A new collection of essays argues that the early rabbis succeeded by offering ordinary Jews the opportunity to be spiritual without renouncing a worldly way of life.
Holiness without Asceticism
Natan Sharansky’s Fourth of July, and His Long Road to Freedom
On July 4, 1974, Natan (then Anatoly) Sharansky—who had spent the previous fifteen days in a Soviet prison—married Avital (then Natalia Stieglitz) in Moscow. The next day, Avital departed for Israel, but Natan was denied permission to leave the country and scant years later would be arrested on fictitious charges of espionage. It was not until 1986 that he was released, thanks to sustained pressure on the Soviet government from President Reagan, various members of Congress, and the American Jewish community. In a powerful interview with David Samuels, Sharansky describes his role in the refusenik movement and his wife’s activism during his imprisonment. He begins by explaining how he formed his sense of Jewish identity:
[As a child], I didn’t know anything about Jewish communities. I knew nothing about Judaism; I knew nothing about Jewish history, nothing about the Jewish religion. I knew very well that I was a Jew because that’s what was written on my parents’ ID cards, and there was a lot of anti-Semitism and discrimination—that’s all. . . .
I first realized that I had a history, a people, and a country in 1967, after the Six-Day War. For the Soviet Union, Israel’s victory in that war was a great humiliation. [As a result], Jews suddenly discovered that all the people around them, friends and enemies, Jews and non-Jews, connected this country with them. And so we wanted to understand what this connection meant. That’s when, in the underground, we started reading about ourselves and about our history in the books that were brought to us by American Jews. And we found out that we had such an exciting history, beginning with the Exodus from Egypt and continuing into the present.
There were Jews coming [to the Soviet Union at the time] from all over the world. They would say, “Oh, your father is from Odessa. My grandfather is from Odessa. We are family; we want to help you.” And we discovered there was the state of Israel, which also wanted to help us. So that’s how we discovered our identity, and that’s what gave us the strength to start fighting for our dignity and our freedom.