By Larry Gordon
A PRISONER’S SEDER
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 1970’s and 1980’s.
Mendeelvitch himself arrived in Israel in 1981 after eleven years of imprisonment under very 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.
It is probably important to point out that his harsh prison sentence came about as a result of one other incident. And that was his plan and that of 12 cohorts to hijack a small airplane inside the Soviet Union and fly it to freedom as a way of liberating themselves and their desire to leave the religious oppressiveness they had experienced and defy their Russian rulers. The event never took place as word of the planned escapade leaked out and all were arrested and sent to prison.
The plan code named, “Operation Wedding,” resulted in prison sentences of a decade and more for the participants. Mendelovitch explains that the plan was ultimately scuttled after the group managed to consult with the Israeli government and then Prime Minister, Golda Meir. The Israeli’s, he explains were fearful that the Soviets would accuse Israel for working as a fifth column inside the country and urged that it not be implemented.
All this is detailed in Mendelvitch’s newly translated into English book—Unbroken Spirit, published by Gefen. Today Mendelevitch sports gray payos 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, Natan Sharansky, who while not a participant in the wild hijack plan was a prison mate of Yosef’s and others dealing with great difficulty in their lives simply because they desired to live free in Israel.
Yosef Mendelvitch 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 Teshuva.” It was only once that he was imprisoned that he explains he became stronger and determined to become more committed to being a Jew despite the harshest and most difficult of circumstances.
In fact 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 “refusnik”, 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 Mendelovitch 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 Mendelovitch.
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,” Mendelovitch says.
He then goes on to describe his plan. Starting about three month 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 with which he could consume the traditional and ceremonial four cups at the Seder.
The plan, Mendelovitch 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 prevents the spread of the illness through the prison. Mendelovitch instead took the onion and also paced it in water where it slowly sprouted leaves which he would eventually use as maror at his Pesach night seder. More in this weeks 5TJT