By Larry Gordon
There is a strong chance that you do not know who Yosef Mendelevitch is. Today he resides in Jerusalem, writes articles, has published a book about his life, and teaches Talmud in the Russian language to hundreds of students, many the children of those who emigrated from the former Soviet Union in the 1970s and ’80s.
Mendelevitch himself arrived in Israel in 1981 after 11 years of imprisonment under harsh conditions in some of Russia’s most notoriously punishing jails. By his own very modest admission, he committed just one crime, which at the time was viewed with great disfavor by Soviet officials—that was his desire to express his Zionist fervor, leave Russia, and go to live in Israel.
His harsh prison sentence came about as a result of one other incident. He and 12 cohorts planned to hijack a small airplane inside the Soviet Union and fly it to freedom in order to leave the religious oppressiveness they had experienced and defy their Russian rulers. Their plan was foiled as word of the escapade leaked out and all were arrested and sent to prison.
The plan, codenamed “Operation Wedding,” resulted in prison sentences of a decade and more for the participants. Mendelevitch explains that the plan was ultimately scuttled after the group managed to consult with the Israeli government and then-Prime Minister Golda Meir. The Israelis, he explains, were fearful that the Soviets would accuse Israel of working as a fifth column inside the country and urged that it not be implemented.
All this is detailed in Mendelevitch’s book, Unbroken Spirit, newly translated into English and published by Gefen. Today Mendelevitch sports gray peyos and a long untrimmed beard. He is sitting in my Cedarhurst office where he visited with veteran anti-Soviet activist Glenn Richter who was—just a few decades ago—a regular guest on a daily radio program I hosted for a few years on WFMU-FM in New York. In those days, Glenn would talk extensively about the plight of people like Mendelevitch and Natan Sharansky, who, while not a participant in the wild hijack plan, was a prison mate of Yosef’s and others dealing with great difficulties simply because they desired to live free in Israel.
Yosef Mendelevitch was raised in a non-religious atmosphere in a conventional, loyal Soviet family. Their Jewishness was simply incidental to their existence until he became involved in what he refers to as doing “a Zionist teshuvah.” It was only once he was imprisoned, he explains, that he became stronger and determined to become more committed to being a Jew despite the harshest and most difficult of circumstances.
He says that as his time in prison went on, he made a conscious decision to become what he now calls “a religious fanatic.” As a result, even though he was sentenced to serve his term with hard labor, he steadfastly refused to do any work on Shabbos. And though he was way up north in the Ural Mountains near the Siberian border, his lack of cooperation with the authorities created a situation where he was just too much for them to handle. As a result, he was transferred to what was notorious for being an even more punishing prison, though this one was close to Moscow.
All the while, and because he was classified as a Prisoner of Zion and a “refusenik,” he was thankfully on the radar as a prisoner being held simply because he desired to be free and live free as a Jew in the Land of Israel. Due to groups like the Coalition on Soviet Jews and SSSJ, the Mendelevitch name was constantly in the news, and the Soviets—because of their tenuous relationship with the West—had to be extra careful that no harm came to prisoners like Mendelevitch.
He says that at one point during his imprisonment he told his cellmate, Hillel Butman, who was also part of the hijacking plot, that he wanted to put together and celebrate a Pesach Seder in prison to mark the coming yom tov. “Butman said that he thought that I was acting crazy, that my being in prison was getting to me and that it was impossible,” Mendelevitch says.
He then goes on to describe his plan. Starting about three months before the chag, instead of eating his snack of raisins that he received several times a week, he decided to place the raisins in a bottle of water. He added sugar and hid the bottle, hoping that with time the raisins would ferment and that he would at the very least have something resembling wine which he could consume as the ceremonial four cups at the Seder.
The plan, Mendelevitch says, worked out better than he had hoped for. The wine was excellent, he says. During that same period there was an outbreak of the flu making its way through the prison ranks. One of the local doctors prescribed that the inmates be given raw onions and that this would strengthen them and prevent the spread of the illness. Mendelevitch instead took the onion and also placed it in water where it slowly sprouted leaves which he would eventually use as maror at his Pesach Seder.
