RITA CHARLESTEIN talks to Aba Taratuta
Interview with Rita Charlestein
Rita Charlestein (from Philadelphia) took a very active part in the struggle for the freedom of Soviet Jewry
and their right to make Aliyah. Lives in Philadelphia and in Israel. She was interviewed by Aba Taratuta in Jerusalem on May 2004.
My name is Rita Sue Charlestein; I am known as Rita. I was raised in New York by parents who loved Israel and to whom a Jewish education was all-important. I was sent to a Jewish Day School and learnt to speak Hebrew at an early age; I was fluent by the time I was ten or eleven years old.
There was a tremendous emphasis on music, Israeli music, at my school and, without my realizing it at the time, this music connected me to Israel and the Jewish people. My parents were not orthodox and we were raised in a Conservative home where we went to the Synagogue for Holy Days and sometimes for Shabbat. We kept Kashrut and I always had a sense of belonging to the Jewish people, that I was part of a chain, part of a continuum. I felt, on some level, a responsibility to my Judaism. At the time it was not a conscious understanding; I was too young to realize it then but when I look back, I can see that this connection offered me a sense of stability and security. I knew that I was part of an incredible people, a people with a history, a people that gave me pride in being born Jewish.
I was never an activist. I was afraid of political activism; I was afraid of large groups of people and my parents were convinced that I would get hurt in such groups. Even after the start of the 1967 war and everyone else was going to Washington to a major rally of support from Israel, I was not allowed to participate. I was certainly affected by the over-protectiveness of my parents so that it was only after I left home that I began to feel free to do as I wanted.
How did I get involved with Soviet Jewry? It really began with my ex-husband, Gary Trauftein who felt that, when we got married, in 1970, it would be great to go to Moscow and Leningrad for the festival of Simchat Torah.
I was a student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem at the time and we planned to leave for the Soviet Union from there. I was actually quite frightened and, interestingly, we kept quiet about our intentions It was early days and we had no plans of where to go or whom to visit. My husband just felt the need to be in front of the Moscow Synagogue on the eve of the festival. It was, in fact,exactly the time that the Leningrad “Hi-Jacking” trials were taking place.
Now, imagine this: I was in my dormitory at the University when the telephone rang. When I answered, I was asked my identity and then instructed to go to Tel Aviv that very day to the Foreign Office. I was given a time to be there……3pm. My husband and I were very puzzled but did as we were told.
The whole experience was like something out of a movie. We found ourselves in an office with tables full of written materials; Jewish books, history books, Russian books and so on. The man we met never told us how he’d found out that we were going to the Soviet Union but the fact remains that he tracked us down. The Foreign Office is really something! We were shown the books but were not instructed which to take. We were just told that all these publications were important and we were to take what we wanted. It was clear to us that we were to take with us as many as we were prepared to take.
This, to me, felt like a spy story. Here I was, brought up in a background of “don’t go to rallies; you may get hurt”and about to take printed materials to the Soviet Union which could have me imprisoned for 10 years! But I simply forgot about all the things that worried my parents and had a tremendous feeling of safety and security. It seemed crazy but I was ready to go with the flow and simply do what was necessary.
We took dozens of books; we took books on Zionism, we took books on Jewish history, we took Jewish calendars. Everything was either in Hebrew or in Russian….and I knew not one letter of the cyrillic alphabet!
Just as we were ready to leave, we were called back and given an assignment; we were to find out as many details about the Leningrad trials as we could. We were asked to find out the name of the prosecuting attorney, what was going on in the court room, who was involved, in short, everything possible was to be found out by us. We were told that “ We have to know.” Here, in Israel.
So here I was, 20 years old and having lived in an insular world all my life, only to find myself in the position of a Zionist spy! We weren’t even sure what to do with this information. However, we got back to my dormitory on the university campus, carrying a suitcase full of printed material to take with us to Russia.
Aba Taratuta: There were no direct flights from Israel to Moscow in those days, were there?
