Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Soviet Jewry Struggle Memory

The following is excerpted from a description of the wedding of Rachel, daughter of Avital and Natan Scharanksy in Jerusalem two weeks ago when the writer began musing on her connection to Natan. As it bears on actions of my youth and that of my wife, I found it appropriate to post:

On one memorable occasion I remember how shocked my parents were when, twenty-five odd years ago, a group of us disrupted a concert of the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Half way through the performance, we shed our outside clothes to reveal the striped “prison uniforms” we were wearing underneath, and handcuffed ourselves to the railings of the balcony in the auditorium, yelling our Soviet Jewry slogans and shaking our fists. As the cellos and violins and violas of the Moscow Philharmonic came slithering to halt, we knew, in the dealthly silence that followed, that our Refusenik brothers and sisters would be listening thousands of miles away on the BBC World Service. It was only a few minutes before infuriated police officers arrived on the scene with large metal pincers to cut us free from the railings, but it was enough.

I speak of it now as if it were a childish prank, but it was not an easy thing to do. We were young and idealistic, but we were also nicely brought up middle-class Jewish girls and boys. We had all been taken by our parents on one Sunday evening or another to hear a concert at the Royal Festival Hall. We had learned to sit politely and not fidget and not applaud between movements. For years we had enjoyed Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saens and Schubert in this bastion of British culture, and now we were more or less spitting in its face.

The second before I had to stand up along with my friends, and shout at the top of my voice into the silent abyss of the stalls, my courage failed me and I did not think I could do it. The only thing, the only thing, which enabled me to get to my feet, was the thought of Natan in his solitary confinement cell, the thought of him never seeing Avital again. The reason why so many Jewish youth were participating in these demonstrations all over the world, was that Natan’s story was not just a prisoner story, or a persecution story, or even a Jewish story. It was a love story.

I am here with her but I am not really here at all; I have risen in one second to my feet at the Royal Festival Hall, and have screamed : “Free Sharansky!” like an animal, at the respectable Russian musicians playing classical music on the stage below.

I have always known, across all of the years, what I was shouting for that night. But today, looking at Rachel’s face, at that beloved and wonderful genetic combination of Natan and Avital, today I really know.

And then, she added this:-

When it was time for the groom to break the glass, Natan took the microphone to say a few words. “I’d like to say something about why we are breaking this glass” he said, alternating seamlessly between English and Hebrew.

“Thirty-four years ago, in a Moscow apartment, Avital and I stood under a sheet held up by four boys, for our own Chuppah. There were barely enough people to make up a minyan. We had never been to a Jewish wedding before, and we had no understanding of what to do. We mouthed the words that the Rabbi told us to say, without knowing their meaning. But the breaking of the glass, this we understood very well. We had one challenge, and the challenge was very clear to us. We knew that we had to get to Jerusalem. No matter what it would take, no matter how many years, we had to get to Jerusalem and build a home there. And this is what we did.”

“So now you are standing under the Chuppah Rachel, a child born in Jerusalem, overlooking Jerusalem, the first sabra in our family, marrying Micha, the first Oleh Hadash from his family. And this begs the question: Why should we break the glass at all? We are here, after all. Jerusalem has been rebuilt, and it is a vibrant city.

But the reason we are breaking the glass is this: the challenge that faces you, Rachel and Micha, is different to the challenge that faced us. You will make a home in Jerusalem, yes, but you must simultaneously have your feet on the ground, building a Jerusalem shel mata, a physical Jerusalem, while always keeping an eye on the Jerusalem shel ma’alah, on what it means, on what it represents. It will be your mission, and the mission of all your generation, to defend Jerusalem, to protect her, to keep her safe. And I think that your challenge may, in the end, be even more difficult than ours”.

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