Tag Archives: Soviet Jewry

Jews of the Week: Matvei Blanter and Solomon Mikhoels

Matvei Isaakovich Blanter (1903-1990) was born in the Russian Empire in a small Ukrainian town. He studied music and became a master pianist and violinist. In the 1920s, Blanter became popular for his dance and jazz songs. After the rise of Stalin, he was “recruited” to write propaganda pieces and composed some of the Soviet Union’s greatest hits. In 1938, he wrote the music for the internationally-acclaimed song “Katyusha”, by far the most well-known Russian tune in the world. (Click here to listen.) It was so popular that it lent its name to one of Russia’s most famous military weapons: the Katyusha rocket. A recent poll found that it is still the 13th most listened to song in Russia. Also in 1938, Blanter wrote “The Football March”, which would be played before every Russian soccer game – and still is today! All in all, Blanter composed over 200 songs. He was awarded the Stalin Prize and the People’s Artist of the USSR. In the last days of World War II, Stalin sent Blanter to Berlin to compose a victory symphony. He wound up with the Russian general right when a German delegation came to sue for a peace treaty. Blanter was quickly shoved into a tiny closet while the generals negotiated. Running out of air, he passed out and fell out of the closet, embarrassing everyone in the room. Some say this is the origin of the expression to “come out of the closet”.

Mikhoels with Albert Einstein, during his 1943 fundraising tour

Blanter’s uncle was Shlomo Mikhoels (1890-1948). Born in Latvia to a religious Jewish family, he studied law in St. Petersburg before joining a Jewish theatre group. In 1920, Mikhoels co-founded the first Jewish acting studio in Moscow, putting on plays in Yiddish. Lenin soon turned it into the official State Jewish Theatre. By 1928, Mikhoels had become the theatre’s director, as well as its most famous actor. People came from around the world to see his legendary performances. One New York Times reviewer wrote that Mikhoels had put on “one of the most stirring performances of my theatre-going career.” His 1935 role as King Lear (in Yiddish) drew another critic to write: “I do not recall a performance that stirred me as profoundly, to the core, as Mikhoels’ performance of Lear.” Mikhoels had become one of the world’s best Shakespearean actors. He also played Rabbi Alter in Mazel-Tov, and Tevye in the Russian version of Fiddler on the Roof, among many other roles. In 1942, Mikhoels was made chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, and sent around the world to draw support from his fellow Jews for the Soviet war effort against the Nazis. This made him the first official Soviet representative to make such a trip, and he successfully raised millions. However, after the war ended Stalin became increasingly paranoid, and soon began another round of his purges, particularly of Jewish intellectuals. In 1948, he ordered Mikhoels assassinated, and made it look like a car accident. Nonetheless, Mikhoels was given a state funeral. Today, he is recognized as an important artist and pioneer of Russian theatre, and one of Moscow’s main cultural centres is named after him.

Words of the Week

He who has many friends has no friends.
– Aristotle

Jew of the Week: Avigdor Lieberman

Israel's New Minister of Defence, Avigdor Lieberman (Photo Credit: Yossi Zamir)

Israel’s New Minister of Defence, Avigdor Lieberman (Photo Credit: Yossi Zamir)

Evet Lvovich Lieberman (b. 1958) was born in Moldova to a Russian-Jewish family. He grew up speaking Yiddish and dreamed of being a poet. In 1978, his family made aliyah to Israel, where he went by the name “Avigdor”. After serving in the IDF, Lieberman studied political science at the Hebrew University. During this time, he worked as a bouncer in a club, and went on to become the club’s manager. In the mid-80s, Lieberman co-founded the Zionist Forum for Soviet Jewry, and worked for Israel’s National Worker’s Union. His first real foray into politics was in 1988, when he began collaborating with Benjamin Netanyahu. By 1993, Lieberman was the Director-General of Likud, and in 1996 became the Director-General of Netanyahu’s Prime Ministerial office. However, the following year he had a falling out with Netanyahu over concessions made to the Palestinians. He left Likud, and two years later, founded a new political party, Yisrael Beitenu. That same year, he was elected to the Knesset for the first time. He remained in this position until 2004, when Ariel Sharon kicked him out because of his vocal opposition to the Gaza withdrawal plans. In the next elections, Lieberman returned to the Knesset, his party having won 11 seats. Once again, in 2008, he left his post to protest “land for peace” negotiations, and was re-elected the following year. All in all, Lieberman has been an MK in every Knesset since 1999, and served as Minister of National Infrastructure, Minister of Transportation, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and even as Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister. Most recently, he has been appointed Minister of Defense. His strong support among the million-plus Soviet immigrants in Israel gives him consistently large Knesset seat victories, making him a key part of forming any successful coalition government. For this reason, he has been nicknamed the “kingmaker”. Over the years, Lieberman has worked to improve ties with European and African nations, and campaigned for Israel to join the European Union and NATO. He has always insisted on keeping Jerusalem undivided, on responding harshly to terror attacks, and strengthening Israel’s borders. On being a controversial figure, he has said: “I’ve always been controversial because I offer new ideas. For me to be controversial, I think this is positive.”

