Episode 40: Rachel Sharansky Danziger: Let My Story Go (Transcript)
Nahanni Rous: Hi, it’s Nahanni Rous, and this is Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history and Jewish culture meet. Passover is here, and this plague of a virus means many of us will be leading seders in very different circumstances than we are used to... some of us alone, some with just our nuclear families. But like every year, we are looking for ways to make our seders meaningful and to connect the Passover story with our own lives and our own times. Rachel Sharansky Danziger grew up with a very personal relationship to the Exodus story. Her parents, Natan and Avital Sharansky, were born in the Soviet Union. Life was restricted, especially for Jews. Celebrating Jewish holidays and learning Hebrew was illegal. Jews could be arrested just for applying for a visa, and political dissidents were imprisoned and even executed. Natan, whose name was Anatoli at the time, was accused of treason and arrested for his political activism in 1977. He spent nine years in a Soviet prison, along with other refusniks: Jews who were denied the right to emigrate. Rachel’s mother, Avital, was given a visa, and she emigrated to Israel. She led an international campaign to pressure the Soviet regime to release her husband and other Jews. After twelve years apart, Natan was finally released and reunited with Avital in Israel, where Rachel was born. The Sharansky family celebrated freedom not just at their Passover Seder, but also on the anniversary of Natan’s liberation.
Rachel Sharansky Danziger: So when I was a kid, I remember that once a year on the day of my father's liberation, uh, it would always be a big deal. You know, my mom would take out the most beautiful China and the best tablecloth and make all our favorites, and my father would put on fancy clothes and also he would wear this kippah, this yarmulke that an inmate in the prison made for him from the inside of a boot. And we would all sit around the table and eat all the beautiful and wonderful food. And just like in Pesach, we would ask my father and mother questions and they would answer us.
Nahanni: At Rachel’s childhood seder, she and her sister didn’t just ask the traditional four questions. Their questions were about their parents’ Exodus from the Soviet Union. They asked about their parents’ first meeting while their father was being tailed by KGB agents. They asked what it was like for their parents to have to say goodbye the day after their wedding, not knowing when or if they would ever see each other again. They asked their father about his time in solitary confinement, and their mother about working for years to get him released.
Rachel: As we grew up, um, we brought whatever it was that interested us that was on our mind into this yearly occasion, into this annual occasion, and my parents would answer our questions from there.
Nahanni: When I sat down with Rachel, she told me what it was like to hear her parents’ liberation story as a child. She also talked about what she learned from the Passover Hagaddah about passing the story on to her own young children. She starts by telling me about one of her father’s stories that has really stayed with her.
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Rachel: There's a story that my dad told me many times, and it's also in his memoir, in Fear No Evil, about how when he was first arrested and brought into Lefortovo, the KGB prison in Moscow, they bodily searched him. They undressed him, and then they left him naked for a while in the room with people coming in and out.
And he knew what they were doing. They were trying to make him feel humiliated, so he'll be vulnerable to pressure, so he'll crack and denounce the movement, and give them information they wanted, et cetera. And at that moment, he told himself no, the only person who can humiliate myself is me. They can do things to my body, but it doesn't matter. And this stayed with me and defined my sense of what it means to choose things, what it means to be a free person, what it means, um, to be the author of my own life. That the first and foremost rule is nobody can humiliate me. Nobody can make me less than what I am except myself. And that lays an enormous burden on me because it means that it's my responsibility to keep rising up. But it also means that the world doesn't have the power to control that process.
Nahanni: What do you think was the effect on your growing up of hearing these stories from your parents?
Rachel: I felt like in a way, this story became part of my own inner geography. Meaning it wasn't a story that happened to somebody else, it was my story. It was in my blood, it was in my flesh, and I found myself turning to it in moments of challenge. You know, if I had to have a difficult conversation with someone, um, I would find myself with my father in his cell, remembering how for him, the greatest act of courage was not giving in to fear. And I would not give into fear and I would make that phone call and have the difficult conversation, which sounds silly because it's such a small thing compared to sitting in jail, but that's where I drew strength from.
Nahanni: What do you think your parents really wanted to convey to you and your sister.
