Report on Trip to the Soviet Union in January 1987 to Visit Jewish Refuseniks

(Part 2)

By Solomon Schimmel, Ph.D

       As soon as Shabbat ended we made Havdala using the Bic cigarette lighters that we were told to bring as tips for taxi drivers. We then set out for the Metro and again met Igor at the station. At his home had gathered around ten refuseniks who are members of this particular scientific seminar that has met for sixty sessions over the past several years. After brief introductions Alan delivered a scientific lecture on "Headaches" which was interspersed with and followed by a lively question and answer session. When Alan was done I was asked to discuss my field - which I hadn't really intended to do that evening since I had assumed that the group was primarily interested in bio-medical issues. However, sensing a sincere interest on the part of the group I spoke briefly about the approach to the emotions in Jewish devotional literature. My comments focused on the emotion of envy and as I spoke I felt myself addressing a topic of deep personal relevance to my audience who were listening with great attention. I said that envy results from a feeling of reduced self-esteem that we experience when we compare ourselves to others on various dimensions of life and fortune and see that others are more successful than we are. However from the perspective of our religious tradition our self-worth is not defined by our status, or our material achievements or our physical appearance but only by the kind of human being we are in terms of the expectations that G-d has of us. It is not important that we direct a scientific institute or hold a position of prestige or power but only whether we are kind and good and people of integrity. Just yesterday, I said, I had the privilege of meeting Mila Volvovsky, the wife of Leonid, a Prisoner of Zion in a Siberian labor camp. And paradoxical and strange as it might sound, I envy Leonid. Not that I want to be where he is, nor, of course do I want him to be there. But I envy him his strength of character, his courage, his willingness to sacrifice so much for his faith and his just ideals. I doubt very much that I would have the courage that he has and so I envy him and consider him by far the greater person. My eyes were tearing as I spoke these words - and I saw in the eyes of my fellow Jews around the table expressions of empathy and identification with what I was saying. Later, as we parted, several of them thanked me for speaking to their hearts and offering them encouragement.

       After my talk I asked the group if they would like to hear the tape of songs that Yehudit had prepared for them. They were eager to do so. Before each song I identified the passage in Tehillim that was being sung and explained the context and the meaning of the passage. These were deeply moving songs of yearning for G-d and for Zion, and for Yerushalayim, of faith even from the depths of persecution and despair, of the power of G-d's word and teachings to sustain one's spirit in the midst of suffering, oppression and insult. Slava followed the verses in his Tehillim, others concentrated on the words and the melodies, some sang along -and Alan Geller cried.

       We then made ourselves available for individual conversation and for requests that we might be able to fulfill. One of the guests was a young cancer researcher who as a refusenik has been a source of support and assistance to many others. He told me that he had a very important request to make of me. I assumed it would be a request to obtain some document, to contact someone on his behalf or perhaps to provide for some material or physical need. He went on to explain, in his soft, imperfect English. I am a scientist who has become interested in religion - even before I became a refusenik I was learning about Judaism. Although I am trying to be a religious person I still believe in rationality and in science. I have a personal problem - there are times when I pray using the words of the prayers in the siddur - but I do not feel closer to G-d in doing so. Perhaps you can advise me how to come closer to G-d, how to make my prayers more meaningful.

       I answered him as follows: Even very devout people experience what you experience. Moreover, prayer is only one of many ways of communicating with G-d or of feeling a closeness to him. I myself, for example, experience this closeness when I hear or sing the kinds of songs that we just heard on the tape. Others are brought closer to G-d through music, be it a violin concerto or a piano sonata; for others it may be through the beauties or mysteries of nature or through works of art. You needn't feel that the fixed prayers are the only vehicle for bringing you into a relationship with G-d or that they must invariably do so. Find your own path, the path that best suits your individuality and pursue it. This brilliant, handsome, gentle scientist thanked me for having helped him so much. He asked me to please send him some books about how scientists can be religious. And, he said, would you be kind enough to send a picture of me to my mother who is now living in Israel - and along with the picture write her some words that will bring her closer to G-d, because she is an atheist.

