Books: 'Open Up the Iron Door'

Rabbi Avi Weiss tells the story of the struggle for Soviet Jewry from an insider’s perspective.

Rabbi Avi Weiss (center) during a memorial service last year near the United Nations headquarters for Eyal Yifrach, Gil-Ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel. (photo credit: REUTERS/LUCAS JACKSON)
Rabbi Avi Weiss (center) during a memorial service last year near the United Nations headquarters for Eyal Yifrach, Gil-Ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel.
At age 70, Rabbi Avi Weiss is still bucking the establishment. It’s something he’s been doing nearly all his life, and he’s not about to stop when he’s on the verge of retiring from leadership of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx, New York.
For someone who has been involved in a series of protest movements, has been a civil rights activist both in his native US and abroad, has been arrested for holding fast to his principles and creating a disturbance in the process, and has been ostracized by certain sectors of the New York Jewish community while simultaneously being hailed by others as the best thing since sliced bread, Weiss is remarkably soft-spoken – almost hypnotic in the gentleness of his tone. Despite the fact that he was born and raised in New York, his accent is devoid of the brash twang characteristic of the city.
For the purpose of this interview, we are two people alone in the coffee shop at Jerusalem’s Beit Avi Chai. The coffee shop no longer functions as such, although there is a hot water urn, tea, coffee, milk and sweetener for staff members who want to make their own beverage.
There is no intrusion of other people’s high-pitched conversations, and no waiter or waitress disrupting us; we have the place entirely to ourselves.
Weiss is visiting his father, who lives around the corner from Beit Avi Chai; he’s also meeting people who want to talk to him about his latest book, Open Up the Iron Door: Memoirs of a Soviet Jewry Activist, published by Toby Press.
Open Up the Iron Door, employing an anecdotal strategy, tells the story of the struggle for Soviet Jewry. Several times during the interview, Weiss stresses that the book, which took 25 years to contemplate and two years to write, is not about him, but the people he considers to be the real heroes – the Jews who lived and struggled to maintain their Jewish identity in what is now the former Soviet Union. These countless anonymous people around the world together became a powerful movement, “almost an extended family,” dedicated to the migration of Soviet Jews from an environment of oppression to one of freedom.
Weiss was just one of the players in that movement, he says; he just happened to be a little more visible than some of the others.
An early leader among others such as Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, Weiss credits the late Jacob Birnbaum with being the founding father of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry.
Birnbaum died in April 2014 at age 87, almost exactly 50 years after bringing the plight of Soviet Jewry to world attention.
Weiss also gives credit to Glenn Richter, who helped to run SSSJ from when Riskin was chairman of the movement, “and worked for virtually no pay for 25 years.”
It was what Weiss terms “an amcha movement,” a movement of regular people who individually and collectively achieved a major victory so miraculous that it was almost equivalent to the biblical parting of the Red Sea.
Indeed, its plea was identical to that of Moses when he beseeched Pharaoh to “Let my people go.” That plea became a global demand expressed in demonstrations outside Soviet consulates, embassies and airline offices around the world, and outside theaters in which artists from the Soviet Union were performing.
It was not that Jews were unaware of what was happening to their brethren in the Soviet Union; they just weren’t doing much to change the situation. It was the 1963 March on Washington led by Martin Luther King Jr. that sounded the wake-up call for American Jewry and subsequently for Jews around the world.
Weiss has no doubt whatsoever that the global struggle for Soviet Jewry is rooted in the American Civil Rights Movement, which had numerous Jewish supporters; as well as in a sense of guilt that not enough was done to save European Jewry from the clutches of the Holocaust.
These two factors became a powerful force, as did the melody composed by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach to the words Am Yisrael Hai – the Nation of Israel lives – which became the anthem of most of the organizations engaged in activities aimed at freeing Soviet Jewry.
Some of the activists, both in the Soviet Union and the free world, became household names, but most were what Weiss calls “humble heroes.”
Throughout our conversation, Weiss repeatedly mentions “the movement” – and it is difficult to tell when he is specifically referring to SSSJ and when he is referring to the wider global effort. With hindsight, he reflects, “You had to have a naïve belief that small people could overcome a superpower.”
While acknowledging the dedicated and tireless endeavors of people from the West, some of whom put themselves at risk when traveling to the Soviet Union to meet with refuseniks and provide them with prayer books, literature, religious artifacts and care packages, Weiss insists that “the real heroes were not the Jews of the West, but those of the Soviet Union.
“They were the real heroes,” he declares, singling out names such as Natan Sharansky, Yosef Mendelevich, Yosef Begun, Ida Nudel, Mark Dimshitz, Edward Kuznetsov and Sylva Zalmanson.
