To the Editor:
Despite a number of interesting observations, the essay “Passers-by: The Soviet Jew as Intellectual” [December 1978] by Simon Markish seems to me to be gravely in error. Mr. Markish has not directly witnessed the events of a crucial period in the life of the Russian-Jewish intelligentsia he tries to interpret—the period since 1970 when he left the Soviet Union. The essay abounds in misleading statements and inappropriate moralizing. The reader is left in the dark as to what Mr. Markish means by the term Jewish intelligentsia as differentiated from the Russian intelligentsia. He deals with the so-called intellectuals who sit and drink with him at the same table as Alexander Chakovskii, the ignominious editor of Literaturnaya Gazeta. In saying that “high party and state officials, as well as KGB generals, strive to enter the salons of the discontented intelligentsia,” Mr. Markish is slandering many members of that dedicated intelligentsia. Did Mr. Markish visit many such KGB-infested dens while he was in Moscow? He cherishes his nostalgia for Hungary, a way-station in his odyssey to Israel, but he does not allow Russian settlers in Israel to have any nostalgic feelings for Russia. To Soviet intellectuals in Israel he recommends—amnesia. Quoting the whole of his own 1975 speech in Tel Aviv, Mr. Markish appeals to us “to burn . . . in ourselves . . . the mean Soviet man.” He should follow his own advice. He twice blames Ephraim Sevela for being a double Soviet-Arab agent, although he also says that “there’s no proof” of this. He sees religious enthusiasm in Russia as akin to drugs, in accordance with the doctrine “religion is the opiate of the people.”
The “discontented Jewish intelligentsia,” seen by the authorities as the core of the dissident movement, finds no place in Mr. Markish’s description. He failed to join the dissident protest openly while he was in Moscow, at a time when stones shrieked in anguish. His hatred for the dissidents triggers his imagination: he even identifies Sevela with the dissidents, although there were no ties whatsoever between them. Mr. Markish does not praise heroic Jews like Podrabinek and Superfinn. Is it because he cannot ascertain whether or not they have accepted Jesus in order to withstand the sadistic absurdities of Soviet life? Their courageous nonviolent struggle with the Soviet oligarchs bluntly refutes Mr. Markish’s elementary and dangerous philosophy: “To submit to violence is in some degree to participate in it.”
Surely this generalization has exceptions in Mr. Markish’s personal experience. Among others, it blasphemes the memory of Osip Mandelstam. Mr. Markish uses Mandelstam’s poem as an epigraph, borrows his title from it, yet misinterprets the crucial notion of the “passer-by.” While he rebukes Russian Jews for being just passers-by in Israel, alien to the surrounding culture, as they were there, in Russia, a closer reading of Mandelstam’s poem reveals the opposite meaning. In the poem, a Jewish passer-by goes along roads cleared of snow and coldness with bearded muzhiks, a symbol of old Russia; he sees Blok’s fair ladies with kerchiefs and, despite angry mongrels (whatever they might symbolize), enters taverns and houses with their scarlet-rose-like samovar tops; tea is an image of Russian meditative life, the wine of spirit, mystical bread, and warmth. The phenomenon of Jewish Christians, widespread in Russia and emphasized by Nadezhda Mandelstam, is entirely ignored by Mr. Markish, although it is highly relevant for an understanding of present-day Russian intellectual life. Does the overuse in a negative context of a poem written by the greatest Russian-Jewish martyr at the time when he embraced Christianity really illustrate Mr. Markish’s lofty intention “to honor the memory of martyrs”?
