Once again, I’m on my way to give a lecture at Limmud FSU. The afternoon flight to Moscow. The departure procedures go faster than unusual. A veritable motorway. Within minutes I’m at the Duty Free, buying a laptop (so I won’t have to ask favors from friends every time). I’m carrying just small a suitcase, as it’s only a two-day trip. Much of the weight is taken up by a book “The Phoenix” a biography of Shimon Peres, written by Michael Bar Zohar. My copy has two dedications to me on the title page: the first one, from Peres, “To Yoram – who is tracking both the phoenix and the sand, and who is concerned that they shouldn’t deviate from their path,” and the second, from Bar Zohar – “To Yoram my friend, who stands in the firing line, and knows how to win!” I have been asked to give a lecture to the young Muscovites about Shimon Peres, and the subject of my talk is “From the Wishneva Shtetl to the Nobel Prize.” This Limmud FSU Conference is dedicated, to Jewish Nobel Prize winners born in the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and Israel. Shimon Peres is one of them, and there will also be lectures about two other Nobel Peace Prize winners, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, whose father was born in Ukraine. Eitan Haber, who was Rabin’s bureau chief, is participating together with me, as well as Herzl Makov, the director of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center. In addition to us, the organizers have also brought over Dalia Rabin and Dr Tzvia Walden, the daughters of Rabin and Peres respectively.
Toward midnight we arrive at Moscow airport. It’s got a long name laden with gutturals – Do, Do, and so forth… I located the car that was supposed to have been waiting for me only after several phone calls from me – a desperate Israeli, who has landed in a foreign land where no one speaks English and has to get to a place without the faintest idea where it might be. Some fifteen minutes later, which seem an eternity, the driver picks me up. Naturally, he speaks not one word of English and he has to take me to where the Limmud Conference is taking place. It’s called “The Facility” – or at least this is how the translators have rendered the name of the place. Gesticulating, I ask the driver how long it’ll take. An hour and a half, he replies, also gesticulating. I’m happy. An hour and a half in Moscow terms means, during daytime, can mean a few hundred meters. The traffic jams are usually intolerable, with long lines of cars strung out along tens of kilometers. But it soon becomes apparent that the driver actually means an hour and a half in the middle of the night; in other words, it’s 40 kilometers from Moscow. By day, I’m told later by those who land the following morning, it can take more than four hours.
As we near “The Facility” I see, through the darkness and rain, several villas all surrounded by huge stone walls, the leaders’ summer dachas. I later understood that we were being housed in a leisure resort area built for the elite of Communist leaders. Guards at the entrance give the driver a hard time, but even this hurdle we manage to take in our stride. I take my small suitcase and my new laptop and enter the lobby of a large building. Roman Kogen, one of the organizers, is there, and he has a room ready for me. When I return to the lobby, it is to inhale the aroma of a place teeming with noisy, youthful people. It’s already 1.30 a.m, and scores of young men and women are sitting around, reading the background material which has been handed out to the participants. There is an elegant booklet about the Russian and Israeli Jewish Nobel prize winners – 26 of them. It’s a mind-boggling statistic which goes some way to explaining how we, possibly the most irritating people in the world, can also be the smartest. Contemplating that optimistic thought, I turn in.
In the morning there are several Shaharit services for those interested. There is an Orthodox minyan, a Reform minyan, and there is the minyan of those preferring to sleep. Everything’s open. Everything’s free. Nothing imposed. That’s the spirit of Limmud.
With considerable apprehension I go to breakfast. The memories of Limmud meals in Ukraine a month earlier still linger. Ukraine reminded me of a ditty from my childhood: “On Sunday – potatoes, on Monday – potatoes, and so forth, until on Shabbat, there is a pleasant surprise – two portions of potatoes.” But it turns out that in Moscow there is no surplus of potatoes. It’s actually a tasty breakfast. Porridge for those who like it (I’ve never eaten porridge in my life, and have no intention of starting in Moscow). An interesting omelet containing wheat and vegetables. Since I take great care not to eat anything rich in cholesterol, I ask for a white omelet (no yolk). At the Facility, which was once used by the leaders of the Communist party for their vacations, this is no simple matter. One has to ask the supervisor and not the waitress. I also assume (according to the time it takes) that a discussion on principles has taken place among The Facility’s senior management in order to approve the outlandish request. The long awaited approval eventually comes, and the waitress, now in person, asks whether to serve one egg, two eggs or three eggs. Three, I answer. After a few minutes it arrives and – yes, you’ve guessed it – three separate white omelets. So be it. Communism, it seems, must have stayed in the soul, even among those who were born after its collapse.
