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February 1, 2015 / 12 Shevat, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘Moscow’

World Powers Begin New Round of Iran Talks with Little Hope for Progress

Monday, June 18th, 2012

Another round of nuclear talks began on Monday in Moscow, with diplomats representing the six-nation ‘P5+1′ (US, UK, France, China, Russia, and Germany) pessimistic that a breakthrough will occur in the ongoing stand-off with Iran over its controversial nuclear program.

Heading into this the third round of negotiations since talks resumed in April, EU spokesman Michael Mann said: “We haven’t seen engagement on the Iranian side yet. We’re not prepared to talk for the sake of talking, we need to drive things forward.”

Western diplomats continue to accuse Iran of foot-dragging and obfuscation, noting that the five-point proposal presented by the Islamic Republic in Baghdad last month calls for discussions on matters that are tangential to the nuclear issue. Yet the P5+1 continues to hold out hope that Iran will finally “engage seriously” the proposal that the six-nation bloc made last month. The proposal calls on Iran to stop enriching its uranium to 20% – which brings it close to the threshold of weapon’s grade. It offers Iran badly-needed spare parts for civilian airliners, medical isotopes, and nuclear safety cooperation as incentives to agreement. Iran’s negotiator, Saeed Jalili has already rejected these these terms as insufficient, and is demanding an immediate easing of current economic sanctions and suspension of the onerous sanctions set to be imposed by the EU next month. It appears the sides are headed for another fruitless round of talks though, as the EU indicated it has no intention of to postponing the sanctions.

An Iranian diplomat accompanying the Iranian delegation in Moscow told Iran’s state-run news agency IRNA that Iran would not even acquiesce to another round of negotiations unless the P5+1 accepts its proposal. The diplomat also elaborated on the uncompromising stance Iran would take in the negotiations: “The least expected by Iranian negotiators [...] is acknowledging Iran’s right to uranium enrichment. If they do not admit Iran’s right to nuclear enrichment in Moscow, therefore the talks will surely fail… Iran does not fear the failure of negotiations anyhow.”

The Obama administration is facing increasing pressure to break off with the Islamic regime in the face of continued Iranian intransigence. 44 senators sent the President a bi-partisan letter on Friday demanding actual concessions from Iran to continue negotiations.”It is past time for the Iranians to take the concrete steps that would reassure the world that their nuclear program is, as they claim, exclusively peaceful. Absent these steps, we must conclude that Tehran is using the talks as a cover to buy time as it continues to advance toward nuclear weapons capability.”

The letter, coordinated by Senators Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), calls on Iran to implement the steps proposed by the P5+1 in Baghdad, which they said is the “absolute minimum” required to “demonstrate a level of commitment by Iran to the process and could justify continued discussions beyond the meeting in Moscow.” The letter is signed by, among others, Charles Schumer (D-NY), Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).

Meanwhile in Israel, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Yaalon Yaalon told Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Friday that if Israel has to choose between Iran having a nuclear bomb and bombing Iran, it will opt for the latter. He also said that Israel is not bluffing when it comes to decisive action to stop Iran and does not need an American ‘green light’ for a military strike. He predicted that the Iranian crisis will culminate in the coming months.

Israeli Chess Champion Loses Match, Wins Hearts

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

Though a sudden-death match led to his defeat, a new Israeli hero has gained international recognition– and local celebrity – as a chess champion.

Belarus-born chess grandmaster Boris Gelfand, 43, lost Wednesday’s world chess championship in Moscow to title holder Viswanathan Anand of India.  Gelfand came one point shy of victory in a rapid tiebreaker, after playing 12 games with Anand.

Yet the title match earned Gelfand thousands of fans in Israel and around the world, with so many Israelis logging on to the website of the Israel Chess Federation to view the match that the site crashed.

Thousands of new friends have signed up for Gelfand’s fan page on Facebook, including many Russians, who came out in droves to support Russian-speaking Gelfand at the Moscow match.

Despite his loss, Gelfand’s efforts made the front pages of Israeli newspapers and topped the evening news.  Gelfand received congratulatory phone calls from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres.  According to the Associated Press, chess enthusiast, former Prisoner of Zion and current head of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky – who helped Gelfand immigrate to Israel in 1998 – received several phone calls from the prime minister during the match, to discuss Gelfand’s moves and strategy.

Israel is a top five chess nation, boasting 50 chess grandmasters and medals from the Chess Olympiads. Almog Burstein, executive director of the Israel Chess Federation told the Associated Press that some 3,000 Israelis play in chess leagues throughout the country, with dozens of people having won international tournaments.

