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From Red Square to the Kosel Plaza

Leah Gebber

As the battle for the sanctity of the Kosel continues to rage, Leah Aharoni’s inner battle to define authentic Jewish feminism has pitted her against the agenda of those seeking to “liberate the Wall.”

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

cityGrowing up in Communist Russia, Leah Aharoni daily crossed the threshold of their front door and looked up at the faint groove in the wooden doorframe. Deep inside, a mezuzah was buried, painted over with whitewash.

For Leah, it was a symbol of the double life she and her family led. “Outside, one had to be a good Communist. But at home I was taught to analyze the rhetoric and biased history we were taught in school and in our youth group. And then to search for the truth.”

Leah Aharoni was primed for the interrogation that could take place any moment; Communist doctrine spouted easily from her lips. However, the Soviet Union wasn’t just a place of dreaded interrogations and the constant threat ofSiberia. It was also the capital of egalitarian values. Whether borne of economic necessity or socialist ideals, women were an intrinsic part of the Soviet workforce. In fact, during the ’60s and ’70s, women comprised a full 50 percent of the country’s educated specialists. Leah’s family was no exception: her mother — and grandmother — were prominent lawyers. Her aunts were chemists.

Women’s lib met Communist utopia. The result? According to Leah: “A mangled society of miserable women, emasculated men, and neglected children. A society with dismal marriage rates and the highest divorce rate in the world.”

Although her family conformed to Soviet egalitarian ideals, they opposed Communism. Around the dinner table, Leah’s parents were vocal critics of the human rights crimes, repression, and misguided and corrupt economics. And in their proud Jewish identity, they danced with danger. “We knew about the Jewish holidays and Shabbos, a special day although we didn’t observe it traditionally. We obtained matzos each Pesach and conducted a Seder, at which my cousins and I searched for the afikomen. We even kept halachos I dismissed as superstition, such as washing hands after leaving a cemetery.”

For all the egalitarian polemics, anti-Semitism was alive and kicking. Leah attended an exclusive school geared to children of government officials and leading academics. In third grade, one girl began ranting: “Jews, Ukrainians, and Georgians — we’re going to rule over you.” That evening, Leah told over the day’s events to her parents. Horrified, Leah’s father marched to school the next morning and upbraided them on this shocking deviation from Communist ideals. It was a decisive moment in Leah’s life: both the experience of raw hatred and seeing how her father could make use of Soviet hypocrisy to protect his daughter.


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