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Israel's Bride

May 9, 2009 | by Katie Green

The Sharansky wedding in Jerusalem highlighted the real victory of our Soviet Jewry protests.

Of the weddings in our lives, there are the regular, run-of-the-mill ones, where we ate too much or the music was too loud or we sat next to somebody's Relative From Hell. And then there are those one or two weddings which, for the rest of our lives, we will never forget.

The wedding in Jerusalem last month of Rachel Sharansky, the eldest of Natan and Avital Sharansky's two daughters, was one of those weddings.

It never could be, in any sense, a normal wedding. Of the hundreds of people there, there were two distinct groups: the young people who were simply happy to be participating in the celebration and who had little idea of the historical significance of the event, and the older people who had taken part in the drama of the refusenik struggle and for whom Rachel's wedding was the grand finale of that astonishing narrative.

I wandered over to congratulate the bride, her face radiant with intelligence, warmth and humor. The thought crossed my mind, as I stood at a distance where I could just enjoy looking at her, that this magical person very nearly did not come to be. In the configuration of the universe as we knew it in the early 1980s, the chances of there being a glowing Rachel Sharansky standing here in her wedding dress in 2008, were statistically very small indeed.

The day after Rachel's parents, Natan and Avital, were married, Avital's exit visa was about to expire, so she left immediately for Israel. Natan was denied exit, and three years later the KGB hauled him away, leaving a young Avital to lead the struggle for his freedom. Nine years later, Natan and Avital were reunited in Jerusalem, and began to build their family.

All of us who participated in the demonstrations of those years remember perfectly well that during those long years that Natan was in solitary confinement or on hunger strike or doing both together, there were times when we very nearly lost him.

On one memorable occasion I remember how shocked my parents were when, 25-odd years ago, a group of us disrupted a concert of the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Halfway through the performance, we shed our outside clothes to reveal the striped prison uniforms we were wearing underneath, and handcuffed ourselves to the railings of the balcony in the auditorium, yelling our Soviet Jewry slogans and shaking our fists. As the cellos and violins of the Moscow Philharmonic came slithering to halt, we knew, in the deathly silence that followed, that our refusenik brothers and sisters would be listening thousands of miles away on the BBC World Service. It was only a few minutes before infuriated police officers arrived on the scene with large metal pincers to cut us free from the railings, but it was enough.

I speak of it now as if it were a childish prank, but it was not an easy thing to do. We were young and idealistic, but we were also nice Jewish girls and boys. We had all been trained by our parents that at the Royal Festival Hall, you sit politely and do not fidget. For years we had enjoyed Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saens and Schubert in this bastion of British culture, and now we were more or less spitting in its face.

Natan's story was not just a prisoner story, or a persecution story, or even a Jewish story. It was a love story.

The second before I had to stand up along with my friends, and shout at the top of my lungs into the silent abyss, my courage failed me and I did not think I could do it. The only thing, the only thing, which enabled me to get to my feet, was the thought of Natan in his solitary confinement cell, the thought of him never seeing Avital again. The reason why so many Jewish youth were participating in these demonstrations all over the world, was that Natan's story was not just a prisoner story, or a persecution story, or even a Jewish story. It was a love story.

Outdoor Chuppah

And it was this love story I was thinking of as I watched Rachel laugh and talk with all her guests, before her parents accompanied her to her chuppah, before she married Micha Danziger under the Jerusalem skies. I have always known, across all of the years, what I was shouting for that night at the concert hall.

At the reception I congratulated the mother of the groom. "It's a great day for all of us," I said, and she smiled knowingly. But I couldn't leave it there. "She's the nation's baby," I explained, trying to hold back my tears. "She's our miracle girl."

Rachel and Micha took their place under a raised outdoor chuppah, with a stunning view of the Judean hills behind and below them. The sun shone warmly and benevolently on the hundreds of people, Russians and Israelis and Americans and Brits, members of Knesset and rabbis and journalists and intellectuals, philanthropists and activists and chairmen of committees, family and friends, who had gathered to watch the ceremony unfold.
A soft breeze played across the bride's face and lifted her veil into the air, so that she looked, for a moment, like a floating figure from a Chagall painting.

"Sometimes a place is named for its future," said the officiating rabbi, Rabbi Moti Elon. "Kibbutz Ramat Rachel was named for you, Rachel. It was named for you to get married here."

When it was time for the groom to break the glass, Natan took the microphone to say a few words.

"I'd like to say something about why we are breaking this glass," he said, alternating seamlessly between English and Hebrew.

"Thirty-four years ago, in a Moscow apartment, Avital and I stood under a sheet held up by four boys, for our own chuppah. There were barely enough people to make a minyan. We had never been to a Jewish wedding before, and we had no understanding of what to do. We mouthed the words that the rabbi told us to say, without knowing their meaning. But the breaking of the glass, this we understood very well. We had one challenge, and the challenge was very clear to us. We knew that we had to get to Jerusalem. No matter what it would take, no matter how many years, we had to get to Jerusalem and build a home there. And this is what we did."

Then Natan continued:

"Now you are standing under the chuppah, Rachel, a child born in Jerusalem, overlooking Jerusalem. And this begs the question: Why should we break the glass at all? After all, Jerusalem has been rebuilt, and it is a vibrant city.

"But the reason we are breaking the glass is this: The challenge that faces you, Rachel and Micha, is different than the challenge that faced us. You will make a home in Jerusalem, yes, but... it will be your mission, and the mission of all your generation, to defend Jerusalem, to protect her, to keep her safe. And I think that your challenge may, in the end, be even more difficult than ours."

From all the Jewish people, mazel tov on your wedding, Rachel Sharansky. Mazel tov, miracle girl.

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