Young Jewish Man Murdered in Moscow

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

A young Jewish lay leader was murdered in Moscow over the weekend after attempting to stop a brawl between two rival, non-Jewish gangs.

According to a statement from the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, Yaakov Manasharshivili, 26, encountered the melee on Friday. When he tried to intervene, he was shot at point-blank range. Moscow Police Commissioner Vladimir Kolokoltsev reported that the perpetrator fled, but that he was confident more leads would be found in the coming days.

Born to a traditional Georgian Jewish family and active in the local Georgian community, Manasharshivili served as counselor at his local Chabad-Lubavitch center in the Khamovniki District of the Russian capital.

Jewish community officials, including Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, took part in his burial on Sunday.

Rav Aharon Schechter Visits L.A.

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

Rav Aharon Schechter (seated) speaking with Rabbi Summers and his son at a reception for Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin. (Photo credit: Arye D. Gordon)



Rav Aharon Schechter, rosh hayeshiva of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, received a warm welcome during his recent visit to Los Angeles.


The Chaim Berlin yeshiva has been a makom Torah for many talmidim across the U.S., mainly those living in New York and its surrounding communities. Founded in the early 1900s, the yeshiva was named after Moscow’s chief rabbi, Rav Chaim Berlin, son of the renowned gaon, Rav Naftali Zvi Berlin (The Netziv), and brother-in-law of Reb Chaim Brisker.


It was under the leadership of its rosh hayeshiva, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, when the yeshiva grew and developed into one of America’s major yeshivas. The turnout of former talmidim and their parents, who every year look forward to seeing and learning Torah from the rosh hayeshiva, was substantial. Rav Schechter’s hosts during his visit were Dina and Moshe Zyskind.

Rav Aharon Schechter Visits L.A.

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

Rav Aharon Schechter (seated) speaking with Rabbi Summers and his son at a reception for Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin. (Photo credit: Arye D. Gordon)



Rav Aharon Schechter, rosh hayeshiva of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, received a warm welcome during his recent visit to Los Angeles.


The Chaim Berlin yeshiva has been a makom Torah for many talmidim across the U.S., mainly those living in New York and its surrounding communities. Founded in the early 1900s, the yeshiva was named after Moscow’s chief rabbi, Rav Chaim Berlin, son of the renowned gaon, Rav Naftali Zvi Berlin (The Netziv), and brother-in-law of Reb Chaim Brisker.


It was under the leadership of its rosh hayeshiva, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, when the yeshiva grew and developed into one of America’s major yeshivas. The turnout of former talmidim and their parents, who every year look forward to seeing and learning Torah from the rosh hayeshiva, was substantial. Rav Schechter’s hosts during his visit were Dina and Moshe Zyskind.

Meer Akselrod: Painting His People

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

Chassidic Art Institute

375 Kingston Avenue in Brooklyn; 718-774-9149

Sunday – Thursday from Noon – 7pm

Zev Markowitz, Director


Empathy and memory meet in the work of Meer Akselrod (1902-1970), the Jewish Russian artist who defied aesthetic convention and totalitarian dictates to relentlessly pursue his personal artistic vision of painting the Jewish people.  His quiet courage in the face of epochal changes that convulsed his Russian homeland cannot be overestimated. They are amply attested to by his artwork, not the least of which are two pen and ink drawings, Pogrom, from 1927 – 1928, currently at the Chassidic Art Institute.

Pogrom #41 depicts a woman about to be arrested on the steps of her house.  Her child clings to her baggy dress as she raises her hand in submission and fright. The hood of her scarf obscures half her face, exposing only her fear and desperation.  Akselrod’s expressive use of a black ink wash on the left side echoes the anticipated grasp of her attacker.  We can easily see this encounter is not going to come out well. 


Pogrom # 41 (1927-1928) by Meer Akselrod

Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute


It is important to historically place this work.  Akselrod was then living in Moscow and taught and exhibited at the VHUTEMAS, the Soviet art and design school (similar to the Bauhaus) set up by Lenin in 1920.  These drawings most probably reflect his experiences and/or reports of pogroms in Belarus in the aftermath of the Russian Civil War (1917-1923).  Whether this drawing is from his own experiences or just reflections of these terrible events, he has fully involved us in the fate of this woman and child.  Our empathy is deeply evoked.

A rather different experience is seen in Pogrom #40.  Here we witness an attack unfolding in a bizarre scenario.  Akselrod’s Rembrandt-like rapid strokes depict a short brutal man grasping a fleeing woman’s shoulder.  She is carrying an oddly contented baby while this little man, his fist holding a cane, is about to attack her.  Even though he is so much shorter than she is, still he is terribly dangerous, clearly driven by his demented hate.  As we are drawn into this unfolding scene we understand that it is the centuries old irrational hate that fuels the pogroms that decimated our people then and continues to attack us even today.  Akselrod’s unflinching depiction arouses a historical memory shared by all Jews.