Rita Chalestein: No, we went via Bucharest and that was a story in itself because, somehow, I found Jews in Bucharest who wanted to emigrate to Israel. I also found Jews who were afraid to apply for visas but just wanted to learn Hebrew. I sat with some of them till two o‘clock in the morning and taught them Hebrew songs. How this happened is a mystery to me. It seems that G-d sends me and the people are just there!
A.T.: How long did you stay in Bucharest?
R.C.: We were there for two or three days. We had to change flights and sleep over. In those couple of days I found Jews who were learning Hebrew secretly and I sat with them in their apartments lit by candlelight. There were students and older men; we went to apartment after apartment. It was again, like a scene from a movie as I sang for them and taught them how to read Hebrew with the aid of the book “A Thousand Words“.
In the short time we were in Bucharest we also met Jews who had already got permission to go to Israel, as well as meeting some who were at the airport, about to board their flight to Israel. To me it felt like something out of “A Thousand and One Nights”.
By this time I felt more than ready to go to the Soviet Union. You may be wondering what I’d done with all the printed material from the Foreign Ministry, all those Russian books. I put them in my underwear; I hid them on my body. I was wearing a girdle and this made it possible to put books on my stomach, books on my hips, books on my back; I had books everywhere.
It didn’t occur to me that, when I got to the airport, I could be body-searched from top to bottom. But, for some fortunate reason, nobody even looked at me and I walked right through Immigration carrying all the books untouched.
That was my first experience with Soviet Jewry. I was in Moscow for three days and Leningrad for three days. I was, in fact, in Moscow for the festival of Simchat Torah; I was there with Shlomo Carlebach, I was there with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, I was there with World Jewry.
A couple of amazing things happened on that trip. Firstly, I did get information about the trial. People stand in front of the Synagogue and it’s terrifying because you realize that you don’t know whom to trust; who’s KGB and who’s not. But, little by little I collected information and when I came back to Israel and was debriefed, I was told that I had done well and that I had given them some very important information. I even gave them the name of someone who later turned out to be a spy.
And so, I, Rita, came away from that trip with all kinds of unbelievable information and yet I had no idea at the time of quite what I was getting involved with.
Getting back to Moscow. On the eve of Simchat Torah people were dancing in the street, in Akhripova Street. Thousands of people were singing Israeli songs and I even heard a new one that had just been written called “Kachol Lavan“ (Blue and White). I made a point of learning it so that I could sing it back in the USA.
As we were dancing in a circle, a woman started to talk to me. She told me that the next day she was flying to Israel. She had gotten permission but her husband from Riga had not and she had no idea when she would see him again. Her name was Alla Russinek and I trusted her enough to tell her my name and that I was a student at the Hebrew University. Above all, I told her that I would be flying back to Israel when I left Russia and I asked her to tell me where I could find her in Israel.
I also met her husband, Yossi Russinek, and learned that they had only got married a few days before; Alla, as a new bride, was going to Israel and leaving her husband behind. When I returned to Israel I managed to find Alla and we spent many days together. I went with her to the Kotel (the Western Wall) every day for the hunger strikes. It was during that time that the terrible sentences were handed down for the people who’d tried to hi-jack the plane and I knew all their names because I had been there.
I went to all of the demonstrations in favor of commuting their sentences and I was, all of the sudden, enmeshed in a world of intrigue, spying, plotting to steal an airplane and trials leading to death sentences. Alla and I went to the Kotel every day and every night so that we could meet everyone who was demonstrating in the hope that, if we could make our voices loud enough, it would have an impact on the outcome of the sentencing.
It was then that I realized the power of the Jewish People. The power of a people all over the world that could demonstrate, that could scream, that could unite with one voice to shout “We are one people with one heart.”
In fact, the sentences were commuted and nobody was sentenced to death. Those people who had been sentenced to death were now sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment and other sentences varied from ten years to two years.
Incredible! These were incredible days!
Years went by and I was no longer in touch with all of these “Heroes”. I had done my job; I had been to the Soviet Union, I had celebrated the festival of Simchat Torah there, I had met these fantastic people, I had cried, I had laughed, I had demonstrated and I got to see the victory when all of those who were imprisoned finally got out.
