409: Ending Passover with a story of an earlier hope of freedom—now fulfilled

AS PASSOVER DRAWS TO A CLOSE, we’re pleased to welcome guest writer Rabbi Bob Alper, who we described earlier as “beloved”—a term at which he poked fun in an Email. Bob doesn’t take himself too seriously—well, most of the time.
    But the truth is: Bob is beloved. And his wisdom runs deep.
    Years before Rabbi Irwin Kula conceived of his “Rabbis Without Borders,” which we wrote about yesterday, Bob Alper was jumping with both feet into all forms of emerging media.
    Blessed with a sharp sense of humor, coupled with a rabbi’s affection for “clean jokes”—and a striking resemblance to comedian Steve Martin that he worked into his routine—Bob began touring as a full-time standup comic. He’s also written books, produced a DVD and audio CDs. Here’s his Web site if you’d care to salute Bob by buying something or booking him for a future appearance.
    In recent years, Bob has become an interfaith pioneer by encouraging the careers of young Arab-Christian and Arab-Muslim comics—and frequently touring with his trademark interfaith comedy revues.
    The story Bob shares with us today has a few of his light-hearted touches, but it’s a serious story about the need to recall earlier triumphs over seemingly insurmountable odds.
    HERE IS …

By Rabbi Bob Alper

    That’s what it is. The song, “Dixie,” as in “I wish I was in the land of cotton. Old times there are not forgotten. Look away. Look away. Look away. Dixie land.”
    OK. I identified the song. But where is it coming from in this darkness? The notes sound electronic, a tinny, high-pitched tone.
    I lift my head from the pillow and catch sight of the red numbers of an electric clock. 3:51. It must be 3:51 in the morning then. And where am I? Oh yeah. In bed. In a hotel room.
    In Moscow.
    But “Dixie”? Why “Dixie”? Unless…of course. One of the watches buried in my suitcase had gone off, serenading me in the midst of a deep sleep during which the power of exhaustion had overwhelmed the power of anxiety. The watches were gifts for the Mendeleev boys. Electronic watches with all kinds of gizmos, including, on one of them, a musical alarm. That’s what aroused me at 3:51 AM in a Moscow hotel in April, 1983.
    My rabbinical school classmate Leigh Lerner was asleep in another room down the corridor. Many hours earlier he had departed from his home in St. Paul, MN, and I from Philadelphia. We met in Frankfort, then flew into Moscow for a weeklong Passover visit with refuseniks, Jews who had declared their intention to leave Mother Russia but had been denied permission to depart.
    Leigh and I came as ambassadors. Teachers. Pack rats.
    This last function was the most important as well as the most dangerous. The Soviet government, at that time under Andropov, did not look very favorably upon those of its citizens who openly declared that religious freedom was more important than the great privilege of living under Communism. Refuseniks were continually harassed, imprisoned, fired from their jobs, kicked out of schools, sometimes physically assaulted. With minuscule exceptions, they were not allowed to leave the country.

    Leigh and I arrived in Moscow with heavy suitcases and departed Leningrad nearly empty. Along our way we distributed books and toys and clothing and religious items to the people we visited. My inspection at Moscow’s airport was rigorous.
    “Why all the books?”
    “I read a lot.”
    “And the baby’s bib with Shalom written across it?”
    “For a friend in Helsinki, my next stop.”
    The agent instructed me to empty both of my suitcases while alerting his boss.
     “What are these,” the supervisor asked, pointing to a handful of mezuzzahs, small, sacred objects containing verses from the Torah and placed on the doorposts of Jewish homes. “Good luck charms,” I replied, attempting to use humor as a way of distracting him. “I’m afraid of flying. And they worked! The plane didn’t crash!”
    He was not amused.
    “Any other books?” he asked, surveying my two-foot pile.
    “No,” I replied, hoping he wouldn’t find the three small Russian-Hebrew Haggadahs,Passover prayerbooks I had placed in my jacket pocket half a world earlier. If the Haggadahs were discovered I knew I’d be in for some trouble. After all, the Russians were none too keen on Jewish readings celebrating human freedom. But with a final suspicious glare the supervisor walked away; the inspector allowed me to repack and waved me through where I caught up with a slightly less harassed Leigh.

