Friday, November 13, 2009

A blurring of lines?

Only in Israel story 683:

You randomly find yourself watching Channel 24, Israel's version of MTV.

The country's leading music critic, a secular and openly gay man, is interviewing a "born again" Breslov Hassid, clad in full hassidic garb, about his new album, the style of which is clearly influenced by the Hebrew version of Bob Dylan.

These two men represent in many ways opposite poles of Israeli society, Jerusalem versus Tel Aviv, but their conversation is polite, warm, about the interviewee's 7 kids, grandchildren, pilgrimage to Uman, musical inspiration, current movie project...

I think it's happening more, this meeting across the chasm, people who've crossed the line in either direction from religious to secular, from secular to religious. Look at journalist Dov Elboim who left the Haredi lifestyle but has focused his work on bringing a Jewish religion and culture to mass media. Likewise the many popular musicians who've become closer to their Jewish roots and in so doing have brought about the current trend for recording albums based in some way on traditional Jewish sources, be it Bari Sakharov's rock songs whose lyrics are taken from religious poetry or Ehud Banai's full on lovingly recreated recordings of authentic Jewish liturgy.

I don't entirely know what this all means, how deep it all is, how much is simply a Jewish veneer to pop culture or a trendy veneer layered over traditional practices. I'm not sure it really matters. I believe though that it's good, a correction of sorts for the anti-religious, in many ways anti-Jewish, atmosphere of the '50s and '60s, or even the fashion for corny pseudo-parody of Hassidic music and stories in the '70s.

Where will it lead? I never claimed to be a prophet, but anything that is making even a limited percentage of young Israelis look again at their rich heritage is good in my book.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Childhood Heroes

I was sitting and nursing Junior Junior this afternoon when his big sister snuggled up to me.

She has restless hands and restless eyes, everything must be read, touched, learnt. She picked up the newspaper lying on the sofa and eyed the colourful ad for the Herzog College, advertising BA courses in various subjects, Bible, Hebrew Literature, Jewish Philosophy and the like.

5,4,3,2,1 wait for it...

Right on cue:

"What is this about Ima?"

So I explained, maybe, one day, when she is a big girl, well, a teenager, well probably after National Service or The Army, she could go to college and perhaps choose one of the listed subjects for study.

"But Ima, I want to study all of them! Children have more interests than grown-ups, we want to learn everything."

OK, well, that's my girl, boundless thirst for knowledge in one high energy package.

"But what if you could only choose one?" I say, curious if she'll pin down one subject, most of which I'm pretty sure she doesn't understand.

The Little Person runs her finger down the list, pauses at Tanakh, slips down to Jewish Philosophy and settles on Hebrew Literature.

I ask her why she chose that. I'll like it, says she confidentally, and patently hasn't a clue what subject she's chosen. "What is it?"

So I explained, which led to her grabbing a poetry book from the shelf, which turned out actually to be a Hebrew song book, which had a line "and if in Moscow the gates are locked" and that led to me explaining what Moscow was and why the gates might be locked.

And before I knew it, I had spent the evening trying to explain the story of the Soviet Jewish Refuseniks to my almost 4.5 year-old.

"So you told the Soviets שלח את עמי(let me people go) just like Moshe said to Paro'?" Well not me personally...

"So Uncle is a hero?" Well, I guess so.

Amazing that today almost no one seems to remember or talk about it, one of the greatest stories in modern Jewish history, well, I think, in history in general. It's been boiled down to an Israeli foreign minister with a Russian accent.

When I was my daughter's age though the Campaign for Soviet Jewry was without doubt one of the greatest influences on my life.

No, I'm not Russian, but the plight of my Jewish brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union was as much part of growing up in the 70s and 80s as Star Wars and Maggie Thatcher.

I thought that all families spent weekends and afternoons demonstrating outside Soviet missions, making non-stop phone calls to Aeroflot offices and shouting out during performances of the Bolshoi Ballet all with the message "Let My People Go שלח את עמי".

I thought joining a pro-Soviet Jewry rally outside the UN while visiting New York was a standard tourist thing to do.

I thought all children were concerned with the fate of their Soviet Jewish peers, writing them letters and drawing them pictures, when they were older trying to penpal with them, while teachers and parents carefully coached us what to avoid so as not to attract the attention of the Soviet censor.

