TRADITION TODAY: Let my people go!

Dedicated to the memory of Prof. Arkady and Mrs. Helen Mai – two brave souls whom I first met in Moscow in 1977 and then, several years later, welcomed to Jerusalem.

OLIM FROM the Soviet Union right after their arrival at Lod Airport in 1972. (photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)
OLIM FROM the Soviet Union right after their arrival at Lod Airport in 1972.
(photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)
During Sukkot this year, I suddenly realized that exactly 40 years ago I spent Sukkot in the Soviet Union where I had been sent by Israel on a mission to meet with refuseniks. I was one of many who undertook that task during those years.
Israeli citizens who were also American citizens and could therefore travel to the USSR easily – as long as we were able to pretend that we were not Israelis and that we lived and worked in the United States. In other words, we were technically spies who lied to the Soviet government and, if caught, could have been imprisoned or, if lucky, thrown out immediately. I met my American partner in Amsterdam, where he brought me a ticket as if I had flown with him from New York.
I mentioned this to two young Israeli men – one aged 18 and just out of high school, one a few years older just out of the army, and I was taken aback when I discovered that they had no idea what I was talking about. The entire saga of the movement to free Soviet Jewry was unknown to them. Perhaps they had once heard about it, but they really did not know what it was about. Why did Russia persecute Jews? Why couldn’t they leave? When I thought about it for a moment, I realized that for them what happened 40 years ago was like going back into ancient history. Yet since they are graduates of good Israeli high schools and come from an educated family, it seems strange to me that this was not part of their educational experience. It should have been.
In any case, the story of Soviet Jewry is an integral part of Jewish history and should not be allowed to be forgotten.
When I was on that trip – the first of three to the USSR – I wrote an account of what I encountered. I would like to share with my readers a brief excerpt, just as I wrote it then: “We found the apartment we were looking for and the door was opened by the man who was in charge of seminars in Moscow. Tall, grey-haired with glasses, he had the distinguished look of an important person. He was a prominent history professor who had not been allowed to teach for years and was unable to obtain an exit permit. He invited us in to meet his family and friends. As in all the apartments we visited, anything of true importance had to be communicated in writing, not aloud. We had tried to phone him, but the number we had been given back in Israel was answered by someone who had never heard of him. ‘I have no phone anymore,’ he replied. ‘They took it away many years ago, just to make things a little harder I suppose.’ “His wife was a smiling, sparking woman, somewhat younger than he. He was solemn – a true professor. She was all fire and gaiety. Her conversation was full of laughter and wit. Her English was excellent, good enough for her to be a professional translator. She could understand some Hebrew, but she said, ‘My speech is poor. Perhaps when I get to Israel – if I get there – I will improve.’ She laughed a bit as if there were nothing sad in what she said. Actually a history of eight years as a refusenik lay behind her words.
“The professor’s conversation was replete with an exact analysis of the situation of Russian Jewry and Russia in general, how Russia had failed to provide a new, reformed society for its members.
His wife was occupied with other things, with an active program to achieve the goal of aliya to Israel and artistic projects of translating works of fiction.
“They were to take us to the apartment where the lecture would take place. They asked, ‘Where shall we say you are from?’ ‘Introduce me as an American.’ ‘Will you answer questions about Israel? You need not be afraid. It is not illegal. It is not forbidden to have a seminar as long as we do not criticize the government.
Of course the flat is bugged and there are probably agents in the audience. Just be careful.’ “As it turned out, the audience was mostly young people, many of whom knew Hebrew, and some older couples as well. The lecture lasted for two hours.
I spoke in Hebrew, which was translated into Russian. The subject was ‘The Oral Tradition.’ Some questions were about the topic, others about Israel. What was the economic situation? How were the peace talks going? What concessions was Israel making? Were Russians finding jobs? The opportunity to lecture at a Moscow seminar is an honor not to be turned down and an experience not to be forgotten. If there is anywhere where Jews really want to learn something, it is there.
“One day as we were walking together through Red Square on our way to meet other activists, the professor’s wife remarked, ‘Many people are leaving now. We live fairly close to the airport. I try to go and see them off. Can you imagine what it is like to watch your friends leave and then go back to Moscow again?’ It was a picture that did not leave my mind for a long time.
“When we finally left the USSR, my feelings were a mixture of tremendous relief, yet of loss at leaving behind so many friends and of guilt at being able to go. I kept wondering if I would see them again in the land of freedom. I remembered what my friend had said about having to stay behind. What a terrible wrong it is that in this world she does not have the right to simply board a plane and leave the land of oppression. This is a situation that is not to be accepted or forgotten.
“A few hours later when I sat on an El Al plane in Amsterdam waiting to take off for Tel Aviv and the announcement came that the plane was ready to leave for Israel, I suddenly found myself crying quietly. No one saw, but I could not stop for some time. Why the tears? For myself and my ability to return. For all of those I had left behind.”
The writer is a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and a member of its Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. He is a two-time winner of the Jewish Book Award whose latest book, Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (JPS) has recently been published in Hebrew by Yediot Press and the Schechter Institute