Category Archives: refusnik

first refusnik

parshat vayetze

As suggested in an earlier post, much of the Genesis narratives relating to the patriarchs/matriarchs serve as a mythical paradigm for what befalls the Jewish People in Exodus and beyond.  “The stories of the patriarchs are to be taken as signs for their decedents” (Ma’asay Avot Symon LeBanim  מעשה אבות סימן לבנים).

It is in this context that we can best understand the multiple accounts of Abraham and Isaac going to a strange land (Egypt and Gerar respectively) as a result of a famine (Genesis 12: 10 26:2), causing a plague on the ruler (Pharoah and Avimelech respectively) and leaving with much wealth and prestige (Genesis 13: 2 15: 14 26: 12) …. A clear parallel to the latter Jewish People who, as 70 souls (Exodus 1: 5) went down to Egypt because of a famine, caused plagues to fall on Egypt and its Pharaoh and left with great wealth (Exodus 11: 2).

What’s missing from these patriarchal premonitions is the subjugation and internment that the Jews suffered in Egypt.  These elements appear only in the Jacob story.

In many of their exiles, the Jews were expelled or killed.  Jews being forcibly held as  in Egypt and later in the Soviet Union occurred only with one patriarch.

Jacob was the first Refusnik.

Jacob is forced to work for Laban for a total of 20 years before he utters the iconic “Let my people go” line. (Exodus 7: 2 and 26):

25 And it came to pass, when Rachel had borne Joseph, that Jacob said unto Laban: ‘Send me away, that I may go unto mine own place, and to my country.
26 Give me my wives and my children for whom I have served thee, and let me go; for thou knowest my service wherewith I have served thee.’ Genesis 30: 25-26

וַיְהִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה רָחֵל אֶת-יוֹסֵף; וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב, אֶל-לָבָן, שַׁלְּחֵנִי וְאֵלְכָה, אֶל-מְקוֹמִי וּלְאַרְצִי

תְּנָה אֶת-נָשַׁי וְאֶת-יְלָדַי, אֲשֶׁר עָבַדְתִּי אֹתְךָ בָּהֵן–וְאֵלֵכָה:  כִּי אַתָּה יָדַעְתָּ, אֶת-עֲבֹדָתִי אֲשֶׁר עֲבַדְתִּיךָ

Through repeated lies and tricks, it was clear that Laban had no intention of permitting Jacob, his wives and family to leave (Genesis 31: 41).

41 These twenty years have I been in thy house: I served thee fourteen years for thy two daughters, and six years for thy flock; and thou hast changed my wages ten times.

זֶה-לִּי עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה, בְּבֵיתֶךָ, עֲבַדְתִּיךָ אַרְבַּע-עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה בִּשְׁתֵּי בְנֹתֶיךָ, וְשֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים בְּצֹאנֶךָ; וַתַּחֲלֵף אֶת-מַשְׂכֻּרְתִּי, עֲשֶׂרֶת מֹנִים

So Jacob escaped (Genesis 31:20) and Laban (as Pharaoh after him Exodus 14: 5) gave chase.  Finally, after being visited by God (Genesis 31: 29) Laban has a change of heart and agrees to let Jacob go. *

What makes the refusnik component of the exile/exodus model so important, is that unlike the other components (famine, plagues, riches and freedom) which are outside of the control of the protagonists, it is in experiencing physical and economic abuse and showing an unwillingness to make a deal that the refusnik finds his/her own redemption and serves as an inspiration to us all.

Jacob did not settle.  Even at great physical cost, he did not compromise.  Jacob was the first refusnik.

Unlike Abraham and Isaac, Jacob’s struggle for freedom is commemorated with a monument (Genesis 31: 45), because it was Jacob’s struggle for freedom and unwillingness to give up or compromise that was to be a model for us all. It was Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel, and who fathered a people.

In a previous post a journey – russia to the promised land, I describe my family’s trip to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1974. On that trip, our first stop was Leningrad and the first refusniks that we met, the first refusniks to host us at their home, were Ida and Aba Taratuta.  We had not heard from the Taratuta’s  all these years until this summer, when in my capacity as President of PEF Israel Endowment Funds I received a receipt from one of the 1,000 plus charities we support in Israel: Remember and Save.  As I reached the bottom of the letter, my heart skipped a beat…. It was signed by Aba Taratuta who has established this amutah (charity) to archive the Jewish Aliya movement in the USSR.

Two weeks ago, I traveled to Haifa and met with Ida and Aba….  my first refusnik.

I took this video in which the Taratutas describe our family’s visit as well as the various jobs they were forced to take after being fired from their respective positions as government translator (Ida) and astophysicist (Aba).  [Once they were fired a refusnik had to find other work so as not to be arrested as a parasite.]  The Tratutas were refused exit from the Soviet Union for 15 years.  After arriving to Israel, they moved to Haifa were Aba became a professor of astrophysics at the Technion.   When Aba retired from the Technion he became a math teacher in an Israeli High School. In retrospect, he says, teaching High School math was more taxing than being a refusnik in the Soviet Union!

Aba has established the Remember and Save organization to collect, catalog, archive and make available the records of the alya movement from the Soviet Union from 1967-1989, including :

  • Lists of Movement activists and refuseniks
  • Petitions, and appeals of Jews to the Soviet officials; and appeals to Jewish and public organizations, to the media and to Western leaders and governments
  • Letters of the Movement activists, prisoners of Zion, refuseniks and letters to them from Israel and from the West
  • Official documents on the Aliya Movement
  • Photo, audio and video documentation
  • Jewish Samizdat (underground publications) in the USSR

Aba is concerned that time is running out and that refusniks are passing away and their memories and artifacts are being lost.  Just as Jacob commemorated his struggle with a monument to bear witness, Aba is working to preserve the memory of the soviet refusniks as an important academic resource and as an inspiration for us all.

Here are some pictures I took (then and now).

Ida Taratuta 1974 Leningrad

Ida and Aba Taratuta November 2012 Haifa

Ida and Aba Taratuta November 2012 Haifa

Aba Taratuta – 1974 – Leningrad

Aba Taratuta stands next to the mezuzah at his apartment in Haifa – November 2012

Aba Taratuta and Soviet Jewry activist Jerome Stern in Leningrad 1974

Michael Stern singing Jewish songs with refusniks in Soviet Union July 1974

Aba Taratuta with Geoffrey Stern – Haifa – November 2012

Aba Taratuta reviews book “a journey – russia to the promised land”



* I have searched, unsuccessfully for corroboration in Rabbinic literature or the commentaries for what I believe is  an obvious parallel between Jacob’s personal exodus from Charan (servitude, internment, chase before a river/sea and final release to the homeland) and the national Exodus.  I do note that the Haftora for parshat Vayetzeh is from Hosea 12 and begins by establishing just such a parallel  (for Ashkenazim) with verse 13-14.
13 And Jacob fled into the field of Aram, and Israel served for a wife, and for a wife he kept sheep.
14 And by a prophet the LORD brought Israel up out of Egypt, and by a prophet was he kept.


Filed under Bible, Israel, Judaism, refusnik, soviet jewry, Torah, travel, Uncategorized