Twenty-eight years and an oppressive empire ago, in April, 1985, I arrived in Moscow just days before the holiday of Passover was about to begin. My friend Danny and I had memorized a list of refuseniks—Soviet Jews denied the right to emigrate—to visit. The “contraband” we smuggled in included five or six novels by Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud, two sets of phylacteries, two prayer shawls, two prayer books, two haggadot retelling the Passover tale, two boxes of matzah—all of which we insisted were for personal use but which we planned to somehow “lose” on our journey.The Russian border guards, knowing the game, were unconvinced and sent me to a side room for further interrogation. Protesting loudly, asking “isn’t there freedom of religion in the Soviet Union,” I heard a cascade of Russian, dripping with contempt, exchanged between the border guard and his superior. It sounded to me like vyunah veyalah pizhulsta pakleema followed by the one recognizable word “zeeonist,” Zionist.
It is important, as Passover approaches, to remember that it was only just a few years ago that millions of Soviet Jews were denied basic rights because they dared to want to express their national Jewish identity and to be Zionists. At the time, in the early days of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reign, we had little faith that the Soviet Union would fall or that the Soviet Jews would ever go free. Natan Sharansky—then Anatoly Scharansky—was somewhere deep in the Gulag, imprisoned for speaking his mind. Today he heads the Jewish Agency for Israel. Yuli Edelstein was just beginning his jail term for teaching Hebrew and was on everyone’s mind because his health was fragile. This month he was named the Speaker of the Israeli Knesset.
Those of us who witnessed the miracle of liberation, and those of us lucky even to have a small part in it as protestors or temporary tourists to what seemed to be their permanent hell, should make sure to retell the tale of this modern-day Exodus—and not just at the Passover Seder. It is a tale of political activism that seemed quixotic but actually succeeded. It is a tale of freedom triumphing over oppression. And it is a reminder, amid all the inevitable political tensions involved in running a Jewish state, of the basic need for a Jewish State and the basic justice of the Zionist cause. Happy Passover.