Mr. Markish attacks “devious Glazov” for being “an active Christian,” who “suddenly remembers he is a Jew and begins, no less actively, to prepare for the land of his forefathers and then, Israeli visa in hand, sets off straight for Boston” without “the slightest intention of going to Israel” at any stage at all. It is perhaps surprising to hear these accusations from a person who slipped out of Russia during the dissidents’ turmoil after marrying a Hungarian (for which I would never reproach him), and who preaches to those who failed to reach Israel from his picturesque Geneva, another leg of his own lengthy journey to the land of his forefathers, a journey still incomplete. In the fifteen lines which Mr. Markish allocates to me, the fact that I left Russia with an Israeli visa, an unshakable rule of the Soviet game in the 70′s for persons of Jewish origin, is the only true fact. At least fifteen other points in this passage reveal his inadequate information, misjudgment, or worse—all of which render redundant the commandment “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
Being “an active Christian,” perhaps, means that for three painful years I was blacklisted for having signed, in February 1968, a “Petition of Twelve” which was presented to the Communist Parties’ Consultative Conference in Budapest, where we protested against Soviet human-rights repressions, “discrimination against national minorities,” and “trampling on the rights of man in our country.” (See The Jews in Soviet Russia, edited by Lionel Kochan, Oxford, 1978, p. 331.) In accordance with my faith, I wanted to fulfill my human duty, and to a great extent I acted as a Jew among both Jews and non-Jews, to defend the rights of Soviet Jewry. Since Mr. Markish does not care about non-Jews, and since I still remember with gratitude that he tried to help me a few times in my hopeless situation, I am tempted to ask him: did he see a Jew in me at that time?
Although—and largely because—I was registered in my middle teens as a Russian (mea culpa!), throughout my adult life I was treated as a Jew, quite often unkindly. While I was growing up among Russians in a country of religious compartmentalization—my father dead in my early childhood, my family life shattered, intermittent despair strangling my spirit until the late 50′s—my Jewish self-awareness was a source of psychological discoveries and long spiritual search; as a result, in my late twenties I became, and since then have remained, a Jewish Christian. Although in the eyes of the anti-Semitic and God-hating authorities I was invariably a double criminal, my religious vision, approaching Judaism, Roman Catholicism, and Russian Orthodoxy as a sacred interwoven triangle, saved me, I think, from self-destruction.
In March 1971, in Moscow, I finished my book, How Narrow the Gate (misquoted by Mr. Markish), and gave it to several people to read. Also at this time, two of my closest friends were suddenly thrown in jail for their wish to leave for Israel. To one of them, a former colleague, I owed my recovery from a near-fatal illness and my day-to-day survival during those troubled years. The courageous action of these men, their imprisonment and hunger strikes, contrasted with the relative indifference of some of my Russian friends to their fate, shocked me to the core of my being. It was then, after painful reflection, that I asked the Soviet authorities in my protest and essays to release my friends and to allow me, a blacklisted person, to leave for Israel as well. During those weeks, to use Mr. Markish’s words, I “suddenly remembered” that I was a Jew. Although I received, as usual, no answer from the authorities, nevertheless I felt a deep relief when my colleague left Russia independently of my efforts.
Officially I did not apply for a visa until the end of January of the following year, which conflicts with Mr. Markish’s description that I began “no less actively to prepare myself for the land of my forefathers.” I was not in a hurry. None of my essays, written at a certain risk and abstracted in the underground journal, Chronicle of Current Events, was published abroad. Later, I understood that Russians saw me as a Jew, while Jews looked upon me as a Christian. I can understand that not everybody was happy to read these essays, in which I defended the Jewish right of repatriation along with the right of Russian priests and dissidents to speak out.
In addition, I had become seriously disappointed by some aspects of the Jewish exodus movement. By December 1971, my information about Israel convinced me that, with my convictions and those of my wife, I would be only little less a leper there than in official Russia. But bridges had been burned behind me, and, at a time when each departure of a Soviet intellectual was looked upon as a miracle, the only way out of the deadly grip was to continue writing about the life around me until the authorities imprisoned me or allowed me to leave. Our appeal defending Aleksandr Galich (see the New York Times, February 12, 1972), and especially our “Letter of Five” to the Times (March 9, 1972) sealed my fate. Both documents were dedicated to my “Russian” friends, in Mr. Markish’s sense, and were a good expression of my thoughts at that time. Contrary to the impression given by an incredible mistake in the translation of the first sentence in the letter, which attracted some attention, four of us, including myself, did not yet have “an Israeli visa in hand.” Mr. Markish, obviously, did not see the Russian original. When, three weeks after the publication of the letter, I was informed that I could leave Russia, the land where, to use the words of our last letter, I was going to leave a part of my heart, I did not “set off straight for Boston.” With my wife and three children I flew over Hungary (where non-devious Markish was gathering his strength for another lap of his lifelong trip to Israel) to Rome, and only months later, in the fall of 1972, to New York. It was early 1973 when I moved to Boston, where a temporary position had unexpectedly opened up.