    The next day, while visiting with a Moscow refusenik family, I was shown four 8-by-10 photographs of book pages that served as their ersatz Passover guide. I gave them one of my precious contraband Haggadahs.
    During that first encounter with refuseniks, and all through the week, I kept thinking about one of my favorite childhood books, Nathan Ausubel’s “A Treasury of Jewish Folklore.” It was a compendium of true stories and folklore, with separate sections on people who were wise, people who were holy, or witty, or droll. A chapter on righteous men and women, on martyrs, on the charitable and the mystics.
    But my favorite, the one to which I returned again and again, was the section entitled “Fighters and Strong Men.” Included among the “men” was the apocryphal story of how Judith slew the Greek general Holofernes, as well as accounts of Judah Maccabee, the Warsaw Ghetto resistance, and Hymie Epstein, a medical aide who sacrificed his life rescuing his fellow soldiers in a World War II Pacific battle.
    In Moscow I thought: As a kid I read about Jewish heroes. Now I am meeting them, face to face. Real heroes. The “Fighters and Strong Men.” I am meeting them, face to face.
    And who were they, these people of courage who defied the foreboding power of the Soviet Union, who quietly, and sometimes not so quietly, demonstrated contempt for the Communist totalitarian system? They were mathematicians and pediatricians, engineers and scientists, teachers and architects. Heroes. Strong men and women. Remarkably, surprisingly ordinary people risking, and sometimes losing everything in pursuit of freedom and dignity.

    Leigh and I spent time with the mathematician-pediatrician couple whose twin sons were fast approaching military age. We sat with the engineer who told us of his gruesome year in a prison, punishment for attending a lecture on Jewish philosophy. And we exchanged jokes and sang songs in a living room full of people whose simple social gathering their country begrudged them.
    But the most eminent, and the most interesting of the refuseniks we met, was the scientist. It took forever to reach his home by subway, then taxi. He lived with his wife and two teenage children in a distant Moscow suburb. By Russian standards theirs was a spacious, modern apartment, built for prominent people like himself. Only he was no longer very prominent. He was an outcast.
    For years the scientist headed a prestigious research institute. He was a brilliant man, well known in international scientific circles. But there came a point in his life when he decided that the Soviet Union was not the place in which he wished to live, and that as Jews, he and his wife and especially his children would be far better off in a place more hospitable to their people.
    As soon as he announced his intentions to leave he was fired from his position and continually harassed by the KGB. His applications to depart were invariably denied, placing him and his family in that refusenik limbo. Visitors like us became his lifeline, with international attention serving as his safety net against more punitive actions by the authorities.
    We learned all this during a leisurely afternoon meal in the living room/dining room that also served as the master bedroom. Russian luxury.
    In his excellent English the scientist related precisely the details of his odyssey from internationally respected scholar to pariah, the penalty for claiming his fundamental right to religious freedom. He was not self-pitying. Rather, he approached his situation analytically, speaking of cause and effect, actions and reactions, choices and the ramifications of those choices.
    Still, there was a sadness, a very constant, obvious fear, a sense of loneliness and loss, painful byproducts of following one’s conscience in the Soviet Union.

