By Toby Klein Greenwald
This story appears to have begun in 1984 but, in truth, it began in 1967.
That was when I read the book by Elie Wiesel, “The Jews of Silence,” about Soviet Jews who, the oppression notwithstanding, would come out of the shadows to celebrate on Simchat Torah. I was captivated by the book and had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Wiesel when he attended a community-wide rally in Cleveland that year.
Jumping ahead, in 1979 I was the teacher in charge of extracurricular events at the Pelech girls’ high school in Jerusalem. I invited Avital Sharansky to speak to our students. Natan (then still called Anatoly) was already in prison. Once again, I was captivated.
A few years later my husband and I became shlichim (teacher emissaries) in Toronto. In 1984, Avital Sharansky, while on a North American tour to advocate for Natan, came to speak to our students at the Bnei Akiva high schools Yeshivat Or Chaim and Ulpanat Orot.
Following her talk, I was inspired to write a song called, “The Land is in My Dreams,” in honor of Natan and all the other Prisoners of Zion in the Soviet Union.
I was introduced to a young composer in Toronto, Baruch Menzelefsky, who wrote a beautiful folk melody to the song, and we invited him to premiere it at a community evening we had in our home in Toronto. At the end of the year, we returned to Israel.
In 1985 we moved to Efrat. In the course of those first years in Efrat, two events had particular meaning for me. I directed teenagers in a play about Ari Volvovsky, another Prisoner of Zion, and the kangaroo trial that had sent him to prison. (The lead was played by Noam Demsky, who today is an award-winning Israeli film director.) Ari and his wife, Mila, and their daughter Kira, made aliyah to Efrat in 1987, after Ari was released from prison. In 1989 they gave birth to Shai.
I gave my song to Richard Shavei-Tzion, the conductor of the Efrat choir, and he included it in a cassette recording they produced, on which he and Robynne Rendel sang the song as a duet. In 1986, after Natan was released from prison, he came with Avital to visit Efrat. Richard and Robynne sang my song to them, from the stage. Afterwards, Natan signed the lyrics, with the words, “Thanks a lot for such a nice song! Natan Sharansky. Next year in Jerusalem!”
Several years later, tragically, Baruch Menzelefsky, the Toronto composer, passed away.
The Bars of the U.S.S.R. Begin to Bend
In 1988 I published an interview with Anya and Alexander (a former Prisoner of Zion) Kholmiansky at their home in Israel.
In 1989 our daughter, Naama, for her bat mitzvah, prepared a presentation of three female former refuseniks who lived in Gush Etzion, and who were married to former Prisoners of Zion — Tanya Edelstein (who has since passed away) was married to Yuli Edelstein, who eventually became Speaker of the Knesset, Mila Volvovsky (wife of Ari), and Inna Kosharovsky, wife of Yuli Kosharovsky (who later died in a tragic accident).
In the late 1980s I attended an international Jewish media conference at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. There I met, among others, a young Soviet Jewish aliyah activist, Yuri Shtern, who was working hard to capture the attention of journalists. He certainly captured my attention, and in 1996 he captured the attention of the country and was elected to the Knesset and served in it till he passed away from cancer in 2007.
Working Through a “Bucket List”
In 2016, my work in journalism paused when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. One of the most important elements that helped me get through it was the treatments I received at the Yuri Shtern Holistic Center for cancer patients, a center that had been founded by Yuri’s widow, Lena, in his memory. Our daughter Ephrat volunteered there for six years as a reflexologist. I donated to them but never imagined I would need their services. Life sends us surprises.
After my last radiation, in September 2017, I decided to slowly work through my “bucket list” of projects that were sitting in drawers, as life is short. One of those projects was to have a new arrangement and recording done of my song “The Land is in my Dreams.”