A co-refusenik, Ida Nudel, was also known to many prisoners as “The Angel of Mercy,” due to the fact that she provided prisoners with much-needed provisions in prison in order to survive. She served a seven-year sentence of internal exile, far from her home, as punishment for aiding Prisoners of Zion like Yosef Mendelevitch. She was finally allowed to leave Russia for Israel in 1987, six years after Mendelevitch was allowed to leave.
He says that amongst the things she sent him for his Pesach Seder were egg powder and shemurah matzah. Today Nudel is 73 years old and resides in Rehovot. Mendelevitch says that when he finally did receive the matzos, they were all broken into little pieces. When he asked the prison warden why he had done that to his matzos, he said that he believed that there were coded messages on the matzos somewhere in the lines or indentations that are on a matzah as a result of the way it is rolled, flattened, and then baked.
For a Seder plate that night, Yosef Mendelevitch explains, he used a postcard that he had in his possession with assorted sights from Israel. He carefully tore the card into sections and set them down in a circular fashion with each image representing for him simultaneously a part of modern Israel he so wished to emigrate to as well as the ancient rituals that are represented in the traditional Seder plate.
In the book, Mendelevitch describes that with a nail or a similar type piece of iron or metal, he managed to scratch onto the wall of his cell the image of two candlesticks and he would use his vivid imagination and extraordinary creativity to “light candles” for Shabbos and yom tov. He says that the first time he did this he swears that he did not even have to close his eyes to see the illumination of fire on these two crudely drawn candlesticks.
Amongst other things, Mendelevitch and Sharansky, who was in prison for 13 years before being allowed to leave for Israel, devised a way to communicate with one another. Mendelevitch discovered that when they scooped the water out of the toilets in their cells, they were able to hear each other speak when leaning into the plumbing pipes. The catalyst for this and of course other innovations was his and the others’ determination to defy their Soviet captors and jailers.
He describes how, when Natan Sharansky’s father passed away, Mendelevitch wrote out the Kaddish for him on scraps of paper that he had managed to scrounge together. Passing the papers to his co-inmate was a rather challenging ordeal in and of itself. Each prisoner had a small yard they were allowed to walk around in during a short period every day. The yard, however, was not shared, but rather a caged or fenced-in private area for each prisoner. Mendelevitch describes how he squeezed the small pieces of paper through spaces in the chicken wire so that Sharansky could recite Kaddish.
As Pesach is here, the traditional Seder and the emphasis and elucidation on the manner of a Jew and his or her freedom has great additional meaning for those who survived and can recall a Pesach night in a Nazi camp or in the Soviet Gulag of not so long ago. If nothing else, it is incumbent upon us, as we sit back and lean on our left side with fine wines and freshly baked matzah, that we take a moment or even more and dwell on these scenarios. It does not need great effort to be vividly conjured. They were experiences of people we are fortunate to have in our midst—people like Yosef Mendelevitch—who demonstrated an unusual and even uncanny commitment, under the most difficult circumstances, to a faith that is the hallmark and the guideline of the Pesach Seder we will be celebrating with our families.
Yosef Mendelevitch, as a young man mired in the Soviet Gulag, managed to find the ability within himself to celebrate the idea of freedom that he was able to imagine despite his being subjected to extreme oppression. Of course, our sages say we are required to not just think back to the ancient days of our forefathers in Egypt and how they were freed from slavery but actually place ourselves in their situation and retrace their steps. But as you can see, you may not have to travel back that far through time. All you might need to do is to contemplate Yosef Mendelevitch sitting in his Jerusalem home on Monday night with his family thinking about where he has come from and the reality that he managed to construct 35 years ago when he sat in a dark cell and quietly recited, “Next year in Jerusalem.” v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at email@example.com.