       As I write these words I see this wonderful and sensitive man before me, a son devoted to his mother and pained by the spiritual distance that has developed between her and himself by the vicissitudes of experience. I think about the tangled spiritual odyssey that so many Russian Jewish families must have experienced during this century of revolution and repression. I also recall these memories with unbounded joy - having learnt just a few hours ago that this man and his family were granted exit visas and will be leaving for Israel. I so much look forward to visiting with him again in Eretz Yisrael.

Sunday, January 4 1987

       Sunday morning we went to visit the Rabinovich family. Misha Rabinovich was in the thirty-first day of a hunger strike during which period he only drank water. Alan had been asked to examine Misha and to advise him as to the state of his health. We were met at the Metro station by Mischka and his mother Marina with whom we took a taxi from the Metro station to their apartment. Mischka is a soft spoken boy, with an angelic face and a gentle manner, whose thirteenth birthday was on January 8th. Marina is a woman who radiates warmth and kindness. Later someone told me that she deeply revered her husband Mischa, which is why she gave their son his father's name. Marina was very concerned about the effects of Misha's fast on his health. Mischka was quite fluent in English, considerably more so than his mother. When we arrived at the apartment we couldn't help but be struck by the sparseness of the furnishings and a sense of material scarcity. Knowing that Misha had been fasting for a month, and knowing how weak I feel on Motzaey Tisha Be'Av or Yom Kippur after only one day of food deprivation, I expected to find a weak, sickly man lying in bed, barely capable of sustaining a conversation. To my astonishment the man who opened the door and greeted us, and with whom we spent several delightful and inspiring hours, Misha Rabinovich, though evidently pale, wan and weak, was up and around, fully alert, mentally sharp, possessed of a wry and witty sense of humor and fully capable of penetrating critical analyses of his own situation and of the refusenik community. The five of us sat around a table as Misha told us of how he had been a very professionally successful applied mathematician working at a meteorological institute in Moscow, directing many graduate students. In response to his request for an exit visa he was stripped of his professional degrees, dismissed from his position and for seven years has worked as a "boiler watcher", currently earning seventy rubles a month. Mischka, who suffers from bronchial asthma is confined to home for long periods of time and so Marina feels an obligation to be at home with him and is therefore not presently employed. We asked Misha why he is on this hunger strike, what does he hope to accomplish with it. He answered that it is an act of despair - he cannot bear any longer the life situation which has been coerced upon him because of his desire to leave Russia and live as a Jew in Israel. He felt a need to do something more active than protest or demonstrate in some public setting. He cannot tolerate being ignored any longer and hopes that his hunger strike will bring him to the attention of the authorities and perhaps induce them to give him permission to go. He also hopes that his strike will be of benefit to other refuseniks as well, by calling attention to their plight.

       Neither Alan nor I had been active on behalf of Soviet Jewry prior to our trip. We knew little about Action for Soviet Jewry, which sponsored our trip and what we knew was mostly confined to information relevant to our trip. Mischa Rabinovich's name had been added to our list the night before we departed and we hadn't received any background information on him. It was only during our two meetings with him and after our return to the States that we learnt that the Rabinovich family had been adopted by Temple Beth Elohim of Wellesley, Mass., that a campaign on behalf of the family had been sponsored by the Temple which had sent formal invitations to the family inviting them to celebrate Mishka's bar-mitzva at the Temple in Wellesley, that Governor Dukakis had spoken to Misha on December 7th early in his fast, and that over the past three years the family had been visited by a good number of individuals from Boston. Misha, therefore, felt very close to the Boston community, referring to his many very dear friends in Boston, some of whom we knew personally.

       Notwithstanding Misha's general sense of being supported in his cause by many different people, the mood he was in on our first visit, was one of deep isolation compounded by uncertainty as to how effective his hunger strike would prove to be. It had been quite some time since he had last received visitors from abroad and he also felt that he hadn't received the moral support that he had expected during his hunger strike from others in the refusenik community. He was also unhappy about the fact that he never received visitors from Israel. Moreover, it was evident to us that he was in dire financial need at the time. We were saddened to see before us a man with a fiercely independent spirit, an iron will and a deep sense of dignity, who was forced by the cruelty of the Soviet regime into accepting gifts from visitors so that he could survive. I hate these presents, he said, with a pained expression on his face and an equally pained tone in his voice, I find it unbearable to accept them. The only way I enable myself to accept them is by in turn helping others in need. In that way I feel that I am expressing my thanks and giving something in return for the help that I receive from others. Listening to Misha I thought of Maimonides' stages of charity and of how sensitive one must be not to impair the self dignity of a recipient of charity. Two days later when we visited Misha again and left with him an item, I told him that it was not a gift but rather a pre-payment for the acts of charity and good deeds that he will be doing for others.

