New York (May. 16)
Somewhere in Russia a group of Jews gathered in a house. There was some uneasiness among them at first because there was a stranger with a tape recorder in their midst. Soon, however, one of the Jews began to hum a lilting, haunting melody and others began to join in. The stranger turned on his tape recorder and the Jews in the room began to sing in unison. The melody was basically Russian with hints of Israeli strains. The words, a mixture of Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew revealed their hopes and joys, their deep and abiding love of Israel. The refrain stated; “Yerushalyim, Yerushalyim, wonderful city, holy city. Yerushalyim, Yerushalyim, how I love my native city…Yerushalyim has captured our hearts.” This meeting was clandestine and the song was one of the many underground protest songs Jews sing throughout the Soviet Union. The words of this song, as those of others, are not in and of themselves anti-Soviet. But the intent could be interpreted by Soviet authorities as anti-Soviet and pro-Israel and pro-Zionist. Yet these Jews wanted the songs they sing amongst themselves to reach the ears and hearts of their brethren outside the USSR. This was the beginning of a mission for the stranger with the tape recorder that culminated in his smuggling the songs out of the Soviet Union and bringing them back to the United States where they have been recorded and will be broadcast for the first time on May 22 and May 29 on radio station WQXR from 7:06 to 8 p.m. on both nights. Subsequently, they will be released by Star Records entitled appropriately, “Silent No More,”
The radio broadcast and the record will also contain conversations between the stranger and Soviet Jews which reflect their undaunted determination to live as Jews and to go to Israel. The cost of the recording has been underwritten by the American Jewish Congress and the proceeds from the sales of the record will be used to set up scholarships for young Russian Jews studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The composers of the words and of some of the melodies are not yet known, or where known, cannot yet be revealed. The broadcast is basically the result of the untiring efforts of four men to bring the message of Soviet Jews to the world. The stranger is an American scientist, himself Jewish who speaks Russian and Hebrew fluently, whose studies take him around the world. His name, for the sake of security, will be Ben-Zion. The second man, who was instrumental in getting WQXR to broadcast the songs and orchestrated, arranged and conducted the session, is Issachar Miron, currently the director of information at the American Friends of the Hebrew University in New York. Miron is the former Music Deputy of Israel and Officer-in-Chief of the Israel Defense Army during the War of Liberation. A world renowned composer, he has written, among numerous works, nine secular worship oratorios and is perhaps most famous for his popular song, “Tzena, Tzena.” The third man is Theodore Bikel, actor, folk singer, political activist and co-chairman of the National Governing Council of the AJCongress. He recorded the songs and translation of the conversations of the Russian Jews heard on the tape. The fourth man, too, cannot be identified because he is still in the Soviet Union and well known.
IN THE WEST THE SONGS WOULD BE NON-VIOLENT PROTEST; IN RUSSIA, THEY ARE DANGEROUS
He, Ben-Zion told this reporter, was responsible for arranging some of the meetings and suggested that the songs be recorded. In addition, of course, are the Soviet Jews who, by the very act of composing and singing these songs not only defy Soviet authorities but face harassment and possible arrest. By Western standards, Miron said, “these are songs of protest, a legitimate expression of non-violent protest. But in the context of Russian society, the songs are very dangerous, very rebellious and extremely revolutionary.” One of the conversations Ben-Zion recorded was with a man who told him: “All the songs we write have only one theme: the soul wants to be free. It begs for freedom for all the Jews. When our brothers, Jews in other lands, will listen to these songs, they will understand, I hope, that even under terrible conditions, all the Jews want only one thing-to be united with our own, with our brothers and sisters. That is all.” What do the songs say? One, entitled “Oh My Heart,” is about a man talking to his heart in Aesopian language. “Why should my heart and blood live in such hunger? There’s just one riddle I can’t solve; And that’s, why even a dog should lead a dog’s life? And what would I do if I’m a gray cat, and a dog’s life has been dealt out to me? So often in dreams, a wondrous land appears to me; A land with skies of blue with a red, red sea.” Another song, “Just Three Hours Flight From Here,” states: “There’s no capitalism here, there’s a right to work, But, nevertheless, Jews don’t get into jobs. You have a right to wait in line for vodka or for matzoh, but you’ve no right to wait on line for an exit visa.”
There is also the magnificent “Pharaonu” (To Pharaoh-Let My People Go), with its words: “Oh Pharaoh, Oh Pharaoh! Let my people go! Send forth the Jewish people to its homeland. Untiring, untiring, I’ll repeat: Let my people go!” How did these Russian Jews, who told Ben-Zion that they have no Russian-Hebrew dictionaries, learn Hebrew to blend in with the Russian words? “There used to be a time when we prayed three times a day.” a man told Ben-Zion. “Now, three times a day, we listen to Radio Israel. The songs are not just sung by older Jews. Most are sung by young Jews. The same man said, “The young people have a national longing, a feeling for their people. The young have not forgotten their Jewishness. Our youth is better than us.” Ben-Zion noted that the Jews do not refer to these songs as underground songs. “They just say these are ‘our songs, they belong to us.’” They aren’t sung out in the open for fear of reprisals, he added, “Jews sing them when they gather at parties, at weddings, when they’re with their own.” The songs, Ben-Zion said, come from all parts of the USSR. “The songs are exchanged when Jews from different cities meet one another. Few are written down. Individuals carry them back to their native towns.” Miron noted that until recently, the existence of these songs were unknown in the Western world. “This would indicate that they were hidden or suppressed,” he said. “They contain dramatic messages of unprecedented strength. No longer are the Jews afraid. No longer are they silent.” As one man told Ben-Zion: “Next year in Jerusalem, next month, or next week or the next minute. We Jews are always ready.”