Nice Things

I’ve been so wrapped up in the whirlwind of book promotion, including a tour you can find out more about here.

And there is such a roller coaster quality to this particular moment — days when things seem to be going so well and the book is getting all the attention I’d always hoped for alternating with other days when I feel overwhelmed by how hard it is to try and launch a book out into the world.

There have certainly been plenty of nice moments, however, including this wonderful essay in Harper’s by David Bezmozgis, a writer for whom I have great respect (check out his much acclaimed book of short stories, Natasha; he also has a novel coming out this spring which touches on the refusenik experience).

I was also on NPR recently, talking with Guy Raz on “All Things Considered” for what is a very long time on radio. It was a really well produced piece, distilling the story and making it sound as exciting and significant as I know it is.

And last but not least, the New Yorker, which doesn’t review all that many books, offered a nice assessment as part of its “Briefly Noted” (in the Cartoon Issue, no less!). Since it’s behind a pay wall and is pretty short, I’ve copied it out here:

Soviet Jews, more or less forbidden to cultivate their cultural identity, were nonetheless punished for it, facing both casual and systematic discrimination. Most were denied exit visas, even if family members had made it to America or Israel. Beckerman, in this wide-ranging and often moving history, shows how Soviet Jews banded together in underground support groups, risking years in prison or labor camps, and how U.S. activists spread awareness of their plight until it became one of the central political issues of the Cold War. The book traces dozens of intersecting story lines, and shows how, after decades of mixed success, the movement played a critical role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Beckerman suggests that it belongs among the great civil-rights success stories of the twentieth century.

A Taste

Over the last few weeks the Forward has run three excerpts from the book. They are nice introductions for those who want a taste before going ahead and dropping $30 (or $19.80 here!)

  • The first one tells the story of Meir Kahane and his brief but flamboyant rein over the Soviet Jewry movement, one that ended with a bomb that killed a Jewish secretary from Long Island.
  • The second involves this gentleman here to the right, Vladimir Slepak, one of the refusenik activists who became very well known in the West. It’s about a risky protest that he took part in which involved flying a banner from his balcony. It lead to three years of exile in the far eastern reaches of the Soviet Union.
  • The third is about Avital Shcharansky, the beautiful wife of the activist Anatoly Shcharansky (someone even called her the “Israeli Audrey Hepburn”). This is the story of how she turned her husband’s imprisonment into a global cause.

Enjoy. Each is also accompanied by some video of me talking about the book…

Published!

It’s been a very busy few days. The book had its official pub date on September 23. In all of the excitement, I forgot to post a concise, little video I help put together for the book (taking full advantage of the Forward’s great intern videographer, Nate Lavey). No fun gimmicks or crazy accents like this one, but we shot it in Brighton Beach and you do get a quick glimpse of the awkward state I was in at the age of thirteen.

Human Rights Twilight Zone

Here’s another of my posts from this past week for the Jewish Book Council’s blog.

There is a strange irony in having worked on a history of the Soviet Jewry movement at a moment when Israel often sees those who most cherish the upholding of human rights and international law as its enemies. The recent wars in Lebanon and Gaza happened while I was researching and writing the book, conflicts that were followed by allegations that Israel had committed war crimes, and then by Israel’s defenders fiercely denouncing the NGOs and other international bodies who made those claims.

I say ironic because during the period I examine in the book – the early 1960s to the late 1980s – it was Jews who spoke most often about the respect for human rights. It was the Soviet Jewry movement that made such effective use of the language of international law. It wasn’t so long ago, but attitudes have so clearly shifted, that the years I wrote about now seem like a Twilight Zone inverse of today. Setting aside that there are those who see extreme bias (and even anti-Semitism) behind the claims of Israeli human rights violations, the reality is that Israel appears to be on the opposite side of these universal principles, not the force that is defending them. And that is a real change.