Rachel: I'm not sure I can answer this question cause I don't think that they had a message. I think they just shared with us their truth, how they live and what happened to them and... and I think perhaps that was what was so powerful about it, that it wasn't a didactic tale to educate us. It was the truth. It was reality. And honestly I only realized how um, challenging it is to share the truth like that when my kids became old enough to join the family, seder. You know, the first time when my son and my nephew were three years old and old enough to kind of try and grasp what's going on, I prepared them for our family meal. I wanted them to come with some knowledge so they can ask my dad and mom informed questions. So I said, you know, um, when Saba and Savta, grandma and grandpa, were in Russia, um, there are bad people there who didn't want to let the Jews leave and go to Israel and they let Savta go, but they put Saba in prison. And I made my son and my nephew go under the table and we all stood guard around them, not letting them out. And Savta, I said, went around the world and started yelling, “Let Saba go to Israel. Let Saba go to Israel.” And it didn't work. They wouldn't let him. Savta realized that when a small group of people yells, it's not the same as a lot of people. So she started going around the world and asking other Jews to help her, and more and more people started yelling, “Let Saba go to Israel. Let Saba go to Israel.” So everybody in the room, as I was telling the story, started yelling it really loud, and I said, until it was so loud and so powerful and put so much pressure on the presidents and prime ministers to put pressure on the Soviet union in turn, et cetera, et cetera, that, uh, they had no choice but to let Saba go to Israel. And then we let the kids come out of, from under the table. And Saba came to Israel and everybody sang together Hinei Ma tov u ma’naim, shevet achim gam yachad. The kids loved it. They thought it was great. And then they said, “Can you tell us the story again?” And I told them the story again. “Can you tell us again?” I told them the story again. And then they said, “Now can you tell us about Rapunzel like this?” And with the years I realize that it's an ongoing problem that, you know, the more I invested myself in the story, the more props I created, the more exciting I made it, the more bright eyed they were as they listened to it, somehow the less that it stay with them as something beyond the story. It was something, you know, they, they would get excited about it and then they would ask me to tell them Amelia Bedelia or Mouse Tales or whatever other books they were into at the time. And I realized that on some, in some way, the way I'm telling it to them makes it easy for them to put it aside. And that's when I realized that my parents really achieved something extraordinary by telling us a story in a way that didn't just inform us, but rather changed us, altered us, affected our inner geography, so to speak.
Nahanni: So you put the kids under the table, you gave them this very active and experiential learning experience. I mean, it sounds like you did all the right things in trying to convey this in a way that they would really feel it.
Rachel: So here's the thing that, yeah, I did everything I knew to do to make it a more exciting storytelling experience, you know, a more exciting story for them. And yet it didn't work. So when I was trying to understand why it didn't work, what was missing from the story? Um, that's when I turned to the Haggadah. And I said, okay, the rabbis who compiled the Haggadah had a very similar challenge in mind. They wanted to make it so that kol adam, every person, will seem himself or herself as if they came out of Egypt. And they somehow had to take this grand story that happened millennia ago and became mythologized in all of our minds and make it something that we experience for ourselves. And what I saw was very interesting. I saw that they don't tell a story. The Haggadah is not Chumash Shemot. It's not the book of Exodus. It's not in fact a chronological, exciting retelling of everything that happened to the Israelites from the moment they were enslaved in Egypt until the moment they were free. It's anything but, in a sense. The authors of the Haggadah are forcing us to be extremely active. They use various techniques to make sure that we can’t just sit back and, you know, relatively passively, listen.
And they do it in several ways. I mean, one way I can point out to is forcing us to use the first person point of view. So when we say Avadim Hayinu L’Paro B’Mitzrayim, We were slaves in Egypt to Pharoah, it forces us to try and weave ourselves into this collective “we” that we're talking about. Now all those things happen, perhaps not necessarily on the conscious level, but they involve us in the process. They make us bring ourselves into it in a way that just reading a story in the third person would not necessarily do. They force us not to go away from our life to somebody else's story, but rather to bring ourselves, our detective ability, our emotions, our memories into the story we're looking at and thus bring the story into our life where we are. It doesn't take us away from our life, it brings a story into our life. And once I noticed that, I realized that that's exactly what my parents did. My parents never told us a story the way I told my kids the story. They never told us a story with a beginning and a middle and an end. They invited us to ask questions that came from our lives where we were. So we came with our questions, we came with the things that interested us, and they gave us answers that were really fragments of a larger story, but instead of giving us the story in its entirety, they gave us whatever piece we needed at the time, and they left it to us to work it into who we are. I don't know that they thought of it in these terms. I don't know that they planned it in these terms. In fact, they modeled their form of celebration on the Haggadah itself.
Nahanni: So did this examination of the Haggadah’s storytelling techniques change the way you try to convey your parents' story to your kids?
Rachel: It did. It did. Um, in a surprising way for me, because I tried to think, how can I tell the story in a way that's more like the Haggadah story or like the way my parents told their story to me. And that's a moment when I realized that what I really need to do is let the story go and let them go and let them have the freedom to take what they need and what they find from the story. That's what my parents did for us by telling us their story as an answer to our authentic questions. And in a sense, this is what we have to do with whatever story we want to share and allow it to really transform people. We need to allow it to transform them on their terms and not our own.
Nahanni: Why is it so important for you, for your kids to know and also own the story in their own way?
Rachel: I think that there's two answers to this. One is because this story, this experience, really, it's not a story, it's a real experience that my parents' generation went through, gave them access to some truths that are easy to forget.
