If there’s any place in the world whose image in the Jewish world has changed radically — swiveled like a weathervane, in fact — it’s Russia.
Many of us Ashkenazi Jews thought of it vaguely as the place where our ancestors came from, without realizing that there were relatively few Jews in Russia proper. The place we’d thought about as Russia turned out to be Ukraine, or Moldova, or Lithuania, or other parts of the Soviet Union. Russia was outside the Pale of Settlement, which meant that we weren’t good enough to live there.
During the 1970s and into the ’80s, Russia — again, really the Soviet Union, but those names seemed virtually indistinguishable at the time — was the place where Jews were treated basically like dirt, as grotesquely undesirable, but still were kept from leaving, logic notwithstanding.
But after the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Russia became a country exemplary in the way that it was moving from backwardness to modernity, from communism to capitalism, from darkness to light. It became a place with a flourishing Jewish community.
That was then. The truth now — as truth generally is — is far more nuanced. Russia is a place from which Jews are fleeing, and in which Jewish life is collapsing. But the history of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union is vast.
Jonathan Porath was born in Atlantic City and has lived in Jerusalem since the 1980s, but the Soviet Union and Russia have been central to his life.
He’s visited the former Soviet Union 175 times, from 1965 until 2019, when the pandemic ended travel.
He’s written a book, “Here We Are All Jews — 175 Russian Jewish Journeys” — about what he’s learned from all those visits, during all those years, and he’ll talk about it by Zoom on Sunday, February 26, at 11:30 a.m. (See box.)
The talk will be sponsored jointly by two shuls, Temple Beth O’r Beth Torah of Clark and Temple Beth El Mekor Chayim of Cranford, and there’s some real poignancy, or at least full-circleness, to that. For nine years, from 1975 through 1984, until he made aliyah, Rabbi Porath headed Temple Beth O’r.
There’s a story to how he got to Russia in the first place.
Rabbi Porath was born in Atlantic City in 1944. His grandfather, Rabbi Israel Porath, one rabbi in a family studded with rabbis, across many branches and very many generations, spent many years leading a modern Orthodox congregation in Cleveland. His father, Rabbi Tzvi Porath, who had Orthodox smicha, was a U.S. Army chaplain during World War II, and then went on to lead two Conservative shuls in suburban Washington. (The boundaries between the movements were more porous then.) Jonathan Porath grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, went to day school in D.C., and then to Brandeis.
Jonathan Porath was not born in Jerusalem, but his father had been a member of the fourth generation of Poraths to have been born there. So it’s not surprising that he was drawn both to the rabbinate and to making aliyah.
Where did his passion for Russia come from, though?
“I went to Brandeis, and I took Russian there,” Rabbi Porath said. “And I did my junior year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. So when I was at Hebrew U, I looked at a map, and I saw that Ukraine” — it would have been “the Ukraine” at the time — and Haifa were pretty close.
“So in 1965, I took a trip to Istanbul, and I went to the Soviet Union from there.”
The first city he visited was Odessa — historically a city full of Jews — “and I met some students who were Jewish and told me they were from Tel Aviv — they weren’t! — and right away I saw the Odessa chutzpah,” he said.
From there, he went to Leningrad, “where I went to the shul to look around, and I saw people leaving it with shopping bags with something inside wrapped in copies of Pravda,” the regime’s official propaganda-filled newspaper. “I saw men wearing bakers’ hats. It was around Purim time, and later I was to learn that for most Soviet Jews there was matzah. That was a main part of their Jewish identity.” The baker-hatted men began making matzah before Purim, and local Jews came to pick it up.
“And then I went to Moscow for Shabbes. I got to the main shul, and in the middle of services there — it was all old people there — a Soviet film crew came in, powered up the klieg lights, and starting shooting. The rabbi said the prayer for the Soviet state. And I realized that this was all controlled by the state.
“It was permitted, so that the Soviets could show ‘We are not anti-religious. We are an enlightened country.’
“It was all a performance. It was all a show.”
Rabbi Porath went back to the Soviet Union in 1968, “because I had read a book — Elie Wiesel’s ‘The Jews of Silence’ — that changed my life.
“He wrote about a visit he’d made to the Soviet Union in 1965, for Simchas Torah, when he’d seen thousands of young Jews in front of the shul.
“I was incredulous. How could that be? So I found myself in Moscow on Simchas Torah in 1968, and there were thousands of young Jews there. They wouldn’t go inside, but they were outside, in the street, like an outdoor wedding.
“I realized that some of the stuff we know as Jews they didn’t know. They wanted to sing Jewish songs, but they didn’t know any.” So he started to sing, and a crowd gathered around him.
“How many times can you sing ‘David Melech Yisrael’ and ‘Hava Nagila’?” he asked rhetorically. The answer, he learned then, was many times. Many many times. So he kept singing, “and this was one of the few times in my life when I could see myself as if I had a third eye.” He had an out-of-body experience, looking at himself, a young Jewish man, singing basic Jewish songs to a crowd of young Jews.”