But I didn’t stay in touch with everyone because life got in the way. I was in the business of having babies, being a mother and getting on with my life.
It was now 1981 and the festival of Purim. I had developed a career as a folk singer of Israeli songs, that music that had touched my heart when I was a young child. Little had I known then that this music would become not only my career, my profession, but it would also become the vehicle that would connect me to the Jewish People in a way that I could never have imagined.
The Soviet Jewry Committee in Philadelphia was very strong and very active and by this time the struggle of Soviet Jewry was no longer “in the closet.” The story was no longer about the “Jews of Silence” that Eli Wiesel had written about in the 60’s, it was no longer the “hush-hush” period of the 70’s when the fear of being arrested any time was prevalent. The story was now in the open. We knew the names of refuseniks, we knew the names of Hebrew teachers, we knew their stories, we knew their hardships, we knew who was being arrested, we even knew when they were teaching...
The Jews of the world now saw the overall picture and we knew that we had to act as your voices; you had given us the necessary information, you gave us strength by showing us your incredible courage and we knew that we had to continue your struggle whenever and wherever we could.
I was very much aware of the G-d-given privilege that had been given me, to be part of that worldwide struggle for your rights as Jews. Jews all over the world were united in trying to help you be heard and to give you the freedom to come and live in the State of Israel.
As my reputation as a folk singer developed in Philadelphia, I was asked to go to the Soviet Union to sing. It was now eleven years since I’d made my first trip and, for the most part, I’d forgotten the whole event and hadn’t followed the progress of the Soviet Jewry movement. But now there was an organized Jewish community, the refusenik community and I was to get back into the thick of it.
I was told that, if I were prepared to take this trip and go to the USSR in ten days’ time, I would be briefed and would be made very aware of what was wanted from me. It wasn’t like the briefing I’d been given at the Foreign Ministry in Israel. At that time they knew very little and I was asked to do the work. This time I was very fully briefed and was told everything I needed to know. I learned where everybody lived, which subway station was nearest to whom, who taught Hebrew when and I learned all the phone numbers off by heart.
Now we came to the planning of what I should take with me. This time I felt more self assured. I’d done this once before and I would do it again. There was a woman in Philadelphia who worked in a jewelry store and was very creative. She gave me a necklace to wear on the journey; it was a lovely necklace and I couldn’t see at first what the point was. It was gold and beautifully designed. What she had, in fact, done was to incorporate 150 Jewish stars of David in the design in such a way that I would be able to remove one at a time in order to give them to all the refuseniks that I would meet.
I would, of course, take my guitar. With this I could give them the greatest gift I had to offer, my songs. I was sure that would be safe; what could be wrong with a guitar? I was also taking as many books in Hebrew that I could. This time I took no books in Russian and I had no qualms about packing these books into a suitcase as I was no longer able to wear them round my body!
But, there was one thing I was to take which seemed a little problematic. Given that the Soviet Jewry Committee was very aware of what was going on, they knew what the various requests were and, every few weeks, Jews from Philadelphia would travel to the Soviet Union taking things that had been asked for by individual refuseniks. And what was it that I was asked to take in?
The leading Hebrew teacher in Moscow decided that he needed a way of preparing his curriculum and his lessons more easily and effectively. It was very hard to do everything by hand, to get the papers that he needed and to disseminate all the material that was required by individual students so he had asked for a Hebrew typewriter and the Committee had decided that I would be the one to bring him his Hebrew typewriter!
A.T.: Who was this person in Moscow?
R.C.: It was Yuli Kosharovsky He was waiting for his Hebrew typewriter and it was the Charlesteins who would be bringing it to him. I had no idea how this would work and yes, I was afraid. Nobody had ever brought a Hebrew typewriter in to the Soviet Union, as far as I knew. And I was about to find out whether it could be done!