     A few weeks prior to our arrival the authorities paid one of their frequent, unannounced visits to the scientist’s home. They were annoyed with him. He was becoming a cause celebre, his name even appearing in an impassioned column by Anthony Lewis of the New York Times. It’s not good public relations, they told him, for westerners to read how Russia torments intellectuals unwilling to bear with the system. Keep your mouth shut, they warned him, or we’ll take away your library privileges. Stop meeting with Jews and others from abroad.
    A serious threat. Banned from the institute he once headed, the man had channeled his genius into historical research as a means of remaining sharp in his field despite the ostracism. Library privileges were essential. Their loss would be devastating.
    But capitulation to the KGB was out of the question. He took the risk, and warmly welcomed us as guests in his apartment.
    We spent hours at that dining table eating and drinking and exchanging pleasantries. But primarily Leigh and I simply listened to the scientist and his wife relate their story. The telling, for them, was part self-defense and also, unquestionably, part therapy.
    We were not particularly relaxed. A third presence hovered about continually: the uninvited guest, the interloper, the eavesdropper. Refuseniks took it for granted that their homes were bugged. Some were perpetually fearful. Others, like the scientist, openly and boldly contemptuous.
    In the midst of our visit there was a knock on the door.
    We had been prepared for this. We knew that occasionally the KGB or the police interrupted gatherings such as ours, sometimes kicking the visitors out of the country and imprisoning the hosts on trumped-up charges. More often, though, it was just a way to unnerve people, to remind them that they are being monitored.
    When we heard the knock our conversation ended abruptly. We looked at one other with shifting eyes and resigned expressions. No other guests had been expected, and any informal, friendly visits by neighbors had long been terminated, another of the byproducts of the paranoia surrounding this refusenik family.
    Our hostess began to rise from her seat but her husband gently placed his hand on her arm. He would see who was knocking. As he walked to the front of the room and around the corner to the entrance way I recalled what had happened three days earlier, when we first encountered the scientist on a Sabbath afternoon outside the large Moscow synagogue. I was speaking with some refuseniks when suddenly we heard shouting. Behind me the scientist was lambasting a man who quickly began to slink away. Later the scientist explained, modestly, that the person he had denounced was an informer, and that an individual has two choices: either permit such traitors to do their “work” or expose them and drive them away, even if at personal risk.
    We waited anxiously. Soon we heard a brief, muffled conversation, then the sound of the door closing.
    The scientist returned to the room, a yellow paper in his hand and a huge smile across his face. He snapped to attention, uncrinkled the telegram and began to read, “Warmest Passover wishes from your friends in Philadelphia.” It was signed by two members of my synagogue who had traveled to Russia the previous year.
    The remainder of the afternoon passed quickly, pleasantly. Leigh and I had another invitation for the evening and a long distance to travel back to the center of the city. Before we departed, though, we all participated in a quasi-ritual, an exchange of small gifts as a means of solidifying a relationship between people who care for one another’s future but quite possibly would never meet again.

     The scientist and his wife presented each of us with a set of beautiful Russian wooden folk art dolls. And we, in turn, asked if they would like us to affix a mezuzzah to their entranceway doorframe. From my pocket I took one of the mezuzzahs I had finessed past the airport guard and placed it on the table between us. Our hosts were delighted. More than delighted. They asked what would be needed, and I explained only a hammer and some small nails.
    It’s interesting, over the course of years, what one remembers following an important encounter. Looking back to that afternoon I can still feel the courage in the room, the powerful intellect, the anxiety and, I must add, modestly, the deep gratitude shown us. But what I see most clearly is the surprisingly boyish excitement in the scientist’s manner as he literally jumped up from the table and raced into the pantry to fetch the tools. His whole demeanor changed; he seemed beside himself. He was joyful.
    Knowing what I know about the scientist’s background, and knowing what I know about the nature of Jewish life under Communism, it is quite possible that our affixing the mezuzzah constituted the very first Jewish religious ceremony ever to take place in that home.
    A mezuzzah is ordinarily placed on the outside, upper right side of an entrance door. To avoid more harassment and vandalism, we creatively placed it inside the door. Leigh and I recited the blessings, ending with the words, “May the Lord watch over you when you go out and when you come in, now and always. Amen.”
    The scientist hammered the little nails, a bit clumsily. He was nervous, caught up in the moment. But he accomplished the task, and then just stood there, silent, looking at the addition to his apartment and nodding his head slowly, approvingly. Soon after Leigh and I headed back into the center of Moscow, then to Leningrad, and finally, home to our families in America.

