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Saturday, December 27, 2014

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A rare moment

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The impishly smiling man in the middle of the photo below is of course, Natan Sharansky, the 64-year-old chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Most of the Jewish and wider world born at least into the 1960s, know him very well. In the late ’70s and through the next decade, he became the avatar of the struggle for freedom by the Jews of the Soviet Union. In those days he was known as Anatoly. 

After he stepped onto the soil of Israel, finally after a cruel incarceration of some nine years, he became Natan. His life is well chronicled, including by his own hand in an autobiography called Fear No Evil and by the incomparable historian Sir Martin Gilbert in a book called Sharansky: Hero of Our Time. 

The very mention of the name Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky was synonymous with bravery, resolve, resilience and true audacity of spirit. His parting speech to his judges and imprisoners at the kangaroo Soviet Court before heading back to jail in 1978 on the contrived, phoney charges of espionage is a modern classic of soaring inspiration, to the point, unrepentant, elegantly defiant to the very last against the sadistic, brutal system of totalitarian KGB government.

The man in the photo to Sharansky’s left is Joel Sussman.

A poet, songwriter, musician and composer, Sussman was born and raised in Edmonton many years before the NHL and Wayne Gretzky came to play there. His parents, Max and Helene, of blessed memory, were exemplars of hospitality, kindness and goodness. Despite the relatively small number of Jews in their community and the rather large distances between Edmonton and other Jewish communities in Western Canada and in the western United States, they ensured that Joel was raised knowing who he was. They ensured he would have sufficient knowledge about his people’s history and traditions to be able, years later, to make reasoned decisions about the extent of the Jewish life he might lead and the destiny he would fashion for himself.

The three other men in the photo are, from left, Dan Funk, Alan Nelson and Robbie Solomon. Together, in 1974 in Boston, the four men dressed in black formed the group Safam.

The group was “the” voice and amplifier to the world for the awakening and uniquely stirring sounds of specifically Jewish social activism that flowed across campuses like surging rivers lifting unseen treasure that shone in the sun on the cluttered, muddy riverbanks of anti-Israel polemics. Through their music, Safam invited young Jews to a new place of identity and belonging that many had not visited before. How many lives they changed with a lyric that opened a closed heart or a melody that evoked memories and perhaps, a tear.

One of the songs for which Safam became widely known and sought out by Jewish community organizers around the continent was Leaving Mother Russia.

Written by Solomon in 1977, it sings the unimaginable burden of Sharansky’s imprisonment and of the hope he carried his freedom. It begins as a lament, a solitary, piercingly beautiful narrative voice, and finishes as a rallying cry, a chorus of voices, marching forward in broad, resolute harmonies, emboldened by the strength that comes from others who joined the cause.

Just as Sharansky became the human face of the Jews imprisoned or oppressed in the Soviet gulag for wanting to emigrate, Leaving Mother Russia became the anthem of the worldwide struggle on behalf of Soviet Jewry.

Though they sing less frequently today than in decades past and though more “mature” in their appearance than some 40 years ago, the group still makes profoundly precious music. 

This photo of Safam and Sharansky actually captures a rare moment of modern Jewish history. It depicts the only time the band performed Leaving Mother Russia in the presence of the man who inspired it and for whom it was written in 1977. It was an emotionally electric embrace among singers and Sharansky at a recent concert at Temple Mishkan Tefila in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Sussman described the feelings in an email: “The high drama built to a crescendo towards the end of the final choruses on the song when, all of a sudden, Mr. Sharansky appeared at the rear of the synagogue and began the long walk down the aisle with 1,100 people standing and clapping in rhythm to the chant of ‘we are leaving Mother Russia, we have waited far too long.’

“As he approached the bimah where the band was playing the song, we all got the chills at the realization of what was happening… What a triumphant moment! 

Viewing the video of the performance was a trip back in time. The contrast between our wholehearted embrace of Israel and of Jewish causes in “those” formative Safam days and the increasing disengagement by so many of our youth from Israel and from Jewish causes today warrants serious study and reflection. Perhaps for another column.

The video can be seen on the Safam website.

 – MBD

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