I wasn’t afraid of being arrested. I thought that, at worst, they would confiscate the typewriter. But, I was so determined to get it to him, that I couldn’t allow this typewriter to be confiscated. I didn’t know what it would take but this became my personal “mission“. My bravado said “Do with me what you will but don’t take away that typewriter”!
When we got to the Immigration at Moscow we were searched from top to bottom and they found everything. They seemed mesmerized by all the books we had so my husband explained that he was a student of Jewish history, that he needed them for his studies, that he’d checked before our journey and was told the books would present no problem. He was then asked whether he would be bringing every book back with him to which he said “Of course”. We knew that was ridiculous but decided that we’d worry about that on the way out. For now, we just wanted to get through immigration.
It was clear that they didn’t trust us. They sent for a superior officer who was, of course, unable to read the books so he measured every book with a tape measure and noted down the sizes of each book and how many pages it had. Everything was written down in his notepad and then on an entry paper that we were to produce when we left Russia. The description of each of these dozens of books was now registered, awaiting our return.
I was too much in shock to worry about what we would do in ten days’ time. My major concern was for the typewriter. The conveyer belt was carrying it through the electronic X-ray device and I saw three KGB agents there, in Customs; my heart was pounding, I was holding my breath and waiting for them to confiscate the typewriter but it continued along the conveyer belt and nobody said a word about it. I picked it up and held it and nobody said a word. I couldn’t believe it until I realized that my guitar was coming through next. It was as if G-d was watching over me. My guitar case then became the focus of all attention. They opened the case and searched it in every possible compartment. They turned it upside down and then took the guitar out. This they held up to the light, turned it at every possible angle, peered inside and played the strings. They seemed to be convinced that I would be smuggling something through in this guitar. They spent twenty minutes examining it while I stood by holding a Hebrew typewriter in my hand!
In the end we were allowed onto the bus which was to take us to our hotel; my guitar was with me, my Hebrew typewriter was with me, every single book we’d brought was with me and around my neck I wore 150 Stars of David.
So began our visit. We arrived on the eve of the Purim festival and immediately contacted the Genis family. Just a few discreet words over the phone and they came to meet us at a subway station to take us to their apartment. While we were having our Purim meal, I looked around me and felt that, in a less bleak apartment, we could have been in Israel. Not a word of Russian was spoken. We were sitting in a room filled with Hebrew teachers who had gathered to celebrate Purim. We sang Purim songs, we ate Purim food and we talked until the early hours of morning. It was like a dream!
A.T.: This was in which year?
R.C.: It was 1981, Purim 1981.
The next day we were invited to a children’s play,celebrating Purim, put on by the children of the refusenik Hebrew teachers of Moscow. Again, it was difficult to realize that we weren’t in Israel. The children were dressed in their Purim costumes and their parents were there to celebrate. As I had the guitar, we sang Purim songs, dozens of refuseniks, their children and I.
A.T.: Was this at the Chernobolsky apartment?
R.C.: It actually wasn’t an apartment; it was a large room, a type of meeting room with a piano. There was a couple there by the name of Konikov. He was the music teacher at this ‘underground’ kindergarten and he actually played the piano for the children on that occasion, so I remember it as a large area.
I had a moment’s thought for my own children too. I knew that they would also be engaged in much the same sort of activity and it bothered me that I could not be with them. But this feeling was nothing compared to the realization that I was living Jewish history and that I had the privilege of being with Jews of the Soviet Union who were struggling for the right to emigrate to their Homeland. Once again I experienced your strength and courage and the profundity of your souls.
Eventually it was time to deliver the typewriter. I phoned Yuli Kosharovsky the very next day. All I had to say was that I was from Philadelphia. He gave me an hour and the name of a subway station. It would be very easy for him to identify me; I carried a guitar in one hand and a heavy “something“ in the other! And I would identify him because of having been shown his picture during my ‘briefing’.
What a joyful meeting! We had to play it low key while we were in the subway because Yuli knew that he was being followed by the KGB. He had us walk behind him, he had us looking around; it was all very “cloak and dagger“. When we got to his apartment we were finally able to deliver the typewriter which he had asked for only two weeks ago and which had been brought to him from 7,000 miles away.
