The feverish activity of submitting my aliyah documents has pushed my Hebrew studies aside entirely. Small wonder! But now the wave of tension subsides, and I come back to life. I leaf through my notes, return to my textbooks and tapes. As though I have been through a serious illness – my previous occupation with Hebrew seems far away. But now, after only a few days, I feel everything coming back – quickly and with unexpected power.
I pounce on Hebrew words, roots, and idioms as though I had been starving for them. I sit for hours immersed in learning. For the first time, I experience an amazing feeling of touching something eternal. These are the words that Jews read hundreds and even thousands of years ago; they are reading them today, and they will go on reading them forever. I pronounce the Hebrew words aloud, and the very sound of the words soothes me, as if chasing away all the troubles of my day-to-day life. Though the words are printed in a modern textbook, it seems as if they are coming to me from an ancient, yellowed parchment. I have yearned for you – I have preserved room in my heart for each one of you!
The days start to rush by. Every day, when I come home from work, I immediately leave the hated work environment behind and immerse myself in my Hebrew studies. Already I have caught up on what I missed, and I rush on and on. I do not allow myself to relax in the classroom either, trying to use every minute to progress as fast as possible. My teacher is very reserved when it comes to praise, but I see in his smile and the glow in his eyes that my progress pleases him.
One day my friend Aharon Gugel calls:
– Listen, there’s a young woman who learned Hebrew in a group, but she has been ill and has fallen behind. She now wants to catch up with her group. Would you mind teaching her privately?
The offer catches me by surprise.
– It’s way too early for me, I haven’t developed a method of instruction, and to tell you the truth I hate it when amateurs pretend to be professionals.
– Come on, insists Aharon. Your level is above and beyond what she needs.
Yes, there’s something tempting about suddenly becoming a real “Hebrew Teacher in the USSR”. However, there is a much deeper issue here than just the honorary title. I am uncomfortably aware that up to now, my contribution to the Jewish community has been just about zero. Simply put, I have been nothing more than a consumer, using what others have created: Hebrew education, Purim Spiels, theatrical performances and seminars.
So perhaps this is my chance to make a change? What’s more, it might be convenient to start with a single student. This way, I can test out my ideas for improving Lev’s teaching techniques, before I actually start teaching a class. I just need to explain to the student honestly that I am a novice teacher, and therefore she will be a guinea pig for my teaching experiments.
The woman readily agrees, and we set out on our joint endeavor. My student has previously amassed a wealth of experience in language study, having already mastered two other foreign languages, so she participates in my pedagogical experiments with keen interest. She provides valuable feedback, often explaining to me how I can improve my teaching methods.
Starting in March of 1978, we study together quite intensively for two months. After that, she becomes engaged to be married, and disappears from my sight, but these two months have provided an excellent jumping-off point for me. If I use the coming months to refine my teaching methods further, I estimate that I’ll be fit to start teaching a regular group in September.
I may think that I have a few months to get myself ready, but Lev has other ideas for me. At the next Hebrew class, he asks me:
– Hey, wouldn’t you like to conduct the “Dibbur” – conversational Hebrew meetings?
– “Dibbur”? But doesn’t Yuli Kosharovsky conduct them?
– Yuli will not be available this summer.
– But why me? There are plenty of other teachers, both new and experienced, who could do it.
– You have sufficient command of the language already, I assure you.
– I’m not sure.
– Yes, you do. Moreover, this is a prestigious and important job – there is only one “Dibbur” in all of Moscow. And besides, what a boost it’ll give your Hebrew.
“Dibbur” will continue through the summer! This message is circulated thought Jewish Moscow. However, only a few people show up for the first meeting with me. In slow, easy Hebrew I crack several jokes which I have prepared in advance. The atmosphere relaxes.
Lev encourages me.
– Don’t get upset, low attendance is normal. Even in the best of times, the “Dibbur” never operated full speed in the summer.
– But this time it will, and I will hold meetings not bi-weekly, but every week.
– Well, well. I wish you good luck with this.
Lev chuckles skeptically.