Pogrom # 40 (1927-1928) by Meer Akselrod

Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute


Driven by a fearful Russian government from their provincial Belarusian hometown of Molodechno during the First World War, Akselrod’s family wandered across Russia, finally settling in Minsk in 1917.  As a developing artist he gravitated to Moscow and quickly became part of its thriving post-revolutionary artistic environment.  He was quickly lauded as a major talent and yet insisted on charting his own aesthetic course.  He did not seem to be influenced by the uniquely Russian modernism flourishing at the time, expressed by fellow landsman Marc Chagall or the emerging abstractions of Kandinsky and El Lissitzky. Those artists and others (many of them Jews) would blossom into the highly influential Russian Constructivism, itself espoused in the VHUTEMAS Institute that Akselrod taught in.  And yet he stood apart.  Independent.

Akselrod’s obsession was with his people.  He would sojourn out into the countless Jewish settlements in the countryside, searching for his subjects.  Mark (Meer) Moiseevich demanded: “No, We must live in a house, among the locals. To see the way of life.  Get to know people.  We must try and earn their trust and persuade them to pose for us ” When he was told there were plenty of Jews to paint in Moscow he replied: ” No, they’re not right. The types you’re talking about have become too familiar. There is no freshness of perception.  It’s all evaporating, slipping away, while there the Sholom Aleichem atmosphere has been retained ” He saw his job as preserving a vanishing Jewish culture.  And over and over he produced “a study of the prominent characteristic of types of Jewish poverty [significantly] an insight into the very essence of national character.”  The work of the 1920′s and 1930′s was touched by the expressionism of the times filtered through the influence of the School of Paris, distantly seen from mother Russia. And yet he insisted on his Jewish brethren as his subjects because that world must be preserved.  Akselrod’s artwork would not succumb to the newest dictates of official aesthetics, the Social Realism to celebrate the Party and the cut-out Heroes of the Revolution. 

The Man The Gulag Couldn’t Break

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

Fall arrived late this year in Budapest, where I am visiting from Israel, and it is still very warm on Yom Kippur. The largest Orthodox Yom Kippur services in the city are being held in a downtown hotel. A plaque marking what had been the offices of controversial Judenrat leader Rudolf Kastner is on a building just a few steps away.

Below the hotel windows the Danube flows by, with the old Habsburg castle just across the river. The services are led by Chabadniks from Israel, and Hebrew is the official language used for prayer, stories and jokes. Most of the hundreds who attend are young Israelis studying medicine in Hungary. Entrance into Israeli medical schools is almost impossible for mortals; so many study in Hungary.

It is late in the day of Yom Kippur, when alertness is low and concentration difficult. My stomach is making angry hunger sounds and thoughts of food are sneaking into my consciousness between the makot.

I am sitting next to an older man with a Russian accent. In his late 70s, he has flashing grey eyes and comfortably reads the Hebrew in the prayer book. His face looks familiar. During one of the rare breaks in the prayers, we begin to talk. He tells me his name.

The name snaps me into alertness. The hunger pangs are instantly forgotten, along with the drowsiness. His name connects at once with that famous photo – the one that has become an iconic image of the suffering and plight of Soviet Jews in the era before communism collapsed.

Of course, the Josef Begun in that picture is a much younger man than the fellow in the tallit now praying alongside me. It was taken in his Siberian hellhole, a prison camp close to the Pacific, farther from Moscow than Moscow is from New York. In it he wears a thick black coat and hat, ice particles are clinging to his fierce black beard, his fiery eyes are glaring, and there is just the hint of a grin at the corners of his mouth.

“That photo was taken when it was 60 degrees below zero Centigrade,” he tells me. The photo was later enlarged and is on display today at the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv.

The Josef Begun at my side is arguably the second most famous Jewish Prisoner of Zion from the darkest days of the Soviet empire. Natan Sharansky may be somewhat better known, but Begun’s story is at least as fascinating. And Begun is “one up” on Sharansky in some things: he was arrested for the final time a week before Sharansky and liberated only after Sharansky had been freed. The two were held in the same prison for a while.

* * *

I continue my discussion with Begun the day after Yom Kippur.

He had grown up in Moscow and received the best scientific and mathematical training available in Russia. While the Soviet Union treated Jews as second-class inferiors and discriminated against them in almost everything, it was also desperate for the brainpower of well-trained engineers and scientists, even if the brains were lodged inside Jewish heads.

