By Larry Gordon
Yosef Mendelevitch is a living, breathing piece of modern Jewish history. Today he is 67-years- old, a father and grandfather who lives with his family in Jerusalem. For many–especially todays younger generation– he is unknown. Who is this unassuming simple Jew who today teaches Torah to young recent immigrants to Israel at a Jerusalem Yeshiva? Well, it would be safe to conclude that Medelevitch is an important treasure like and transitional figure who in his person and through his experiences defines every aspect of what it meant to be a Jew in the Soviet Union.
He has endured great suffering at the hands of once brutal Soviet oppressors who worked for decades to extinguish any vestiges of religion under communism with special and direct attention focused an Jews and those who desired to live as Jews in Israel.
It’s history now but not so long ago in the post-World War 2 era when many of us believed we were living in advanced modern times there were those holding vociferously onto those old backward ways of controlling entire populations by choking off and limiting their freedoms—in particular their religious liberties. That type of oppression is on the wane but still does exist in some countries today.
Mendelevitch endured eleven years of imprisonment on the Soviet gulag. His crime was his desire to leave the Soviet Union and go to live free and as a Jew in Israel. That was a crime back then under the old Soviet system, punishable by either internal exile deep into the reaches of the sub-zero frozen Siberian region or being tucked away and out of site in the maze of Soviet prisons sentenced to hard labor and frequently solitary confinement.
The odd thing is that Mendelevitch was raised in a typical loyal communist family with little interest in anything Jewish. His minimal curiosity about Jewish life and the fact of the State of Israel and the Soviets brutal reaction to suppress his interests and activism is what—more than anything else—spurred him on and ignited that Jewish spark that would later change his life and so many around him.
This past Shabbos Yosef Mendelevitch visited the 5 Towns where he spoke at two shuls to jam packed crowds. He did a book signing for the release of his newly released in English, “Unbreakable Spirit,” and the lines were almost immediately out the door and shortly thereafter sold out.
Our colleague, David Seidemann, related to me on Saturday night that when signing one of the books, Mendelevitch cut his finger on one of the pages he was turning and some blood ran onto one of the pages. He offered to exchange the book to for the young lady who had purchased it and was waiting for him to inscribe the volume. No, she insisted, she wanted the book with the blood on it. Mendelevitch shrugged and looked at here puzzled. He took his pen and circled the blood and wrote ion top of the page in Hebrew—am Yisrael Chai. More in this week’s 5TJT and at 5TJT.COM