American Jews who have met him have been inspired by his example to study Hebrew. If he can do it at such cost, then we who are free to do so must.
By Jeffrey H. Tigay
In the last two years we have witnessed the release from the Soviet Union of some of the best known long-term Jewish refuseniks, and thousands more who are less well known. What the Soviet Union hopes — and what the free world must not permit — is that the publicity generated by their release will overshadow the fact that many more continue to be held against their will.
Among them is Yuli Kosharovsky. Today he and his wife will begin a hunger strike to protest the continued refusal of their right to emigrate to Israel, a right for which they first applied on March 10, 1971.
Kosharovsky, 46, is one of the leading Hebrew teachers in Moscow. I met him in 1981 when I went to the Soviet Union to deliver lectures on Jewish studies to seminars organized by Kosharovsky and his fellow teachers. I had heard of him earlier from American tourists who had been captivated by him, and I understood why.
1 found him to be a powerful individual: intense, a serious thinker, brilliant in discussion, possessed of a charismatic presence and — amazingly, in a land where studying Hebrew is treated practically like treason — fluent in a flawless Israeli Hebrew. He is my age, and as we spoke, I could not help thinking that our places might have been reversed had his grandparents left Russia 80 years ago, and not mine.
Kosharovsky’s story is in many ways a paradigm of Soviet Jewry. Born in Sverdlovsk, he was raised as a thoroughly Russianized Jew, ignorant of Judaism. His return to Judaism was stimulated, as it has been for many, by anti-Semitism. When he was visiting his father’s grave in the 1960s, some thugs passed by and spit on the grave because his father had been a Jew.
He became curious about Judaism and became friendly with some activists who were eventually imprisoned for their attempts to spread Jewish culture. He was interrogated about his contacts with them, labeled a traitor and sentenced to a month in prison.
As it did for many Jews, the Six-Day War of 1967 — and the anti-Zionism it unleashed in the Soviet media — galvanized Kosharovsky’s sense of identification with the state of Israel. By 1968 he decided that he could no longer remain in the Soviet Union. He left his engineering job in Sverdlosk and made his way to Moscow where, he hoped, it would be easier to obtain a permit to emigrate to Israel.
It wasn’t. His first application was denied on the grounds of “access to classified information,” even though his secret classification had by that time expired. Thus began a cycle of Soviet evasions that has lasted until today.
In Moscow Kosharovsky devoted himself to learning and then teaching Hebrew and Jewish history in underground classes and promoting the cause of Jewish emigration. Like so many who work for these causes, he was subjected to regular harassment, short jail terms on bogus charges, and denunciation on Soviet TV.
In the spring of 1981, while 1 was visiting Kosharovsky at his apartment, a KGB officer and a plain-clothes policeman showed up to threaten “dangerous consequences” if he should attend a Jewish cultural outing that was being planned for later in the spring. (On the day of the outing, Kosharovsky and others were put under house arrest to prevent them from attending.) The following October his apartment was searched for more than 12 hours and books, notebooks, tapes and a tape recorder were confiscated.
Despite everything, Kosharovsky has been an indefatigable organizer of classes in Hebrew and Jewish studies. His love for Hebrew, the key to Jewish culture, is legendary. Not only other Soviet Jews, but American Jews who have met him have been inspired by his example to study Hebrew. If he can do it at such cost, they reason, then we who are free to do so must.
Kosharovsky tried for a while to support himself as a private teacher of Hebrew but was told that teaching Hebrew (unlike other languages) is not a legitimate profession. He even tried to pay income taxes on his earnings from Hebrew teaching but was refused and threatened with imprisonment for “parasitism” if he didn’t get another job. Denied employment as an engineer, he supported his family by menial jobs until he found work as a TV repairman in 1983.
From photographs I see that Yuli has turned gray. Despite the recent release of some of his oldest associates, he and his wife Inna and their three children languish in Moscow.. Twice in the past year officials told them to reapply, but last month they were refused gain.
The Soviet Union recently proposed that a conference on human rights be held in Moscow. Some Western governments think the location so ludicrous that they have refused outright. The United States has demanded a better human rights performance by the Soviets as a precondition.
As the West considers its answer, Yuli Kosharovsky, who has concluded there are no procedural doors open to him, will begin a hunger strike. His case is one that should he followed closely.
(Jeffrey H. Tigay is Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania.)