Now time starts to gallop by. I use all my spare time to prepare for the weekly “Dibbur”. Everything must look natural and spontaneous, but actually needs to be prepared in advanced in a sort of “lesson plan”. After several sessions, I am starting to get tired. My imagination is running dry; the supply of potential topics is running low. I have to figure out ways to “ignite” the audience each week anew.
Meanwhile the attendance increases. People with a range of Hebrew levels begin to come – from beginners to those who have been studying for years. There are those who understand the language well but do not yet speak fluently, and others who can only handle slow, simple speech. How can I keep everybody equally interested? How can I come up with something that will carry everyone away? I won’t be able to hold out like this all the summer!
Once I arrive at the “Dibbur” and find an unexpected guest – a tourist from France sitting on a couch. Excellent! We ask the tourist to tell us about Jewish life in his country. This is a real attraction and adds diversity to the session. Thank you very much to our “Dibbur” hostess, Natasha Rosen, who found the tourist at the “Hill”. So this becomes our mode of operation: Natasha, together with other “Dibbur” activists, visit the “Hill” routinely to “hunt down” an interesting Hebrew-speaking foreigner. Many tourists visit Moscow in the summer, so there seems to be a steady supply of guests for us to invite to the “Dibbur”.
The foreigners alleviate my burden of finding an interesting topic for each meeting, but still I would rather return to the bi-weekly sessions. However, my audience doesn’t let me. “Why make a change when everything is going so well?” But if we are going to continue the weekly meetings, I need to devise something new.
And so once in the subway I find myself next a person totally immersed in reading. I glance over his shoulder – what book is he reading with such keen interest? I see – it’s Agatha Christie in English. I actually have such a book at home. Wow, what a simple solution: to translate the stories into Hebrew and present them at the “Dibbur”. What a relief!
The “Dibbur” is getting more and more popular. Some of the participants approach me and ask if they can study in my Hebrew class.
The summer is over, September comes, and I plunge into teaching in a big way. Students start to flock to me without my even searching them out, and I begin teaching as many as three groups at a time – an unusually large number of students for a beginning teacher.
I ask Lev Ulanovsky a question which has been bothering me for some time.
– Lev, I have collected some money for charity. Could you please transfer this small donation to some family of refusniks in need? I have heard that there are many families in dire straits. I would be happy to help a little bit!
– How much is it?
– A very modest sum — half a month’s salary.
– Listen, that amount cannot resolve a family’s problems, but I have a better idea. If you could use the money to fund your trip to some other city to teach Hebrew there, say for a month, it would be a far more efficient use of the money. By the way, your only expense would be the tickets– the local people would be happy to provide all the rest. There are almost no teachers in the provincial cities across the USSR. Yet there are potential students, perhaps not many but nevertheless they exist. Simply put, as soon as there are Jews who want to make aliyah, then there is a demand for Hebrew. But there’s one catch. . . the KGB keeps a watchful eye on contacts between Moscow activists and Jews in other cities. The authorities would like to see us all isolated, each sitting frightened in his own corner.
Lev’s words make a big impression on me. Yes, indeed, we here in Moscow are so occupied with our own problems that we end up thinking that these are the problems of Soviet Jewry as a whole. It is true, it’s not easy here in Moscow. There are shortages of everything –teachers, textbooks, time — but how much harder it is in other cities! And since 75% of all Soviet Jews actually live in the provinces and not in the big cities, that means that the overwhelming majority of Soviet Jews are forsaken, abandoned! And no one seems ready or able to take up the challenge to help them.
No, we cannot afford to ignore them anymore! We urgently need someone to focus on this issue, become a specialist. We need someone to leave all his obligations in the Moscow community, and engage fully in planning, teaching, training teachers, coordinating, and supplying literature to the provinces. It’s an enormous project, one that will change the picture for all of Soviet Jewry.
In Moscow and Leningrad we now have at least some degree of Jewish life. But in the provinces, where three-quarters of our population lives, what do we have? Imagine someone deciding to make aliyah, who wants to learn Hebrew – where can he turn? Perhaps there is someone else like him, just across the street — how will they find each other? We’re talking about a million and a half Jews, doomed to assimilation for lack of access to Jewish community. If it took me six months to find a Hebrew teacher here in Moscow, what would have happened if I had been in the provinces?