       As I write I see before me Misha’s beautiful smile and I hear his gentle laugh and I recall several comments he made. My son, Mishka, he said, will be thirteen this coming Thursday, but that will only be his birthday. His Bar-Mitzva will be at the Kotel in Yerushalayim. When he heard the tape prepared by Yehudit, he remarked that one could hear that hers was a voice singing in freedom.

       Throughout our stay with Misha, and to this very day, I find it hard to comprehend the source from which he draws the strength to refrain from eating for more than a month -and to function at the high spiritual, emotional and intellectual level at which he was functioning when we met with him. I should add that Marina had joined him in his fast for the first ten days.

       After Alan examined Misha and apprised him of the state of his health, we tried to encourage him to end the fast then and there with us. Misha insisted, however, that as long as his life was not in danger, he intended to continue with the fast until Thursday, Mishka's thirteenth birthday, on which day he promises to end the fast with a LeChaim in honor of Mishka. Seeing his determination, and inasmuch as Alan's medical judgment was that there was no imminent danger to his life, we decided to respect his wishes and not to press the issue.

       Misha asked us to pray for Mishka on his birthday and we promised that we would. One of the reasons for his fast, he said, was to release his son Mishka from this slavery in which the family existed.

       Alan and I had literally fallen in love with this family and asked Misha if it would be all right for us to visit them once again if we would be able to find the time to do so before leaving on Wednesday morning for Leningrad. Misha, Marina and Mishka were happy at the suggestion and we told them that we would contact them in advance to let them know if we could make it. In addition to the feelings of love and respect for all three of them which we experienced, we wanted to leave with them a gift and to give Alan another opportunity to examine Misha's physical condition before we left Moscow.

       We returned to our hotel where we packed our travel bags with items that we wanted to bring to the Yuzefovich family in the evening. We knew that Leonid and Katerina Yuzefovich were actively involved in operating a Hebrew school for refusenik children and we had earmarked some school supplies and Judaica for them. Katerina's brother, who left Russia about fourteen years ago and after having resided for about eight years in Israel now lives in the Boston area, gave me some gifts for the family too. He also told me that Leonid was a very honest, straightforward individual who made the conscious decision to serve in the Soviet army when he became eligible for the draft, rather than seeking a way to evade service. He now feels guilty about having made that decision, since he has been refused an exit visa on the grounds of knowledge of military secrets , and feels that he is to blame for the family's "imprisonment" in Russia. What makes the family situation particularly difficult is that most of Katerina's family are in Israel and Katerina who suffers from a heart condition finds her situation difficult to bear.

       We were met at the designated Metro station by Menahem Yuzefovich, the thirteen year old eldest of the four Yuzefovich children. We conversed with Menahem in Hebrew which, to our amazement, he spoke with near fluency. As I conversed with Menahem in Hebrew I couldn't help but compare his excellent command of the language, acquired under the severely limiting constraints on study and practice in Russia, with the failure of Hebrew schools in the United States to teach Hebrew successfully to American Jewish youngsters. I think that the most plausible explanation for the disparity in achievement is the variable of motivation. For Menahem Hebrew is an essential component of his self- definition as a Jew and being a Jew is central to his identity as an individual. His is a Jew and not a Russian, and this is affirmed by Hebrew (and, in his case, by Judaism as well). For the American child Hebrew is of little or no importance to his identity. One can be a Jew without Hebrew and furthermore, being a Jew, nice as it might be, isn't central to his identity and future aspirations.