Begun finished his Ph.D. in engineering at a young age, and by the 1960s – when he was in his 30s – the lifestyle and perquisites of the Soviet scientific elite were wide open to him.

His parents had known some Yiddish but refused to speak it with him when he was a child, lest he suffer for being Jewish during the iron rule of Comrade Stalin. He was vaguely aware of being Jewish, in part because he had a fistfight with a neighbor’s kid after the latter called him a zhid – a derogatory term for a Jew.

“Why do I have to be a Jew?” he asked his mother.

The young Begun saw that in the Soviet Union every other ethnic group had its own media, theaters, newspapers, literature.

“But there was nothing at all about or related to Jews,” he tells me. “During the ‘Khrushchev thaw’ that followed the death of Stalin, there was just the first slight availability of some materials with a Jewish connection, mainly a Yiddish newspaper, largely containing political propaganda. I wanted to read it because it would occasionally carry items of Jewish cultural interest, like stories by Shalom Aleichem about the perils of Jewish life under the czar.

“I decided I wanted to learn Yiddish, but in all of Moscow I could not find a single textbook or tutor. I also searched for books about Jewish history or culture, and found that there were none in the entire city.”

He occasionally went to the one remaining synagogue in Moscow, which was under constant KGB surveillance and where only a handful of elderly Jews dared attend services. There he met an old man who had been a yeshiva student back when the czar was still in power. The old man was desperately poor, living in a tiny one-room apartment and constantly harassed by anti-Semitic neighbors.

Begun asked the old man if he would teach him Yiddish.

“Why do you want to learn Yiddish?” the old man asked. “Why don’t you learn Hebrew instead?”

“Hebrew?” Begun asked. “What is Hebrew?”

“Well,” he responded, “it is the language spoken in Israel and it is the language of the Bible.”

“Bible?” Begun asked. “What is that?”

Begun took lessons from the old man, at first just in Hebrew language, then later in Chumash. “And I felt my eyes and soul opening up,” he tells me.

At the time he believed he was the only person in the entire Soviet Union who was studying Hebrew. He had a small grammar textbook he kept on his person at all times, afraid that someone – even his wife or friends – would see it.

Shortly after the Six-Day War, one of Begun’s mathematics students mentioned to him that he was interested in studying Esperanto, an “international language” invented by mixing strands of existing languages.

“On a dangerous whim – I guess I decided he looked trustworthy, and maybe I was just trying to impress him that I was also studying a language – I took out my Hebrew textbook and showed it to him.

“To my amazement, he broke out in fluent flowing Hebrew. He was Karl Malkin, one of the early teachers in the underground Hebrew movement in Moscow, and one of the leading Moscow Zionists. He told me about scores of others studying Hebrew: a complete network of secret ulpan study groups.

“Even better, he had Jewish books, including a Russian translation of the book Exodus, the most prized possession for all members of the growing Soviet Jewish underground.

“The movement was centered around a group of refuseniks – young people who had applied for emigration visas and were turned down. It was amazing – they organized lectures with foreign and local speakers and classes on Judaism and Israel.”

I smile. I tell him that in 1978 I gave a talk in Moscow on Israel’s economic problems to one such group. It was the first public lecture in Hebrew I ever gave in my life. The host’s Hebrew was better than my own.

* * *

In early 1971, having resigned from the military research institute at which he’d worked on radar technology and hoping his “sensitive worker” classification would be forgotten, Begun applied for an emigration visa for Israel.

Because of the growing outcry against the persecution of Soviet Jews, voiced especially in the United States, a slow but growing trickle of exit visas was being granted. But anyone deemed to have “secrets” or special skills was being turned down by the Soviet authorities. As one of the country’s leading mathematicians and engineers, he was granted a thundering NYET.

Moreover, once he had applied for the visa, he became a political pariah, barred from any work in his professions. So he decided instead to become a fulltime Hebrew teacher. There was a large demand for such teachers in Moscow in those days.

One problem was that he had a limited Hebrew vocabulary and some of his students kept catching up with him. So he had to master new words and rules of grammar just to stay ahead of them.

Another, more pressing, problem was that the regime did not recognize Hebrew teaching as a legitimate profession but rather as “socially undesirable” behavior – along the same lines as prostitution. There were serious penalties against those not employed in jobs the regime regarded as “productive.”

Begun petitioned the authorities to recognize “Hebrew teacher” as his profession and as a bona fide job. They refused. He even went to the tax offices in Moscow to declare his income as a Hebrew teacher and to pay income tax. Officials sent his money back, refusing to accept it.