Back in the 1960s, Israel helped clandestinely to foment an international movement to help Soviet Jews, and they specifically focused on what they saw as the trampling of minority rights as the cause’s main argument. Throughout the years of the struggle, there was nothing more effective for both refuseniks (Jews who were refused emigration permits) and their American friends than to point to Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” In one samizdat journal, these words sat comfortably on the masthead next to Psalm 127, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem.” Soviet human rights activists like Andrei Sakharov supported the movement passionately and his photo still hangs on Natan Sharansky’s office wall. He looked up to him as a hero.

And most importantly, when the Helsinki process started in 1975 – a series of multilateral meetings that consistently put the Soviets on the defensive about their internal policies – it was the condition of Soviet Jewry that most clearly illustrated the problem. There was almost complete overlap between the goals of those focused on defending universal principles and those who cared about what was also very clearly a Jewish cause.

Barbecuing with the Hijackers

This is the first of three blog posts I’m writing this week for the Jewish Book Council’s blog.

Writing history that is recently past always carries with it certain challenges. Most obviously, the competing versions of what happened or who did what aren’t fought out through yellowed letters in an archive but are argued by living, breathing, often highly invested people. In the five years I spent working on my book, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, I can’t count anymore the number of late night phone calls I got or angry emailed screeds claiming that I was clearly not going to give enough credit to so-and-so or put enough emphasis on what some long forgotten activist who was really, truly, the sole person responsible for saving Soviet Jewry had done. For those who had been the protagonists of this story, this was their first – and for some, last – chance to make sure they were remembered the way they wanted to be, or at all.

At first this proved a real challenge to me as a historian – could it be that the Long Island Committee for Soviet Jewry was really single-handedly responsible for ending the Cold War? But as I gained confidence that I knew the story I was telling, I was also able to better balance these competing narratives and tease out something close to what I thought to be the truth.

But in spite of what was difficult – or even annoying – about this reality, I never once regretted that I was writing about a period with living witnesses. Without them, I would have lost the rich detail you could never get from a document – the color of the Moscow sky above a protest, what it really felt like to fear that any day a conscription notice from the Red Army would come for your son, or how exactly a phone call was made from Cleveland to Leningrad in the 1960′s. Lost would be also the countless hours spent sitting in living rooms in Israel, drinking tea, and watching the “characters” in my book recount their own lives, with both the emotion and subtlety that can only come from oral history.

And then there was my barbecue with the hijackers.

The hijackers were a group of Jews from Riga and Leningrad who after my early research had come to seem superhumanly brave and almost mythic in their unwillingness to accept an unjust status quo. In the summer of 1970, they decided to steal a plane and fly it out of the Soviet Union after being denied exit visas. I wrote about them recently in The New York Times on the 40th anniversary of their attempt, which ultimately ended in failure. They were arrested on the tarmac, put on trial, and sentenced to years of imprisonment – though they managed to turn enormous world attention to their cause.

In 2005, when I met them, they were in their fifties and sixties. Some had remained closer to each other than others, but they made a point of reconnecting every June 15, the day of the hijacking. The gathering they invited me to would mark the 35th anniversary – someone had baked a cake on which the number was written out with grapes. They had brought hamburgers and hot dogs to grill at the home of Boris Penson, one of the hijackers who is a painter and lives in a farming community just south of Haifa.

The first shock was just seeing them in person, come to life before me in their older, very human forms. There was Sylva Zalmanson, the only woman among the main organizers. She had bravely stood in court and recited Psalm 137 (“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem…”) before being dragged away to serve a few years in a prison camp. I described her in the book as “girlish,” petite, curly-haired, and easy to giggle. Now she was older, bespectacled, heavyset, but still just as gregarious. Then I saw Mark Dymshits, the pilot – the lynchpin of the plot – now a taciturn man in his early seventies who wore enormous tinted glasses and couldn’t hear very well.

