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The Heroine in Everywoman

May 9, 2009 | by Chana (Jenny) Weisberg

The secret power of Jewish mothers: creating and nurturing life in the face of death.

Twelve years ago I spent a few months temping as a secretary at the Jewish National Fund. I was a college graduate with high hopes for a rewarding and high-powered career. But I was terrified that as a new immigrant to Israel who was still unsure of my Hebrew and the ins and outs of Israeli culture, that this four-month stint was a confirmation that I would spend the rest of my life at the bottom of the professional ladder.

I have never felt as humiliated in my whole life as I felt that summer. I thought over and over about how everyone was looking at me, and thinking that I was a secretary – that my potential and my intelligence were such that I had found my true calling in answering phone calls, photocopying, and editing inane form letters.

It did not help my mood that I was an extremely poor secretary, saving letters to wannabe tree-planters in Uruguay in random computer folders titled "XL2m7," totally overwhelmed by the modest list of tasks I had to complete, and growling, "I already have too much to do" if my boss so much as moved towards my desk with a piece of paper in hand.

I would think over and over about how I had always hoped I would have some impressive career, and look at me, I was such a failure that I couldn't even collate properly! What was left for me to do if I couldn't even do this? Spend the rest of my life collecting shekels and handing out toilet paper in the bathroom at the Tel Aviv central bus station?

In the end, what got me through that terrible summer was a book I read by Natan Sharansky called Fear No Evil about the nine years he spent in Soviet prisons between 1977 and 1986 because of his request to emigrate to Israel.

What inspired me the most about Sharansky's story was how, despite the nine years that guards, prison officials, and interrogators mocked and harassed him, despite the solitary confinement with no contact with the outside world for months and years at a time, despite being told over and over that if he continued to deny the charges against him that his life was in danger, despite all this he never stopped knowing that the whole Soviet empire, the world's largest superpower, was, in his words, a "kingdom of lies." He and his wife Avital never stopped believing that they, two idealistic young people, knew the truth in their hearts -- that they should have the right to live as Jews, and that they should have the right to move to the homeland of every Jew -- Israel.

At work I also felt like I was facing a "kingdom of lies."

While it might sound ridiculous (and it is ridiculous, come to think of it), at work I also felt like I was facing a "kingdom of lies." People (or, in retrospect, voices in my head) would tell me over and over that I would never amount to anything, that going through this humiliating experience was just a preparation for the rest of my life that would be one huge whopper of a disappointment. My dream to live a life in which I would really help people, improve the world, and use and develop my talents, would never ever come to pass.

But I would tell myself over and over that if Natan and Avital Sharansky could stand up to the whole Soviet Union, then I could stand up to the JNF, or at least the way that working as a secretary at the JNF made me feel about myself.


A dozen years have passed since that terrible summer, during which I hadn't given much thought to the Sharanskys. And then, last Shabbat, I attended a weekly class in a nearby neighborhood. I was wondering who the guest speaker would be that week when a middle-aged woman with a kind, round face and deep chocolate brown eyes walked into the room.

Our excited hostess declared, "We are honored today to host
Mrs. Avital Sharansky, the woman who, along with her husband, defeated the Soviet Union. This is the couple who single-handedly defeated Communism!" Tears came to my eyes to finally see this great woman in person, and for the next hour I had to remove my glasses again and again to wipe the tears that flowed from my eyes as Avital Sharansky told her life story in halting English, clearly speaking from the bottom of her heart.

Avital described what it was like growing up in a small village in
Siberia, not even knowing she was Jewish until her older brother had to fill in his nationality on his Soviet identity card when he turned 16. Avital's parents wanted him to take advantage of their connections with the local Communist officials and write that he was Russian, but he told them, "No, I am a Jew!" And young Avital, only 14 years old, stood beside him and piped in, "Yes, and I am a Jew too!" even though Avital did not even know what a Jew was.

Very slowly, over the next few years, Avital began questioning atheism, despite the first Soviet astronaut's mocking assurance to the world in the late 1960s: "I went up into the heavens, and there definitely wasn't anybody up there."

Avital moved to Moscow to study in university and dabbled in Eastern religions and Christianity, but those religions didn't speak to her. And then, one day she was reading an illegal samizdat collection of Jewish writings that she had received from a friend (that, if found, would have earned her seven years in jail), and the last article was about the participants in the Leningrad trial -- a group of young Jews who were sentenced to death in 1970 for trying to hijack a plane to bring them to Israel.

Avital, already in her twenties, was unsure where Israel was even located in the world, so she went to find Israel on a map. But she could barely see it, since the Jewish state was so small that the name "Israel" was written out in the Mediterranean.

They pulled down the curtains, put a chain on the door, and the man taught them the Hebrew letters.

A few weeks later, some of Avital's friends told her in hushed voices that they had found an elderly man who, would you believe it, still remembered the Hebrew alphabet! So she went with her friends to the apartment of this man who lived right outside of Moscow, and once inside they pulled down all the curtains and put the chain on the door.

The man taught them the Hebrew letters and he explained to them, "These are the letters with which the Holy One created the Universe." Avital told us, "At that moment, it was as though half of the Soviet Union simply collapsed. This man was telling us that God actually did exist, and not only that, that He created the world in a language that it was illegal to even study in the Soviet Union." Avital understood that learning Hebrew was the way to free herself from the lies, emptiness, and hypocrisy of Soviet society.

