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Simchat Torah in Moscow – then and Now

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He remembered their eyes — on Simchat Torah, at the Choral Synagogue on Archipova Street in Moscow, a quarter of a century ago.

Elie Weisel had been seared by that experience. I was determined to look into those eyes myself, and, on Saturday night, October 16, 1976, on the beginning of the Jewish festival of Simchat Torah, I stood before the great Choral Synagogue.

We had turned off the wide thoroughfare, into the narrow street, and found ourselves swept by the crowds toward the tall white columns flanking the synagogue entrance. It was as if the dynamism of the entire Jewish people had been compressed into that tiny street and exploded into the larger area in front of the synagogue.

The open area crackled with that released energy, where thousands of Jews, old and young, hugged, sang and danced. We were on that only speck of land in the entire Soviet Union where Jews could openly celebrate their Jewishness.

We looked into their eyes, smiling, happy and wet with tears of joy. Those same eyes dimmed, grayed and narrowed as they left Archipova Street late that night and re-entered the dark vastness of Moscow.

Later that night, Anatoly Sharansky told us a story of an assimilated Jewish family in Moscow. On the eve of Simchat Torah, the father excused himself, telling the family he was going to a lecture at the university. His eldest son also excused himself, telling the family he was going to play chess at his club.

Later that night, in the midst of the maelstrom, dancing and singing on Archipova Street, their eyes met and they clasped each other and cried.

That night in 1976 became the catalyst for a series of sit-in demonstrations and protests by the refuseniks. On the day of Simchat Torah, 17 of them brought a letter to the Supreme Soviet building, demanding to know the reasons for being refused permission to leave for Israel, and when permission would be granted. They remained waiting that entire day, with no response.

At sunset, they were herded into a bus by uniformed police and driven into the woods, some 15 miles outside Moscow. They had to make their way home on foot.

The next day, the 17 refuseniks returned to the Supreme Soviet, wearing yellow stars of David. At the end of this day, they were again pushed into a bus, and this time, driven 40 miles outside of Moscow, where they were severely beaten and dragged off the bus. Zachar Tesker’s nose was broken. Joseph Ahs was thrown into a ditch filled with water. He collapsed and nearly drowned.

My friend, Enid Wurtman, and I had asked Sharansky and Vladimir Slepak if we could protest with the group. They indicated that it would be too dangerous, so we anxiously awaited their return at the flat of Alexander Lerner. They finally came back, one by one. Tired eyes, but fervent and glittering, excited by the challenge they met and overcame.

Starting that Simchat Torah, for nine days, the sit-ins and demonstrations continued. On Oct. 25, all the refusenik demonstrators were accused of “hooliganism” and sentenced to 15 days imprisonment.

They included such leading refusenik figures as Sharansky, Slepak, Yuli Kosharovsky, Leonid Volvovsky, Boris Chernobilsky and Ahs. They had challenged the might of the Soviet Union. The number of arrests during the week of Simchat Torah constituted the largest number arrested since President Nixon’s visit two years earlier.

It was to be 13 years later, in 1989, and then, only because of the personal intervention of U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, that I could next see their eyes on Simchat Torah at the Moscow synagogue.

Those 13 years in the Soviet Jewry movement were a vast rollercoaster of ups and downs, joy and sadness, imprisonments and releases. During those years, my applications for a return visa were refused, except for once. I returned, but not on Simchat Torah. Throughout those years, I longed to see those eyes again, so that their fire might again rekindle my efforts on their behalf.

This time I entered the synagogue itself from the small side entrance with other fellow board members of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. How unlike 1976, when we were warned not to enter the synagogue itself, because the KGB watched and photographed Western activists. I searched out the eyes around me in the synagogue. How different. The eyes were more confident, less harried and battle-weary.

There was a commotion. I saw my cousin, Alexander Shmukler, Moscow refusenik, and first president of B’nai Brith in the USSR, shoulder his way through the standing mass of worshippers. He climbed the bimah and whispered to Rabbi Shayevitch, leading the prayers.

All eyes turned to the rear of the sanctuary, where a tall, white-haired American was entering. The prayers ceased. A thousand whispers were heard – – Leon Uris! The rabbi announced his arrival. The aisle parted. All pushed back, and he strode down the aisle. My cousin directed him to a seat beside me. I had never met him before.

His book, “Exodus,” was one of the most important elements in the movement for emigration. For years we smuggled copies into the USSR, where they were photographed, page by page, and clandestinely transmitted from hand to hand. Now, in 1989, “Exodus” was openly displayed in the JDC library in the Choral Synagogue and other Jewish libraries throughout the USSR.

The eyes surrounding Uris begged him to honor them by carrying a Torah. They brought one to him. Embarrassed by the attention, he declined, his pale blue eyes filling with tears.

I don’t know what caused me to do so, but I said to him in jest, “Just because you didn’t write it doesn’t mean you can’t carry it.” He laughed out loud, smiled at me, stood and accepted the Torah. He carried it around the sanctuary to the applause and admiration of the congregants. They touched him and the Torah as he passed. I looked at their eyes. All were upon him, radiating gratitude and affection.

Two years later: Simchat Torah, 1991. With no problem in obtaining a visa, without concern for the KGB, and with an openness never before experienced in Moscow, I stood looking up at the tall white columns and portico of the synagogue.

Images of long ago crowded my mind. Volvovsky playing a guitar and leading the Hebrew songs. Whispering messages to Slepak and Kosharovsky. Collecting scribbled names and addresses for requested letters of invitation. Arranging for clandestine meetings. Taking notes on scraps of paper regarding the latest arrests and trials. Noting the dates of planned hunger strikes and demonstrations. KGB vehicles parked nearby. Militiamen standing menacingly on the fringes of the street.

Now I looked around and saw Israeli representatives mingling with the throngs. Leaders of the Vaad, representing Jewish communities from across the Soviet Union, scheduling meetings. Posters and flyers announcing the dates and times of Hebrew classes in and around Moscow. B’nai Akiva youngsters singing together at the foot of the steps. Lubavitch rabbis, at the top of the steps, chanting prayers and hurling flyers in Hebrew and Russian into the gatherings below. Groups of people, their eyes open and unafraid, leaving for the new synagogue near McDonald’s.

Late that night, with the crowds thinning, I left Archipova Street, arm in arm with long-time Soviet Jewry activists from Israel, Europe and America. We marveled at what we had seen, knowing the battle was not yet over, and wondering what the eyes will tell us when we return again to yet another Simchat Torah in Moscow.

Constance Smukler is a member of the executive committee of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

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