Those were the days when the Helsinki Group of dissidents was formed in Russia, led by Andrei Sakharov, Alexander Ginzburg and Anatoly Sharansky, ostensibly to promote the Soviet Union’s abiding by the Helsinki Accords to which it was a signatory. The Soviet leadership was not amused; it harassed and arrested dissidents. The political climate was changing for the worse

“I began to receive regular warnings that I was in danger of being indicted as a ‘social parasite,’ as someone not working,” he recalls. “I responded to each warning by telling them of my full-time employment as a Hebrew teacher. After a year and a half the police indeed arrested me and I was charged with social parasitism.

“I defiantly wore a kippah in the courtroom. Students came to my ‘trial’ to testify that they had paid me for lessons and so I was employed. Nothing mattered. I was sentenced to nearly two years’ exile in Siberia in the Kolimar region, 10,000 kilometers from Moscow.”

The journey took 63 days. It was Begun’s first introduction to the infamous Gulag Archipelago. He was ordered to live in a remote mining village where he worked as an electrical technician in a factory. It was here that the famous photo was taken. When he was finally released, he was prohibited from living or coming within 100 kilometers of Moscow. After all, he was now a released felon.

But he had a young son from his first wife living in Moscow, and he had adopted the son of his second wife. He would defy the ban and sneak into Moscow to visit them. He was stopped twice by the KGB while in Moscow and released with a warning. Under the Soviet version of a “three strikes” law, the third time he was caught they arrested him. While waiting for his trial in 1978 he went on a hunger strike.

The prison guards tried to force-feed him through a tube up his nose, but he resisted, and by the time he was dragged into a courtroom his hunger strike was 43 days old. Unable to stand, he passed out before he could give the speech he’d prepared. The judge cynically wrote in the protocols, “The accused refused to answer the questions he was asked.” Begun was deported back to Siberia to serve a three-year sentence, shipped there in a cattle car with starving and violent common criminals.

He was eventually released, but it was still very much the pre-Gorbachev era and dissent was a risky undertaking. The 1980 Moscow Olympics were in the making and the regime wanted no protests or dissidents ruining its showcase festivities. Dr. Victor Brailovsky, a leading Moscow Jewish activist, was among those arrested. (He would later serve as a Knesset member and Israeli interior minister.)

But Begun refused to be cowed and published articles in the Western media on the plight of Soviet Jews. In one famous article he denounced the “cultural genocide” of Russian Jews being perpetrated by the regime, a slogan that came to be the rallying cry of the movement to free Soviet Jewry.

The KGB was not playing around. Begun was arrested in 1982 and indicted for “undermining the regime” and for “anti-Soviet activities,” meaning treason, the Soviet catch-term for dissidence. Hebrew teachers were arrested by the score (one of those taken away was Yuli Edelstein, who today serves as Israel’s diaspora affairs minister).

This was to be Begun’s third conviction, making him the Soviet Union’s version of a habitual criminal. While awaiting trial he was held in the infamous Vladimir prison – the same facility that had held Sharansky and Joseph Mendelevich. His beard was forcibly shaved off.

In 1983 he was sentenced to twelve years of prison and Siberian exile. He responded to the sentence by yelling “Am Yisrael Chai” at the judge.

He continued to study Judaism with a group of other Jews in prison and they celebrated every Jewish holiday. They called it their “prison ulpan.” One prisoner made a menorah for Chanukah out of a dead tree. They sang Shlomo Carlebach melodies, especially the one about the Valley of the Shadow of Death. (After Begun’s release, one of his most exciting visits was with Carlebach himself.)

Freed at last in 1987, Begun had become a legend and a household name among those in the movement to rescue Soviet Jewry. Mikhail Gorbachev was in power, and glasnost and perestroika were official policies. But, says Begun, it was President Ronald Reagan who got him released.

“President Reagan kept a bracelet with my name on it in the White House, which he got from American Jewish leaders, and he gave it to me after my release,” Begun recalls. “He kept it on his coffee table as long as I was in prison.”

Today Begun lives in Jerusalem, where he runs a publishing house that brings important Jewish books to readers in Russian translation. He is in the process of publishing his memoirs. He speaks with Jewish students and other groups in the U.S., Russia, Israel, and even here in Hungary, where a film about his life, “Through Struggle You Will Gain your Rights,” was screened between Yom Kippur and Sukkot this fall.

“I felt so happy yesterday in the Yom Kippur services with all the young people visiting from Israel,” he says.

“I felt like I was seeing with my own eyes the coming of Torah out of Zion, here to Budapest.”

Steven Plaut, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/front-page/the-man-the-gulag-couldnt-break-2/2009/10/21/

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