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50 years ago, a failed hijacking brought light into the world

The ensuing trial changed the lives of young Jews in the USSR, included my parents, by posing age-old questions: Do we dare? Is now the time?
"Mother Russia, we'd rather be orphans." A protest in Israel following the Leningrad Trials. (Government Press Office)
"Mother Russia, we'd rather be orphans." A protest in Israel following the Leningrad Trials. (Government Press Office)

A little less than 50 years ago, my mother, Natalia Stieglitz, walked down a flight of stairs in search of secret knowledge.

A few months earlier, on December 15th, 1970, a Soviet court convened in Leningrad to try a group of young Jews (and some allies) who planned (and failed) to hijack a small airplane and fly across the border. After years of learning Judaism and Hebrew in secret, after applying repeatedly for emigration visas to Israel and receiving one ‘refusal’ after another, the members of this group had decided to take matters into their own hands. They did not expect to succeed, not really (the letter they left behind was titled “Our Will”). But they had hoped to make a statement.

And they did.

Suddenly, people around the world were asking themselves why a group of promising, normative, young people would try to do something so very outlandish. Were the USSR’s assurances that they allowed Jews to emigrate actually true? Worse, from the Soviets’ perspective: people across the USSR itself were wondering the same thing.

The Six-Day War in 1967 awakened many Soviet Jews to their Jewish identity and filled them with longing to learn about the Jewish state. But most of them didn’t know what to do with what the authorities were bound to see as seditious feelings, nor that there was a movement of people like them that could support them and lend them strength. The Leningrad Trials changed all that: in their efforts to unearth and condemn the so-called-crimes of the would-be hijackers, the authorities publicized the existence of the Jewish underground that had long worked in Leningrad, Riga and Kishinev. Young Jews around the USSR had found out that hundreds of Jews just like themselves had spent years learning Hebrew, reclaiming their tradition, and seeking ways to move to Israel. Defying the USSR was no longer just a dream.

In the course of the trial, Sylva Zalmanson, the only woman to be tried, gave voice to this defiance. Her speech, copied and passed from hand to hand in secret, inspired people wherever it arrived. It did no less when it reached my mother all the way in Moscow, filling her with admiration and with awe.

But my mother could not understand the last sentence in the speech. It was written in a foreign alphabet, which at first she thought might be Sanskrit. After learning that it was actually Hebrew, and making discreet inquiries among her friends, she  was on her way to meet a stranger who could decipher those mysterious words.

When my mother reached the apartment at the bottom of that stairwell, she saw a man who was wrapped in what she later learned was a tallit – a prayer shawl, and who was mumbling what she later learned was Jewish prayer. But what struck her the most wasn’t the unfamiliarity of his garb or of his actions. It was the light that seemed to emanate from his face. She felt as though he was lit from within, as though he was connected to a secret wealth of warmth.

She wanted to feel this light, this warmth, within herself.

The man smiled when my mother showed him her secret copy of Sylva Zalmanson’s speech. The words, he explained, were an ancient form of prayer. They meant “Next year in Jerusalem,” and “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.”

Sylva Zalmanson. (Anat-zk, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

When my mother walked out of that apartment, up those stairs, and out into a Moscow winter, she didn’t know what “Jerusalem” was, or why Sylva vowed to remember it. But she knew that a young woman, not much older than her own 20 years, dared to stand up to the empire that controlled every aspect of my mother’s life. She knew that Sylva found something worth standing for. And she remembered the light on the old man’s face.

This knowledge meant that my mother had to make a difficult decision. Should she take this secret, hidden light that she had found – the light of defiance, of identity, of a peoplehood that was bigger than her individual existence – and bring it out into her public life? Should she pursue illegal Hebrew lessons, should she seek like-minded Jewish friends, should she apply for an emigration visa to the land of Israel?

Or should she play it safe, keep her head down, and hold that secret light inside her, hoping reality would change one day and allow her to pursue its promise safely?

This choice was the same choice that Sylva Zalmanson herself had to make a few years earlier. It was also the same choice that the Leningrad Trials placed before countless other Jews. The trials revealed the existence of the Jewish underground, but they also illustrated all the risks involved in joining it. The Soviet authorities employed all the tools in their power to put their Jews on notice: they used the press to rile up anti-Zionist sentiments, cracked down on Hebrew teachers, and – on Hanukkah 1970 – sentenced Silva and most of the other members of the group to long imprisonments, and, worst of all, sentenced two of them to death (the sentences were later commuted under international pressure).

All across the Soviet Union, Jews had to choose: should they embrace Sylva Zalmanson’s defiance, or heed the warning, and keep their heads well down?

