Like most American Jews of my generation, I had a twin in the Soviet Union. Maxim Yankelevich. I doubt I'll ever forget that name. I repeated it incessantly in the nervous weeks leading up to my bar mitzvah. Some organization of which I was barely aware had handed down Maxim's information, and my job was to invoke him and what I was told was his "plight" after I read from the Torah - a rite of passage that filled me with such dread I wasn't sure I'd remember my own name, let alone this other boy's. So I compulsively chanted to myself "Maxim Yankelevich." It calmed me down.
The only real information I had about Maxim was on a sheet of mimeographed paper that the rabbi had given me. Maxim's father, Zelman, was a construction engineer. His mother, Elena, was a cosmetician. The family had first applied for permission to leave the Soviet Union in 1980, when Maxim was five. Now it was 1989 and they were still living in Leningrad. His bar mitzvah was supposed to have taken place the year before but hadn't, or couldn't, for reasons unexplained (my imagination, populated by KGB agents in khaki trench coats shooting bullets from their shoes, filled in many of the particulars). By mentioning him, I was told, I was symbolically allowing him to share my bar mitzvah. What I fixated on most was the small photo of Maxim's father. It was a grainy black-and-white, but one could see the silhouetted outline of a man wearing a cap, scarf, and thick-framed glasses. He looked like a father from another century, a shtetl father, and I pictured him, the construction engineer, carefully laying bricks day after day. Besides the photo there were only a few lines of text and just one sentence to give me a sense of the plight that necessitated my intervention. Maxim had grown up, I was informed, in "an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty."
My rabbi was a sensitive and thoughtful man but he must have matched young boys and girls with thousands of these Soviet twins by the late 1980s and he didn't take the time to explain further. In the days leading up to my Torah reading, while I tried on my new gray suit and red clip-on tie a dozen times in front of the mirror, Maxim Yankelevich took up residence in my overactive brain. I imagined what he looked like: taller than me, blond, without braces, carrying his schoolbooks with an old-fashioned book strap. The fact of his existence though, somewhere far off to the east, thoroughly confused me. These were the last years of the Cold War. I was aware of the "evil empire," if only through the detritus of pop culture, which seemed obsessed with the Soviet-American relationship. For some reason, I was fascinated by the truly awful 1985 film White Nights. It starred Mikhail Baryshnikov as a Russian ballet dancer who had defected from the Soviet Union but found himself - through the deus ex machina of a plane crash - trapped once again in the country he had fl ed. In one scene, the Baryshnikov character lustily dances to the music of the banned raspy-voiced folksinger Vladimir Vysotsky on the stage of the empty Mariinsky Theater while his old girlfriend watches and weeps, knowing that if he had stayed in the Soviet Union he would never have been permitted to express himself with such abandon. Some variety of repression was hidden there behind the constantly invoked iron curtain. Of that, I couldn't help being at least somewhat aware. But still, when I read about Maxim, the notion that he or any other Jew lived in "an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty" was hard to fathom. On the face of it, the concept shouldn't have been shocking to a grandchild of Holocaust survivors and a son of Israelis. I had grown up with the stories of my maternal grandmother, who had lived hidden in a hole under the Polish earth for a year; with the stories of my paternal grandparents, who had survived the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto only to eventually find themselves sleeping next to gas chambers in the death camp Majdanek, where they lost their entire families. Then there was my other grandfather - who, we always joked, had had it easy - who'd spent three years in a Siberian work camp. The fact of Jewish suffering was not a foreign concept to me. Throw in my parents' anxieties for Israel, its very existence constantly threatened, and "tension and uncertainty" should have been well embedded in my psychology by the time I encountered Maxim.
The problem, I think, was that through my eyes then, the history of the world was split into a neat and distinct before and after. As I saw it at thirteen, the horrors of the war had been the terrible price paid for this new era in which Jews had not only physical safety but also a peace of mind that they had never experienced over the two thousand years of Diaspora - Israel, despite my parents' worries, didn't seem to me like it was going anywhere. The little that I knew about Maxim and other Soviet Jews escaped these mental categories of before and after. The fear of death was not hanging over him like it had for my grandparents - that much I knew - but at the same time, he was clearly trapped, denied something as basic and schmaltzy as a bar mitzvah. All I could do was file him away as a historical anomaly, a bit of unfinished postwar Jewish business that I didn't really understand. My bar mitzvah was on September 1, 1989. I stood in front of the congregation and gave a short speech, trying desperately not to shake. I reminded everyone that it was the fiftieth anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland, a significant historical marker for me, the day my grandparents' journey through hell began. But here I was, I said with a flourish, decades after the camps were liberated, having my bar mitzvah in America, a country where I was free to be a Jew. I did mention Maxim's name. But I didn't give much more thought to the gray space his story occupied. The paradox at the center of the Soviet Jewish experience - a people not allowed to fully assimilate but also not allowed to develop a separate national identity or to leave - was too confounding.