Like what we can achieve when we work together, like the fact that, um, we are connected to each other even when we squabble and fight, and let me tell you, the struggle for Soviet Jewry was full of squabbles and fights, in fighting. Um, like the fact that we're the only ones who can humiliate ourselves, as I said before.
There's a lot of things that only the crucible of experience reveals. And I feel that I benefited secondhand by experiencing it through my parents and therefore gaining those truths or gaining some access to the truth, and I would want my children to have the same access. So that's the real answer. On another level, I think it's very important to know our histories, to know who we are and where we came from. And the third answer is that it's important to be grateful and it's, it's humbling to know that I would not exist if God and the Jewish people had not fought on my parents' side. And I would be sad if that knowledge, that gratitude, which confers value on our life and forces us to really try and live to the utmost would not pass on on some level to my children.
Nahanni: For families that don't have such a dramatic and clearly parallel story. Um, I mean. It can, I think, feel harder to make this liberation story really come home.
Rachel: I can certainly understand that, that it's, you know, it's easier to say in every generation, um, somebody tries to kill us, and God saves us, when that generation was my parents than when it was some distant ancestors, I understand that. I still think that when you look, any Jewish family has stories of numerous victories in its DNA because we're here and so many people throughout history didn't want us to be here. And by here I mean alive, no matter where we are.
Nahanni: Is there a negative side to having this sort of common continuous thread be one of struggle and oppression?
Rachel: There can be, if the focus is on the oppression and, and victimhood, I think it can be very, um, corrosive, very toxic. Um, like I said, I think that the most powerful factor of my parents' story for me was the fact that it was a victory was the fact that we overcame, and the victory wasn't merely the moment where my father was released and reunited with my mother in Israel and everybody Hinei Ma Tov U Manaim, like I told the children. The victory was every moment when my father said no to the KGB interrogators, it was every moment where my mother boarded another airplane despite being exhausted. It was every moment that a Jew chose to open his door and invite my mother to sleep on their couch. It was every moment that a mother took her kids to a rally. All those moments were moments of victory. Sometimes you lose on the macro scale and sometimes you win, and many people can't look back and say, you know, our family won in the way I can, because there are losses and struggles. But those small moral victories can be the core of something, can be the root of a sense of power, of a sense of, um, Liberty. So to answer your question, yes, it can be corrosive to focus on struggle and suffering, but the question is, are you focusing on the suffering or are you focusing on the standing up, on the rising up?
Nahanni: What is it like for you and when you conceive of this, of your own life and your own stories. You know, as compared with this extremely dramatic public story, like what is that like?
Rachel: I'll be honest that there were times when it was difficult for me, because I felt like, you know, I grew up learning about how a person can defeat an empire about how we can all march together. I was inspired to envision what it means to do great things in terms of, you know, vanquishing enemies and uniting the world. And then what I was actually doomed to deal with in my own future were the kind of challenges that are left when the big struggle is already won. You know, like balancing the books or you know, balancing parenting and having a career or all those things that are difficult and important, but they kind of seemed faded in comparison to what my parents faced. Um, and it took me time, it for a while, I really felt, not resentful, but kind of disappointed and, uh, dreamed of great challenges that were out of my reach. My generation... and here, I think it goes beyond my own personal relationship with my parents... my generation lives at a time when a lot of great things were already handed down to us. You know, we have a Jewish state, which is enormous and unbelievable when you look at history. We live, those Jews who live here in the States live with a level of serenity, of freedom that was unimaginable for Jews in the Diaspora for, well, never really. Um, we have so much and, but it's up to us to keep working at it and passing it on. And this is nothing to scoff at. All those moments of great liberation in history are an invitation to be more than we are, I feel. Be it the Exodus, be it the struggle for Soviet Jewry, be at the foundation of the State of Israel, be it, the civil rights movements and people involvement, involvement in it here in the States. And we can drown ourselves in passivity and view them from the sidelines, or we can allow ourselves to wake up.
Nahanni: Rachel Sharansky Danziger writes and blogs and teaches Jewish text to adults. Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Sarah Ventre helped edit this episode. Our team also includes Judith Rosenbaum and Becky Long. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. We all have stories. To help you tell your story, or record someone else’s, download Story Aperture. That’s JWA's new mobile app that puts the power of story-collecting in your hands. Inside the app you’ll find suggestions and prompts for recording your own story or conducting an interview. You can save stories in the app and upload directly to JWA's archives. Download Story Aperture from your app store, record, and share today! You can find Can We Talk? online at jwa.org/canwetalk, and anywhere you get your podcasts. Please take a moment to review us on iTunes, and share your favorite episodes with your friends so that others can find us. If you’d like to help us produce more episodes of Can We Talk?, please go to jwa.org/donate to make a contribution.
Nahanni: I’m your host, Nahanni Rous… wishing all who are celebrating a healthy and meaningful Passover. May we hold our loved ones dear, even from a distance, while we all look forward to better days. Next year... together.