Portrait Of The Rabbi As A Young Activist
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Portrait Of The Rabbi As A Young Activist

Avi Weiss looks back on his days in the Soviet Jewry movement, but some stories go untold.

Associate Editor

There are no second acts in American lives, suggested F. Scott Fitzgerald, but Rabbi Avi Weiss has enjoyed more “second acts” than most, founding Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical school, and Yeshivat Maharat to ordain women, aside from leading the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. Yet, he’s also had a remarkable “first act” as a young activist for Soviet Jewry, when his beard was more radical than rabbinic, regularly posing for mug shots.

In 1970, he joined Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ, popularly known as “Triple S-J”), founded by Yaakov Birnbaum in 1964. In 1982 he was named national chair, a job he held for some 17 years.

He doesn’t call himself “rabbi” on the cover of his newest book, “Open Up the Iron Door: Memoirs of a Soviet Jewry Activist” (Toby Press). His author’s credit is simply “Avi Weiss,” as if this excursion into memory took the 71-year-old author back into his most youthful, feverish passions, those that existed long before ordination. “In the world of activism,” he writes, “one quickly learns that some of the boldest things are accomplished by the young and passionate.” Experience has its virtues, but “shooting from the hip — going with one’s instinct — inspires the greatest success. Some of my proudest achievements as an activist were accomplished because I was naïve.”

The book’s title is taken from the old Soviet Jewry chant, “1-2-3-4, open up the Iron Door; 5-6-7-8, let our people emigrate.” Weiss admits that his own father wondered if the chant was “too childish” for the book’s title. Maybe so, he writes, but “Only someone with youthful naiveté, vitality and enthusiasm could believe [back in the 1970s] that he or she could go toe-to-toe with the powerful Soviet Union — and win.”

Naiveté coexisted with Birnbaum’s sophisticated certainty that the Soviet Union could be brought down, and saving Soviet Jews was a religious imperative. The movement reverberated “with religious meaning,” writes Weiss. There was the Geulah (Redemption) March, evoking Passover; the Jericho March; the Menorah Rally. “[T]he movement’s deep religious message became all-encompassing,” writes Weiss. And to crown it all, Shlomo Carlebach’s classic “Am Yisroel Chai,” written for Birnbaum and heard at most rallies, with lyrics that flowed out of the biblical Joseph’s revelation to his brothers, asking about his father after years of separation, just as Jews in the West reconnected with Soviet Jews.

Weiss emphasizes that “Open Up The Iron Door” is not a history but a memoir, and while the title evokes the youthful chant, this book is the work of a spiritual elder, looking for peaceful resolutions to memories that are rarely peaceful. Weiss confesses to “the difficulty of reliving and recounting these internecine ‘fights’ between us activists and the [Jewish] establishment.” Difficult, he says, because of “the sheer fact that I have changed.” He explains that his current rabbinate (and rabbinical schools) seek to promote an “open, inclusive and non-judgmental” Judaism. Yet, he admits, “This memoir is the story of an activist rabbi who was frequently judgmental and critical. … To this day, I am not sure what precipitated this change in temperament. … I admit I made countless mistakes in the course of our efforts.”

He sometimes chooses to omit the names of those with whom he differed in more turbulent times. The result, however, is that while Weiss’ soul is more elegant for his discretion, the story he’s telling is more elusive. For example, speaking of the two most important figures in SSSJ, Birnbaum and Glenn Richter, whom Weiss calls “the tzaddik of the Soviet Jewry movement … my closest confident and collaborator,” Weiss writes: “Over the years, tension developed between [Birnbaum] and Glenn. As much as I tried to bridge their differences, I could not.” End of story… but wait. Tension over what? Was it personal or over policy? How did these differences affect the movement? Sorry, folks, nothing to see here, keep walking, move along.

If Birnbaum was the patriarchal mastermind, Richter was the inner-city “wise guy” with an “acerbic wit,” writes Weiss. Richter made saving Jews seem both deadly serious and like running away with the circus.

At a time when anti-war protestors tried to “levitate” the Pentagon, and caused a frenzy by throwing dollar bills onto the stock market floor, Richter staged an “exorcism ceremony” at Aeroflot (the Soviet airline) to drive out “the evil spirits” of anti-Semitism; delivered a birthday cake (for a Soviet leader) to the Soviet Mission with “Let My People Go” written in icing; and set up a “Circus of Horrors for Soviet Jews” when the Moscow Circus came to town.

But, of course, there were more serious activities, writes Weiss, such as “pioneering high school and college lobbying in Congress for a Jewish cause.” SSSJ “published original research about Soviet Jews,” and even Soviet Jewry songbooks.

Almost one-third of “Open Up The Iron Door” is devoted to Weiss’ unique relationship with Natan and Avital Sharansky and her “relentless efforts” for her husband, Natan.

The Avital-Natan love story was a fairytale, except the Wicked Witch of the Kremlin was cruel and winning. In 1974, Avital, haunted and beautiful, was given an exit visa to Israel that would expire one day after their wedding. If the bride didn’t leave Russia and Natan, the “Iron Door” would remain forever closed for both of them. If she did leave, the officials promised Natan could follow, but instead he was sentenced to 13 years in the gulag.

When Sharansky began a hunger strike in 1982, Weiss began his own near the Soviet Mission in Manhattan.

Weiss’ health increasingly suffered, two heart attacks given to the cause.

Nevertheless, from the time of his hunger strike, “my life increasingly began to revolve around Natan’s fate,” he writes. He’d pick up Avital at the airport in the early dawn, and demonstrate for Natan into the late afternoon.

After Natan was free, Avital convinced him that Weiss was the most deserving of Natan’s first visit to an American synagogue, a highly coveted and fought-over honor.

In December of 1987, “Natan’s determination,” writes Weiss, was the force behind what was to be the largest demonstration in the history of the Soviet Jewry movement. Sharansky went “from community to community,” enlisting organizations and, yes, the “establishment.” At first they declined, but then “pulled out all the stops to encourage maximum attendance.” Whereas Avital was “non-establishment,” Natan stayed independent, believing in “maintaining ties to the establishment.”

That was never more true than on that cold winter Sunday in 1987 when, in front of 250,000 protesters, Sharansky broke the activists’ heart. Hour after hour, one establishment leader after another was introduced to address the huge rally. But neither Weiss, who unlike the establishment was cynical about Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, nor Birnbaum, who invented the American Soviet Jewry movement, was allowed to speak. They sat in the cold, uncalled upon.

After Weiss writes so much about Sharansky’s influence over the rally, he goes silent on Sharansky. At this point in the book we know that an awkward silence reflects Weiss’ preference to let uncomfortable stories remain untold.

Weiss won’t say if he was wounded, but what about Birnbaum? Weiss doesn’t write one word about how Birnbaum felt, though surely he knew that Birnbaum was devastated, cut to the bone, for Birnbaum poured his heart out to friends.

Even Shlomo Carlebach, the greatest Jewish soul singer and composer of recent centuries, devoted to Soviet Jewry from the beginning but considered too counter-culture by the establishment, wasn’t allowed to sing. Establishment favorites, such as Broadway’s Pearl Bailey, who had nothing to do with Soviet Jewry, performed, but not Shlomo. Weiss only writes, “Shlomo mentioned this painful slight to me on several occasions.”

And what did Sharansky think of all this? Weiss won’t say.

Even with these half-told stories, “Open Up The Iron Door” is overflowing with Weiss’ love of the Jewish people and what an activist will do for that love; a memoir of beauty and importance, and perhaps, one day, Weiss will write a sequel so we can learn the rest of it.

jonathan@jewishweek.org

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