So many of these Soviet Jewish heroes whose names were so well-known in the 1970s have faded into obscurity. The only ones still at the forefront of the Jewish world are Sharansky, who is chairman of the Jewish Agency; and Yuli Edelstein, who is speaker of the Knesset.
ONE OF the things that prompted Weiss to write the book was the thought that it was important that these heroes – who for so long had been deprived of their Jewish heritage, which they gradually reclaimed following their sense of pride in Israel’s victory in the Six Day War – should not be forgotten, and that future generations of young Jews should be aware of how the courage of these Soviet Jews impacted on the development of the modern State of Israel.
Something else that prompted him from an American perspective was that almost every book which has been written about the struggle was written by someone from outside the movement, not from within. Although some very fine writers have told the story, to Weiss – as someone who was at the heart of the action – a certain authenticity was missing. It was that essential difference between a bystander and a participant.
“It was important to write a book that was by someone in the movement and not outside the movement,” he says.
He would be very happy if more participants – not only from the US and the FSU but from around the world – would record their own stories for posterity, to demonstrate how world Jewry came together in a unity of purpose.
In the spirit of two Jews/three opinions, there were of course differences in approach, but as far as Weiss can remember, there wasn’t the internecine strife that is so prevalent today among various Jewish organizations. In those days, Jews on all sides of the political spectrum put aside their differences as they worked for the common cause.
Weiss credits Avital Sharansky – the wife of Natan, who campaigned so steadfastly for his release from a gulag prison – with being the glue for that united stance.
What also helped greatly was the Jackson-Vanik Amendment proposed by Democratic congressmen Henry Jackson and Charles Vanik which under the 1974 Trade Act, curtailed trade relations between the US and countries restricting human rights and freedom of emigration.
The many demonstrations organized by the movement and through the American National Conference on Soviet Jewry, which encompassed 153 Jewish federations and more than 300 network communities, were against not only the government of the Soviet Union, but also that of the US – for not doing enough to facilitate the emigration of Soviet Jews.
Weiss and many other activists can never forgive then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger for having said in a conversation with president Richard Nixon – which Nixon secretly recorded – that if Jews were put into gas chambers in the Soviet Union it was not an American concern. That conversation took place on March 1, 1973, following a meeting Nixon and Kissinger held with then-prime minister Golda Meir, who asked America to put greater pressure on the Soviet Union so Jews could receive exit visas.
Two of Weiss’s favorite anecdotes revolve around Sharansky. One concerns his voice: Sharansky was not blessed with a good singing voice, and according to what Weiss was told by Avital, whenever he wanted to annoy his captors, he raised his voice in song.
Towards the end of 1985, Weiss, Mendelevich, Washington Institute fellow and former Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief David Makovsky, then chairman of the World Union of Jewish Students, Moshe Ronen, who was WUJS vice chairman in North America, and WUJS member Steven Feuerstein were arrested after invading Soviet airline Aeroflot’s office in Geneva and staging a sitdown strike while chanting Psalms. Weiss produced a credit card, saying he would pay for the emigration of Soviet Jewry.
When the Aeroflot people were unsuccessful in getting them to leave, they called the police, who arrested all five – but not before Mendelevich leaped up and pasted a photograph of Sharansky on top of that of Vladimir Lenin, one of the architects of the Soviet Union. He then turned around and held up his arms in a victory gesture, like that of a prize fighter.
Weiss is convinced that the Soviet Jewry movement contributed greatly to the fall of Communism. “We made a mistake in giving so much honor and hefty speaking fees to [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev [who initiated the policies of glasnost and perestroika], instead of to the Soviet Jewish heroes,” he asserts.
One of his most heartwarming anecdotes was told to him by Yosef Begun, who said that when he was in prison he often talked about the exodus from Egypt, drawing a parallel between the biblical saga and the situation of Soviet Jews at the time. As he spoke, he noticed that someone was sketching illustrations of what he had been saying. They were very beautiful, and Begun was impressed.
The story continues that Begun was released from his third and last stint in prison in 1987, arriving in Israel a year later. He was attending an event soon after when a young man in IDF uniform came up to him and said: “Don’t you recognize me? I’m the one who illustrated your lecture, and you inspired me to come to Israel.”
Weiss hopes that his book will inspire people to become involved in a cause, preferably a human-rights cause. Soviet Jewry was not the only civil rights cause he embraced.
The book itself is in the nature of a civil rights cause. Weiss is not keeping any of the profits for himself, but is donating them to former Prisoners of Zion who are living in poverty.