There is something sad about the sequence of the festivals – Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. After all, we are in the transition from summer to autumn and winter. Nature is no longer in bloom. It has fallen asleep in anticipation of the renewal of spring. And we are bidden to rejoice – Rejoice in your festivals and be happy!…And perhaps the command to rejoice comes like an order, so that despite the sadness we must be happy. Here the Torah teaches us that the life rhythm of the People of Israel does not belong to the natural process. Nature has gone to sleep whereas the People of Israel awake to a new life and to new plans: “Shana Tova! A good year, a year of renewal!” Thus do we greet our fellow men. I think that the aforementioned contrast can help to explain the saying of the Sages that, under certain circumstances, “the vices of the penitent are accounted as virtues.” Basically, the saying means that if you feel remorse and contrition after committing a bad act and the determination to never repeat the mistake – this means that the bad action has led you to reform and repentance, thereby, in retrospect turning the bad action into something good. This can also apply when bad things happen to us. In my lifetime I have experienced several major events which happened to me during the festivals. It seems to me that if I relate them you will see how the principle I spoke about works – to turn the bad event into something good. To begin with, I will tell you about my first Rosh Hashana. I was born after the Second World War in Riga, the capital of Latvia, which was conquered by the Russians. My childhood was not an easy one. In 1957, when I was ten, my father, Moshe Mendelevich was arrested by the police in the course of the Soviet regime’s persecution of the Jews. (this was already after Stalin, in the days of Khruschev) This was a tragedy for my family. My mother could not take it. She fell ill and subsequently passed away. When my father was released ill from prison, I decided to go and work in order to help my father financially. You can imagine what happens to a Jewish child who comes to work in a Russian factory – around him drunkenness, lawlessness, moral corruption. Nothing of the dirt of that life clung to me. In the evenings I went to evening classes to finish my high school studies and begin my university education. I suddenly discovered that that Working Youth School No. 25 was special – attended by a large number of Jewish boys. In my previous school I had got used to the fact that there were very few Jews, perhaps a single one in each class. And so I had always felt myself to be in the minority. But in this school, and especially in my class, the majority were Jews. I felt myself very much at ease. Among us were friends who were closer to Jewish tradition. Once, during the break, one of the boys, Lev Levinson strode to the front of the class and announced- “Today is the festival of the New Year, no lessons! “Which new year?” I asked. “The new year begins on the first of January and now it’s the middle of September!” ”It is the Jewish New Year” – Lev explained. What a strange custom! Unlike the rest of humanity. But we had no choice, all the Jewish classmates began to leave the class. “Where are you going?” “To the synagogue” “What!? What are we going to do in a synagogue, we belong to the new generation, people of science and technology, and a synagogue – that’s a place for senior citizens.” What to do? I didn’t want to be left alone, so I reluctantly went with all the rest. Actually we didn’t enter the synagogue. We remained in the courtyard and in the adjacent street where there were already many Jews, as well as young boys and girls of our age. It was pleasant. So much so that I asked Levinson – “Is there any other festival coming soon?” “Definitely – in nine days’ time.”
Posts Tagged ‘Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch’
Have you ever wanted to sit and chat with a real life hero? I don’t mean some famous athlete or rock and roll star, although that would certainly be interesting, but rather someone who risked his life for the greater good and displayed a level of courage that most of us could only dream about.
On a recent Saturday night in Jerusalem I was blessed to have such a privilege as I met for an hour with a real life Jewish hero, Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch. Born in Riga (Latvia) in 1947, the rabbi was part of group of 16 individuals (14 Jewish, 2 non-Jewish) that attempted to hijack an airplane in 1970 as a way to bring world-wide attention to the struggle of Soviet Jewry. Unassuming and low-key on the outside, it was the rabbi’s inner strength and conviction that enabled him to overcome the dreaded KGB and eleven years of prison in Siberia.
Some details of that episode, as well as the events leading up to it and its aftermath, were the main topics of our late night conversation.
Background in Riga
Yoel Meltzer (YM): Growing up in Riga, did you have any Jewish or Zionist awareness?
Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch (RYM): That’s a complex question with a very complex answer. Latvia at that time was a new republic of the Soviet Union. While the former generation of Jews in Riga grew up under a liberal democratic regime and received Jewish education, we were the first generation in Riga of “Soviet Jewry” and therefore we didn’t receive any Jewish education. Nevertheless, we still didn’t feel like Soviet citizens and somehow I think we were in a better situation than our Jewish peers in Soviet Russia.
My parents spoke Yiddish and we heard lots of stories about the past. They both were from Dvinsk, which was known for several famous rabbis such as Meir Simcha (known as the “Ohr Somayach”), Rabbi Kook and the Rogatchover Gaon.
At the same time my father was a communist and active in Latvia in the communist underground. But being a unique type of “Jewish communist” he would also teach us world history and Jewish history.
Overall Jewish education was prohibited and my parents were not interested in me having any Jewish education.
YM: So when did you start feeling a stronger connection to Israel?
RYM: Good question. About feelings you never know, it’s a process. I wrote a whole book about that trying to analyze certain developments that brought me close.
Nevertheless, if you ask about a certain time it was definitely my experience at Rumbula, a forest near Riga where the Germans killed 28,000 Jews from Riga. It was there that I met with other people and it was there that something started.
YM: How old were you?
RYM: 16 or 17 years old.
A Strong Sense of Purpose
YM: Something lit inside?
RYM: Maybe the very meeting with that place pushed me towards some sort of development. I’m not sure. All I know is that I was involved in a project, externally the rebuilding and taking care of the place, which was an initiative of an underground Zionist movement. They intentionally brought us to the forest in order to start educating us, and that’s how I got involved.
You have to understand that Jabotinsky’s Betar Movement began in the early 1920s in Riga and the people who met us in the forest were members of a regional Latvian Betar movement that had been arrested under the Soviet occupation and subsequently released after Stalin’s death. When they came back to Riga in the early 1960s they were astonished to see the sad condition of the Jewish youth, half-assimilated and far from anything Jewish. So they decided to act and they sought the best way to influence. This was the reason for the meetings in the forest, an act which was of course illegal and had we been caught we would have been punished.
YM: What kind of activities were you engaged in?
RYM: At the beginning there were just meetings in the forest. Then over time you start talking, you meet in an apartment and study Hebrew and listen to Kol Yisrael (Israeli radio), you read all kinds of materials and basically you start attaching yourself to your group.