Natan Sharansky’s real-life Hanukkah fairy tale - opinion

Sharansky’s story counters the lie our foes – and some fellow Jews – peddle about Judaism, Israel and Zionism today.

NATAN SHARANSKY speaks at the 2018 Jewish Agency Board of Governors conference in Jerusalem. (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
NATAN SHARANSKY speaks at the 2018 Jewish Agency Board of Governors conference in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
For those of us born free, we mouth the words “Hanukkah’s the holiday of freedom” but don’t really know what they mean.
The only time I tasted what it was like to be free was after three weeks of unfreedom visiting refuseniks in the former Soviet Union for Passover. When we finally passed the Soviet border patrol – with our smuggled lists and letters from Elie Wiesel, the Israeli authorities and the pro-Soviet Jewry organizations – we breathed a little easier. But it was only when our Swissair jet took off that I felt lighter, freer, aware of my little taste of hell I was leaving behind.
I asked my coauthor, Natan Sharansky, about Hanukkah during his nine years in the gulag. It was impossible to celebrate when you were in isolation or in a punishing cell, but when you were in a labor camp, life improved slightly. One December, one of his friends even made a wooden menorah for him and they found some candles.
On the sixth night, returning from his work assignment, Natan discovered that the authorities had confiscated his menorah.
“A camp is not a synagogue,” they sneered. “We won’t permit Sharansky to pray here.”
Fighting for his rights, Natan declared a hunger strike, protesting “the violation of my national and religious rights, and against KGB interference in my personal life.”
On the eighth night, Natan was called in to Maj. Osin’s office. Knowing that inspectors were coming soon, Osin tried sweet-talking Natan, promising there would be no more interference.
“Okay,” Natan said, “give me back the menorah and I’ll end the hunger strike.”
Osin was already committed to seizing the menorah, so they were at an impasse.
Enjoying the major’s heated office, Natan mischievously proposed a compromise. Osin could find the menorah and they could light it right there. Sharansky could then abandon the menorah as the holiday was ending.
Like a Russian Tom Sawyer, Natan soon had Osin cutting the one big candle they could find into eight little candles. Wanting to prolong the warmth – and the farce – Natan insisted that Osin say the prayers with him, too – with a head-covering. Natan donned his prison cap; Osin, his big, KGB-style fur ushanka hat.
Lighting the candles, Natan uttered his usual improvised prayer about reuniting with his wife, Avital, in Jerusalem. Then, “inspired by the sight of Osin standing meekly at attention,” he added in Hebrew: “And may the day come when all our enemies, who today are planning our destruction, will stand before us and hear our prayers and say ‘Amen.’”
Osin the clod echoed back “Amen.” They stood watching the candles till they had all burned out – and melted all over his table. Natan returned, spread the news throughout the camp, and was punished within days – for that, and his more usual “crimes” of defiance.
Sharansky’s story counters the lie our foes – and some fellow Jews – peddle about Judaism, Israel and Zionism today. Those who claim that Judaism is “just” a religion have to acknowledge the power of peoplehood, of national pride, that courses through that story, just as those secular types who say the religion is meaningless, should admit the tale’s spiritual, theological magic.
In fact, the entire holiday refutes all these false choices. Try telling the Hanukkah story without any religious dimension, or while pretending the Jews are not a people with a national consciousness, or while claiming we have no ties to the land. The fight was about our freedom of religion. The Maccabees were nationalist warriors. And the Temple that had to be purified was in Jerusalem in Eretz Israel, the land yearning to be liberated.
Similarly, try telling the Hanukkah story as an either-or fanatic, choosing only freedom or only identity, only liberalism or only nationalism. Hanukkah reminds us that we need freedom just as we need the air we breathe; it represents the world of possibilities and open doors. But we also need our own particular identity, just as we need the substantive food that sustains us, just as we need guardrails and milestones, maps and a sense of mission, in the journey of life once the doors swing open.
And through it all, we feel blessed by that sense of Jewish national consciousness, that Zionist sense of peoplehood, that reminds us that wherever we are, whatever challenges we face, when we are part of this amazing network called the Jewish people we are never alone.
NATAN TOLD his story as we filmed an episode of “Drinking with Adam” (Bellos) for Wine on the Vine. I noted how remarkable it is that despite my never having suffered, spending the 1980s studying history at Harvard, and Natan’s having spent much of the ’80s suffering in the gulag, we remain ideologically on the same page.
Natan wondered: “Who really suffered most?” He quipped: “In the gulag, I had moral clarity; at Harvard, there was moral confusion.”
How sad that our universities so often fail to stand for moral clarity – or for open, critical inquiry. And how unnerving that the problems transcend partisanship, as cancel culture on the far Left oddly parallels the bullying totalitarianism of the far Right.
But how lucky we Jews are to have this holiday of freedom, along with freedom fighters in our own lives who stand up for personal liberty, for national identity, for the constructive, creative confusion of both – and against the false choices so many wish to impose on us.
Happy Hanukkah.
The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University and the author of nine books on American history and three on Zionism. His book Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, coauthored with Natan Sharansky, was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.