she thought, a Russian flasher!
But no, he was wearing an Israel Army Radio T-shirt.
“I told you that you would know me,” he said, laughing.
Similar incidents occurred to other Jews visiting the Soviet Union, which is why the book, despite its flaws, will be of great interest to anyone who was there or was part of a support movement. Such readers will want to know what happened next and whether Porath met some of the people whom they had met in different parts of the USSR.
The important message of the book is that regardless of the degree of antisemitism, attempts to eradicate the Jewish people, and the time frame of isolation from the rest of the Jewish world, there is always a remaining spark that rekindles revival.
It happened after the Holocaust; it happened after centuries of Jewish exile from the ancestral homeland; and it happened with Soviet Jewry, just as it did throughout Jewish history.
Here We Are All JewsBy Rabbi Jonathan PorathGefen Publishing House238 pages; $24.95