Saturday, December 25, 2010

The 1962 Matzah Demonstration on Behalf of Soviet Jewry

I remembered a demo by Betar friends involving the dumping of Matzot in front of a Russian diplomatic institution but couldn't recall details. Here is our blog post on it.

In any case, I did receive this reminisce of the 1962 action, two years before the first mass public demonstration of May 1, 1964.


The 1962 Matzah Demonstration

Bernard J. Kabak, 1.22.04


What follows is an account of the 1962 matzah demonstration, as best as I can recall it. This account is created entirely from memory. (It is possible that I have some written materials pertaining to the demonstration among my papers, but I have not sought to retrieve them from storage.) This account is necessarily incomplete, as I have not conferred with others, particularly Benjamin Silverberg, who would have things to add and possibly to correct.

In early 1962, word had got out of the Soviet Union, and was reported in the general press, that the Soviet authorities were strictly curtailing the availability of matzah for pesach that year. While some matzah bakeries were allowed to bake a limited amount of matzah, other bakeries were closed down altogether. Nor were the authorities permitting the importation of matzah baked abroad. Plainly as a result of Soviet policy the supply of matzah would be inadequate to meet the needs of the Jewish population.

Responding to what was perceived here as a grave religious crisis for the Jews in the Soviet Union, students from several universities in New York City decided to hold a demonstration in protest. I cannot say anything about how the decision to hold the demonstration was reached or what went into the early planning, because I was not involved in the initial stage. Rather, I was asked to take the leadership reins to replace David Froelich, then a student at Yeshiva University, who was pressured by Y.U. not to participate. The other leader of the demonstration was Benjamin Silverberg. Benjy was, I believe, a student at one of the colleges of the City University system, but I’m not entirely sure. I was then in my junior year at Columbia, and I was tapped, perhaps, to draw students from the city’s private colleges to the demonstration. (Because of my activity in the Student Zionist Organization, I knew students at lots of schools in the metropolitan area.)

As word spread about the planned demonstration, we met some resistance, mostly from the orthodox world, primarily on the ground that it was better to work quietly behind the scenes. Because of the circumstances under which it was held, I recall in particular a meeting we had with Rabbi Pinchas Teitz, a noted leader from Elizabeth, New Jersey, who was adamant that the demonstration not go forward. I think it was a friend, Zvi Gittleman, who told us that Rabbi Teitz wanted to meet. We arranged to go to Rabbi Teitz’ house after shabbat. Coincidentally, Rabbi Teitz’ daughter Rivka became engaged just at that time. When we arrived at the Rabbi’s home, the place was packed with well-wishers. We joined the festivities, wished mazal tov all around, and drank a l’chaim.

It wasn’t till 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, after all this conviviality, that we got down to talk business. Rabbi Teitz’ essential point was that our confrontational approach would undermine the quiet, behind-the-scenes efforts that he and others were engaged in that supported Jewish life in the Soviet Union. We disagreed (perhaps out of the chutzpa and passion of youth), and went forward with our demonstration.

I’m not sure of the date of the demonstration. Pesach in 1962 fell in mid-April, so the demonstration must have been in early April or possibly late March. In any case, I believe it was on a Thursday. The turnout, almost all college students and high schoolers, numbered probably no more than a hundred, if that many. Not bad, we thought, considering our inexperience in these things and the opposition from our most natural center of recruitment, Yeshiva University. As an example of the pressure applied to people not to participate, Ephraim Buchwald, at the time a student at Yeshiva University High School, had points deducted from his academic average because he came to the demonstration.

The demonstration took place in New York City on East 67 Street between Third and Lexington Avenues. The police allowed us to parade right in front of the Soviet mission to the United Nations on that block. The demonstrators, who carried placards, were entirely orderly.

To our astonishment, after the demonstration had gone on for a while, the front door to the Soviet mission opened and someone came out to invite a delegation from the demonstration to come inside. I went in, but I don’t recall specifically who entered with me, except that I’m sure Benjy Silverberg had to have been there.

We met with several officials from the Soviet mission. I have no recollection as to their names or titles. The tone of the meeting was not argumentative. We pointed out, I believe, that the shortage of matzah contravened the promise of the Soviet constitution to allow freedom of religious practice. The mission official who did most of the talking acknowledged that, yes, perhaps the government’s matzah policy had been a mistake. After the meeting, we reported to the crowd outside.