       We arrived at the Yuzefovich home in the midst of a birthday party celebrating Ari's fourth birthday. Although all of the Yuzefovich children know Hebrew, Ari is unique in that Hebrew - and not Russian - is his mother tongue. Since his birth it is the language in which his parents converse with him. We were greeted by Leonid and Katerina. I immediately conveyed regards to them from Katerina's brother in Boston. The first question that they asked about him revealed their feelings of disappointment and sorrow – they wanted to know if he is planning to return to Israel (where Katerina's mother still lives). I was taken aback by the question since I had anticipated some inquiries about his appearance, and his personal and professional life. Of course I could give them no answer to their painful question since I had only met the brother once and rather briefly. But the tone of their inquiry no less than the inquiry itself told me so much about their hopes about eventually living in Israel. I imagined how they might have been feeling. Here we are in Russia suffering and sacrificing for the right to live a Jewish life in our own Jewish homeland, and you, dear brother, who were privileged to do just that, decided to forfeit that precious privilege and leave Israel for the United States. (I am not making any personal judgments about Katerina's brother - I am simply suggesting what her and her husband's feelings were about his decision). In fact, their question about Katerina's brother made me feel guilty about the fact that I live in the States. Here are these people (as well as the Rabinovich's whom we had visited in the morning) who have exposed themselves and their children to the Soviet regime's harsh and brutal repression of those who study Hebrew, teach Jewish religion and culture and apply for emigration visas to Israel, whereas I, who could live in Israel if I so chose, have chosen to live in the States. Who am I to visit these people in order to give them moral support in their struggle when I continue to live in America? I experienced a feeling of uneasiness and hypocrisy that evening, although no none asked me why I didn't live in Israel. (Here is not the place to discuss whether or not my feelings of guilt were "justified". I simply want to record what I felt at the time).

       The living room was decorated with Chanukah and birthday decorations and the table was set with all sorts of candies, chocolates and other goodies. I particularly appreciated the opportunity to participate in celebrating Ari's birthday by partaking of the delicious chocolate cake that Katerina had baked in his honor. I was rather famished, not having eating a solid meal all day. At the hotel all I had for breakfast was bread, jam, coffee and tea (with lots of sugar cubes) and hadn't eaten much since then except for some granola bars. At the table we sang Yom Huledet Sameach to Ari, spoke about ourselves briefly, and then played Yehudit's tape. She had included several Israeli children's songs and the children as well as the adults, who knew many of them, joined in merrily as we all sang along with Yehudit on the tape. When I was shopping for the trip, Noam accompanied me to the store andinsisted that I buy a certain toy to give to the children in Russia. It turned out to be an excellent and much appreciated birthday gift for Ari. In the midst of all of this activity Alan took pictures of the party, the family and their guests.

       At the Yuzefovich's there were two refusenik friends from Moscow, one a musicologist and the other, Alexander Berdichevsky, a computer programmer, and a couple from Riga with their two daughters, who were staying by the Yuzefovich's for several days. The Riga couple were quite orthodox, the wife covering her hair.

       Leonid told us about the Hebrew school in which he is involved. It meets on Sundays, has an enrollment of forty children and is divided into two divisions, one for younger children another for the older ones. Meetings take place in private apartments. From background readings I know that the authorities have attempted to prevent the school from functioning but I did not have the opportunity to discuss with Leonid how the school has managed to survive notwithstanding KGB harassment.

       After the birthday celebration was over I asked Leonid and Berdachevsky whether there were any requests they might have of us. They mentioned two items they felt would be of considerable assistance to the school. The first was a small computer which could be used to teach the children programming skills and to provide the children with educational games on Jewish themes that would enhance their motivation for learning. The second item was a VCR on which they could show videos of Hebrew and Judaic content programs that they though they would be able to obtain from Israel. Berdachevsky said that they would not be interested in a printer but only in a typewriter that could be operated by the computer. I didn't understand the rationale for this until it was explained to me by someone after I returned to the States. The Soviet authorities forbid personal possession of copying machines since they endanger the authorities' strict control over the dissemination of information and ideas which they deem to be undesirable. A printer, which can generate multiple copies of documents, has the status of a copier and is forbidden without permission from the authorities. If found by the KGB during a search of an apartment the owner can be prosecuted and punished. Typewriters are legal. In the event of a search and the discovery of a typewriter, the owner can claim that he uses it as a simple typewriter, even though it happens to be one that could be attached to a computer. A computer operable typewriter is simply less dangerous than is a printer.

