The Housewife Who Bucked the Anglo-Jewish Establishment to Fight for Soviet Jewry

March 4, 2020 | Abigail Klein Leichman
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In the early 1970s, the American movement to ease the plight of Jews in the USSR was in its early stages, while among British Jews there was little interest in the subject at all. Barbara Oberman, a thirty-three-year-old Jewish housewife, decided to change that, writes Abigail Klein Leichman:

[First], Oberman tried to persuade the Board of Deputies of British Jews to commit itself to helping Soviet Jews. “They more or less told me to go home and bake cakes,” she recalls. . . . In May 1971, Oberman began recruiting women brave enough to go against the grain and form a grassroots movement that came to be known as “the 35s.” The name referred not only to the approximate age and number of the women involved but also, and more importantly, to Raiza Palatnik, a thirty-five-year-old Jewish woman who had been imprisoned in an isolation cell five months earlier in Odessa.

Palatnik’s case galvanized the young mothers. Dressed in black, they demonstrated outside the Soviet embassy in London demanding Palatnik’s release, which finally happened in December 1972.

At first, the 35s were a thorn in the side of the Jewish establishment. . . . Oberman’s style of protest was headline-grabbing. For a demonstration against Soviet Communist leader Alexander Shelepin, who was in England for a visit, Oberman declared that the ladies would haunt him. Her husband’s factory made them white “ghost robes,” which they wore outside in the freezing cold. “It was raining, and the red lettering on our signs ran, and that was very effective in the photographs,” she notes.

Like many of the refuseniks whose cause she championed, Oberman eventually settled in Israel, where she lives to this day.

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