Finally, after most of the group dispersed, a small knot of activists gathered around him, and they taught him one of their songs, “Nyet Ne Bayus.” “It means ‘I am not afraid,’” Rabbi Porath said. “‘I am not afraid’ of anyone, except the One Guy. The One God.
“I whispered the words, because the song was seditious, but they sang it loud. Only one God. I could imagine Lenin in his tomb, not far away from where we were, turning over in it.”
He talked about meeting another man, a Russian, who did not answer his greeting in Russian, or in Hebrew, or in English, but only in Yiddish. “I am a proud, fearless Soviet Jew,” the man told him. “And I felt two things — both elation and an almost profound angst,” Rabbi Porath said. “I felt that I was in the presence of the demise of Soviet Jewry. There was no way that Simchas Torah could beat the Soviets.”
Clearly he was wrong.
“Most of the stories we hear are about noble refusniks,” Rabbi Porath said. “But I also saw other Russian Jews who were not refusniks, but who were living Jewish lives in Russia.”
From 1969 to 1974, in response to a request from Rabbi Paul Freedman, who later made aliyah but then was the head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s youth group, USY, Rabbi Porath led students to Russia.
“It was really audacious,” he said. “How can parents trust me with their kids?” but they did.
Once they were in Russia, he and the students found Jews — or more often, the Jews found them. He told a story about being on a public bus, when a tallit bag he’d been carrying fell on the floor, Magen-David-side up. “A fellow on the bus sees it, and he starts to smile at me, so much that he’s almost crying, so I said to him, in Russian, ‘You too?’”
Of course the answer was yes. That man also was Jewish.
“We met Jews with a deep yearning to be Jewish,” Rabbi Porath said.
From 1993 to 2008, Rabbi Porath was the senior staffer of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Russian department; he’s maintained his connection to Russia ever since.
He tells a story about taking up an invitation from the Wexner Foundation to visit Russia right after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. He went to a Jewish school in Ukraine, and said to the students, “Last year you were in a Ukrainian school, and this year you’re at a Jewish school. Which do you like better?
“They told me that they like the Jewish school better. I asked why, and they said, ‘Because here we are all Jews,’” Rabbi Porath reported.
“For people of my generation, that was a galvanizing story,” he said. “It was totally unforeseen and miraculous.”
Now, he’s telling the stories he’s heard over his 175 visits.
“The big question from Soviet times and post-Soviet times was if Soviet Jews could choose to identify as Jews,” Rabbi Porath said. “Sharansky” — that’s Natan Sharansky, the Israeli politician who was born Anatoly Scharansky in the Soviet Union in 1948 and became arguably the most famous and most inspirational of all refusniks — “says that the only thing he knew about Jews when he was growing up in the Soviet Union is that to be one” — as he knew himself to be — “was bad. Yidische mazel” — that is, Yiddish luck — “means bad luck.
“We asked about whether Jews wanted to leave.”
Because many did not, “my job was to help rebuild Jewish life in the former Soviet Union,” Rabbi Porath said. “We — that’s Rabbi Yossie Goldman and I — built Hillel there, and we built a big JCC in Moscow, to help Jewish life.
The relationship between Chabad and the Russian government “is one of the stories we don’t talk about,” he said; in this case, “we” means most people who had insight into Russian Jewish life. “There was always a love affair.” Or at any rate, there was an understanding that can trace back, at least in kind, to what Rabbi Porath saw in 1965, in his first visit to Moscow. The Russian state and Chabad were close, and both benefited from the arrangement.
“We assumed that after 74 years of Jewish life in the Soviet Union, there would be a renaissance of life after the Soviet Union that would last forever.”
Then Russia invaded Ukraine.
“I got a letter from a friend in Russia a few weeks after the invasion,” Rabbi Porath said. “She said, ‘It’s so hard for me to write anything, because the shame is so unbelievable, I don’t know what words to use. I don’t think I’d be this ashamed of my country. We are frozen.’”
Now, Rabbi Porath said, “we’ll see what happens.”
Meanwhile, he’ll tell the stories of what he’s seen for himself over the last more than 50 years; he’ll talk about the friendships he’s made, the changes he’s seen, and the hopes that he’s had, even as the world continues to change.
Who: Rabbi Jonathan Porath
What: Will talk about his book, “Here We Are All Jews — 175 Russian Jewish Journeys”
When: Sunday, February 26, at 11:30 a.m.
Where: On Zoom, from Jerusalem, for Temple Beth O’r Beth Torah of Clark and Temple Beth El Mekor Chayim of Cranford
For more information or link: Email
firstname.lastname@example.org, call (732) 381-8403,
or go to www.bethorbethtorah.org