       Leonid told me that he had spoken to a friend who was interested in my coming to his home the following night in order to conduct a teaching session in Jewish studies for a group of refuseniks and other Jews. I told him that I would be happy to do so and Leonid phoned him so that we could arrange where and when to meet. I was delighted to hear this fellow, Baruch Berman, converse with me in fluent Hebrew. We discussed the nature of his group, several appropriate topics and directions to his home. We agreed that he would meet me at the Metro station. I asked Baruch how I would be able to identify him. He said that for one, he has a beard. Moreover, "I will be wearing a large white kippa". The fact that he would be walking around in public with a kippa surprised me considerably and I said to him "Baruch, aren't you afraid to be seen in public with a big kippa?" I'll never forget Baruch's reply - "Yes, I am afraid, but one must learn how to overcome one's fear." I was deeply impressed with Baruch's courage and emotional self-discipline. I also contrasted his behavior with my own preference not to wear a kippa in public, partly in order to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of being perceived as different by non-Jews. Whether Baruch's insistence on publicly affirming and displaying his Jewishness is prudent in the hostile, anti-semitic environment of Moscow, might be questioned, but who am I to make such a judgment. The next evening I did learn that his wife, Avital, is not comfortable with Baruch's decision. She indicated that she becomes very anxious and fearful when he doesn't come home at the expected hour, partly because she worries that he has been harmed or detained because of his kippa.

       We returned to the National Hotel after midnight. By Sunday both Alan and I had felt sufficiently comfortable to be willing to split and go out each on our own. Consequently, I had scheduled two visits for myself and Alan had scheduled several medical visits for himself for Monday. The reasons for our feeling secure enough to travel around Moscow and visit refuseniks alone was our mastery of the Metro system, our ability to read the Cyrillic alphabet and the fact that the refuseniks we visited and contacted by phone did not convey to us any sense of fear at our visiting them. Furthermore, other than our initial "shadow" on Thursday night, we weren't aware of having been followed since then. We also found the Russian people whom we asked for directions on various occasions to be pleasant and helpful. Although our dress alone was so different from the Russians' fur coats and fur hats (which at first made me comment that it seems like all of Moscow is one big Hasidic community) and even without opening our mouths we were clearly identifiable as foreigners, if not necessarily Americans, we did not discern any overt hostility or even staring directed at us. Since we felt comfortable going it alone we felt that to do so would make our trip more productive as we would thereby manage to visit more people and to make our unique contributions to each.

Monday, January 5, 1987

       On Monday morning, after breakfast, each of us went our own way. It was something of a challenge and an adventure for me to go out on my own, knowing full well that what I was doing, if found out by the authorities (if they weren't already fully aware of my activities) would not be to their liking. I had arranged to meet Lev Sud at the Metro station close to his home. Lev is a short, stocky, bearded young fellow who at home wears a kippa seruga and whose wife Avital covers her hair with a kerchief. My visit to the Sud's took place on the day after their newborn son had had his brit mila, performed by Motel the Shochet. At Lev's home I met Motel, a man in his sixties who reminded me of so many Eastern European Jews of learning and yiddishkeit whom I had known over the years. He asked me about Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik of Boston about whom he knew very much. He sighed with sorrow when talking about the sad condition of Jews and Judaism in Russia but interspersed his sighs with hopes for a "yeshua" - salvation from God, and exuded an optimism based upon faith. Motel, who said that he was the only shochet and mohel in Moscow, did not want to be photographed. Motel had come to check the baby and accompanying him was a young fellow in his twenties (whom I believe was a Lubavitcher) who was Motel's apprentice mohel. The apprentice asked me if I could arrange for sending to Lev a certain blood clotting medication that is needed for circumcisions. I conveyed this request to Action upon my return. Interestingly, Lev Sud himself was circumcised relatively recently.

