Jewish Daily Forward reporter Beckerman traces the gradual post–World War II movement of self-awareness within the two largest Jewish communities of the diaspora, Russia and America.
“Advocating for Soviet Jewry taught American Jews how to lobby,” writes the author in this wide-ranging work, which colorfully fleshes out personal stories within the headlines—from 1963, when the newly galvanized Jewish community of Riga, Latvia, began digging up 25,000 Jewish bodies killed by the Nazis in 1941, to the exodus of Russian Jews to Israel and America after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. Jews within the Soviet state had coexisted uneasily with their fellow Russians, marginalized and often discriminated against, as dictated by the “fifth line” on one’s internal passport. In postwar America, Jews were so eager to assimilate that “there was increasingly very little Jewish about being a Jew.” The perception shifted after some key events, including the publication of Leon Uris’s Exodus (1958), which stirred the Zionist yearning, and Elie Wiesel’s Night (1960), distilled the Holocaust’s horror; the highly publicized trial of Adolf Eichmann, which unleashed the little-known particulars of the Holocaust; the rallying by Senators Ribicoff and Javits, which helped bring together Jews to elect President Kennedy and throw their weight behind the cause of Soviet Jewry; and the agitation of small, bold groups of Zionists in Russia. These included highly esteemed physicist Andrei Sakharov, who openly decried the Soviet regime’s anti-Semitism and was persecuted like so many others; and folk singer Shlomo Carlebach, who created the anthem of Soviet Jewry, “Am Yisrael Chai,” in 1965. Brooklyn rabbi Meir Kahane tapped into Jewish alienation by founding the Jewish Defense League. Natan Sharansky became the refuseniks’ poster boy, and his wife, Avital, the celebrity advocate during his imprisonment. Beckerman also depicts the dynamic campaign for Jewish resettlement.
A comprehensive, contextually rich study.