Let My People Go!

They were walking in striped uniforms of prisoners, each one wearing a bracelet on a wrist with engraved names of conscience slaves. A demonstration of thousands of American Jewish people were chanting in front of the White House: “Let my people go!”

In 1973 the was observing its 10th anniversary. Rabbi Marvin Goldman and his wife Judy were among those who organized the demonstration, who called young people to go to the White House, who incessantly fought for the rights of Soviet Jewry, who diligently repeated: “Let my people go!”

“America? What America? You probably dialed the wrong number…” – short beeps were falling into abyss. Dialing numbers again. Tapes with records of refuseniks’ phone conversations still keep all the sound details – rustles, voices, dial tones and even the feeling of anxiety, uncertainty, fear that experienced people on the other end of the wire.

Rabbi Marvin and Judy were trying hard to get through. However even these rare phone calls were giving much trouble to both KGP and CIA. The conditions of the “Cold War” were imposing special rules to play by. Double tapping was inescapable.

We have forgotten too soon how Jewish people in the USSR were chased, outraged and imprisoned just for their will to leave the country. For many present immigrants, who generally run away from economical problems, it would be hard to understand the feelings of former refuseniks.

“Ilya Glezer, a graduate of Moscow university, applied for departure documents in 1972. He was put into prison and blamed for anti-Soviet propaganda. He was sentenced to three years of imprisonment”.

“Activists appealed to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet to free the conscience slaves and stop the chase of those who wished to immigrate to Israel. That caused a reason of general prosecution.

People were being arrested at home and outside. Vladimir Prestin and Boris Aybinder were seized in the early morning in their pajamas. Golshtein was arrested in Moscow airport. Near houses of those who denied to open their doors there were police post sentries. Many of the refuseniks went on hunger strike. A number of arrests continued in Moscow, Kiev, Leningrad (Saint-Petersburg), Vilnius…”

The ideology that eradicated the national consciousness started persecuting those whose souls reached for Jerusalem. Gabriel Shapiro, Yosif Begun, Hillel Butman, Sylvia Zalmanson, David Chernoglaz, Boris Penson, Mikhail Korblit, and Lazar Kaminsky… the list is endless.

For some they were heroes, for others – renegades and betrayers. In any case, they were known, they were spoke of. Who was there across the ocean? Who fought for their rights? They were not seen behind the “iron curtain”. The officials portrayed them as an “evil power” trying to undermine “Soviet ideology and statehood”.

Meanwhile they were just American Jewish people, who couldn’t be indifferent to the fate of their brothers. They established a powerful organization – the International League for the Repatriation of Soviet Jewry with a headquarters in New York. It was joined by intellectual people, statesmen, businessmen, scientists from all around the world. They were first to sound the alarm about disastrous state of Soviet Jewry. They were first to take responsibility for 3.5 million Jewish people in the USSR, to fight for their rights.

Souvenirs, jewelry, lockets, flags, posters, car stickers with names of conscience slaves were distributed by the League everywhere. Magazines, brochures and booklets published by the League were to bother and to remind those who were living in free countries about those who had no rights. The protest against the anti-Semitic regime of Soviet Union was gaining power.

“We went to the Government, into schools and streets with our demonstrations, – says vice-president of the League Rabbi Marvin Goldman, – deriving encouragement and understanding everywhere. But when we turned to UN Soviet legation with request to free all Jewish conscience slaves, firstly they made us wait for a long time.

Then its representative took one of us aside and said that our request couldn’t be complied. Before leaving the legation we had attached a copy of our resolution to the doors. The Soviet representative came up, torn the paper down and trampled it down”.

Never the less they scored a success: refuseniks were getting their exit visas. Some of them went to Israel, others – to America.

They were “the first swallows” of the third wave of immigration.

“We needed to get ready for their arrival, – Judy adds, – because they were coming to an unknown country”.

