Nosson Vershubsky at “Fiddler on the Roof – 2018”. State Kremlin Palace. [with English SUBTITLES]


Courage: It’s a concept not just relevant for wartime. In days when anti-Semitism reigned, it was practically impossible to maintain your convictions, especially religious ones. You needed real courage to remain true to yourself in the face of the difficult circumstances, dangers and direct threats. It is a good thing that such people have always existed, and always will. The Nomination for the category “Courage”. For selfless struggle for the Rights of Jews in the USSR. The winner: Nosson Vershubsky – teacher, writer, publicist. Since the beginning of the 80s – an activist in the independent Jewish religious movement. Since the 2000s – a Rabbi in Voronezh, Kaunas, Klaipeda. He was the last Jewish believer convicted in the USSR for religious activism. He was imprisoned for two years on a fake charge of swiping books from a Kiev synagogue. He has described the life of the Jewish underground, and his imprisonment, in the pages of the journal “Lechaim” and in his book of reminiscences, “Careful! The doors are opening!” “A Jew must be a Jew, no matter where he finds himself. Even in prison. ” Nosson Vershubsky Taking part in our ceremony, please welcome the Russian Federation People’s Artist, and artist simply beloved and adored by all, Yuri Stoyanov! Good evening! You know, a few days ago the hero of this nomination gave me his text. And when I read it, I realized that it was not just … the diary of a prisoner, or the notes of a convict. Not just the biographical facts of a particular individual person… And it is written not just in ink! Here, listen: “Kat’ka” was the oldest building in the Lukyanovskaya prison; it stood from the time of Catherine the Great to the days of Andropov. A shared chamber for 36 inmates: two-tiered iron bunks, embittered first-time cons, a peephole and a bean slot in the iron door. And in the corner, the “pit” – a hole in the floor. From the stench – there’s no hiding, no escape. Abrasha, that’s what they called me here – yesterday’s student, today’s prisoner; but, most importantly, a Jew – who needs to pray, to pronounce a Bracha, a blessing on his food, even if this food is a rationed bit of a special prison concoction which you can’t even call bread – half sour clay and half sawdust. And there’s no way you can recite a prayer or bless your food in the cell, because of that unrelenting pit: this is an unclean room. It is impossible there even to think about the Torah and holy things. How can you deal with the most important things – with reciting the “Sh-ma”, the declaration of Faith; and the “Benching”, gratitude after a meal? After getting my 250-gram ration at six in the morning, I would save it until the middle of the day. When I heard the locks clanging in the next cell I would know that the inmates had been taken out for their “rec” (recreation) outing; I would quickly wash my hands, eat bread without saying a Bracha, the formula of blessing and thanksgiving, and wait for our turn to be led out. Along corridors, up the stairs, “Faces to the wall!” The roof of the next building – the “Stalinka” – the “rec” yard: it’s also a cell, but without bunk-beds; with screening instead of a ceiling, barbed wire and walkways for the guards. And most importantly – no pit, no stench! Walking around and around with my cellmates in a circle (no stopping or talking allowed), with my hands behind my back, there I would say the “Benching” and recite the “Sh-ma”. There was not enough time for more: nobody allowed us a whole hour, as officially prescribed – it was ten minutes in the rec yard, and back to the cell! It was not possible to recite the evening “Sh-ma” – there is no “rec” at night… My bunk neighbor was a certain Amir from Azerbaijan. Twenty years old – same as me. A mop of black hair, Adidas workout pants with three stripes, a dirty T-shirt. Amir was doing time for the most shameful offense: he robbed his own friends who had been letting him stay in their student dorm room. He swiped a stereo tape recorder, a clock and some clothes, climbed out their window, started to shinny down the drainpipe, and fell to the ground. And he was caught red-handed. The fact that I wound up sleeping next to a guy like that shows just how much of a greenhorn I was in prison… It was a Friday, this one particular day, so I saved my rations till evening. In the absence of wine and Sabbath challah bread, it would serve me as a Kiddush blessing and a festive meal… Night arrived: the cell was total pandemonium filled with smoke; the light was left on, and the convicts were arguing, yelling, playing cards, I went to the sink, washed my hands from the mug, returned to my bunk, cut the ration of bread into two pieces (there are supposed to be two loaves) and ate it to the glory of the Holy Sabbath. Then I climb up on my bunk with my feet and start singing “Ko-Ribboin” – the Sabbath hymn “Lord G-d – Master of the Universe” – in Aramaic. But I sing it without words – only the nigun, the melody. Suddenly Amir, who is sitting nearby and reworking a toothbrush into a backgammon cube, comes to life and begins to sing along with me. With the words! The right ones! In Aramaic! “Shvokhin asader tsafro veramsho!” (I will fill the morning and evening with praises …) Have I gone nuts? In prison I have seen these crazy people, everyone’s brains are all tilted off-center here… I look around to see if the others are singing along (according to the laws of the “hallucination” genre) but across the aisle: they just keep playing cards like before. While that “wild animal” of mine sings, and so do I… (I should say that in the prisons, people from the Caucasus get called “wild animals” without any malice –sometimes even with respect.) Maybe he wasn’t a wild animal after all, but one of us? Another “Yid”? I ask: No, he’s an Azeri, all right. From the village of Vurgun near Agstafa. Half of the village residents are Aysors (Assyrians). If you’ve lived in Moscow, remember those streetside “Shoe Cleaning and Repair ” booths? Old geezers would be sitting inside – Assyrians, whose native language was Aramaic. Last fall, the Vurgun Aysors celebrated a wedding. Here it turned out that the previous fall, the Vurgun Assyrians had celebrated a wedding, and the whole village gathered for it, according to Caucasian custom. And the musicians had been invited from Moscow. No Assyrian singing and dancing group could be found anywhere closer. One song they performed was “Ko Riboin”, and the guests liked it so much that they made the musicians repeat it for seven encores. So Amir learned all the words and sang it at home with his brothers. Now, who could have foretold to me that I, a boy from a cultured family, would be sitting on prison bunks in the midst of thugs and thieves, singing a duet with an Azerbaijani bandit in Aramaic! “Lord G-d – Master of the World”? Ever since (how many years have passed!), when I sing “Ko-Ribboin” on Friday night I still can’t help remembering that drainpipe Shlemazl… Winner of the “Fiddler on the Roof” prize for Courage, Nosson Vershubsky! Moiray veraboysay! my teachers; and Ladies and Gentlemen! Let me congratulate all of you on the holiday of Hanukah; – a freilichen Khanuka! On this occasion we remember the fact that life is unpredictable; and full of wonders! Forty years ago my father of blessed memory, journalist, Party member, sitting in front of the television, listened to the many-hour-long report by Leonid Il’ich [Brezhnev] to the 25th Congress of the CPSU – Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Could he possibly have imagined that his own son, from this same place, on this selfsame stage, would be singing “Ko Riboin Olam”? Lord, Master of the Universe! At first from prison bunks, and then here! I am filled with true thankfulness to the Almighty for His having taken me along the very edge of the precipice, for His having given me the gift of an excursion into the abyss. As Andrei Tarkovskii said, “Life took me under its wing, shepherded me, and rescued me. I was really truly lucky – but that’s not all there is to it. Only this is not enough!” I am sure that each one of us sitting in this hall has been escorted by the Almighty through some sort of difficulty, through trials – in order for us to become wiser, stronger, more unwavering, in order for us to see what we didn’t see before, hear what we didn’t hear before; in order for us to become stronger. A Freylichen Khanuka! (Announcer) Nosson Vershubsky

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