Finding G-d in the Russian Aliyah

Illustration: Russian Immigrant at Ben-Gurion Airport (Image credit: Alpert Nathan/Government Press Office of Israel [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via Flickr)

Both Avraham and myself were born into totally assimilated families of Russian-Jewish intelligentsia. He at least remembered his religiously observant grandparents in Minsk, to whom his parents had taken him a couple of times from Moscow.

I didn't even have that: My mother's parents, both physicians, were complete atheists. My paternal grandfather, an agronomist, was arrested and shot by the KGB in 1938 for alleged “espionage for the U.S.” — that's how the KGB qualified getting assistance from the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) — following which my grandmother stopped practicing any Jewish lifestyle, even if they had done so before.

Only one fact she couldn't undo: In 1920 they had circumcised their firstborn son, who was to become my father. In any case, I was growing up without any idea of anything Jewish. I never was an atheist and remember myself praying at stressful moments of life, but I had no idea to whom I was praying.

All the more amazing was the thought that appeared in my mind some time after I met Avraham at an anti-Soviet demonstration, which he organized in Tel Aviv in 1973 to mark International Human Rights Day. That day was obviously planned from Above, minute by minute.

First thing in the morning, I received my get (divorce) papers at the Tel Aviv rabbinate, and was now free from the fictitious marriage my mother had arranged for me with a man who already had his exit visa to Israel and agreed to marry me in order to take me out separately from my refusenik family.

At 10 a.m., I had an interview with the Education Ministry where I was offered a choice: go to Beit She’an to teach English at the local school without a teacher's license — which would mean a minimal salary, or else take a licensing course in Tel Aviv for teachers of English from the U.S.S.R. and English-speaking non-teachers from the U.S. Had I accepted the first offer, I would not have met Avraham on that day (if at all), would not have met Reb Shlomo Carlebach, and would have lived a different life altogether. Thank G-d, I took the second choice!

At 1 p.m., I had a phone call placed to my parents in Novosibirsk. Many people may not remember — and the younger generation may not even know — that in those days we couldn't just dial the number and talk; we had to place our order in advance and then sit for hours upon hours waiting for connection. I was anticipating a hard conversation with my mom because I knew she mamash (really) loved the guy who had extricated me from the claws of the KGB, and would be very upset to hear of my divorce.

I was sitting at a desk in the office of the director of the Beit Milman Absorption Center anxiously looking at the telephone, which could ring at any moment. But the telephone was silent. To pass the time, I started leafing through the Russian-language newspaper that somebody left on the desk. It was Nasha Strana (Our Country) — the only Russian newspaper in those days, which we nicknamed Stranateinu. It was filled with socialist propaganda that was usually disgusting. Absent-mindedly, I turned another page, and then realized that something on the previous page had captured my attention. I turned the page back and read:

On International Human Rights Day, December 10th, an Anti-Soviet Demonstration demanding freedom for Soviet Jewry will take place in front of the Finnish Embassy in Tel Aviv at 3 p.m.

I distinctly remember the feeling of being physically lifted above my chair. And the strange thought: "I have to be there!" If asked at that moment why it was so important for me to be present at that specific demonstration, for the life of me I would not have been able to explain.

I had just returned to Israel after a long speaking tour of the United States and Europe, where I had participated in dozens of demonstrations, usually as a featured speaker. Here in Tel Aviv, I was not only not invited to speak — I was not invited at all. And yet, it was clear as a sunny day that I had to be there! It was a matter of life or death.

My watch was showing it was after 2 p.m. The phone was still dead silent. From that moment on, I was looking at the device, begging it to ring. And it finally did! The time was 2:30 p.m. The conversation turned out even harder than I had expected. Not only because of my mother's reaction to my divorce, but because I heard the tragic news that one of our closest friends, an elderly Jew by the name Efim Borisovich Goldberg, had died during a KGB interrogation where he was pressured to agree to testify against my father, one of the U.S.S.R.’s most prominent ophthalmologists.

At that time my dad was unemployed, but it was not enough for the KGB — they were seeking to create a criminal case against him, and wanted Goldberg to testify that my father had allegedly told him privately that he had experimented on human beings. Goldberg had been a political camp inmate, and was invariably revered in the camps by friend and foe alike for his Jewish pride, noble bearings, and fearless defiance of the authorities. It even earned him a sort of honorary title among the prisoners: Peer or primus inter pares (First Among Equals).