That’s what she was doing. In the early 70’s Judy, along with other volunteers was opening stores of free clothes for immigrants. They were calling all dry-cleaners for all left costumes, pants, dresses and jackets (according to the rules if a client doesn’t pick up his/her cloth during 30 days it would be thrown away). Judy was looking for homes and jobs for the newcomers. She was leading them until they were ready to be on their own.

“My grandfather taught me, – she smiles, – if you give someone a fish you can feed him for a one day, but if you teach someone how to fish – he will be supplied for the whole life. Torah teaches us to help each other. This is a big mitzvah”.

Perhaps this principle, chosen by Goldman couple, determined their life.

“The Cold War” fell into oblivion as well as the term “defense of Soviet Jewry”. The archives of the League for the Repatriation of Soviet Jewry was put on the unreachable top shelves in the library.

It seemed they’ve got what they were fighting for: for many years from now the countries of the former USSR let people leave with no difficulty if they have immigration benefits in America. However it doesn’t look like Judy and Rabbi Marvin know rest.

Many Russian-speaking immigrants were acquainted with the Rabbi of Adath Zion synagogue, who helped them in their difficult American life. They knew Judy Goldman from “Jewish Family” and “Children Service” who supported and helped immigrants during their first four month after arriving in States.

The Goldman’s couldn’t be like other officials – accepting people only during certain time. People were coming to them at any time for a piece of advice, to ask for something, or just to talk. And they never give up helping, explaining, loving. People felt that and reached for them even more. From her parents Judy knows about immigrant’s destiny. Her great grandfather ran away from Spain to France during the war of 1812.

His children moved to Bialystok, Poland near the border of Byelorussia. Jewish people were not allowed to buy land, only to rent it for 99 years. Despite that, the family was rich; they worked the land and grinded grain at a mill. They had a kitchen for poor people but it fed them and kept them warm. The father of the family – Chaim started his own business. He traveled a lot in Europe. He spoke seven languages, though at home they spoke only Yiddish.

When Nazi came, all habitants were driven away to ghetto near Lodz. Chaim ran away with his wife to partisans. “I’ll never fall on my knees!” he said. They’ve hid in a dugout for a year. That war took almost all their relatives – more than 180 people. In 1945 they arrived in Berlin, the later split West side. Although Chaim always wanted to move only to Israel, in 1952 their destiny took them to America for permanent living.

Marvin’s family has another story. His mother Rivka was only sixteen when she came from Dabrowa, Poland to her sister in Brooklyn. A young American named Abram fell in love with her. Both being of pious families they started a new strong Jewish family.

“When we just married, – Judy says, – we didn’t have good furniture, but there was a piano. I always loved music, just like the other members of our family. My mother played the mandolin, and my brother the violin”. This passion for music was passed to her children – Elisabeth, Joseph, Naomi and Zahava. Today they all are well-off Americans. Her son and elder daughter are lawyers, the second daughter is an economist, the youngest is studying in university. Two of them are married. They are good friends; they love and respect their parents. It’s not so often that one see’s such peace and harmony nowadays.

“You know, Judaism is based on such moral values that can help in any conditions of life. Torah is the main manual of how to bring up our children. Just like us, our children have finished special Jewish schools and then studied in Israel. All this provide them with a special view of life. Today for each one of them there is G-d always comes first, then family, and then career”.

Both Judy and Rabbi Marvin know and love the Russian-Jewish community. They always liked Russian way of family relationships; their desire to give their children a good education. However with time something has changed. They now wish to be more like Americans in all ways without thinking is it good or bad. They forget their language, their culture… They pay less attention to children’s religious education… They put their elders to nursing homes…

“Back there, – Rabbi Marvin says, – you were Jewish, and after coming here you became “Russians”. That’s not right. In America you got a wonderful opportunity to return to your religion, traditions, and the history of your nation. It is important to understand: Judaism brings sense, light, and celebration into your life. About 54% of American Jewish people assimilate. Isn’t that a tragedy?”

Their withdrawn from their religion and roots is the biggest pain of Rabbi Marvin and Judy Goldman.

Today just like many years ago they repeat: “Let my people go!” – from the captivity of unbelief, nihilism and dislike for each other.

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