Only Jews can do a thing like that! Where else in the world is there a people more connected and so tuned in to your needs? I saw our job as fulfilling your needs. You are risking all to try and get to Israel; all I was doing was to bring over a Hebrew typewriter. I was so involved in this particular act and I knew that I had done the right thing when I saw Yuli Kosharovsky’s face as I handed the typewriter to him.
We developed a very close relationship, Yuli and I. He asked me to come to some of his classes, he asked me to sing and he asked me to teach. Firstly I sang songs which his classes were already familiar with and then I went on to teach new songs.
In this way my connection to the refuseniks of the USSR became a double one; I was connected both in my heart and in my music. In fact, for many years, when you were still in refusal, every time that I gave a concert in the USA I had it taped and dedicated to you and your struggle. At every concert I would pray that the time would yet come that we would be able to sing together in Jerusalem. I have to admit that I didn’t believe that it would, I didn’t believe that the music I brought to you in 1981 would create and symbolize the friendship in our lives, the love that we share and the history that began then and continues to this day.
I could never have guessed that the music I learned as a child in a yeshiva (Jewish school) in New York would change my life and the lives of the people I was destined to meet in the Soviet Union, or that this, in it’s turn, would connect me with the struggle of World Jewry for the release of those refuseniks.
A.T.: Who else did you visit in Moscow?
R.C.: In Moscow I visited Kosharovsky, Genis and Yuri Stern. I met lots of people but usually several people would come to one apartment after word got round that Rita from Philadelphia was there with her guitar. The ones that stand out are the ones I’m still in touch with. Yuli today is a very dear friend of mine; we sit together in Tel Aviv, over a cup of coffee and reflect on our respective journeys, on who we were and how we met and where we are today. Yuli is writing a book about the struggle and I muse on the fact that I feel so lucky, twenty three years later, to be sitting by the sea in Tel Aviv, and talking about the Hebrew typewriter that brought us together on that cold, rainy day in March 1981.
I am also in close touch with the Genis family who made aliyah (to Israel) just six months ago and now live in Beit Shemesh. They were, after all, my original contacts for that Purim trip. In all those twenty three years there has never been a Purim without my feeling the connection with refuseniks as a whole and that Purim meal that we went to, in the home of the Genis family in Moscow, conducted in Hebrew by candlelight, in particular.
From Moscow we went on to Leningrad and the first people we met were a couple by the name of Yuri and Nelly Speizman. Again, all I had to do was to phone and say that I was from Philadelphia. People immediately understood; I was given a time and directions.
When I knocked on Nelly’s door, she opened it and hugged me and kissed me and started to cry. It appears that only five minutes earlier she had had a call from OVIR in which she was given yet another refusal and it would only be six months later that she would be able to apply again. She said to me “I was feeling so hopeless five minutes ago. I felt my life was empty, our situation so desperate and that maybe we’d never get permission to leave Russia. And now, here you are and I know that I’m not alone”.
When I told her my name she said that her daughter’s name was also Rita and, that as long as it would take them to get a visa, she would look upon me as her daughter in America. This was, in fact, what happened. In all the letters that we exchanged over those years there was the expression of love as between a mother and daughter.
During those many years I traveled to Israel often and was able to look up Rita, the biological daughter. We became friends and sisters and, to this day, are very close. Each time I come to Israel, (I’m sure Nelly will forgive me for saying this), I visit Rita before I see Nelly. After all, it was Nelly who brought us together.
A.T.: Who else did you see?
Rita: Before I go into that I want to tell you about what happened to Yuri and Nelly. While I was still in Philadelphia and they still in Leningrad, I realized, from their letters, that they were having a very difficult time. It was clear that they would have to bribe their way out so, each time someone from Philadelphia went over, we sent cameras with them to give to Nelly to sell on the black market and with the proceeds they eventually got enough money together.