* * *

As my mother was walking up those stairs, my father, Anatoli Sharansky, sat in a different part of Moscow, ensconced in the relative safety of his academic career. He, too, was deliberating his choices. Now that he knew of the existence of the Jewish underground, should he follow its heroes into activism and danger?

In a small town in Siberia, a young husband and father named Yuli Kosharovsky faced the same question. He had spent the years after the Six Days War meeting in secret and learning Hebrew with nine other local Jews. Now, as news of the death sentences in Leningrad reached him, he and his friends were called upon to make their allegiances public, and write a letter of protest to the Secretary of the Communist Party. Could they do it, knowing they were likely to bring down the wrath of the authorities upon themselves? Could Kosharovsky truly justify bringing so much danger into his daughters’ lives?

Yuli Kosharovsky, Moscow 1973 (Photo from WE ARE JEWS AGAIN: JEWISH ACTIVISM IN THE SOVIET UNION, by Yuli Kosharovsky )

In an upscale residential neighborhood of Moscow, Professor Alexander Lerner, a distinguished and well-respected Soviet scientist, faced a similar choice. Deeply disgusted and disillusioned with the system that promised a workers’ paradise but wrought devastation and oppression instead, he knew that he had much to lose: a brilliant career, the respect of his peers, trips to conferences abroad, not to mention worldly goods such as a first-class apartment, a country cottage, and two cars. He knew that to apply for an emigration visa was the equivalent of declaring oneself a traitor and that he would be ostracized, fired, prohibited from working in his profession, regularly harassed by the KGB, and slandered by his former colleges and friends, who would be eager to prove that they themselves were loyal. Could he do it? Or was it better to wait a bit, maybe until retirement, maybe until circumstances changed?

My mother and my father, Yuli Kosharovsky and Alexander Lerner – they all knew that the choice before them could irreversibly upend their life. And they knew the time to decide had arrived. Should they act… or wait? Reveal… or hide?

* * *

This choice – to act or wait – was not unique to Soviet Jews in the 70s. While the stakes were particularly high in their case, we all encounter variations on this choice at one time or another, regardless of the relative safety of our lives.

Should I pursue this or that dream of mine, or wait until the circumstance are favorable?

Should I stand up for a cause that I believe in, or wait until I have free time?

Should I try and achieve this or that goal despite the pandemic and its uncertainties, or should I hold onto my idea, and wait the troubles out?

In fact, the very holiday we are celebrating now – Hanukkah – exists because of two moments when the Maccabees faced similar choices. Should they wait out Antiochus’s hostile reign or rebel, despite the impossible odds? Should they light the Menorah even though they only had enough pure oil for one day, or wait until they had enough oil to resume the Temple’s rituals properly, without further fits and starts?

In both cases, the Maccabees chose to act instead of waiting, and their choices led to great success. But in other historical precedents the decision to act led to devastation and disasters. When the Jews rebelled against the Romans, for example, they brought about the destruction of the Second Temple. So how can we know, in real life, what to choose? Where should we turn to for guidance?

When my mother walked out of that Moscow apartment, she didn’t have the knowledge that would have allowed her to turn to the Maccabees as role models, or to consider the zealots of 67 CE as a cautionary tale. She didn’t even know what Jerusalem was, let alone that it was cleansed and redirected by the first or led to its destruction by the latter. And she certainly wouldn’t have looked for insights into her dilemma in the Hebrew Bible, in the words of a relatively little-known prophet named Haggai.

Yet I believe that it is to Haggai’s words that we must turn to as we consider the choice that was faced by my mother’s entire generation, and as we try to evaluate similar choices in our own lives. For it was Haggai, in his efforts to galvanize the Jews to build the Second Temple, who gave voice to one of the most compelling arguments against waiting difficulties out.

* **

But first, a little background: In 538 BCE, King Koresh officially declared that the Jews in his vast empire were allowed to return to Judea and rebuild the Temple. A relatively small group of Jews took him up on the offer, though most affluent and educated Jews chose to stay behind. The new Jewish settlement in Judea faced precarious conditions and local hostility. In the absence of the Jews, other ethnic groups settled in the land and were none too pleased with the Jews’ return from Babylon. Struggling to survive in perpetual enmity and poverty, the Jews who returned to Judea failed to rebuild the Temple or reclaim the prosperity of yore.

Nineteen years later, on the 24th of Elul, the prophet Haggai began his campaign to reawaken these men and women to their destiny. In a series of three speeches, he made what might appear at first as three separate arguments for building the Temple despite the difficult circumstances. All of these speeches, however, made the same underlying claim; they all showed that the argument for waiting until better days is flawed.

