Thursday, 19 January 2017

Russia and Yisrael

Last night I attended a concert of the Red Army Choir. It brought fond memories of an early childhood in Yisrael, memories of a home where the Russian culture was an integral part.
My parents who moved to Yisrael in 1949 were born in Belarus and Lithuania. Russian was one of the languages spoken at my home. We listened to Russian songs and we sang them. I will never forget how at the age of seven, my mother, who was a brilliant singer, taught me “Under Moscow’s Nights” (which I can sing in Russian until this day). I used to sing it on family celebrations such as weddings and Bar-Mitsvahs when I had to reach up to the microphone which was always much taller than me. We also sang Russian songs, in their Hebrew translation, during my youth movement days. Those were happy songs. Those were happy times for me.

Unfortunately, however, Russia does not evoke only doting memories in me.

It was the Russian Gulag where my late grandfather, Ben-Tsion, (after whom I am named) was deported to and where he eventually perished for no crime other than being a wealthy Zionist Jew. His legacy drove me to visit Siberia in my desire to trace his last footsteps. That was a hard experience. There was no comparison between the conditions under which I visited the place and the ones he experienced. I learned about those settings through avidly reading books written by Solzhenitsyn and others, hoping to learn as much as I could about the last phases of his life. I could not even begin to fathom what he had to face in that horrible place.

It was not, though, the only visit I made to Russia. Something drew me to that place, some unexplained call from the unknown and painful parts of my Jewish being - a call to go visit that part of the world. As hard as it might be to admit, I loved every minute I spent there.
I know, some would be quick to point out all the ugly aspects of Russia, its regime, its bloody history of anti-semitism and violation of basic human rights. Despite these, I could not help but be fascinated by its wealth of culture and great contributions, Jewish and other, to world civilization.

Listening to the Red Army Choir with its perfect performance, vocal and visual, triggered a resurgence of my admiration for that culture. I was so proud when I heard the choir chant Hebrew and Yiddish songs, songs of my happy childhood in Eretz Yisrael, songs of a culture that shaped me into who I am. I was dancing in my seat to the sounds of a wonderful amalgamation of my past, present and future.

As the lump was growing in my throat and my eyes were welling up, I could not help but express a silent wish that the coming days will see a growing cultural exchange between our two countries. I was praying for the building of bridges that would melt the political barriers and divisions and help improve the lots of both the Russian and Jewish People.

I hope you will all join me in this vision and in unison say “Amen!”

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