Their daughter Rita, at long last, phoned me with the exciting news that they had got visas and that they were on their way to Israel. I then discussed with her the matter of meeting them; should I go to Vienna where they would land on the first leg of their flight or would I come straight to Tel Aviv. We eventually decided that she would go to Vienna and reunite with her parents there and that I would meet them in Tel Aviv.
Little did we know what was to happen. I was on my way to Israel as Yuri and Nelly arrived in Vienna and not half a day elapsed before Yuri had a heart attack and died there.
So, when I got to Israel, I phoned Rita, full of excitement, to arrange the earliest possible meeting with her parents and she had to break the news to me that Yuri Speizman would be entering Israel in a box for burial.
This was a terrible trauma for us all. It was my ex-husband, Gary, who was a Rabbi, who performed the burial and gave the eulogy. It was a beautiful moonlit night when we went to the cemetery to say our farewells to Yuri and to try and support his family.
The enormity of the tragedy was indescribable. The sadness was terrible; it was so bitter sweet that they should finally realize their dream to get to Israel and yet Nelly was unable to celebrate it together with the husband with whom she’d shared the struggle for so long.
Later I asked Nelly to tell me what the most important memories she had of my connection with her and, in fact, her answer reminded me of something critically important; that I had written to her every week while she was still in the Soviet Union. I’d forgotten that I had long ago, in 1981, made a vow to myself that, so long as the people who had touched my life the closest were still in refusal, I would write to them every week until, one by one, they got their visas. I had kept my word. Every week I wrote dozens of letters to refuseniks in Moscow and Leningrad.
In those days we had to send each letter with a pink card on which return receipt was requested. So all of the letters that did get to their destinations furnished me with the return of the pink card on which the addressee would have signed his name. Over the years I collected thousands of these cards, which would sometimes have a personal message scribbled on it in Hebrew. Every time I got one of these cards in my mail it was a cause for celebration. Sometimes would also get a letter written by one of you refuseniks and I would read about your love, I would read about your struggle and I would read about the fact that you would not despair as you knew that people all over the world were struggling with you. Together, we would make the miracle happen.
When I started writing those letters in 1981, my youngest daughter was just three years old and I would bring her with me to the Post Office every week. She was so little that she would ask to be lifted onto the counter while I was filling in those endless pink cards. I used to tell her that I was sending letters to very brave people who lived in Russia and I would explain to her about the refuseniks whom I promised to take her to Israel to visit when they got there. My children were raised on the struggle for Soviet Jewry; they came with me to the Post Office and they also came with me to demonstrations and protest rallies.
In addition to writing to refuseniks I also used to phone as often as I could. This was very complicated, so that whenever I did get through to somebody, I used to ask that person to pass on to all the others that I had rung. In those days, simply to get in touch with the Russian operator was complicated enough. But then we were told to hang up the phone and wait for them to phone us back. The whole procedure of “placing a call” was wearing. I could start the process at 4 pm and then have to wait till maybe 4 am. The international operator would phone me and say ”We are on the line with the Russian operator; your call can go through”.
Sometimes we would be really lucky, such as at gatherings of fellow activists at my home for whatever reason. We’d agree to try to get through and, if we succeeded, we were then able to put everybody on the telephone, one after the other.
The connection between us was so deep; I never felt that I was alone and I know that my friends in the Soviet Union would feel the closeness of our friendship. Sometimes when I got through I would pick up my guitar and sing to you all in Leningrad and Moscow. In that way we renewed the contact we all had with the music of Israel. I even gathered my children to the phone, explaining to them that, as soon as we got through, they should sing together with me in Hebrew. I’m sure that they didn’t understand what we were doing; I’m not sure that, even today, they understand the enormity of what they were doing as small children.
But I do know. As you eventually started to arrive in Israel the reward I got was the gratitude you expressed for the letters, for the phone calls and for the music. Even the refuseniks that I was not in such close contact with would tell me of how much the tapes that I sent (of concerts of mine) had meant to them. They treasured them so much that they even brought them out of the USSR with them.
You cannot imagine, you Jews of the Soviet Union, what that meant to me. Simply by my singing you felt connected to Israel and felt the need to treasure my tapes.