I don’t recall whether the Anglo-Jewish press covered the demonstration. But the New York Herald Tribune (no longer published, but then a leading daily) carried a story the next day (Friday) that played up the official’s admission that the government’s policy was a mistake. This was at a tense time during the Cold War—the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred later that same year—when the Soviet mantra was the perfection and ultimate triumph of Communism. In furtherance of that worldview, disasters in the Soviet Union, whether natural or man-made, were kept secret, and the occurrence of errors, much less admitting to them, was inconceivable. So the fact that we got an official to acknowledge that a Soviet policy was a mistake really was news. (Later that day, I got a follow-up phone call from Irving “Pat” Spiegel, the Times’ Jewish beat reporter, who had been scooped on the story by the rival Herald Tribune, but the Times did not print any follow-up story of its own.)

That’s the gist of what happened as best as I can recall the demonstration. I will add that in 1977 I was in the Soviet Union visiting refusniks. One shabbat while there, I went to a shul where I picked up one of the few relatively new siddurim. On the inside cover was a plate noting that the siddur was a gift from Rabbi Teitz.

A few words of evaluation. Whether it resulted from our efforts I cannot say, but I don’t believe that from then until the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades later a shortage of matzah ever became an issue again. But plainly our demonstration had a limited purpose: to restore the supply of a specific religious need. Never did we imagine that within a short time after our demonstration there would be a groundswell pressing for a general enlargement of rights for Jews in the Soviet Union—especially the broad-scale right of emigration—that came to be known as the Soviet Jewry movement.

At the same time, I think the fact that we took our protest to the streets helped change the attitude of the organized American Jewish community, which, till then, had shied away from public outdoor demonstrations. New York City’s first Salute to Israel Parade followed not long after, then the marches and rallies for Soviet Jewry, and the rest.

Should you wish to follow up on my recital with any of the people I’ve mentioned, here’s what I can tell you about them today:

Benjamin Silverberg lives somewhere in northern New Jersey, possibly Bergen County. I believe he works in New York City either in accounting or information technology.

David Froelich lives in Israel. Years ago he worked for the one of the government ministries, possibly the Comptroller’s office.

Ephraim Buchwald is a rabbi in New York City, a giant in the kiruv movement who heads the National Jewish Outreach Program.

Rabbi Teitz is deceased. His community in Elizabeth, NJ is now led by his son

Rivka Teitz is married to Rabbi Yossi Blau.

Zvi Gittleman is a scholar in the field of Russian and Eastern European history. I believe he is on the faculty of the University of Michigan.

Pat Spiegel is deceased.

^

5 comments:

Aharon said...

I remember that the Elizabeth community never participated in the Soviet Jewry protests because of the influence of Rav Teitz who did a lot of work 'behind' the scenes to help Soviet Jews. I remember that there were crates of Cyrillic/Hebrew Siddurim in the basement of JEC that as mentioned were used for that purpose. I also remember that the huge rally in Washington D.C. in the late eighties the Elizabeth community was encouraged to participate and our family spent the night in a motel nearby and took the metro to the rally in the morning. I don't have any supporting documents only my memories being a resident of Elizabeth in the 70's and 80's

YMedad said...

Yes, I have even argued with his son of those issues over at the MailJewish list. Such a terrible error made in that approach. Especially as the "nog'im badavar" explicitly told us to continue public activities.

BTW, you site could use some fine tuning as not all opens. Nice work.

Aharon said...

Thank you for the site comments - I was upgrading it in time for a public showing of my work. You can email me directly at afischman@att.net.

Growing up I knew of the reason why Elizabethans did not participate - my dad listen to the Mora DeAsra so therefore I did as well. I was quite happy when we marched in DC.

Shanah Tovah (ha),
Aharon

Aharon said...

I was able to fix all of the links (really re-uploading photos).

Thanks, Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tova. My the news of the coming year be based on facts

YMedad said...

I found the JTA report:

April 13, 1962

New York Students Demonstrate Against Soviet Ban on Matzoh

NEW YORK, Apr. 12 (JTA) –
Several hundred students from a majority of New York City college campuses marched silently in front of the Soviet Mission in the United Nations in protest against the ban on matzoh baking by Soviet authorities for this Passover.

The marchers carried a variety of banners protesting the ban. They were under instructions not to speak or demonstrate in any way and the schedule called for them to march back and forth in front of the mission for two hours.

In a statement issued prior to the march, the sponsors asserted that the ban was "the culmination of five years of gradual encroachment on this key aspect of Judaism" and that the ban was "part of a larger official attempt to destroy the bond between Soviet Jewry and the traditional roots of Judaism which have a national historical significance."