Two months after Maxim and I had our bar mitzvah, the course of history seemed to change in a day. The Berlin Wall fell. Over the next decade, as the Soviet Union crumbled, more than a million Jews fled, joining the approximately three hundred thousand that had trickled out since the end of the 1960s. I don't know if Maxim Yankelevich was among them. I forgot about him for a long time. Only years later, visiting Israel, did I scan the faces of new immigrants and wonder if he had gotten out. It was impossible not to think about Soviet Jews then. They had fundamentally altered Israeli society, from the now ubiquitous line of Russian subtitles on Israeli television to the electoral power the new immigrants wielded as a major conservative voting bloc, not to mention the influx of doctors, physicists, engineers, and musicians. (Israelis joked that if a Soviet Jew didn't get off the airplane with a violin case, he was probably a pianist.) In America too, where hundreds of thousands had arrived and settled, predominantly in New York, their presence was felt, changing the face of large swathes of Brooklyn. The children of these immigrants have already made an impressive impact on American society, becoming influential novelists, entrepreneurs, and computer engineers.
By the time I really started to consider Maxim's story on its own terms, the conversation about Soviet Jews had changed. It was no longer about their plight but about their experiences as a new immigrant group and the various challenges - especially in Israel - of absorption. Maybe because Jews had finally been allowed to emigrate out of the Soviet Union, the fact that they had been denied this right for so long seemed to vanish into historical memory; the mass migration came to be seen simply as a byproduct of the Cold War's end, one of the many walls that fell. That it was the result of a long struggle was somehow forgotten. If people stopped to think of it at all, it was only to invoke the name of Natan Sharansky (once Anatoly Shcharansky), the well-known dissident who sat for nine years in a prison camp and later established a successful second life as a politician in Israel after his release. Meanwhile, my own interest had shifted. I'd always been obsessed with my grandparents' stories of survival, but by the time I reached adulthood what I understood most about the Holocaust was its fundamental inaccessibility. The admonition to "never forget" was inhibiting enough, but the war's overrepresentation in pop culture had also reduced it to a set of clich?d words and images that overwhelmed my ability to see it clearly. I recorded my grandparents' stories, took in the cascade of Holocaust books and movies, but I also came to accept that this was a door that would always remained closed, even if I stood in front of it forever with my mouth open. Maybe as a reaction, I became absorbed by a much more amorphous period. I wanted to know about the world after. I looked at the quiet drama of my grandparents' lives and realized that there was an unexplored and rich story here. They were simple people who had lost their families, suffered years of physical and psychological torture, and had still managed to have children, love, work hard, think beyond survival. What about the Jewish world as a whole? How to explain what happened to the two largest Jewish communities of the Diaspora, in the United States and in the Soviet Union, in the decades since the war? These millions of Jews couldn't all simply immerse themselves in the building of a Jewish state. How did they cope with their psychic and physical scars?
These were two communities that, each in its own way, were left shattered after the Holocaust. For the nearly three million Jews living in the Soviet Union, the trauma of the war was compounded by a regime that wanted no trace of Jewish communal life, extinguishing even that which was permitted by the Bolsheviks. Stalin, fired up by his own paranoia and fueled by a long-standing popular anti-Semitism, crushed these last remnants. They were discouraged in every way from being Jews - synagogues were shuttered, and Yiddish writers and actors were executed - and trapped in a country that allowed no legal emigration, which might have provided an escape route to Israel. It was obvious to most observers that within a generation or two, the total assimilation, or spiritual genocide, of Soviet Jewry would be complete.
American Jews, the most populous and prosperous Jewish Diaspora community, had easily integrated into American society by the 1950s. The struggle they faced in the decades after the war was more psychological. There was a sense that their efforts to prevent the Holocaust had been insufficient. This stain spread, soaking in and giving a selfconscious character to American Jewish life. It also spoke to a deeper anxiety about assimilation, a weakness that manifested itself in the community's inability to stand up for its own interests. Even as these Jews climbed to the heights of American society they were dogged by a feeling that the literal abandonment of their brethren was a symptom of the figurative abandonment of their own identity. What happened between then and now? When you look around today, Russian Jewish immigrants are free to live wherever they want, in Jerusalem or Berlin. And though they are facing all the challenges that come with deracination, forced to work out for themselves what it means to be Jewish, they are free to engage in this dialectic, to become Hasidic if they choose or merely read an Isaac Bashevis Singer story. The spiritual genocide never occurred. And American Jews, once afraid it would appear like special pleading if they asked a politician to address a Jewish issue, now wield enormous political power in America. They have formed a lobby whose effectiveness has become the envy of every American minority group.
How then to explain these transformations that took place in the darkness of the war's long shadow? The magnetic force of Israel's existence certainly played a central role. But there had to be more. And here is where I remembered the strange plight of my long-forgotten bar mitzvah twin, Maxim. It occurred to me, before I even knew the complete story, that it was through the effort to save Soviet Jews that these two communities had arrived at the redemption they each sought, physical for one and psychological for the other. What looks to us now like an inevitability - the mass emigration of hundreds of thousands - was actually the culmination of a hard-fought battle; a massive effort to rescue Soviet Jewry from extinction and also a homegrown social movement that shaped the American Jewish community we know today. It's a history that has, strangely, been ignored. Only twenty years have passed since the end of the Cold War, but already the world - even the Jewish community - is losing the memory of this movement. In some ways, it is a victim of its own success. From where we sit today, we can easily forget that for nearly three decades - beginning amid the social and political tumult of the 1960s and culminating with the end of the Cold War - there was a day-to-day struggle whose outcome was not clear to the men and women who made it the center of their lives. And yet, looking back at the twentieth century, we can't understand the eventful postwar Jewish story without examining this struggle in all its human detail, without appreciating how a small number of willful individuals on both sides of the iron curtain took on the superpowers.