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B’nai B’rith Presents Two Awards; Speakers Discuss American and Russian Jews

B’nai B’rith presented its 1970 Jewish Heritage Award for “excellence in Jewish literature” to the late Soviet writer Isaac Babel. The award was presented Sunday to Nathalie Babel, the author’s daughter, at the annual meeting of B’nai B’rith’s national commission on adult Jewish education at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Mr. Babel, who was imprisoned by Soviet officials in 1939 and died while in custody, is the first person to be chosen for the B’nai B’rith award posthumously. The Jewish service organization also presented the first B’nai B’rith Book Award, a $500 prize given for a single outstanding work on Judaism or Jewish life published during the preceding year, to Ronald Sanders’ “The Downtown Jews,” which describes Jewish immigration to and life on New York’s lower East Side.

Professor Leonard J. Fein, associate director of the MIT-Harvard Joint Center for Urban Studies, told the B’nai B’rith meeting that large numbers of Jews in the United States are ignorant of Jewish tradition, history, precepts, customs, and other issues involving Judaism, Professor Fein based his conclusions on a continuing study of the changing Jewish community in the Boston area and information gathered from lecturing to Jewish groups throughout the country. And yet, he said, the picture was not entirely bleak, “there is ferment and dissatisfaction among the young, due to the effect of the Israeli-Arab war of 1967, the predicament of Jews in the Soviet Union and to the recent experiences of the black community which are being translated into the Jewish community.”

Professor Max Hayward, Fellow of St. Anthony’s Oxford University and visiting scholar at Columbia University’s Russian Institute, told the meeting that Jewish writers in the Soviet Union are condemned to live “In a curious limbo, a kind of psychological twilight in which their relation to Russian society has been deliberately distorted.” Despite the fact that the Jewish contribution to Russian literature of the century “is enormous, in fact, central to the literature of the country in the last 50 years,” Professor Hayward said, writers of Jewish origin were being systematically suppressed, were particularly vulnerable to persecution and had even paid with their lives for expressing opinions. He listed particularly, as the three giants of the century, Boris Pasternak, the poet Ossip Mandelstamm and the author Isaac Babel.

Taking part in the panel discussion were authors Maurice Samuel and Elie Wiesel. Mr. Samuel said that “in the Soviet Union the Yiddish writer is compelled to become part of the system of emasculation and obliteration of Yiddish.” Mr. Wiesel said that Jewish writers in the 1930’s had the choice of remaining in Russia or leaving. “Most chose Russia because they thought they could bring concepts of Judaism and Communism together. They were wrong. Even those who tried to live as Communists died as Jews.”

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