MISHA EIDELMAN….a memory
By Pamela Cohen
In 1980 the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews brought former
refusenik Misha Eidelman from Israel to the States for our Annual Meeting in Washington. Misha was a big, Kojak-skulled hulk of a man, a former Soviet merchant marine captain who sang Kiddush with a haunting sweetness that hung in the room, gave us insights on the conditions for former Soviet Jews trying to live and work in Israel, and regaled us with jokes deriding the Soviets and communism:
“It’s October 1980 and the phone rings in a Moscow apartment:
‘Is this Alexander Yefimovitch? I’m calling to inform you that the automobile you ordered last week will be delivered to you on the 3rd Tuesday in October, 1991.’
‘The third Tuesday? I’m sorry, that’s impossible. It has to be delivered in the afternoon: I’ve got the plumber’s coming in the morning!”
Moshe…or Misha…was born and grew up in Riga when it was blooming with Jewish schools, shuls, and Yiddishkeit. He was a crewman on a merchant ship heading toward Europe when the Nazi’s invaded Latvia. His ship was boarded, impounded, and the crew arrested. He managed to hide his Jewish identity and was held prisoner of war for four years in a concentration camp. When he returned to Riga, it was to another world. Everything was gone, including his wife and children. He began again; married Feiga, raised a family, began to struggle to leave for Israel and found himself for many years in the Kafkaesque world of refusal before he finally received permission in 1978.
Misha was the essence of contradiction. He seemed to be massive but only in photographs did I notice that he wasn’t any taller than other men in the picture. His massive, craggy external appearance belied a sweet and gentle nature. During one of several visits to our home, he decided to prepare and serve for Shabbat the “gifilte fish” that his mother and grandmother had made in Riga. I took him to the market and watched this man who looked like a tough dockworker artfully preside over the ordering and filleting of the fish. He brought it home, removed his shirt, put on a one-piece apron and with the dexterity of a violinist used his huge hands to chop and mix and finally stuff the fish into its moist delicate skin, lovingly laying the pieces finally into the fish soup he had prepared with beets.
Marillyn Tallman and I brought him to Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry several times to speak in Chicago. He was a moving spokesperson who captured his listeners as he did me. As I drove to his speaking engagements he lovingly sketched the scenes of his youth, a Riga lost, the center of Jewish learning that gave rise to Torah scholars, so rich in Yiddishkeit. I could feel his loss. I sensed that it was my lost too.
After he left, he sent letters to me and jokes and puzzles for our children.
UCSJ activists felt a grievous loss when we learned that he had died.
Mischa gave so much when he was alive.
He continues to give even after he was gone:
I was searching through my library one day in 1992, many years after Misha had died, looking through some of the texts, sorting and moving some from one shelf to another when I came upon a book I didn’t recognize. I never read it and was certain that I never bought it. Actually, I was quite sure I hadn’t seen it before. I opened the cover and found two inscriptions on the inside fly-leaf. One was dated 1981 and signed by Rabbi Fendel, the author of the book . He had added “with best wishes” in English. I was perplexed. There were more words in Hebrew, but I couldn’t read it then.
I didn’t know Rabbi Fendel. In truth I didn’t even recognize his name.
I couldn’t piece it together.
I’m an insatiable collector of Russian and Jewish books. I must have bought it at a used bookshop but then again, I know every book in my library and where each one comes from.
I wracked my memory.
On the facing blank page in a strong, determined European script was a handwritten inscription dated June 30, 1984:
“To Josh: One of the reasons our people survived is because they were helping each other in need and your parents are the best example of this tradition. GO ON.”
It was signed: “With Love, Mike”.
Who was Mike? It certainly wasn’t the handwriting of my brother-in-law Michael.
We didn’t know other “Mikes”.
“To Josh?” Was he referring to our Josh? Our son, Josh? Or some other Josh? It’s a common Jewish name.
Exactly at that period of time, my husband, Lenny, and I had just begun to take the first steps to satisfy our growing curiosity about classical Torah Judaism. We had just started to learn on a regular basis with a Yeshiva educated Rabbi.
I opened the book. The title was:
“Legacy of Sinai, A History of Torah Transmission, with World Backgrounds: From Creation to the Close of the Geonic Era.”
Our people, the people of the book, had a written record of the chain of transmission from Sinai, from the giving of the Torah? From teacher to disciple, father to son? All the way back?
What a fascinating little book, sitting undiscovered on my shelves all these years, apparently just waiting for the just the right moment to leap down into my hands.
As I was pulled into the pages and into the history, the mystery of “Mike” was never completely out of my mind.
Perhaps a year or so after discovering Rabbi Fendel’s wonderful book, I was searching for a particular picture in the Bar Mitzvah album of our son, Josh, which was in Jerusalem during the summer of 1984 and Misha’s Eidelman’s picture leaped out at me.
There was Misha in 1984 at Josh’s Bar Mitzvah party, dancing. It was June of ’84 ---the same as the date written in the mysterious book on my shelf.
The book was a gift to Josh from a wonderful, wondrous man, who was born “Moshe” in Riga, was “Misha” after the holocaust, and had become “Mike” for Josh.
This precious book was inscribed by Rabbi Fendel and Misha Eidelman to Josh for his Bar Mitzvah but delivered to me just when I was looking for it.
Some people call that a coincidence.