During my interview with authors Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy for the Israeli launch of their book, Never Alone, at Jerusalem’s Beit Avi Chai (broadcast on its Facebook page) on September 15, we touched on the fact that the book ends at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. “Most of the book was written before corona, even though it has that wonderful title, which is saying even if you’re in quarantine, you’re never alone,” said Troy, noting that Sharansky had done a three-minute video on “Tips for Quarantine” that went viral.
What prompted Sharansky to write his fourth book with Troy, which took some three years? He said over the course of his nine years in a Soviet prison, nine years as an Israeli cabinet minister and Knesset member and nine years as chairman of the Jewish Agency, his mission in life had always been clear to him. “I tried to build bridges between Jews in the Diaspora and the State of Israel,” he said.
Reflecting on whether Israel and the Diaspora were now converging or diverging, Sharansky decided that he had to write about it. “It is an attempt to show the importance of the dialogue between Israel and the Jewish people, and to make the case for why our desire to be together and continue this journey together is stronger than all our differences and debates and disagreements, which are in abundance,” he said.
Asked how they came up with the title, Troy said, “The original title was “999,” because of [Sharansky’s] nine years in the Jewish Agency, nine years in Israeli politics, and nine years in the Gulag, and he sometimes jokes, ‘I don’t know where I suffered the most.’” Sharansky interrupted, laughing: “I know – in the government!”
Troy said that after they had signed a book contract, he brainstormed for a better title with journalist David Suissa in Los Angeles, telling him, “One of the most powerful passages in the book is how Natan describes being in the Gulag for nine years... and the KGB keeps telling him, ‘You’re forgotten, you’re abandoned, you’re alone, give up!’ And he keeps on saying, ‘I won’t give up.’ And he explains why: ‘Because I knew I was never alone.’” Suissa jumped out of his chair, declaring, “That’s it!”
“For 75 years we have been obsessed with ‘Never Again.’ And of course we have to honor the sacred memory of all the martyrs of the Shoah, but now – [there is] the opportunity, the challenge, especially to the next generation,” Troy explained. “And this book is really written for the next generation. It’s dedicated to [Sharansky’s] grandkids and my as-yet-unborn grandkids.... The challenge is to understand that when you’re part of this amazing network of values, of stories, of history and most important, of a people called the Jewish people, you’re never alone. And the broader message to everyone in the West is that when you belong, when you have a sense of identity, you cannot just be this isolated, anonymous, atomized individual, the I-I-I, the me-me-me, but you’re also part of an ‘us.’ You’re never alone.” I reminded Sharansky that the book’s theme resonated with sentiments he had expressed in his first article in the first issue of The Jerusalem Report in October 1990, published just before Sukkot. In a piece called “A family affair,” he wrote, “The bond I felt with the Jewish people helped stave off the loneliness of life in prison, even life in the punishment cells.” The article ended on a note of hope. “For all our diversity, we Jews are one small family.” It is an apt message for this Sukkot under a pandemic that affects us all.