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When I became Jewishly woke

Jewish rights. Human rights. They go together like Russian on corned beef.

People take part in a march crossing the Brooklyn Bridge in solidarity with the Jewish community after recent string of anti-semitic attacks throughout the greater New York area, on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020 in New York.  (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

(RNS) — I miss Simchat Torah — the unsocially distanced version. It is the only Jewish holiday that actually has the word simcha, joy, in it. I miss dancing with the scrolls, the music, even the sacred chaos that is part of it. In some communities, it even has its share of drinking, making it a kind of autumn equivalent to Purim.

But, of all the many times I was in synagogue for Simchat Torah, none could possibly compare with the greatest Simchat Torah celebrations in Jewish history.

Let me bring you back to the former Soviet Union. Come with me to synagogue in Moscow on Simchat Torah.

To use a phrase out of season — why was that night different from all other nights?

Because on all other nights, the Jews of the Soviet Union could not publicly express their Judaism. For some reason, the Soviet authorities turned a blind eye to the revelry on Simchat Torah. The Jews would gather in the synagogue and dance with the scrolls and party on into the night.

I thought of that recently — and not only because Simchat Torah is coming — I am thinking of a woman who died last week. Her name was Ida Nudel. She died at the age of 90. She was just 4 feet 11 inches tall — and yet, she was one of the tallest Jews of our time.

Nudel was the leader of the refusenik movement — that movement of Russian Jews who had been refused permission to emigrate to Israel.

The Soviet Union had forbidden Jews to live Jewish lives. It was illegal for Jews to engage in public Jewish activities. It was illegal for Jews to learn Hebrew.

Moreover, it was illegal for Jews to try to leave the Soviet Union and to make aliyah to Israel (or to move to America). To apply for permission to emigrate meant you would lose your job — and a great deal more than that.

Jews banded together in underground support groups. They taught each other Hebrew and Torah. When they did these things — engaging in activities that too many of us would characterize as mundane — they were risking years in prison or labor camps.

How did world Jewry, especially American Jewry, respond?

The Shoah had traumatized us and not only because of the loss of the 6 million.

What had traumatized us was another kind of loss — the loss of our voices. We had been silent. American Jews sat by and watched when Jews died.

This time, we would not be silent.

Thus was born the entire Soviet Jewry movement. (Check out this history — amazing). 

It was a grassroots movement — the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. Note the word “student.” In his autobiography, Yossi Klein Halevi describes the first time he met Glenn Richter, the charismatic leader of the movement. It was on the streets of Borough Park, Brooklyn.

“We are in a war to save a quarter of the Jewish people. You can make a difference. This time we won’t be silent.”

That was how I spent my early teen years — not being silent. Those are, in fact, my earliest Jewish memories. I went to Soviet Jewry rallies and marches. I boycotted Pepsi because they sold to the USSR and not to Israel.

I made posters, adorned with the photos of refuseniks and Prisoners of Zion, including and especially Yuli Edelstein and Natan Sharansky, who are now major Israeli political figures. (In his recent book with Gil Troy, Sharansky tells us he was not ritually circumcised until he was 25 years old. TMI? I think not. Brit milah was illegal).

In the 1970s and 1980s, many rabbis, Jewish leaders and ordinary Jews visited the Soviet Union. We did not go as tourists. We went on clandestine missions to help refuseniks. Those were the most intense experiences of our Jewish lives. I personally went on that journey in 1983 — it was during the height of the oppression of Soviet Jews — secretly teaching Hebrew to Russian Jews, and seeing antisemitic and anti-Israel posters on sale in bookstores.

The movement was so famous the late Gilda Radner, in her guise as the perpetually clueless Emily Litella on “Saturday Night Live,” could say: “What’s this I keep hearing about Soviet jewelry?”

On Dec. 6, 1987, 250,000 protesters marched in Washington. We demanded from the Soviet Union: Let our people go! President Ronald Reagan sat down with the Soviets’ Mikhail Gorbachev and asked him: What are you going to do about this?

And the gates opened. 

What was the secret sauce of the success of the Soviet Jewry movement?

For many years, Ida Nudel worked on behalf of imprisoned Soviet Jews. In 1978, she put a banner in her apartment that read: “KGB, Give Me My Visa.″ That simple act won her a four-year vacation in Siberia.

One of her closest friends was Jane Fonda. Fonda visited Nudel during her four years of exile in Siberia, and the actress said of her friend: ″I thank her for teaching me one very important thing: to never lose hope.” 

Jane Fonda is not Jewish.

Let me share a personal memory with you. When I visited refuseniks in Russia in 1983, Mary Travers, of Peter, Paul and Mary, was part of our entourage. She sang for the refuseniks in their tiny apartments.

Mary Travers was not Jewish.

Let me remind you of former Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson from the state of Washington. Jackson fell in love with the cause of Soviet Jewry. He and then-U.S. Rep. Charles Vanik of Ohio sponsored the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which denied the Soviets favorable trading status until they allowed Jews to emigrate.

Neither Scoop Jackson nor Charles Vanik was Jewish.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered these words in 1966:

We cannot sit complacently by the wayside while our Jewish brothers in the Soviet Union face the possible extinction of their cultural and spiritual life. Those that sit at rest, while others take pains, are tender turtles and buy their quiet with disgrace. … The denial of human rights anywhere is a threat to the affirmation of human rights everywhere.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was not Jewish.

Those 250,000 people who marched in Washington for Soviet Jewry?

Surely, not all of them were Jews. No way.

Recall that classic advertising campaign: “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s rye bread.”

You didn’t have to be Jewish to care about the struggle of Jews in the Soviet Union.

As Yossi Klein Halevi said to me yesterday: “The genius of the Soviet Jewry movement was to bring together Zionism and human rights — ‘let my people go’ with ‘let my people live.'”

Soviet Jewry — the survival of the Jewish people and our right to live full Jewish lives — was not just a Jewish issue.

It was a universal human rights issue.

One universal human right is to not be the victim of libels.

So, here is some good news.

Twenty years ago, in the days before 9/11, there was the infamous conference in Durban, South Africa — the World Conference Against Racism. The theme of Durban was basically that Israel was uniquely responsible for racism.

Durban was an international Woodstock festival of Jew-hatred — complete with souvenir anti-Israel T-shirts; stacks of antisemitic literature, including “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” featuring hooked-nosed Jews, their fangs dripping with blood; and flyers with Hitler saying: “If I had won, there would be no Israel, and no Palestinian bloodshed.”

All of that was a souvenir of the Soviet war against the Jews, and against Judaism, and against Israel.

This week, there is another conference at Durban, with what appears to be the same agenda.

At Israel’s urging, more than 30 countries are boycotting this year’s conference.

Because they refuse to sit back and listen to lies about Israel and the Jews.

If I could only invite King to our sukkah, I would ask him to repeat these words:

Those that sit at rest, while others take pains, are tender turtles and buy their quiet with disgrace. … The denial of human rights anywhere is a threat to the affirmation of human rights everywhere.

That is why I will never, ever be silent again.