One day I was coming out of an apartment in Leningrad, it might have been Nelly’s, it might have been yours...
A.T.: Yes, I remember your visiting us.
R.C.: Exactly, yes, it was your apartment I was leaving when, quite by chance, on the stairway, I met Yosef Radomislensky. He was on his way to visit you and I had just left you. Now I have to tell you that one of the instructions we’d been given during our briefing in Philadelphia was NOT TO talk to anyone we didn’t know as we could get involved with spies and get ourselves into danger. And there I was, leaving your flat and on the cold, dark staircase and feeling rather scared when a short man on his way up the stairs turns to me and say “Shalom!” I had also been warned about the fact that there are KGB personnel who have learned Hebrew especially to entrap activists and their visitors but there was something about this man that made me return his greeting. I somehow knew that this man wasn’t a spy and that he wasn’t going to hurt me. What I didn’t know was that this man would eventually become closer to me than a brother.
So began my saga with Yosef Radomislensky. He asked me what I was doing in Leningrad and I explained about the singing, which he immediately wanted to hear. I told him that I had arranged to be at Yitzhak Kogan’s apartment at a certain time and he asked my permission to come and to bring some of his friends. And he did come, together with some friends. There was a very large group of people that night and I sang for them all.
Afterwards, Yosef told me that he’d been testing me, to see if I was any good. Having decided that I was, he asked me whether he could arrange other meetings, with people I didn’t know, in other apartments. Of course I agreed and found myself singing and teaching in many places. In fact, from the moment he’d met me there, in Leningrad, he never left my side. We even arranged to meet on the morning of my flight back to the States. I started to cry as I was afraid that we’d never meet again. I knew that he’d designed missiles for the Soviet Military prior to his refusal and the whole struggle suddenly seemed so impossible. Despite the love, the demonstrations, the letter writing and the phoning, I felt that I’d never see any of you again.
In an effort to make myself feel better I made the same promise to him that I had made to Nelly previously, namely that, when the day came that he did get out of Russia, I would be there at Ben Gurion Airport to meet him. We stayed in close contact and what I had promised him I did. The day did come, in 1987, during the feast of Chanuka. He phoned to tell me the good news and I immediately asked him to give me the day, the date and the flight number of his arrival. He protested but I insisted that I would carry out the promise I had made so many years ago.
When he got off the plane I was the first person to greet him and his family. I went with him to the Absorption Center, I went with him to plant a tree and I went with him to the Kotel (the Wailing Wall). I had made the trip for seventy two hours to give me time to welcome him, to tell him that I loved him and to welcome a dream come true. I then flew home, this time without tears. This time I knew that I’d be able to see him every time I came to Israel and that our friendship was secure. I felt that I now had a brother in Israel.
But now I must tell you the most moving of stories. It is about Yosef... Do you know this story? You’ll be amazed. In 1982 I saw an advertisement in the Jerusalem Post. It stated that, in order to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, the Mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, together with the municipality and the Plaza Hotel, was sponsoring an essay contest, the subject being “How I feel about Jerusalem”. The winner would get an all expenses paid two week holiday in the Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem.
I immediately decided that I would enter this contest and win; all I had to do was to wait for inspiration as it had obviously got to be a very special essay. I knew that thousands of people from all over the world would take part in this and I knew that I had to win!
Suddenly I knew what to do. I phoned Yosef in Leningrad and asked him to write the essay, later explaining in a letter what the whole thing was about. I realized that I didn’t need the prize being offered; all I had to do to come to Israel was to borrow $ 1,000 from the bank, find a baby sitter and buy a plane ticket. Yosef, on the other hand, couldn’t be on a flight to Israel even if I were to send him that $1,000.
Now I just had to phone the people in charge of this essay contest and explain to them that I had a brother, who lives in Leningrad, who was going to write an essay on their subject and that I would send it on to the organizers when I got it from Leningrad. I added that I expected them to give him some sort of honor for the simple fact that he was a refusenik. I was, as you can imagine, tremendously excited by my heaven-sent inspiration.
