Four years ago, my father celebrated his Bar Mitzvah.
He was 65-year-old at the time, well above the traditional 13, but growing up in the USSR wasn’t exactly conducive to religious celebrations. My father didn’t even celebrate the Jewish holidays until he joined the Refusnik movement in his twenties, and didn’t undergo circumcision until he was 25-year-old.
Between illegal demonstrations against the regime, meetings with visiting senators, and interrogations in the KGB’s offices there was no time for a celebration that consists of reading the Torah and throwing candies. And so my father’s Bar Mitzva had to wait for decades, until the day his children and grandchildren could celebrate with him.
The celebration coincided with a particularly appropriate weekly Torah portion: Parshat Bo, the parsha of the Exodus. My father spoke about his generation’s Exodus from the USSR, and how the two historic movements were rooted in similar foundations: Both started when individuals made the frightening choice to belong….despite the potential costs:
In this week’s Torah portion… for the first time the Israelites are called upon to actively participate in their own deliverance. To be spared, they have to slaughter lambs, the very animals their oppressors revere as deities, and display the blood over their doors. Only by thus defying Egypt in the most public way possible could they attain their freedom. And only by individually declaring their independence could they become part of the national Exodus.
Millennia later, Soviet Jews had to make the same choice. People often associate the Refusnik movement with a small group of famous activists and Prisoners of Zion. But in reality, every single Jew who wished to make aliyah had to go through his or her own heroic ordeal of defiance. The Soviet Union ruled millions of people by threatening and isolating them. To apply for an emigration visa, each man and woman had to overcome this crippling fear and publicly forsake the Soviet credo.
First, applicants had to request an invitation from (real or fake) relatives in Israel. The KGB, monitoring the Soviet mail system, knew about these invitation letters even before their recipients saw them, and summoned the latter for interrogations. Shaken, the would-be applicants then had to declare, repeatedly and in public, their intention to leave for Israel.
They had to ask their bosses and neighborhood committees to verify their occupations and residences in documents stating their desire to emigrate. If they were members of the Komsomol, the Soviet youth organization, they had to notify their superiors and be expelled in a public condemnation ceremony. Last but not least, they had to receive their parents’ signed permission to leave, which the parents in turn had to submit to their superiors, thereby risking their own livelihoods and careers.
In short, every applicant had to stand in the metaphoric public square and repudiate the Soviet gods in the name of the “imperialist Zionist” enemy. Why did Soviet Jews choose such defiance, knowing full well how severe the consequences would be? How did they, like the Israelites before them, overcome their fear?
To read more about my father’s answer to this question, and our answers to the question what this story means to us in our time of relative prosperity, see this article which we wrote together.
This year, I asked myself a broader question: What is it that we create when we choose to join an Exodus? You can find my answer here, but I’m curious to hear yours.
May we all find it within us to join our time’s exodus, and shabbat shalom!