In Haggai’s first speech, he focused on his audience’s poverty, and urged them to build God’s home despite it, since they won’t see better days until they do. In other words, waiting won’t help them, because the very change they want to wait for can’t take place until they act.

In his second speech, Haggai acknowledged a different possible motivation behind the delays of his contemporaries: their dismay that the Temple they would build, with their limited means would pale in comparison to the grandeur of the Temple they had lost. Haggai then explained that God Himself would add to the grandeur of the new Temple over time, until “The glory of this latter House shall be greater than that of the former one.” (Haggai 2:9) What goes unsaid is that for God to do so, they must first build the Temple, inglorious though it might be at first.

In his third and most enigmatic speech, Haggai posed two questions to the priests. “If a man is carrying sacrificial flesh (in Hebrew ‘kodesh’, sanctified) in a fold of his garment, and with that fold touches bread, stew, wine, oil, or any other food, will the latter become holy?” (Haggai 2:12) The priests answered in the negative. Haggai then asked a different question: “If someone defiled by a corpse touches any of these, will it be defiled?” And the priests answered, correctly, “yes”. (2:13)

What were these questions supposed to convey? Rabbi Benny Lau, in a beautiful lesson that ties the historic Shivat Tzion (return to Zion) with modern Zionism, offers the following reading: perhaps Haggai was trying to point out that while impurity exists in the world naturally, and passes on without conscious intent or planning, holiness (kdusha in Hebrew, from the root k-d-sh, which means ‘to dedicate/set aside’) can only exist if people sanctify something, that is – if they dedicate it to God. In other words, holiness will not come if we wait for it; it will appear only if we choose to actively create it, by dedicating our efforts – or, in Haggai’s particular case, a plot of land – to God.

With this argument, Haggai finally galvanized the people into dedicating an altar to God on the twenty fifth of Kislev, thus establishing the first “Hannukat Habait” (dedication of the house) that the Maccabees would echo on the same day centuries later. And with this argument, Haggai also brought home the underlying message he promoted all along: The idea that we can wait for better circumstances is logically flawed because these better circumstances – be they prosperity, grandeur, or holiness – won’t exist if we fail to act.

This argument was directed to Haggai’s generation, but it applied also to the Maccabees and to my parents’ generation, and it applies to us well.

Had the Maccabees not lit the menorah on the 25th of Kislev, there wouldn’t have been fire for God to miraculously sustain.

Had men and women like Silva Zalmanson, Yuli Khasharovsky, and Alexander Lerner chosen inaction, world Jewry wouldn’t have been inspired to fight on their behalf. The Iron Curtain might have fallen anyway, at least eventually. But if it wasn’t for the struggle of so many Soviet Jews to connect to their identity, would there have been a Soviet Jewry by the time the Curtain fell?

When Sylva Zalmanson and her friends prepared for their doomed hijacking, they wrote in their “will” that if they allowed history to run its course, the best they could hope for in the USSR was spiritual assimilation. When Alexander Lerner decided to risk all and apply for an emigration visa with his wife and children, he did so because he realized that if he chose to go on living on the terms of the Soviet system, knowing its hypocrisy and horrors, the man he used to be would no longer exist. “I felt I could no longer live that way – paying for my every invention and success by compromising with my conscience… I began to realize that I had almost completely wasted myself in these compromises. Just a few more steps, and there wouldn’t be anything left of me. I would turn into a lifeless, merciless member of a mafia that held the country and its enslaved people in its grip.” (Alexander Lerner, Change of Heart, 12-13)

Alexander Lerner celebrating Simchat Torah in Moscow with Anatoly Sharansky and former Prisoner of Zion Yuri Berkovsky from Novosibirsk, Moscow. October 1976 (From the archives of Enid Wurtman)

When the Maccabees debated their rebellion; when my mother was walking up those steps with the echo of ancient words and a hidden light within her; when we ourselves face our own crossroads of action and inaction, the question we face is always the same: Do we dare to light that first light – to act, to stand up, to create – despite the fact that the future is unknown to us, and sometimes dangerous? Or do we wait, and avoid shaping the future, hoping in vain that holiness and light and redemption will come from somewhere – anywhere – besides ourselves?

Fifty years ago, a group of brave Jews chose to act and changed the course of history. As we remember them today, in this holiday that reminds us also of the Maccabees and of the dedication of the Second Temple, let us remember all that their choice had wrought.

The road to change begins with action. If we wish to bring more light into the world, this is the path that we, like them, must take.

About the Author
Rachel is a Jerusalem-born writer and speaker who's in love with her city's vibrant human scene. She writes about Judaism, parenting and life in Israel for the Times of Israel and Kveller, and explores storytelling in the bible as a teacher and on 929.
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