       I spent several hours at the Sud home, speaking primarily with Lev. Avital was preoccupied with caring for the newborn baby. Lev has many Hebrew books and Judaica in his library. I think that our conversation was conducted primarily in English. Lev is a musicologist by training who now works as an accompanist on the piano for gymnastics classes for youth (if I recall correctly). This is a position at a considerably lower level of professional challenge than Lev's musical training would warrant - a consequence of his refusenik status. Avital is a computer programmer and a few days ago I read in the New York Times that a Soviet official stated that Lev Sud will never be allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union because of his wife's alleged knowledge of state secrets.

       Lev has been very active in several Jewish causes. He works on behalf of the Prisoners of Zion and asked me to photograph a photo he had of Leonid Shreya from Chernovtze in the Ukraine and to send it to the Chicago chapter of Action for Soviet Jewry, which I did. Lev maintains regular telephone contact with Pamela Cohen of Chicago action, and has been harassed and threatened by the KGB for this activity among others. Lev also organized and supports Jewish cultural activities in cities far from Moscow. He asked if I could buy some tapes for him at a Beriozka since he sends recordings of Jewish materials to Jews in those distant cities who have much less access to Judaic/Hebraic culture than do those in Moscow. Unfortunately when I went the next day to several Beriozka shops in search of cassettes none of the stores had any in stock. He could also use micro cassettes which are important for secretly recording trial proceedings. Lev is also a leader in a group of several hundred refuseniks who have sent letters to the Soviet government relinquishing their Soviet citizenship and who have requested Israeli citizenship. This issue was of great concern to Lev. It seems that the Israeli government has granted these refuseniks citizenship but has not issued to them Israeli identity cards. Lev asked that I address this issue upon my return to the States - to explain to the relevant authorities that this group of refuseniks consider it very important to them that they receive official documents from Israel confirming their status as Israeli citizens. They feel that this will be a useful tool in their battle to win emigration visas. Lev told me that there is in Moscow a club of refusenik Israeli citizens who meet once a month for several hours of discussion about their situation and about Israeli culture and society. Upon my return to the States I read in Maariv (January 14, 1987) that Boris Chernobilski and his wife, who I believe, are members of this group, had filed a request to the Israeli Supreme Court calling upon the Israeli Minister of the Interior to issue Israeli passports to them. Lev had mentioned Boris in his conversation with me. Boris, according to the article in Maariv, requested emigration visas twelve years ago and Boris had been imprisoned in a forced labor camp because of his Zionist activities. In 1980 he and his wife were granted Israeli citizenship but have not been issued Israeli passports. They claim that they refuse to carry Soviet identity documents for themselves or their children and that possession of a foreign passport will entitle them to enter foreign embassies, exempt them from military service (which becomes grounds for the Soviet authorities to refuse issuing exit visas because of alleged access to military secrets) and enable his children to study in special schools for foreigners.

       I must admit that I do not fully comprehend the issues involved in the controversy between this particular refusenik group and the government of Israel, nor do I fully understand the strategy and expectations of this group in its battle with the Soviet authorities. Be that as it may it was clear that from Lev Sud's perception and point of view not enough was being done on this score by the Israeli authorities. He himself was unable to hypothesize as to why the government of Israel hasn't responded to his group's request. According to Lev there are about eight hundred refuseniks who have become Israeli citizens and await their passports.

       I had brought several pairs of thermal underwear with me on the trip and asked Lev if they could be sent to Prisoners of Zion. He surprised me by asking me what was the color of the underwear. I couldn't imagine what difference the color would make, but in response to his "strange" (for the naïve American) query I told him that they were white. Well, he said, in that case they wouldn't be of any use. Totally confused I asked Lev what difference does the color make in protecting against the Siberian frost. And so I became privy to another one of those many communist cruelties – forced labor camp regulations prohibit the wearing of anything but darkly colored clothing, even undergarments. Had I only known this in the States I would have sought out black thermal underwear!

       Lev told me how while speaking at the Post Office on an overseas phone call to Chicago Action he was accused by a bystander of slandering the Soviet Union and told to appear for questioning to the authorities who threatened him with a trial. Lev insisted that he wasn't slandering the Soviet Union and that furthermore his conversation was conducted in English and the bystander who accused him did not understand English. As of the time I met with him the matter wasn't pursued by the authorities and Lev has not been intimidated by the KGB's attempts to restrain him in his activities on behalf of Jewish culture, religion and Zionism.

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