By Simon Jacobson – Moscow, Russia
Amidst all our current global turmoil, I would like to report to you that I find myself in a city which caused much upheaval in the last century, and despite all odds and predictions is now witness to a living miracle.
I should add that this miracle touches me very personally.
With great anticipation I embarked on my journey to Moscow for this present lecture tour. You see, this city is the birthplace of my father. Indeed, Russia is the country of origin of both my parents, my grandparents and all my immediate ancestors. It is also the birthplace of my mentor, the Rebbe, and all his predecessors. It is the country which gave birth to the Chassidic movement, which has deeply shaped my life with its transformative philosophy and blueprint for contemporary life. The largest segment of American Jews trace their roots to this country. The list is long with both the contributions and calamities of this historic country.
With my entire upbringing shaped by Russian influences, I was quite naturally looking very much forward to finally coming to the country that is so embedded in my genes and in my nurturing.
Right off the plane I felt right at home. All the words of my childhood come pouring out. “Spasiba.” “Das vi danya.” Dobrevetcha.” “Panyimayot.” “Tochne.” “Shto.” “Pazhaleste.” “Maladetz.” Of course, the indispensable “tak.” And some words not for print. Lest you wonder, I feel quite inept with my knowledge of this language. I know just enough to answer “nimnoshka” to the question whether “panyimyot paruski?” and definitely “nyeta gavarit.”
Yes, I feel sense of belonging here. But little did I expect the intensity of my emotional reactions. I am actually now sitting and weeping as I think about the unlikely – unlikely is grossly inadequate; it’s more of a revolutionary – transformation that has taken place within yards from where I presently sit.
For over 70 years, from the time of the Russian Revolution, a war was waged from this city and country against Jewish life. Tragically, the Communists effectively closed down synagogues, schools and all the institutions that allowed Judaism to thrive in this country for centuries. In this city thousands of Jewish Rabbis, leaders, scholars, just fine people, were shot without just cause. It was the city from where Stalin drove terror into the hearts of hundreds of millions and killed tens of millions.
And on a personal note: It was in this city in 1937, in a neighborhood called Malachavkeh, where my grandfather and namesake was arrested by the NKVD, the dreaded Soviet secret police. A few years earlier, in the same city in 1923, my grandfather merited to be one of the ten individuals, who together with the Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak took a vow to the death to do everything in their power to preserve Jewish life in that country. Most of those ten were arrested and shot. My grandfather would end up exiled in Siberia for several years and finally escape the country, physically broken though spiritually stronger (at the end of this article is a video of my father describing that dark night). Most others were not so fortunate. They were either killed or died from hunger. The remaining Jews were persecuted and not easily allowed to maintain their heritage.
[Moscow was also the city which, in its Russian-style obstinacy, in the shape of bitter cold winter, froze Napoleon and later Hitler in their march forward to conquer this notoriously resilient country].
You would think that after all this there would be no remnant left of Jewish life in Moscow and Russia. Quite the contrary.
Now I sit in Moscow and watch Jews who lived through all that terror – some of them quite elderly, many others are their children and grandchildren – and in one way or another have maintained their Judaism. Many others are reconnecting to their roots. It’s a complicated story; no one even knows how many actual Jews there are in this country. Many, many parents hid their identities from their children to protect them from the discrimination. So many others have intermarried. But one thing is for sure: The place is saturated with Jewish energy. It feels like being in a burned out building but you still can see the simmering embers that have remained burning – barely. But burning they are, and like the nature of a spark, they are flickering and beginning to burst into flames.
There is much work and hard work that still needs to be done, but what is so awesome is that the cinders have remained alive. After all this time and all the attempts to extinguish them, after two World Wars and all the upheavals in the last century, who would have thought?…
And this survival and revival is no an accident. Behind the scenes there were those in this country and outside of it that were risking their lives – with literal mesiras nefesh – to maintain the pilot flame. I will never forget my father’s description of a personal audience he had with the Rebbe, following his 1971 visit to the Soviet Union. My father delivered hundreds of letters written by Russian Jews to the Rebbe, pouring out their souls, asking for blessings and describing their challenges. Not to arouse suspicion, these letters were addressed, “Dear Father,” “Dear Uncle” and the likes. The Rebbe gently took the letters and began reading them. Within a few minutes the Rebbe was crying. My father, feeling uncomfortable remaining in the room with the Rebbe in such an intimate moment, slowly began backing out of the room. The Rebbe motioned that he remain. He stood there crouched in a corner, watching this rare sight of a holy man sobbing uncontrollably over the plight of his people.
These tears were not that rare. Over the years of his leadership, the Rebbe never ceased speaking out – crying out – for the Jews trapped on the “other side of the iron curtain.” I personally witnessed the unyielding and emphatic cries of the Rebbe, always citing the Talmudic declaration that “even an iron curtain cannot separate them from their Father in heaven.” You could see in the Rebbe’s appeals the profound concern and pain that he consistently carried inside for his brethren – who were also his fellow countrymen and women – living, suffering in the Soviet Union.
This concern was not limited to feelings. Not here is the place and the time to go into the Rebbe and the Previous Rebbe’s superhuman, underground efforts to keep the Jewish flame alive through all those hard years, via a secret network of activities that span back to the 1920’s!
That defiant effort alone – to stand up against the might Soviet empire and not accept defeat – should go down in history as one of the most formidable acts of heroism. But the story doesn’t end there. These herculean efforts yielded their fruit: The flame remained burning, while the Soviet empire crumbled. Fulfilling the prescient words of the Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak to one of his Jewish captors (from the notoriously hated “yevsektzia,” the Jewish wing of Communists): When the captor sneered to the Rebbe “Rebbe, mir velen zehn ver vet oisfiren,” we shall see who will prevail, the Rebbe replied: “ye, mir velen zehn,” yes indeed, we shall see…
And now we see…
To see the renaissance of Jewish life in Moscow – after all that transpired – is quite overwhelming…
What relevance does of all of this have to us today?
On the most obvious level: This is a story of hope. Should anyone reading these lines be in despair, feel hopeless or suffering in any form and fashion – I bring you live and warm regards from a city where hope and faith have prevailed over the harshest of adversaries.
As I was speaking the other day to a group of Russian Jews – I spoke in English simultaneously being translated into Russian – I could see the tears in the eyes of several people in the audience when I thanked them for remaining standing through it all. I could see the emotions well when they heard about the Rebbe reading their letters with tears.
After witnessing this all, no one should ever be able to say that there is no hope…
As so many of us are wondering what will come of our current economic woes, of never-ending volatility in the Middle East, of each of our own personal fears and uncertainties — Moscow 2009 is a powerful reminder that we know very little about the mysteries of life cycles. Yesterday, Moscow was destroying lives, today it is building them. Yesterday, Moscow all but annihilated Jewish life and morale. Today Jewish life is thriving here.
In the center of Moscow an impressive seven-story Jewish Community Center is buzzing with activity. From classrooms, synagogues, two kosher restaurants, community rooms, sports activities, dinner halls, ballrooms, and that’s not even half of it. Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar sits unassuming in his office, overseeing KGB headquarters on one end and an empire of Jewish institutions on the other. I am looking into his eyes to see if he senses the great miracle he is part of.
But awesome moments are never recognized as they happen; only in retrospect.
Moscow today is indeed an awesome sight to behold when placed in context of Moscow in 1937.
And its lessons reverberate. With crisis brewing world over, who knows where and when the next Moscow will emerge.