I thought that it was normal for friends and relatives to go off to the Soviet Union with Hebrew books smuggled between the covers of popular best sellers, tallitot hidden in coat linings and audio Hebrew lessons disguised as classical music recordings.

I thought everyone had family and friends who met with Soviet dissidents, writing down incriminating information in invisible ink for fear of "outing" more potential contacts to the KGB.

It seemed like the most natural thing in the world: my uncle went, friends' parents went, shul rabbis went, teachers and neighbours went.

Looking back I remember so many sermons relating to the topic at shul on Shabbat. Our rabbi, or a guest rabbi, giving a talk about his experiences secretly minstering to Soviet Jews while on a visit behind the Iron Curtain.

My heroes had names like Sharansky, Volvovsky and Gurevich. And Andrei Sakharov too, even though he wasn't Jewish, but he wanted freedom for the Soviet people too.

And my uncle.

He was my hero too, going of to Brezhnev's USSR with his innocent boyish smile and stash of Hebrew books and tzitzit, returning like a dutiful tourist with armloads of cheaply produced Soviet propaganda books about Lenin and Communism, matrioshka dolls, a big fur hat (he did visit Moscow in January!) and for me, a big doll in Russian national costume made from a flimsy, brittle plastic.

Didn't everyone have an uncle who ran a hardware store in his ordinary life, but secretly played at being a Cold War spy to procure freedom for Soviet Jews?

The day in February 1986 when Natan, or as he was then Anatoly, Shcharansky, went free is engraved on my mind as if it were now. The entire school gathered in the gym and one of the teachers turned on the television while we watched breathless as the great man himself crossed over from the Iron Curtain to freedom. Some of the grown-ups had tears in their eyes and even the littlest children who didn't quite understand what was happening got caught up in the excitement and emotion of the event.

How many kids today have even heard of him, let alone know who he is, his incredible story?

My daughter will though, if I have anything to do with it.

This evening I pulled down the self-published book a friend of my uncle's about the exploits of London Jewry to help Soviet Jews, full of photos of the ordinary people who went on missions to the USSR, so many familiar faces, so many stories I remember hearing around the family dinner table.

Flipping through it with my daughter helped to make the story of the Refuseniks seem real. She was amazed to see her great uncle looking so young (so much hair, such funny frames on his glasses, she commented), but most of all she was fascinated by the photos of Soviet Jewish children, especially in the secret Jewish kindergartens.

"Is that what children looked like then?" She asked, "You all wore such different clothes, did you look like that then too?"

"Why didn't you go with Uncle to visit the children?"


Israel didn't have diplomatic relations with the USSR then (I should say it was really the Soviets who didn't have diplomatic relations with Israel), so much of the practical campaign went on in the diaspora, where Jews could use their foreign passports to travel to Russia, and where there actually were Soviet missions to demonstrate in front of.

I wonder if in part that's why the Campaign for Soviet Jewry seems to forgotten in Israel, or whether it's just been eclipsed by some of the more troubling problems elements of the mass Soviet aliyah seem to have brought with them.

The recent horrific murder of a Russian immigrant family in Rishon Letzion by a Russian former employee settling scores has only added to the already severely tarnished image of the emigre community here. As a friend remarked recently, "is this what we fought for?"

So nothing in life is ever simple, but just because nothing comes without problems, doesn't mean that the struggle to help the Refuseniks was pointless.

I was thinking how a few years back we spent Simhat Torah with cousins in Gush Etzion, and there dancing with the Sefer Torah in their shul was an older Russian man. I heard someone call out his name and realised that he was one of the Refuseniks my uncle visited in Moscow, now living a vibrant Jewish life in Israel with his family.

A couple of years later I literally ran into him while again visiting my cousin. This time by chance my uncle was with me and the beaming former Refusenik grabbed him in a bear hug.

Then there is the guard at my kid's school, sweet older guy from Uzbekistan. One day I happened to have a visiting friend with me at pick-up time and we got chatting with the guard while waiting at the gate. When he mentioned he had grown up in Bukhara my friend's eyes went wide and she started reminiscing about her journey behind the Iron Curtain back in the 70s in aid of Soviet Jewry, including a stop in Bukhara.

The guard's eyes lit up. "We never gave up hope, at every meal my grandfather concluded grace by telling us that one day we would merit living in the Holy Land." He grinned at us "And here we all are."

I'm pretty sure that's what we did it for.