Saturday, October 10, 2009

Adonai our God saw fit to blow down the roof of our sukkah in the downpour last night, which was the crowning glory to a Sukkot holiday in which we barely got to enjoy our outdoor representation of what our wandering ancestors lived in when they were stuck in the Sinai desert for forty years. Just too hot or too wet out this year to be in there - even our sukkah party guests couldn't stand to be out there for long.

I mean, I know we are supposed to start praying for rain in Israel to help ensure a good harvest of crops in the coming year, but this is ridiculous.

So fine, the sukkah is down already. Hope the Almighty is a happy camper.

What made me a happier camper after such a rough week was the celebration last night of the most recent holiday in this Jewish calendar-induced marathon: that of Simchat Torah. The name of the holiday is, literally, "happy Torah", signifying how happy we are to have finished reading the entire five books of Moses and how happy we are to start it all over again. I got a dance in with a Torah scroll (and I held on to it quite well, as there are some consequences if the scroll is dropped, even by accident), got to hold the edges of the parchment as the entire scroll was unrolled, some recently bar/bat mitzvahed members of the synagogue read their Torah portions as we all carefully held this massive document, and then we sang some more and ate some afterwards.

What popped into my head when I got home from the synagogue, though, was not only the afterglow of the celebration. It was some remnant of memory from my deep, dark past as a Jewish day school student in deepest, darkest Texas.

Half a world away in the early '80's, there was still a Soviet Union. There were still a lot of Jewish people there, even though they weren't allowed to practice their religion, read any books about it, learn any Hebrew, or even walk into a synagogue, if any still existed there. At the same time, they were still marked on identification papers as Jewish, which made it difficult for them to get ahead in that world where, even though it was supposed to work by Communist tenets that made everything equal no matter what one did, there were still some comrades that were more equal than others. These Soviet Jews, kept in ignorance of their religion and unable to criticize the Soviet leadership for it without suffering repercussions that could be as harsh as imprisonment and death sentences, were very much the lesser equals.

And if they decided they wanted to leave, they were labeled as the worst of all. No visa would ever be granted to them, and no quarter would be given to these refuseniks.

The Refuseniks (from left to right) back: Vitaly Rubin, Vladimir Slepak, Lev Ovsisscher, Alexander Druk, Yossi Beilin, Dina Beilin front: Natan Sharansky, Ida Nudel, Alexander Lerner

The ones pictured above were some of the most famous of the Soviet Jews who applied for visas to immigrate to Israel and were refused them by the government. That refusal became the least of these refuseniks' problems, as they found themselves under surveillance by the KGB at all times, found it more difficult to get proper housing and promotions at work - and an extremely unlucky few, among them Sharansky, suffered imprisonment and trumped-up charges of treason that were punishable by death. We're not talking about just an isolated group of nine here - those nine were representative of a million or more people who were trying to leave.

The 1970's and 1980's was the period when American and Israeli Jewry got involved. It was a huge cause that united all denominations of Jews all over the world. If kids like me weren't writing letters to refusenik adults and children that we hoped wouldn't get confiscated from people visiting them to let them know the world was not completely ignoring their plight, we were trying to contribute to funds for the purchase of Hebrew texts, prayerbooks, and ritual objects that, if they weren't confiscated, either, would be smuggled into the country and then passed around to other refuseniks as discreetly as possible in an act of rebellion against the country that would keep them ignorant of their heritage if it could. If we really hit the jackpot, we could possibly buy some lucky few people out of the Soviet Union and get them out from under such repressive measures taken against them, but that was a pipe dream in the early '80's. The U.S.S.R. was clearly not going to let these people it was persecuting go.

What it did do on a once-a-year basis, however, was allow them one celebration.

It is no secret that the former Soviet Union was an inhospitable place for anything Jewish; one's Jewish identity was a liability, not an asset. But during the 1960s, because Israel was showing its might through its many wars, the Jews of Russia began to feel emboldened, if only slightly. Simultaneously, the American Jewish community began paying attention to the plight of Russian Jewry and initiated great lobbying efforts to pressure the Soviet government to allow Jewish immigration. With both forces converging, Soviet Jews for the first time began considering the previously impossible thought of leaving the Soviet Union for a better life elsewhere.

Equally astounding, beginning in the late 1960s, the Jews of the large cities of the Soviet Union began to congregate periodically in large demonstration-like groups around the state-sanctioned though locked synagogues. The day of these spontaneous gatherings of thousands of Jews in cities across the Soviet Union: Simchat Torah.

"Why Simchat Torah," I asked my mother. "Why not Rosh Hashana, Passover, Yom Kippur? Who knew the date? How did people find out about it? Who started the practice? Why did you go? What did you do?"

My mom thought these were silly questions. "We did it because all the young Jews in the city were going and we found out about it from our friends, and they from their friends. We went, we sang, we danced, we met people we hadn't seen for a while, we laughed, we read letters from Israel, we exchanged information about immigration and life abroad. It was simply one time a year when we could be unafraid and happy to be Jews, even with the KGB shills in the crowd. The feeling there was profound. We felt our strength. We saw our numbers. We realized who we were and we were proud."

For the Jews of Soviet Russia, Simchat Torah was the one opportunity to celebrate who they were. They had no other holidays to experience the various aspects of their Jewishness or their connection to each other or to the Eternal. Simchat Torah was it. More specifically, Simchat Torah was a celebration of who they were apart from being Russians, of their separate values, their separate ways, their separate status, and the separate criteria by which they were judged. On all other days, this separateness engendered hostility from their neighbors; on Simchat Torah the separateness was turned on its head and celebrated.

Many Soviet Jews participating in these rallies had never seen the Torah in whose name they celebrated. Yet, by their descriptions of the events, the Torah was never far away. Evgeni Valevich, a Russian Jewish musician, wrote a popular song to reflect the mood at those Simchat Torah celebrations. "As the old cantor sang," the song goes, "our small nation seems so great." Amazingly, this pride and sense of nationhood was such a new and unique feeling for so many Jews, it compelled them to transform their lives completely and emigrate.

Quite simply, the key to "why Simchat Torah?" is in a prayer saying of the Torah that "it is a tree of life to them that hold fast to it and all of its supporters are happy". The Torah is the blueprint for the way Jewish people live, for why we are who we are. Even the mere thought of that powerful document helped sustain a persecuted group of Jews in their enforced exile (even for nearly a lifetime) and got the rest of world Jewry united in a way we haven't seen the likes of since the Berlin Wall came falling down.

Here's hoping it will take more than the repression of millions to unite us all once again.

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