I began on the conceptualization, received permission from the composer’s family to go ahead with it, began to go through 53 years of my own photographs and slides of Israel, choosing those that would be included in a video clip, and asked Mitch Clyman, who had composed and arranged the music to four of our “Raise Your Spirits” Biblical musicals (and is now working on a fifth) to create a new arrangement and to sing the vocals. I asked Yehuda Gelb, a talented young composer, filmmaker, and video editor from Alon Shvut, Gush Etzion, to put it all together in a clip, with my input on the placement of the still photography and including some of his exquisite film footage.
I met Avital Sharansky again, this time in the framework of a painting class she teaches at Oz VeGaon, the nature preserve/educational center created by the Women in Green, with the help of the Gush Etzion Local Council, in memory of the three boys who were murdered by terrorists in 2014. Her class dovetailed with my desire to return to study painting (more from my bucket list), but we know there are no coincidences in life.
Avital and Natan generously shared with me relevant historical photographs.
I received other historical photographs from the Volvovskys, from Enid Wurtman, and from the website Remember and Save (Soviet-Jews-Exodus.com). The Deputy Executive Director of the Association of Remember and Save, Edward Markov, himself a former Prisoner of Zion, was helpful to me, as was Lessa Roskin, a resident of Alon Shvut who has worked for the topic of Soviet Jewry.
Another personal touch was including the clip a photograph of a young woman, holding two Israeli flags, a member of the Bnei Menashe tribe, who was among those brought on aliyah from India by the Shavei Israel organization, who are dedicated to bringing members of the ten tribes of Israel from the four corners of the earth. I had gone to the airport to witness their arrival because it was one year after having received my cancer diagnosis, and I was looking for a way to celebrate the fact that I was alive.
How Many Prisoners of Zion Were There?
My plan was to end the song clip with a running list of all the former Prisoners of Zion. I was familiar with the most famous ones.
As I worked my way through the Remember and Save website and reached out to other research programs, no one could provide me with one collated list of all the Prisoners of Zion. (There is one in Russian.)
So I spent many hours going painstakingly through the entire website, blocking and copying each name separately from the prisoners’ pages (that were divided according to years), and discovered that there were more than 500 of them, and they went back to 1941.
I knew there had been many thousands of refuseniks and aliyah activists, but even I, who considered myself fairly knowledgeable about Soviet Jewry, did not know there were so many Prisoners of Zion.
Needless to say, I could not have 500 names in a video clip, so, as I write in the YouTube blurb, I invite anyone who wants the list to write to me, and I have shared the collated list with Edward Markov and will share it with other projects on the story of Soviet Jewry. It is also available on my WordPress blog page: TobyKleinGreenwald.wordpress.com.
The Heroes Who Walk Among Us
I have a phrase in the song, “… like a rising star…” That is directly from this story: Rabbi Hiya the Great and Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta were walking in the Valley of Arbel and they saw the morning star piercing with its light. Rabbi Hiya said to Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta, “Rabbi, such is the redemption of Israel. In the beginning it comes slowly, and then it gets greater and greater” (Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 81:b).
The song clip went live on YouTube on the eve of Israel Independence Day, the 5th of Iyar, which this year fell on April 28–29. It premiered in a Zoom party hosted by Professor Carl and Fayge Posy of Jerusalem, with many of their regular guests present, this time from afar, each from his or her home, in coronavirus separation.
But unlike the Prisoners of Zion, we are “locked down” not in the gulags of the U.S.S.R., but in the independent State of Israel, with our own hospitals, schools, Knesset, and a Jewish army that protects us all, with the help of G-d.
The story of Natan Sharansky and the many other Prisoners of Zion and the story of the refuseniks is one that needs to be revisited and remembered. They are heroes and many of them still walk among us.
My own wish is that the song “The Land is in my Dreams” will be sung around campfires and at community events in the years to come.
Perhaps it will inspire others to return to the land of our dreams.
Toby Klein Greenwald is an award-winning theatre director, the editor of WholeFamily.com, and a recipient of an American Jewish Press Association award for Excellence in Jewish Journalism.