No, it’s absolutely impossible to abandon them! Just the opposite – we should make the Jews in the provinces our top priority. The time has arrived to do something tangible to help Jews in the other cities. We need to work professionally, systematically, and wholeheartedly to bring Hebrew studies to the provinces. We must create a small group of dedicated individuals who will work discreetly and effectively to meet this historic challenge. I am willing to help them as much as I can. I could probably even become a part of this group, take on some function. . . Well, who else?
We must have stringent criteria for selecting the participants – probably very few will measure up. The participants must be devoted to the cause and able to meet the challenges. It’s obviously quite a dangerous mission. Is it worth it? Yes, Hebrew really is the key to Jewish cultural revival, the backbone of the Jewish national movement. Obviously the KGB will do everything in its power to prevent the spread of Jewish national sentiment across the USSR. Hebrew can take advantage of the Soviet authorities’ weak point: their persecution of language study looks truly ridiculous in the eyes of international public opinion.
Actually, the Jewish activity in Moscow and Leningrad, at least at its present scope, may not worry them so much. Anyway the Jewish department of the KGB may actually need some level of Jewish activity in order to justify its own right to exist. But to allow the dangerous “disease” of Jewish nationalism to spread across the entire country – the KGB will never stand for it.
Yes, joining such a group would be like walking on a razor’s edge, every hour of every day. And one day it could possibly end up badly, very badly. Or perhaps they might choose to get rid of me by simply giving me permission to emigrate? No, the chances of that are pretty dim. A feeling of imminent danger envelopes me, like the feeling of blood from a cut lip, suddenly pouring into my mouth.
No-one knows how to operate in the provincial cities, how to locate people, how to teach, where to get training materials. This is a totally new occupation, possibly a science, or, perhaps, an art. I do not have to take on a central role, but . . . how could I stay away from this project completely?
I decide to bring up the issue with Yuli Kosharovksy. On Chanukah, in mid-December of 1979, I seize an opportunity when he is walking alone. I approach him and whisper,
– Yuli, listen, there is an important issue I would like to discuss with you.
Answering his questioning look, I add,
– The other cities, they somehow “slipped under our radar”. You understand what I mean?
Yuli starts and grabs me by the arm,
– Wonderful, I have also been thinking about this! An excellent initiative! Certainly we need to meet as soon as possible.
A few days later, I meet with Yuli to begin discussing the project. When a person living in the normal world hears the word “discuss”, he might imagine two men sitting beside a coffee table and exchanging ideas, arguing, talking.
However, in Soviet Russia, we must hold our meeting entirely in writing. There is no doubt that Kosharovsky’s apartment is bugged, that the KGB will hear every word we say out loud. Therefore, whenever anything significant is discussed there, only exclamations or meaningless words are uttered out loud. For our actual discussion, we use an amusing cryptographic aid – a child’s erasable drawing tablet. It’s not so convenient to write on, since the letters spread out, and often do not come out clearly. But it can be wiped clean in a single movement – an extremely important feature, when the KGB can knock on the door for a house search at any moment. Using this kind of tablet becomes so customary among Jewish activists that to sit and “talk” without the tablet comes to feel like sitting down to eat without a fork or a spoon.
Ideally, for provincial Jews, we would eventually like to see what Jews in Moscow and Leningrad now enjoy: cultural life, Jewish samizdat, religious activities, publicly celebrated Jewish holidays, and visits by Jews from other countries. And of course we want to create a Hebrew educational network; this is the most important of all. Hebrew studies will form the core, the backbone of all this activity. Hebrew paves the way to Israel, to Jewish heritage, to Jewish self-awareness.
It’s hard for the Soviet authorities to fight it openly – how can the study of a language be interpreted as an anti-Soviet activity? What’s more, when people study Hebrew, they meet together every week, share common problems, common goals. Hebrew classes bring people closer together, and can eventually form the seed of a community.