It was an excruciatingly long wait, hoping for Yosef’s essay to arrive. And when it did, I could hardly believe it. Among the thousand of essays sent in, Yosef’s was one of only about ten which had been written in Hebrew, and in perfect Hebrew at that. It was called “If I forget thee, oh, Jerusalem!” He wrote about how he saw Jerusalem in his dreams and he began and ended each paragraph with “If I forget thee, oh, Jerusalem“. He wrote about the dream of planting a tree in the Judean Hills, he wrote about his dreams of raising a family in Jerusalem and of his yearning for a life in his homeland, in its center, in Jerusalem.
I made many copies of this essay and, in sending one to Teddy Kollek, I explained about this hero among heroes, about the Hebrew teachers among the refuseniks and their struggles to “come home” to Israel. Two weeks later I phoned Yosef, just to find out how he was, and he was wildly excited. It transpired that, only minutes earlier, he’d had a phone call from Teddy Kollek, the Mayor of Jerusalem. We were both so moved as Yosef thanked me for my involvement. He told me that, whatever happens in the future, just that phone call of solidarity from the Mayor of Jerusalem was worth all that had gone before.
Not long after this, when I called Yosef again, he was able to tell me that he had won the competition. It was unbelievable! What was clear, however, was that he would not be able to claim his prize so it was given to a lady from New York. For Yosef there was to be an honorary prize and a major reception at the Plaza Hotel whenever he should arrive in Jerusalem. I was in a state of euphoria! I rang the organizers in Israel and thanked them, I rang Yosef to laugh and to celebrate with him, saying that I was certain that this was a sign that he would eventually get to Israel.
Yosef, however, said that he didn’t want any prize, just having that phone call from the Mayor of Jerusalem was enough for him. As this was 1982 and the Lebanon war was in full swing, Yosef asked that his prize be given to soldiers who had just come off the front line. What a man! What a hero!
The years passed by. We continued to write, we continued to phone, we continued to laugh, we continued to cry and suddenly the unbelievable happened; he got his visa! This was unbelievable not just because we had waited so long for this day but also because he had been firmly told that his refusal was forever; he’d been given a permanent refusal. All of which made it even more imperative, in my eyes, to throw him a huge welcome party.
He was due to arrive on the sixth night of the Festival of Chanuka which gave me less than two weeks to prepare it all. Of course, the Plaza Hotel gave us a room and I made lots of phone calls prior to coming to Israel. When I did come, however, I had left myself only three days in which to make all the prepartions. In order to make this party complete, I felt the need to exercise a bit of ‘chutzpa’.
What did I do? I phoned the Mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek. He, himself, answered the phone and in my confusion I blurted out my reason for phoning and said to him “You have to be there”. I had the nerve to say to the Mayor of Jerusalem “You have to be there”! And he came; yes he came!
So, as Yosef walked into this surprise party we had thrown him, the first person to greet him was the one and only Teddy Kollek. At that moment I realized that I had started a circle which I was now seeing completed. The dream had come true. The Jewish spirit had conquered.
This is an outstanding example of the fact that we are truly “One people with one heart”. I was just the conduit; I was the vehicle that was sent to connect with a refusenik, I chanced to meet upon a Leningrad stairwell, with the Mayor of Jerusalem. Promises were kept and dreams came true.
I had met with so many refuseniks, dozens of families with whom I corresponded over the years of refusal; years and years of letters, years and years of love and today I count myself very lucky to be in close touch with a number of the people who changed my life. This handful of crazy Jews who insisted on their right to live in Israel, who were prepared to be beaten, humiliated and imprisoned for their ideals, finally showed the world that the Jewish People was invincible.
As for me; I have found another outlet for the healing powers of my music. I go into hospitals and sing. I feel that G-d gave me this gift, which I don’t take for granted, to try and bring comfort and hope with my voice. I was born to use this gift and I use it now, in Israel, in the hospitals, aware of the fact that my realization of how blessed a gift I had started in the Soviet Union.
Transcripted by Tamara Brill (Israel)