The evolution of symbolism, from Lenin’s jacket to a rabbi’s trousers

Moscow's Grand Kremlin Palace (WikiCommons)
Moscow's Grand Kremlin Palace (WikiCommons)

Back in 1977, I went on a trip to Moscow, visiting refuseniks. At that time the Cold War, though not as intense as it had been, was still close to its height. Moscow was still a communist city with all the drabness, the constant surveillance, the occasional molestation by security forces, the hotel key ladies, the shortages and the appalling food.

The Soviet Union through its proxies, the Viet Cong and  Khmer Rouge, had just been victorious in south East Asia. Only two years later, when advocating intervention against the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan, the Economist  observed  that there was no record of a communist state ever reverting to a free economic and political system. Although the Cold War had abated it was generally  accepted that communist regimes posed a real challenge to the west.

It was something of a surprise to us, therefore, when arriving in Moscow to find a tired regime; one lacking in popular support, much less enthusiasm. As De Tocqueville observed an oppressive regime is at its most vulnerable when it starts to improve.

The Russia we saw was far less oppressive  than Stalin’s  murderous regime. We met people of amazing courage the local secretary of Amnesty International, carrying out his work openly and the refuseniks who would answer the telephone in Hebrew- things  which would, nevertheless, have been unthinkable a generation earlier. By the late 1970s true believers as opposed to New Leftists were lacking in numbers and influence..

The breakup of the Soviet empire was still in the future but the first signs were unmistakably already there.

One of the symptoms of the decay, was the enormous reverence paid to Lenin. Moscow is a fascinating city, with a history stretching back in to the Middle Ages. Yet one of the main items on the official  tourist agenda, was the museum of Lenin. Among its exhibits were such exciting memorabilia as  the jacket worn by Lenin during his stay in the UK an item of some interest but not for reasons given by the exhibitors.

No-one will really be interested in Lenin’s chest measurements, but that a man’s clothing should be of interest to others years after his death is intriguing. It illustrated the evolution of the regime from  truly sinister to merely fatuous.

I was reminded of this when I read of an auction being conducted by Prime Judaica an Auction house  in New York. One of the items for sale, Lot 378 was described as Rav Kanievsky’s pants. This is America so one can presume that the article of clothing was in fact the great sage’s trousers.

The trousers were certified by the grandson of the great Rabbi Gedalyahu Koenigsberg, himself a rabbi, as having been worn ‘by the holy rabbi on numerous occasions’. I have no knowledge of the younger rabbi’s claim to learning or piety but there is no denying his commercial acumen.

The starting price for the trousers at the auction was to be  $3,200-  new they cost around $13.As one of the dealers involved claimed, with modest understatement, ‘there is money to be made here’. The New York Times enquired about the proposed sale and shortly after their enquiry the trousers were withdrawn which is unfortunate for all concerned.

There was some protest; someone demanded that the pants should be ‘put back on’.

I do not know if Rabbi Koenigsberg’s acumen has been rewarded, but his perception, that here was a brand that could be exploited, has been taken up by others. Kupat Ha’ir, a charity which claims to be totally under the control of the Great Torah sages, marketed amulets to protect against all disease, costing  3,00NIS.

The trousers were certified by the grandson of the great Rabbi Gedalyahu Koenigsberg, himself a rabbi, as having been worn ‘by the holy rabbi on numerous occasions’. I have no knowledge of the younger rabbi’s claim to learning or piety but there is no denying his commercial acumen.

Though the price is non-negotiable there are credit terms available. They claimed these had been blessed by Rabbi Kanievsky Kupat Ha’ir has a budget which runs now into tens of millions of shekels. According to their literature, this is used to help needy people throughout Israel

They are not, however the only charity which uses the authority of the sages to promote  benefits. Vaad Harabbanim which also claims ot be under the authority of the Sages, regularly canvas for cash donations which give the donor material and health benefits. I do not know how much of Kupat Ha’ir’s substantial income comes from donations, which are tax deductible and therefore effectively part financed by the tax payer, and how much comes from their commercial activities.

Their transparency rating is 59%.

It says in the Bible (in Proverbs) several times that tzedaka, charity or righteousness saves from death. As sadly the charitable and righteous seem to die, like the rest of us, the meaning of these verses has worried commentators down the ages. But as one senior Charedi rabbi in the USA pointed out to me, the efficacy of charity as a protector is commonly accepted in his community.

As he put It, you believe in the efficacy of vaccines and modern medicine we believe in charity and prayer – we both have faith. In fairness even the strictest of Charedi rabbis do also accept the efficacy of modern medicine and strongly advocate the use of vaccines.

Our belief in in medicine – faith is the wrong term – is based on evidence not faith. They still see charity and prayer as having benefits and point out that we must all acknowledge the limitations to our knowledge. A very sound point. But another lesson could be that, as the renaissance popes discovered, money and spirituality just don’t mix.

About the Author
I studied at Yeshivat Kerem Beyavneh in Israel and then at Cambridge University. After practising as a commercial lawyer I became active in communal affairs. I was Co-Chair of British Friends of Peace Now and the New Israel Fund. I was President of the Board of Deputies and then took a Masters at UCL in Jewish History and am now doing graduate research there.