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More Than a Revolution in Moscow

Rabbi Moshe Grylak

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

When a speech in a Moscow synagogue about daily study of Mishnah Berurah is an ordinary event, the blessings of Redemption are surely being fulfilled. Memories of the Moscow of another era


Last week I sat in the main synagogue of Moscow on Archipova Street. As I closed my eyes and relived previous Moscow memories, I heard the voice of the speaker from Canada, Rabbi Dovid Hofstetter — president of the worldwide Dirshu organization — in the background. Despite the cold, a large audience had gathered to hear him describe his new plan for a daf yomi program in halachah, learning a daily page of Mishnah Berurah.

A perfectly ordinary Jewish gathering, one would think, convened for the purpose of strengthening Torah study. Such meetings take place everywhere, even in Moscow. But it isn’t really so ordinary at all, and certainly not when taken back in memory to the Moscow of another era.

It was the 1960s, and a friend, whom I’ve known since my cheder days in Bnei Brak, succeeded in getting into Russia and back safely. He managed to hook up with a delegation from the Israeli Communist Youth League, who had organized a trip to the Soviet Union. For propaganda purposes the Israeli communists wanted the group to include a more varied spectrum of Israel’s population, and my friend was asked to join them as a representative of the chareidi community. It took some nerve, but my adventurous friend rose to the challenge. To be honest, the rest of us were fearful of what might happen to him; it wasn’t uncommon for visitors to disappear in the Soviet Union amid claims that they were spying for the West.

But our friend returned safely to Bnei Brak, bringing a travel journal full of painful entries. Although he was approached by several newspapers to publish it, he refused out of concern that it might harm the Jews living under the scrutiny of the Communist police state. But I remember sitting on the balcony of my apartment in Tel Aviv, listening to him tell those stories. I felt like I was with him there in Moscow, as he vividly painted the tragic situation of the Jews he met in that threatening atmosphere.

Two stories in particular stand out: By prior arrangement, he was permitted to attend prayer services at the shul on Archipova Street where I sat last week as I listened to Rabbi Hofstetter’s speech. As my friend entered the shul, he found a group of elderly Jews who hardly spoke, since none of them could be sure the others weren’t informers who would denounce him to the secret police. In any case, one of these Jews, once he was convinced that the young guest was really a visitor from the dreamland of Eretz Yisrael, plucked up his courage and approached him. Whispering in Yiddish, the old man said to him, “I’d like you to do something. Go there, and take my daughter as your wife. I’ll bring a notary to certify it legally.”

My friend looked at him in surprise, and the man hastened to explain: “Hilf, hilf [help, help]. According to the law, when you go back to Israel you can demand ‘your wife.’ I want to get her out of here,” he pleaded. My friend saw the desperation in the man’s eyes, and agreed to help. Now he had to find a pretext for leaving his tour group long enough to meet with the notary. But suddenly, the whole group left the city before the arranged time, and I remember the anguished words he wrote in his journal about the poor, disappointed man who was left waiting for him in despair, no doubt full of bitterness toward the Jew from Israel who had hoodwinked him.

Another entry in the journal described how the Israeli delegation met in Red Square with their counterparts in the Komsomol, the Soviet Communist Youth League, made up largely of Jewish youths. The meeting took place on Tisha B’Av. The Russian youths noticed that my friend was wearing sneakers and wouldn’t touch the fruit preserves they had brought for their Israeli guests. To make matters worse, he declared that it was a fast day for him. The Soviet youths were inquisitive about what the religious boy from Israel was fasting for. They gathered around him conspiratorially, and speaking in broken Yiddish, which some of them understood, he gave them a short lecture on the history of the Jews in Eretz Yisrael. He spoke of the glorious Jewish state that had existed and been destroyed there nearly two thousand years ago, and the Temple that had stood in Jerusalem and whose destruction we have been fasting for on this day for thousands of years, and our anticipation of the coming of the Mashiach who will rebuild it, and the fact that the Jewish People had already begun returning to Eretz Yisrael.

He told me about the excitement that seized these youths, who hadn’t known a single bit of what he was telling them. The Communist group leader noticed that their conversation with the religious boy was growing more animated, and he ordered them to move away from him. They obeyed, naturally. But as my friend noted in his journal, he could see that he had made an impression on them, and he wrote down a rhetorical question: Would the influence of his words come to something in the future?

And as I sat there last week in that famous synagogue that has witnessed so much history, I looked around at the mature men who had gathered to hear about the importance of learning Mishnah Berurah, and I wondered if perhaps among them were some of those youths whom my friend had spoken to on that Tisha B’Av long ago by the walls of the Kremlin. Perhaps some of the younger ones, standing and listening to the simultaneous Russian translation of Rabbi Hofstetter’s words, were sons of those Komsomolists, whose fathers had told them in hushed tones what they’d heard that day … and here they were, committing themselves to learning a daily page of halachah. Was it possible?

I also remember a Moscow that was a little more conciliatory. I visited there shortly after the fall of the Communist regime, to do research for my novel The Mission (published by ArtScroll under the name Chaim Eliav), which deals with the period of the refuseniks and the heroic Jews from the West who infiltrated into Russia to teach Yiddishkeit. I went wandering about in the streets, and in my mind’s eye I saw the young Jews gathering on Simchas Torah next to the synagogue on Archipova Street, risking persecution by the secret police, and now — nothing. I walked about in Red Square and between the walls of the Kremlin, sensing the change that was taking place. I met with Jews who told me about the days of the Gulag and the refuseniks, who still instinctively turn their heads in every direction out of old habit, in case they’re being followed.

And now, years later, here I was back in Moscow again, another Moscow. I had been here on one other occasion as well, when the Marina Roscha Chabad-Lubavitch Synagogue was dedicated. And what happened there was incredible for anyone who remembered the days of terror under Stalin. Russian president Vladimir Putin made an official appearance, and in a public speech he actually praised the Jewish religion and the freedom to observe the mitzvos in his country — a country where, just a few years earlier, one who even mentioned the name of G‑d was putting his life at risk. At the time, looking out at the nearby street and watching Jews dancing as a band played chassidic music, it was clear that a huge, miraculous change had taken place. Yes, in this land of revolutions, the Jewish revolution had taken another step forward.

But the most amazing wonder, out of all these wonders, was the fact that now, the audience who sat listening to Rabbi Hofstetter didn’t seem to realize that it was a wonder at all. We might as well have been in Bnei Brak, New York, or any other Jewish community in any free country in the world; that was how simple and straightforward it was for him to arrange a speech in Moscow about meticulous study of Mishnah Berurah.

Indeed, this is what we say in the Pesach Haggadah: “And we will thank You for our liberation and for the redemption of our soul.” There are two concepts here: geulah and pdus — liberation of the body and redemption of the spirit. In Moscow of 2011, it’s really happening.

Chag sameiach v’kasher.

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