After finishing the last omelet, I go out to a huge courtyard to get my bearings. I gaze at the building – it’s called The Sanatorium in Russian– and I remember my academic studies, and particularly one lecture about the Russian elite almost 35 years before. And about the symbols of Communist power. It’s a huge building – eleven floors high. It’s whole emphasis is on power and might. It’s all in one shade of earth brown. A lot of small windows and all identical. True Communism at its best. I think to myself how incredibly ironic history can be. The Bolshevik regime wanted to eliminate Jewish identity. To eliminate our culture as a people. Yet suddenly, in the year 2010, in what was a bastion of Communism, there are 600 young Jewish men and women getting together in order to search and strengthen their Jewish identity. Ah, but victory is sweet! Yet the price was heavy. The infamous Doctors’ trial, the murder of the Jewish intelligentsia, the persecution of Zionist Jews. Arrests, starvation and slave labor. But they didn’t break their spirit. Communism – disappeared, and Judaism – well, it’s living and breathing. The Politburo – out; Limmud – in.
Inside the building, the lectures go on: about Jewish food, about Jewish poetry, about Israeli politics. Global issues, too, are given a lot of space: mainly scientific subjects, but also cultural and educational. It was interesting to see how the eyes of the young people shine when they listen to a lecture by David Markish, the son of the eminent writer, Peretz Davidovich Markish, who was executed by Stalin.
The Opening Ceremony is held in the afternoon (to avoid desecration of Shabbat. It’s unbelievable that here, in the former Communist Facility –Jews are getting together to see three short films about the late Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin – and Shimon Peres. All three of them suckled on the milk of Tsarist Russia and all three of them reached the pinnacle of their achievement in the heartland of Zionism – the State of Israel. After the short film about Rabin, his daughter, Dalia, speaks about her father’s home. Following the film about Peres, his daughter, Dr Tzvia (Tziki) Walden outlines with great charm some perceptions which win over the audience completely.
Walden: “Young Russian people are taking their destinies into their own hands and making decisions about their Jewish identity. They are doing at the grass roots level, without the establishment. The plethora of issues with which they are dealing are the things that preoccupy young people worldwide: birth, bringing up children, the seven days of creation, rites of passage, Jewish history, theater, literature and more. The lectures, the workshops and study sessions encompass a wide variety of issues.” She was excited by the encounter with the participants in the study project: “They say: ‘We are tired of interpreters, of go-betweens, and the establishment. We want to discover what it means to be Jewish by ourselves.’”
Following her, there is a film about Begin and a few words from Herzl Makov. You could hear a pin drop. There’s no coughing and no scraping of chairs. Everyone in the hall is listening intently. Before that, Matthew Bronfman, one of the main financial supporters of Limmud FSU gives a speech of welcome. His business interests in Israel include ownership of IKEA and the Discount Bank. His reputation in Israel is somewhat that of a playboy, a tough businessman and as wealthy as Rockefeller. Two days spent in his vicinity reveal a warm Jew, an enthusiastic Zionist, a great philanthropist who still believes that contributing funds is not merely a PR excercise. If only there were more like him.
And of course, there’s a speech from the indefatigable Chaim Chesler, the founder of Limmud FSU. He was director of the Public Council for Soviet Jewry, and I had collaborated with him on quite a few “crazy” missions on behalf of refuseniks. He served for five years as the Jewish Agency’s delegate to the Former Soviet Union, during the huge waves of immigration and afterwards, as the head of the Department of Aliya. Subsequently he became treasurer of the Jewish Agency. Now he devotes his time on a voluntary basis (because Limmud is based on volunteering) helping to foster the Jewish identity of young Russian-speaking Jews, all over the world, and, incidentally to draw them as close to Israel as possible. He has organized Limmud in New York, in Birobizhan, in Yalta on the Crimean peninsula, and in Truskavets near Lvov in Ukraine, Minsk in Belorussia, and in Ashkelon, and in June there will be a major Limmud event in Jerusalem with the participation of Shimon Peres.
Between all this, there are musical interludes from Leonid Ptashka who needs no introduction to a Russian-speaking audience. Kabbalat Shabbat is again held in two versions: Orthodox and Reform. In conclusion, Micha Yinon, who was previously head of the Culture Authority of the Ministry of Education, conducted an Oneg Shabbat .
