Last night I had the sad honor of attending a program in memory of Jeremy Barkan z”l the late husband of dear friend Lisa Barkan. Jeremy passed away after a number of heroic medical struggles leaving behind a legacy of kindness, idealism and optimism.
Lisa invited Natan Sharansky to speak and it was a deeply moving experience. I have heard him speak a number of times and he is a regular in the news so I was unprepared be so impacted by Sharansky’s talk. Soon after his release from Soviet prison I was at his first public lecture to students and it was quite an “event” but I do not recall his speech being very strong. In fact I remember barely understanding his English.
Last night was different.
Natan spoke of being in a KGB prison facing a potential death sentence. He described the KGB efforts to break his will and his decision to remain spiritually free even if he was locked in a Soviet dungeon. He connected his experiences to the decisions of Jeremy to stay positive, upbeat and to live life to the fullest despite harrowing experiences.
He explained that becoming an active Jew in the USSR was more than just a dissident act, it was joining the chain of Jewish history. His life was now more than just a career and physical survival in the rough reality of a communist state, it now had significance that went beyond his own personal existence. Sharansky explained that his decision to stay free and not submit to KGB threats took on important meaning. He sensed that his behavior with the KGB could have great impact far beyond his own personal life.
Those words rang loud and true.
His heroic acts, his statements and those of his wife were calls to me and many friends to live beyond our personal interests. Reading the book Sharansky published in freedom, Fear No Evil was of great import to me and thousands of others. The details of the book revealed how heroic he had actually been.
Many times I have brought up Natan Sharansky’s name with young guests we have hosted. I am always still surprised that most of them don’t know who he is. They also know very little (if anything) about the heroic struggle of Soviet Jewry. It is sad and not because of some nostalgic sense of “gee, the kids today don’t know anything.” It is because heroes offer guidance and shed light on what is really important in life. It is because not knowing about this struggle and these people means they are missing out.
How many Jewish heroes are there today?
Jewish newspapers today are filled with lists of Jewish leaders or innovators changing the world in one way or another and hi-tech success stories in Israel fill many hearts with pride. Who knows how hard it was for the folks at WAZE to insist that Google not close down their Israeli office as a condition for sealing a deal. It is inspiring to see people standing up for something good and looking beyond their own good fortune.
And yet, it is different.
Jeremy Barkan z”l was a hero for his family and his community. He influenced and touched an incredible number of people professionally, Jewishly and personally. He is an inspiration and an example.
Sharansky is a hero of a national scale. And there are many other heroic Jews who fought the Communist system as well. He and his fellow fighters for Jewish freedom are of a different era and level of sacrifice. I hope the suffering of the Communist system will never return and never squeeze humans to the point where many break and others produce heroic lives. At the same time, I hope the examples of lives and decisions such as those of Natan Sharansky will serve as inspiration for more people. Especially for people who don’t realize that heroes like Sharansky are walking the streets of Jerusalem, maybe even right past them on a Shabbat afternoon!
People don’t have to be in KGB jails to live meaningfully. But inspiration and knowledge are important to living such lives. Books such as Fear No Evil can be important tools to getting there.
sharansky’s memoir also made an impact on me in my teens. i still think about the part about how the kgb tried to degrade him in the most gruesome ways but he decided that no one can humiliate him, only he can choose to be humiliated.