Now that he was old and sick, it was too late for him to even think of making aliyah (immigration to Israel). But defiant he remained! When pressured to do something as lowly as stabbing a friend in the back, he simply escaped into the better world — the World of Truth — leaving the KGB to deal with his dead body. It was so tragic, and so much like him! No wonder we were crying on both ends of the line. The wonder was that I still remembered to look at my watch!

It was 2:50 p.m. when I put down the receiver. With my face still awash with tears, without even thinking that it would be appropriate to splash it with water, I grabbed my purse and sprinted to the bus stop. While running, I realized that there was no chance I could make it by bus from Ramat Aviv to Yarkon Street near the seashore within ten minutes. I waved to a passing taxi-cab.

I had my last ten pounds in my purse — and I couldn't expect to receive any money from the government sooner than next month, when the teachers' course would start. "How much will it cost to Yarkon Street?" I asked the cabdriver. The answer could have been no different on that strange day: "Ten pounds." "Go fast!" I said as I planted myself on the front seat. (Avraham would later say that it was the wisest investment in my life, and I totally agreed.)

I don't know what the driver thought; he did not ask a single question, but obviously understood that it was a matter of life and death for this crying "Russian." He was speeding at the risk of getting a ticket and even crossed on red lights a couple of times. His brakes screeched when he stopped in front of the Finnish Embassy at 3:05 p.m.

A lot of police, metal fences — and not a single protester. "Where are they all? Could it be that all of them have already been arrested?" A wild thought passed through my mind, belonging to a different reality. Here the policemen were friendly; it was still a period when I felt like embracing every one of them simply because they were Jewish, meaning they were protecting us from the hostile regime. "They will be walking here from Rothschild Boulevard," one of them explained to me.

Any rational person would stay there and wait. But I was very far from rational at that moment. Knowing there was no money left for another cab, I started running towards Rothschild Boulevard. The column had just formed and was about to start moving when I reached it.

Lots of friends whom I hadn't seen since Kiev were there to greet me. Amid all the kissing and hugging we started walking, and on the way I was moving from one friend to another. At one point I saw Yuri Mekler, an astrophysicist from Leningrad who had also served a term in the political camps and knew Goldberg, so I told him about our friend's tragic demise.

Just then we reached the place designated for the rally, and the program started. I saw an impressive looking bearded man burning the Soviet flag, proceeding with a fiery speech. He resembled a prophet. "Wow, who's that?" I asked, and Yuri responded: "Avraham Shifrin, don't you know him?"

Again, this feeling of being lifted in the air. Oh yes, I knew him, though I had never met him personally. I remembered reading his U.S. Senate testimony about Soviet camps, which had been given to me by Richard Pearl, Senator Henry (Scoop) Jackson's aide in whose house I was staying while lobbying for Jackson's amendment. The testimony was unforgettable and, although it was read by thousands of people, I thought it was necessary to tell him that I read it too.

After the program was over, I made my way to him through the crowd with Mekler following in my footsteps. "She just told me that Peer is dead," he said to Avraham after I was finished with what I had to say. It turned out they had been together in the camps and were friends. "Oh, will you give me your phone number? I want to come and hear all you know about Peer's death," Avraham said.

Since that day, we never parted for longer than a few hours, and soon after, the strangest thought appeared in my mind. "I want to light candles in his house," I heard my inner voice saying. What?! "I want to light candles in his house!"

Having spent half-a-year in the States speaking in Jewish communities and staying in Jewish homes, I had of course seen women lighting candles on Friday night. But somehow, I never related it to myself. I still belonged to the other world where nobody did that; at least, nobody in my close circle. Therefore, I was stunned by the idea.

Somehow it didn't occur to me that it had anything to do with my keeping kosher. The story with kashrut was even stranger. It started when my grandfather died in Switzerland while staying with distant relatives.

Grandpa had never been a Zionist, but I believe he knew that it was because of him that the whole family remained in Russia even though it was still possible to get out after the Bolshevik revolution; as a result several family members died at the hands of the communists. Maybe for this reason he didn't protest when we told him we wanted to go to Israel.

After grandma's death he was a broken man. They had lived in a happy marriage for over 60 years and survived two of their three children. Now the only thing he wanted was to live with us, no matter where. After all, my mother was his only surviving child, and in the U.S.S.R. existing regulations made it impossible for him to unite with us, even though he had a spacious apartment in Kiev with enough room for all of us. So he agreed to apply for an exit permit to Israel.