Afterwards there’s hot chicken noodle soup which reminds me of home, and other traditional Jewish dishes, and as night falls, the young people do not go to sleep. Most of them are huddling in the lobby, playing social games. I have never seen anything like it in my life. They sit there until dawn, busy playing a kind of “intellectual casino.” They spend hours trying to explain to me what it’s about, but I can’t understand. I only see how much creative thought has been invested – this is no roulette or black jack. This kind of pastime has ruined the image of the young generation in my eyes. Here they are, no alcohol, no drugs, no cards, and no gambling. Sometime toward morning, I leave them to it and go to sleep.
The morning opened with three possibilities: Orthodox shaharit, Reform shaharit, or shaharit in bed. Inevitably, I chose the latter option. But one cannot forego breakfast and this time my request for a three-egg white omelet came with a detailed, precise explanation. The request was carried out equally precisely. Then only tea was served, and after a discussion with high-ranking members of the Politburo, we succeeded in receiving coffee. As for milk – we gave up on that since we understood that this would apparently require confirmation from the Kremlin. But don’t get it wrong – the food was tasty and the service excellent.
There were interesting lectures in the morning. Eitan Haber’s insights into Rabin on the eve of the kidnapping of Mustafa Dirani, who was suspected of abducting Ron Arad, the fallen IDF navigator.. He emphasized how Rabin’s most prominent trait was how he was able to shoulder responsibility. Then Makov told us about Begin. Eilat Lieber, the director of the Agnon House in Jerusalem, spoke of Agnon’s creativity and how thes writer, who was born in Buczacz, in Ukraine, had won Israel’s first Nobel Prize (for literature.). Then it was my turn to speak about Peres. I presented the biography and pointed out that those 780 pages are just the very tip of the iceberg of Peres’ achievements. I decided to share some short but instructive stories with my listeners. I began by saying that on my first day with Peres, twenty years earlier, the current president told me: “Yoram, remember; in life there is always another minute.” In the course of my work with him, I have learnt how right he is. I also emphasized that he already imbibed back in Wishneva, where he was born, his tremendous love for the Land of Israel. An immense, almost boundless love, and the way he understood the need for power on one hand, and the need for communication on the other hand.
I related how a visitor from Israel had brought an orange to Byelorussia, and how the scent of that orange made Perski-the-child fall in love with Eretz Israel. I spoke about his grandfather who, along with all the members of the Jewish community had been burnt alive in the synagogue by the Nazis. How his father had volunteered for the British army and fought against the Nazis. Yitzhak – Getzel — Perski, was captured twice, but escaped before being taken out to be executed. About the young Shimon Peres, whose Bar Mitzvah was memorable for coinciding with an attack on the Jews of Eretz Israel, in Jaffa in 1936) and how the Jews had been compelled to build the port of Tel Aviv, which brought Peres to the realization that the Jews have to defend themselves and build up the country themselves.
I also spoke about the wonders that Peres had wrought: the acquisition of arms from France, the atomic power plant in Dimona, German missiles, and the rehabilitation of the Israel Defense Forces after the Yom Kippur War. About the Entebbe rescue mission of 1976. And how it all leads to his commitment to peace. His perception of military might, which empowers us to be able to relinquish, and to concede. How power creates compromise. The road to Oslo. About the concessions that he was able to wring out of Yasser Arafat; the tactics in conducting negotiations that I learned from him. He is a lion in sheep’s clothing, and not a populist – which is to say a sheep in lion’s clothing. And for such tactics one pays an electoral price but can attain peace.
My lecture ended and then we realized that there was a cloud of ash over Europe, leading to the mass cancellation of flights. I was deeply concerned. I was afraid of staying in Russia and, for the first time in my life, having to miss the ceremony on the Day of Remembrance for Israel’s fallen soldiers. For 37 years on that day, I had come to Kiryat Shaul, to the military cemetery, to visit the grave of my friend, Moshe Mildiner. 37 years without even missing it once. This time I was afraid that I would be stuck in Moscow. After enquires, we found that El Al, for reasons best known to itself, had decided not to fly from Moscow. But the airport was still open and other airlines – but not our national carrier – were flying to Israel. Together with Dalia Rabin and Yaron Deckel from Kol Israel, we ran to the airport, bought a ticket at the last minute and took off for Israel. We landed towards midnight. The airport was empty. It was many years since I had been that happy when I passed through the aircraft sleeve into the airport. The next day I was at the cemetery. There was a different young man. Aged twenty-three, Moshe was there, lying among his friends. “I was in Moscow, at Limmud FSU, and I saw that Zionist has succeeded,” I whispered to him when nobody was listening.
Translated by Aloma Halter and Judy Reich