Mr. Markish goes on to suggest: “[Glazov] then publishes a book, written according to him in Moscow, and in the book reports that he had never had the slightest intention of going to Israel because ‘the Jews despise the gentle son of Mary of Bethlehem.’” This is another example of Mr. Markish’s sleight-of-hand in the Soviet manner. The negotiations with the publisher took place in Rome in the first weeks of my stay there, and it was then that I decided that the book, which had been smuggled much earlier to London, would be published without any changes, with the addition of only a short note at the final stage of printing. Although while writing the book I was desperately trying to avoid the émigré’s fate, Mr. Markish could have read on the very same pages he misquotes phrases refuting his statement about my intentions. By manipulating my remarks out of context, Mr. Markish not only distorts them, but erroneously presents them as my sole motivation for not going to Israel. He interpolates the word “Jews” instead of my original “my blood-brothers,” creating an anti-Semitic innuendo which is far from present in my text. This interpolation indicates that I viewed myself as an outsider, whereas in point of fact I was speaking from within Jewry. Mr. Markish interprets my behavior even less convincingly than he does Mandelstam’s poem. My escape from the concentration camp known as the Soviet Union was over. Grateful to Israel, I could extend my thanks or apologies to all those who were happy or disappointed with my survival.
Although defining Jews as “those who consider themselves Jews by their free and conscious choice,” Mr. Markish excludes me from Jewry without my consent. Jewishness is my birthright. If it is proved one day that Jesus Christ and Jewishness are incompatible, I shall stay with Jesus and his love for all men, but no one has yet been able to convince me that these two greatest events in world history and spirit can be separated.
Halifax, Nova Scotia
To the Editor:
Not even the din of anti-Shah riots in the streets of what once was Shushan could muffle the creaking of Mordecai’s bones turning in his grave. The savior of his people, the man who engineered the plot that toppled Haman has endured (“lived” is hardly the correct word) to see his name besmirched as a sycophantic renegade. Simon Markish’s reference to “Mordecais,” who, disdainful of their people, curry favors with Artaxerxes for selfish reasons, calls for breast-thumping and appropriate penance. As a starter, I would suggest reciting the Megillah three times and repeating seven times the traditional “Haman be cursed, blessed be Mordecai.”
Journal of the American Medical Association
Simon Markish writes:
I have essentially no reply to make to Yuri Glazov, since his letter does not touch upon the substance of my article.
Any discussion of my personal circumstances or details of Mr. Glazov’s biography would, I feel, be irrelevant.
I will confine myself, then, to the following three comments:
1. This is the statement in full which Mr. Glazov claims was distorted through having been partially quoted: “I would have had to watch my step in Israel and speak of the greatness of the Jewish people with my blood brothers, who despise the gentle son of Mary of Bethlehem” (Yuri Glazov, “Tesnye vrata, Vozrozdeni russkoj intelligencii,” Overseas Publications Interchange, London, 1973, pp. 9-10).
The quotation marks in my article, therefore, should have been placed after, not before, the words “the Jews.” If it appears to the reader that this involuntary distortion has prejudiced Mr. Glazov or has in any way misrepresented his or my own views, I am quite prepared to present my apologies to Mr. Glazov.
2. I have not read the “Letter of Five” to the New York Times, either in English or in Russian; I never even suspected it had been written.
3. I do not know Mr. Glazov personally—certainly one cannot consider a chance encounter and a five-minute chat in the street as having gotten to know each other—and, to my knowledge, I have never had occasion to provide him with any assistance.
As for Samuel Vaisrub’s letter, he is quite right, and I intend to take him up on his suggestion.
I might just add that when I wrote in my conclusion that we must “destroy in ourselves the . . . Soviet man,” I did not exclude myself. Like all my ex-fellow citizens, I left with the same “cultural” baggage and am not at all sure I can ever completely succeed in ridding myself of it.