Photo Credit: Courtesy Rebecca Nathan Kowalsky

Parshat Beshalach. The Egyptian Empire is destroyed and millions of Jews cross the Red Sea to freedom. 

On Shabbat Parshat Beshalach more than 3,000 years later (the exact date, December 26, 1991), the Soviet Empire is destroyed and over the course of three decades, millions of Jews cross the Ben Gurion tarmac to freedom. 

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The Exodus and the exodus. 

Never in the course of history had a nation escaped from within another nation, especially in a country as tyrannical as Egypt. That is…Never until 1.5 million Jews escaped the Soviet Union. 

The Egyptian Empire was thousands of years old; the Soviet Communist Empire less than 100, but the repression and despotism made those 100 years quite brutal for the Jewish people. 

At the beginning of the Egyptian experience, the children of Israel lived in an area separated from other Egyptians – the land of Goshen. At the beginning of their sojourning in Russia, the Jews were confined to an area of their own, known as the Pale of Settlement. While in Goshen and in the Pale, they lived in a Jewish environment. They spoke a Jewish language – Hebrew in Egypt, Yiddish in Russia –wore Jewish clothing, upheld Jewish traditions, and kept their Jewish names.  

But with time, the Jewish people spread out across both their host countries and anti-Semitism reared its head. Many, no longer dressed like Jews or spoke the Jewish tongue. They might not even have acted as Jews did, but they were still recognizable. The Egyptians were nauseated to see the Israelites, as “the land was filled with them”. In the Soviet Union, their internal passports declared “Ivrei” (Jew) and all doors were closed to Jewish success. 

It would be a tough call to decide which Empire held a more passionate hatred for the Jewish nation. Neither country could stomach the Jews or trust their loyalty, yet both countries felt that they were too valuable to release. Pharoah enslaved the Israelites to prevent their becoming a Fifth Column during a war and joining the enemy in battle against Egypt. In 1917 with the Russian Revolution and World War I ablaze, Russia disbanded the Pale of Settlement (on the USSR’s western-most border) and moved Jews into the center of the country to prevent their joining any enemy invading from the west in a war against the Soviet Union.  

Pharoah subjected the Israelites to murderous slavery, torturous living conditions, and cruelty beyond measure. The Tzars and then the Communists took away all Jewish rights, slaughtered thousands of Jews in pogroms, and tortured them physically, mentally and spiritually. 

Egypt (Mitzrayim from the word “tzar”, narrow, distress, anguish) was a prison for the Israelite slaves. Russia, at first ruled by a Tzar, was called “The Big Prison” by Soviet Jews. 

TELL THE HI-STORY 

In the Torah portions of the Book of Shemot, we are commanded to tell our children every single day of the mockery G-d made of the Egyptians, and of the miracles He did on our behalf. We are charged to educate our children about our hi/story in the purgatory of Egypt, and our redemption by G-d’s Hand.  

The Soviet Jewry escape was also a miracle, but minus the frogs, hail and locusts. With G-d’s help courageous individuals called refuseniks (those who applied for visas to Israel and were refused) risked their personal liberty to fight for the freedom of their brethren. They demonstrated for the rights of Soviet Jewry, they taught Hebrew to prepare Jews for life in Israel, they circulated material about Israel and Judaism, they defied the KGB, and for these infractions, some were even sent to Siberian prison camps. 

Yet, while the story of the Egyptian Exodus is repeated daily to our children, the story of the Soviet Exodus has been largely forgotten. Many young Russian Jews do not even know of their parents’ trials or the obstacles they had to overcome in order to come to Israel. 

Telling the story of the Soviet Jewry struggle is a mission of the upcoming historical musical WHISPER FREEDOM. A cast of more than 50 women and girls transport audiences back to the 1970s when Soviet Jews want to discover their identity, the KGB wants to suppress their independence, and prison is always a threat. With song, dance and a thrilling plot, WHISPER FREEDOM: The Soviet Jewry Struggle re-ignites the memory of a monumental time in modern Jewish history. 

Co-authored/composed/produced by Sharon Katz and Avital Macales, WHISPER FREEDOM includes women from ages 12 to 80 of varied backgrounds and from areas throughout Greater Jerusalem. It is a co-production of The Women’s Performance Community of Jerusalem and OU Israel. Director Shifra C. Penkower, Music Director Ellen Macales, Musical Arranger Amit Ben Atar, Choreographer Judy Kizer, Associate Producer Bati Katz-Koplon, Stage Manager Ruth Hyman. 

WHISPER FREEDOM premieres on Sunday February 27 in Jerusalem and runs for six performances, including two in Bet Shemesh. Order your tickets, http://bit.ly/WPCJM  

For more information, https://wpcjerusalem.wixsite.com/wpcjerusalem 

 

 

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Sharon Dobuler Katz is the co-creator (with Avital Macales) of the upcoming production, "WHISPER FREEDOM: The Soviet Jewry Struggle," scheduled to take the stage in Jerusalem and Bet Shemesh in February and March through The Women's Performance Community of Jerusalem and OU Israel. Follow: https://bit.ly/wpcjerusalem