But the cunning authorities tricked him: They gave him his visa immediately and threatened that if he did not use it right away it would be canceled and never given again. They also promised that his daughter's family would follow him very soon after. It was a lie — somebody there simply wanted his attractive apartment.

However, we swallowed the bait, and it was decided in the family that since I was now able to leave together with my new husband, I would take grandpa with me. In Vienna, we were met by grandpa's distant relatives who lived in Lausanne, and they suggested that he stay with them in the comfort of their home until my mother was allowed to leave for Israel. Grandpa accepted the invitation.

It was in November. By March, my parents and sister had been denied exit permits several times in a row, and grandpa felt both cheated and trapped in the house of people he hardly knew. Although they took good care of him, the whole situation was so painful for him that it literally drove him crazy. He spent his last ten days by the phone, insisting that he could not move away because they would ring to say that his family got the exit permit, and he would never learn of it. He died sitting by the phone.

I was in the middle of my speaking tour of the U.S., in Texas, when the sad news reached me. The Israeli consulate in Dallas bought me a ticket to attend the funeral. It was a three-leg journey: Dallas-New York-Copenhagen-Lausanne. I was devastated by grandpa's tragedy and took it as a sheer murder — murder of a helpless old Jew by hostile gentiles. I was sitting on a bench at JFK Airport waiting to board my plane, and all I wanted was to somehow separate myself from that hostile world.

All of a sudden, unexpectedly for myself, I got up, went to the airline counter, and ordered kosher food for myself. What I didn't know was that in Copenhagen I had to switch to another airline and there, if I wanted, kosher food was to be ordered again. So when food was served to the passengers of the Scandinavian company, I found a huge plate of every kind of seafood placed in front of me. Not that I had had many chances to eat seafood in my life, but from the age of four I remembered the tiny glass container that my father once got as part of an army officer's gift for a Soviet holiday — it contained crab meat which tasted like Gan Eden (Paradise) to me.

By now of course I knew that seafood is prohibited by Jewish dietary laws. "Nu,” my inner voice said sarcastically, “what about your kashrut now?" "So what,” I responded, “I haven't promised anything to anyone." And I bravely took a fork to fill it with the delicacy I craved.

But before the fork even reached my mouth something turned inside me, and I started throwing up like crazy. I never felt nauseous during flights, neither before nor after — my stomach is so strong it can digest nails. So it had nothing to do with my physical system. It was clearly a message: I hadn't promised anything to anyone but I had taken an unspoken vow before G-d, and it was the only thing that mattered.

Avraham had been a vegetarian for many years by the time we met, so for him the whole issue of separating meat and milk was more theoretical than practical, and it was hard for him to remember which kitchen items go for this or that. Every now and then he would grab the wrong knife or spoon or make another inadvertent mistake. I, on the other hand, was somewhat fanatical about kashrut and made a lot of fuss about every such mistake, sometimes causing tensions.

Once, when Reb Shloimele was visiting us in Zikhron Ya’akov, we asked him about such situations and he said: "Avremele, you are taking wrong spoons?! Oy-oy-oy," and then to me: "So throw them away. Big deal! Shalom bayit (domestic harmony) is more important than spoons." I remained ever grateful to our rabbi for this simple truth.

Eleonora Shifrin was born in Kiev (at the time a city in the Soviet Union, now the capital of Ukraine). She is a long time activist who fought to foster Jewish immigration from the Soviet Union to Israel and for many years stood as the Russian-speaking representative of Jonathan Pollard.

Shifrin was the chairwoman of the Yamin Yisrael party in Israel, and was also news editor and political analysis writer for SedmoyKanal, the Russian-language website for Arutz Sheva. Her two Israeli-born children made her a proud grandmother of ten.

This article, reprinted with permission of the author, previously appeared in Kol Chevra (Vol. 23), under the title "Divine Guidance."

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...הָרִימִי בַכֹּחַ קוֹלֵךְ מְבַשֶּׂרֶת יְרוּשָׁלִָם הָרִימִי אַל תִּירָאִי אִמְרִי לְעָרֵי יְהוּדָה הִנֵּה אֱלֹקֵיכֶם! (ישעיה  מ:ט)

...Raise your voice with strength, herald of Jerusalem; raise it, do not be afraid; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your G-d!"

(Isaiah 40:9)

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