In America and Israel, the Story of Soviet Jewry Is Being Rapidly Forgotten

April 13, 2020 | Izabella Tabarovsky
About the author:

In 2016, Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov produced a documentary about the daring 1970 escape attempt—in which her parents were key players—that kicked off the refusenik movement in the Soviet Union and, just as importantly, the mass-movement among American Jews to help their coreligionists behind the Iron Curtain. To her great surprise, Zalmanson-Kuznetsov discovered during screenings of her film and other public events that few Israeli or American Jewish teenagers had any knowledge of the refuseniks or their plight. Izabella Tabarovsky comments:

Part of the problem . . . is most certainly a failure to make the story of Soviet Jewry relevant to new generations of Jews, who have an obvious need for a story of an extraordinary rebirth of Jewish identity in a part of the Diaspora that many had assumed was destined for cultural and spiritual annihilation. Behind the heroic grand narrative of a resistance struggle in a country that no longer exists on maps is a story about the why and how of the process of Jewish rediscovery which is both inherently powerful and also worthy of present-day re-exploration and transmission.

While American teenagers today might find it difficult to relate to a story of the harassment of activist Jews by Soviet state police and imprisonment in the gulag, for each refusenik who experienced those ghastly hardships there were dozens whose drama was seemingly more prosaic yet more relatable. Kicked out of their jobs and familiar social circles, pushed to the margins of society, stuck in refusal for years and even decades, these largely assimilated Jews had to reinvent their lives in their newly narrowed circumstances.

What is so compelling about the refuseniks’ story today is that so many of them chose to define themselves by delving into their Jewish identities and finding sources of strength, motivation, and optimism there. From friends of friends, they dug out the addresses of old men who had the secret knowledge of the Torah. They studied with them, then in turn taught others. Under the guise of camping, they organized expeditions to Holocaust mass graves and ḥasidic sites and reported to others on what they saw.

Read more on Tablet: