Last night, while walking down the busy, chic street of Emek Refaim, I had to stop for a few minutes to cry. And when walking down the street on a Wednesday night can make you cry – you know you’re living in the right place.
After a shiva call last night, Josh and I took a walk in Jerusalem. And while chatting and laughing on Emek Refaim, we saw Natan Sharansky walk by us. He was talking on the phone, wearing his always present khaki hat, and going about his business in Jerusalem just like any other citizen.
And I stopped in my tracks. “Do you know who that was? My gd…”
“Yeah,” Josh said, trying to figure out what was wrong with me. “It’s Natan Sharansky. I see him all the time.”
“That was Natan Sharansky,” I said, not really hearing his reply. “Just there…walking…talking…no body guards..as if...”
And then I cried. Just stood there in the middle of the busy street trying to collect myself, as I cried.
Why, you might ask, would seeing the head of the Jewish Agency make me cry? I live among Knesset members (the speaker of the Knesset lives a 5 minute walk from our house). I’m from Los Angeles, where famous people were a dime a dozen. We used to see a famous Kennedy at the donut place in Potomac with his little diaper-clad kid in arms.
And here was Sharansky - just a person, just an Israeli citizen going about his life; but…he’s not. He’s Natan Sharanksy…one of the true heroes of the Jewish people. The symbol of the Soviet Jewry movement.
As Sharansky wrote in his autobiography, “Fear No Evil: The Classic Memoir of One Man’s Triumph Over a Police State,” in 1977 he was charged with espionage and treason against the Soviet Union. He spent nine years in prison and labor camps, with over four hundred days in punishment cells and more than two hundred days on hunger strikes.
What was his crime? Wanting to leave the Soviet Union for Israel. Wanting to live as a Jew. Here.
When he was finally released and came to Israel, Sharansky recounted, “how we landed in Israel and were greeted by so many friends; how I spoke almost without understanding my own words; how we sang “Hinei mah tov u’mah na’im shevet achim gam yachad” (How good and pleasant it is for brothers to be together) – I had sung that song so often while I was alone in punishment cells, and now I sang it with thousands of my brothers and sisters who had gathered at the airport.”
Later in the evening on the day of his arrival in Israel, he recounted, “Holding our Psalm book in my hand, I kissed the Wall (Kotel) and said, “Baruch matir asirim.” Blessed is He who liberates the imprisoned.”
How could I not cry seeing Natan Sharansky casually walking through Jerusalem – through the city that he fought to get to, that he cried to be part of for almost a decade of imprisonment? I remember wearing a bracelet for a Soviet refusnik, a teenager of about my age who was denied the right to live in Israel. I was living in California at the time, carrying around the bracelet for this teenager in Russia who wanted to come to Israel.
And today, I live here, in the Land that they longed for, fought to be in, and died to reach.
It is mind boggling to realize, at times, that I live in the heart of the Jewish world, where a man like Natan Sharansky can walk by me on the street, as if it’s nothing. As if it’s just another regular evening in Jerusalem.
And it is.
And that is what made me cry.
What a gift this country is. To all of us. And how blessed I am to have such reminders about this gift from the most unlikely of places and at the most unexpected of times.