    I corresponded with the scientist for a while. It made no sense to mail the letters since most were intercepted and destroyed. But through the lifeline of visitors we did manage to remain in touch. At one point I tried, unsuccessfully, to send him a badly needed word processor.
    By the middle of the 1980s international pressure had forced the Russians to open their gates slightly, and Jews were dribbling out. Yes, the Kremlin reluctantly announced, we will respect the desire of some to leave our country. At the same time, though, they published a list of eight people…eight particularly “valuable” people…whom they said they would absolutely never allow to leave. The scientist was on the list.
    The subtleties and complexities of international relations have always confused me. I have never quite understood just how events in that arena develop. At the same time, there is very little of the mystic in me. I’m a rationalist, not very superstitious, routinely skeptical of unusual turns of events, preferring to credit coincidence rather than something otherworldly.
    That’s why it felt very strange, late in the 1980s, to find myself sitting in a Philadelphia hotel eating breakfast with a local friend active in the cause of Soviet Jewry and our two guests. The scientist and his wife.
    It was a joyful reunion, a celebration of their release into a new, productive life of freedom. We spoke of the years of our connectedness, and they filled in the details of their final years in Russia as well as their liberation. There was a sense of unreality that morning. After all that had happened, here we were, face to face over waffles and coffee in a Philadelphia restaurant.
    But what remains with me most clearly is something the scientist told me just as we were about to say goodbye. What he related goes against my logical nature, probably goes against his scientific nature. I have meditated on this brief tale ever since hearing it.
    Almost embarrassed, with a slightly quizzical grin on his face, the modern-day fighter and strong man shared one last detail of his story, and it was this:
    From the moment, years earlier, when we affixed the mezuzzah, until the day he and his family left Russia, the KGB never returned to their home.


    Awareness of the history Rabbi Alper writes about today is fading rapidly as we approach the 20th anniversary of the end of Communism, but it was an era that shaped world values and spirituality in profound ways.
    Among the historical images today are:
This is Geoff MacCormack’s famous 1973 photo of musician David Bowie defying his Soviet minders’ ban on filming the Soviet May Day parade that year. Once they had left his room, Bowie turned his camera on through a window. Among other things, the photo perfectly captures the black-white-and-gray impression many Americans had of the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
    MAN IN DOORWAY: This photo from 1964 also evokes the era. It shows the young poet Joseph Brodsky, son of a Jewish photographer for the Soviet Navy, who felt drawn to poetry, political dissent and wound up in the Soviet prison system until he eventually came to the U.S. to teach university students. In 1987, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. (ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm was among Brodsky’s first U.S. students, amazed that Brodsky’s first assignment in his University of Michigan poetry seminar was that students memorize a Psalm.) There’s a great online remembrance of Brodsky’s resistance.
   STEEL DOORS (and Resources for Teachers and Students: These steel gates are part of the Gulag Museum, dedicated to preserving this history. You can see this photo and others thanks to the U.S.
National Park Service, George Mason University and other institutions that
have cooperated with a unique traveling exhibition on the Gulag, the
Soviet prison system. The Web site remains active with an “online exhibit,” including historical photographs and teacher resources.
    TYPEWRITER: Soviet families found many creative ways to pass around dissenting literature. Bob describes the set of photos that served as a Hebrew guidebook. Another way literature spread was through Samizdat publication—copies typed on small portable typewriters. Of course, Samizdat typewriters couldn’t type in Hebrew characters. This particular typewriter is in the Gulag museum.
    BOB HIMSELF: The photo of the installation of the mezuzzah comes from Bob’s own photo album. Finally, the photo at right in this photo-caption section shows Bob with one of the Muslim comics, Azhar Usman, with whom he sometimes tours these days.


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