Words of the Week

The peace process is based on three false basic assumptions; that Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the main cause of instability in the Middle East, that the conflict is territorial and not ideological, and that the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders will end the conflict.
– Avigdor Lieberman

Jew of the Week: Meir Kahane

Meir Kahane

Meir Kahane

Meir David Kahane (1932-1990) was born in Brooklyn to an Orthodox Ashkenazi family. From a very young age, he was involved with Zionism, and was arrested as a fifteen year old for throwing eggs at the British Foreign Secretary who restricted Jewish immigration to Israel. At 22, he was the director of the New York division of Bnei Akiva – the largest religious Zionist youth organization in the world. Highly educated, Kahane received his rabbinic ordination from the Mir Yeshiva, followed by a political science degree, then a law degree, and a Master’s in international studies. In the late 1950s and 60s he served as a rabbi of a synagogue in Queens. After angering parents because he made their children more religiously observant, he was let go of his post, and took to writing. He went on to write many articles under various pseudonyms, such as David Sinai and Martin Keene, as well as a number of books, and was also the editor of The Jewish Press. Meanwhile, Kahane took a hard-line anti-communist stance, and began to infiltrate left-wing groups as a secular man named Michael King. He even shaved his beard to play the part. This earned him a role with the FBI, for which he worked for several years. Ironically, in 1968 Kahane founded an organization which was listed as a terrorist group by the FBI: the Jewish Defense League (JDL). This group was formed with the goal of protecting Jews from antisemitism (coining the term “Never Again”), while also assisting the plight of Soviet Jewry. On the one hand, it was praised for changing the stereotypical image of Jews as “weak and vulnerable”, and for protecting Jews from assault, particularly the young and elderly. On the other hand, it was heavily criticized for its violent tactics. Kahane himself was arrested on a number of occasions, and served a short prison term. In 1971 he made aliyah to Israel, where he continued his work, being arrested over sixty times in the Holy Land. He served a prison sentence there, too, for planning revenge attacks against Palestinians that killed Jewish settlers. Kahane soon founded the Kach political party. After many years of unsuccessful campaigns, he finally won a Knesset seat in the 1984 elections. However, many of Kahane’s speeches in parliament were boycotted. Despite projections that he would win many more seats in the 1988 elections, the government banned his party for being racist. Kahane opened a yeshiva where he taught for the last few years of his life. In 1990, after giving a speech in New York, Kahane was assassinated by an Egyptian-American terrorist. The terrorist was acquitted of the murder, but later charged for being involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombings and sent to jail for life. Kahane was buried in Jerusalem, and 150,000 came to the funeral, making it among the largest in Israel’s history. Kahane was an extremely controversial figure. He has been accused, convicted, and suspected of just about everything from adultery to sedition and terrorism. At the same time, he was also described as a “nice, patient teacher”, and by Bob Dylan as “a really sincere guy”. Kahane was driven by witnessing the cruel injustices suffered by Jews, and seeing time after time how Israel was never treated fairly or equally by the international community. One of his best-known sayings was: “It is better to have an Israel that everyone hates, than an Auschwitz that everyone loves.” Yesterday was his yahrzeit.

Words of the Week

Quotes from Meir Kahane:

“The question is as follows: if the Arabs settle among us and make enough children to become a majority, will Israel continue to be a Jewish state?”

“I don’t think that we can sit back and watch Arabs throwing rocks at buses whenever they feel like it. They must understand that a bomb thrown at a Jewish bus is going to mean a bomb thrown at an Arab bus.”

“The Jew is upset because the nations of the world – the United Nations – lash him, brand him as racist and evil, hate him and openly demonstrate their desire to destroy him.”

“For so long as the Jew has even one ally, he will be convinced – in his smallness of mind – that his salvation came from that ally. It is only when he is alone – against all of his own efforts and frantic attempts – that he will, through no choice, be compelled to turn to God.”