I sat squeezed between the two of them in the backseat of a car on our way to the barbecue, with Sylva talking up the virtues of her twenty-something daughter, Anat (whose father was Eduard Kuznetsov, the former dissident maybe most responsible for the hijacking) in an obvious attempt to set us up. It only became more surreal from there. I stood around the grill with the hijackers flipping burgers under the sun. The banality and utter normalcy of it all was difficult to absorb at first.

Only as the day continued – and the vodka was poured – did I relax and accept that it was even more interesting to consider that these people I had thought of as giants were actually just ordinary people who had done something extraordinary. Meri Knokh, another of the women plotters, who had been pregnant at the time of the hijacking, pulled out a guitar and started playing Russian folk songs from the 1960′s – Vysotsky and Okudzhava. I stopped gawking and – in truth – stopped understanding much of what they’d been saying. They had switched entirely to Russian, spoken boisterously between cigarette hits and gravelly laughter.

Seeing them as just a group of friends like any other group of friends, with their own dynamic, sense of humor, and loud characters, put their reckless act in a whole new context. If I was going to tell their story, I wanted to capture this as well. Not just the heroism of people stepping boldly into the stream of history, but all that was prosaic about them and their interactions, the human quality that no amount of written record could ever have communicated as well as just watching them together on a drunken, summer afternoon.

Q&A

I recently posted up a Q&A that I conducted with myself. It includes some thoughts on why the Soviet Jewry movement is still important today, beyond its Jewish context:

The story is still very relevant, and not only because Russia is behaving more and more like the old Soviet state in its suppression of dissent. One of the big questions the book poses is how a country like the United States balances its national security interests with moral imperatives. Soviet Jewry very much introduced this tension into the Cold War, turning it into a conflict that was about more than just who had how many missiles. This balance still poses incredible challenges for the United States. Take the case of China. On the one hand, the expansion of relations since the 1970s has had great economic benefits, but it has been accompanied by a deep undercurrent of discomfort about the censorship and repression that allows China’s nominally Communist authorities to stay in power. Iran is an even more dramatic example. The issue of how much and how publicly to support the growing democracy movement while also trying to stop their nuclear program strongly echoes debates from the 1970s surrounding Soviet Jews.

Oren

So this week I took a look at Michael Oren, the intellectual-turned-Israeli ambassador. He had some serious missteps coming into the job a year and a half ago and now seems to have found the right role for himself. Take a look.

I also realized that I’ve been covering Oren for a while now. Here’s a profile I wrote in 2007. I also reviewed both of his big books. In an essay taking apart the historiography of the Six Day War, I included his important book on the war. And for his last tome, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: The United States in the Middle East, 1776 to 2006, I wrote a long review in Bookforum.

The Fighting Star of David

This was a fun week for me at the Forward. In addition to reviewing Gary Shteyngart’s latest, I also spent some time recently with Dmitriy Salita, the Russian-Jewish boxer. Salita has been a professional fighter in the light-welterweight division for almost ten years now. He’s a fascinating character — both devoutly religious and intensely focused on one day soon becoming a world champion. He’s also a good, decent person, and it was interesting to trail him as much as I did these past weeks. He’s at a turning point, having suffered his first defeat last December, and a pretty humiliating one at that. An excellent documentary was done about Dmitriy a few years ago, “Orthodox Stance,” covering the triumphant beginning of his professional career.

You can read my piece here. It’s accompanied by a great photo essay by Claudio Papapietro, who also took the picture above.

This is my lead:

When he speaks about the future of his boxing career, Dmitriy Salita gets a look of pure intensity in his otherwise mournful brown eyes. All the greatest boxers have this stare, a perfect distillation of concentration and discipline and total faith in the strength of their own arms. But in Salita, it is also the look of a man convincing himself that there is a future for him in the sport. Seven months have passed since his humiliating loss in England to Amir Khan — the first defeat of his professional career — when he was knocked down three times in the first 76 seconds of the match. He has not faced another opponent in the ring since.