1. Soviet Jews: Making History
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Part One History from the Ground Up 3 1 Soviet Jews Making History Ann Komaromi The liberation of Soviet Jews is a gratifyingly heroic phase of Jewish history in the late twentieth century. Soviet Jews accomplished something remarkable: they resurrected their Jewish identity from what had been a “valley of dry bones” after the destruction of Jewish life under Stalin. External factors facilitated this renaissance. Foremost among them, Israel’s SixDay War in 1967 provided a powerful impulse for the revival of a Jewish national identity in the Soviet Union. Soviet Jews described Israel’s victory as a decisive event for the transformation of their consciousness.1 Moreover , the post-Holocaust cry of “Am Yisrael Chai!” (The Jewish people lives) resounded around the world as a rallying cry for the cause of Soviet Jewry,2 who faced discrimination and potential spiritual—though rarely physical —death as Jews in the post-Stalin USSR.3 Jews abroad could with good reason feel proud of their role as midwives assisting the rebirth of Soviet Jews. Many Western Jews, burdened by the memory of the Holocaust and facing the more subtle challenges of affluence and assimilation in the 1960s, were seeking means for attaining their own spiritual renewal. As a result, in Western countries Jewish students, housewives, and other community members flocked to the streets to contest the power of the “Red Pharaoh” and demand that Soviet authorities “Let my people go.”4 This new struggle for liberation differed from the fights for revolution and Zionism that had mobilized Jewish communities in the early twentieth century.5 The postwar struggle was not less dramatic, however. Moreover, its achievements were undeniable. By 1991 almost a million Soviet Jews had immigrated to Israel. 4  |  Ann Komaromi As we look back, however, the drama of the struggle for Soviet Jewry that gripped Western imagination should not obscure the more prosaic desires and day-to-day struggles of the refuseniks and activists in the Soviet Union.6 In addition, that drama should not prevent us from acknowledging the complexity of the forces that came together to make the mass emigration of Soviet Jews possible. In Western countries, and particularly in the United States and Great Britain, the cause of Soviet Jewry fit into Cold War narratives as a fight against the Soviet Union and the revolution’s failed promises. It thus helped American Jewish communities demonstrate their pro-American loyalties. Nevertheless, most Soviet activists and their supporters resisted overtly anti-Soviet rhetoric, because it was not strategically effective for dealing with Soviet authorities.7 The cause of Soviet Jewry appealed to Western Jews in another way: it allowed them to support Israel’s growth by promoting the aliya (emigration to Israel) of Soviet Jews, without in most cases undertaking aliya themselves. Beginning in the late 1990s, Nehemiah Levanon’s publications revealed the extensive and mostly clandestine efforts of the Israeli Nativ Bureau to mobilize and guide Western efforts to put pressure on the Soviet government to ameliorate their treatment of Jews and allow free emigration.8 The tensions between grassroots and establishment Jewish organizations over how best to aid Soviet Jews are relatively well known by now. Far less widely known is the story of the Soviet Jewish activists themselves. This is why Yuli Kosharovsky’s work is so valuable: his memoirs and interviews provide a series of firsthand accounts of how the Soviet Jewish refuseniks bravely faced many challenges and how the Soviet Jewish movement developed. These accounts abound in personality, drama, and prosaic yet telling details. Kosharovsky led the effort to remember and record this history by initiating and coordinating the collective efforts of a huge range of fellow refuseniks and activists, whom he interviewed. In this way he continued playing the role he filled as an important behind-the-scenes coordinator of the Jewish movement in the Soviet Union.9 Kosharovsky’s history sheds significant light on the internal organization of the Soviet Jewish movement, including formerly secret initiatives such as the coordinating committee Mashka and the Cities Project to support Hebrew teaching in various provincial cities around the USSR.10 He gives us a view from Soviet Jews: Making History  |  5 the inside. Kosharovsky’s interviews bring to life the voices of those Elie Wiesel had once famously called “the Jews of Silence.” By the 1970s and 1980s, these Jews were decidedly “Silent No More.”11 Many of those familiar external factors from Israel and the West facilitating the Soviet Jewish movement and push...


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