Avital returned several times to this old man to learn more Hebrew, and she also began visiting the Moscow synagogue on Shabbat. The first time Avital went to the synagogue was a gray, snowy, awful October morning in 1973, but when she arrived, she was amazed to discover hundreds of young people standing outside the synagogue discussing something with a lot of excitement.

Every now and then, one of the young people would run away and then rush back, and announce, "We've crossed the Suez Canal!" and then a few minutes later, "We're right outside Damascus!" Avital had not even known that there was a war taking place in the Middle East, but these young people, despite years of Communist education that tried to drive into their brains over and over that anyone in their right mind would rather be a "Soviet" than a Jew, felt as though they were also soldiers in the battle for Israel's survival that was reaching its conclusion at that moment -- the Yom Kippur War.

Avital was in awe of all these young people who were so unafraid, who just kept on talking and laughing when the KGB came to photograph them. She had never seen anybody like these people in her whole life, and she sensed that this was what Israelis were like as well. She envisioned a country filled with brave people like her new companions, grasping a Bible in one hand, and a hoe in the other.

One Saturday morning outside of the Moscow synagogue, Avital met her future husband for the first time. Within several weeks they were engaged. They married the night before Avital left on a plane for Israel, not long before Natan was sent to prison for the next decade.

From Israel, Avital traveled to many countries, met with world
leaders, was interviewed by the press, and coordinated demonstrations. She and her husband were separated for nine years -- nine years during which Avital fought tirelessly for Natan's release from prison.

Where did Avital's strength come from?

This past Shabbat afternoon, I kept looking at this woman and asking myself what I would have done if I had been in her situation. Where would I have found the strength, the depth of belief to do what she did after growing up in the house of idealistic Communist Party members, at the age of 20, unfamiliar with even the most basic Jewish concepts? Where did her strength come from?


Last Sunday, I received an email with a photograph of an Iranian woman dressed all in black holding a sign that read "Israel, Get Ready for the Real Holocaust." It was a powerful reminder that we are less than 6 million Jews surrounded by 325 million enemies. How can we survive?

The image of this woman and her sign haunted me the whole week. It hung over me as I took care of my children and cleaned my house and went about my life feeling very, very worried and very sad.

And then, for some reason, this past Shabbat afternoon, listening to Avital Sharansky, I felt the darkness start to lift. Remembering how this brave couple had brought the Soviet Union to its knees gave me a seed of hope that the Jewish people would also one day be redeemed from this terrible enemy we face day after day.

This past Saturday evening, we attended a barbecue sponsored by our synagogue at a nearby park. By the time we arrived, there were about 80 children there- sitting in their mothers' laps, eating hotdogs, and playing soccer. I remembered back to when we moved to our neighborhood 12 years ago, and Rachel and James were the only couple in our whole synagogue who had been married long enough to have two little children.

And since then, there have been so many births in our community that I keep my freezer stocked with casseroles and my closet stocked with baby blankets at all times, just in case I need to make a meal or give a present at a moment's notice.

And I know that for the women in my community, motherhood is often a struggle. Pregnancy is often very difficult, and birth is always very hard to go through and then to recover from, and then raising kids is often filled with serious challenges and unsuspected landmines just when you think that everything is going smoothly.

While it is completely obvious, it only really occurred to me while I was watching all of our children at the barbecue that it is solely because of the self sacrifice and hard work of all these Jewish mothers around me who become pregnant and raise children that the Jewish people continues to exist at all.

Without the fanfare-free work of Jewish mothers in Jerusalem, Toronto, Sydney, and everywhere, the Jewish people would disappear within a generation or two no matter how many millions of dollars the UJA raises, or how many thousands of pages of Talmud our rabbis learn, or how many dozens of state-of-the-art planes Israel buys to protect our borders.

Seeing all these young couples and their children, and knowing that ours is a Jewish community that sprang up from nothing, brought some further comfort from the harrowing image that had been haunting me all week. I saw how we will continue doing what Jewish mothers have always done – creating and nurturing life in the face of death.

"As a person who lost 70 of her family members in Auschwitz, I think that I am entitled to count my great-grandchildren."

Since I received that email, four women in our community have given birth. At the celebration for one of the new babies this past Shabbat, I went up to the baby's great-grandmother, an impressive and noble woman who was born in Holland, and wished her a big mazal tov. She said to me with tremendous pride, "You know, this is my 25th great-grandchild." And the great-grandmother continued, "Not long ago, somebody told me that I am forbidden by Jewish tradition to state the number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren I have. But," and her voice took on the slightest tremor, "I told her that as a person who lost 70 of her family members in Auschwitz, I think that I am entitled to count my great-grandchildren. Don't you?"

It is the quiet heroism, faith, and self-sacrifice that God invested in Jewish mothers that enables us to continue to exist as a people, and that has meant that the Jewish people has outlived all of the great and mighty empires that tried over and over to be rid of us – the Roman Empire, the Greek Empire, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union.

Maybe Avital Sharansky is less of an exception, less of an aberration from the norm, than a representative of the strength hidden in all Jewish mothers, which we express in large part by having babies, wiping their runny noses, and raising them to be better people and proud Jews, despite the odds.

Excerpted with permission from One Baby Step at a Time: Seven Secrets of Jewish Motherhood, by Chana (Jenny) Weisberg (Urim 2007), a collection
of personal essays, inspirational readings, and refreshingly honest interviews that will uplift, validate, and provide practical suggestions to improve the life of every Jewish mother.

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