Lenin, Meet Noah

Fall was just beginning to turn the Moscow air crispy when the lot of us — 10 high school seniors and three faculty members of Yeshiva University Los Angeles Girls’ School — trudged down the stairs of our Intourist Hotel in the late ’80s, and began our walk of several miles, not to the better-known Chabad Lubavitch Synagogue or to the Moscow Choral Synagogue, but to another shul in the city’s north.

Marina Roscha was discreetly tucked away, just out of view from the street it shared with a major hospital. Its old frame building was as unobtrusive as its beginnings. It had been built in those first few years of post-Revolution confusion, when it was still possible to act without Big Brother noticing. (Although it had withstood decades of Communist rule, it was firebombed — twice — since our visit, and only recently rebuilt as a Jewish community center.)

The minimum mandatory age for the local attendees appeared to be 85. Besides us, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the famed Israeli thinker, davened there that Shabbat morning. After services, many of the men gathered around a table to study Mishnah. The class had invited Steinsaltz to speak, so I listened in as he addressed them in Yiddish.

“Yidden, this morning we read the portion about Noah. Do you know what the lesson of this portion is in a nutshell?” Not waiting for a response, he continued: “There are two lessons. One is that it is possible that a person can wake up and find that the entire world has gone mad, that he is the last sane person to survive. Two is what you should do when this happens.

“Let me tell you a story. After World War II, I returned to Paris to look for family. The last thing I expected to find was a shul to pray in on Shabbat. In fact, there was such a shul, and I joined a handful of old, broken survivors for davening. Ten years later, I returned, and sought out the same shul. Certainly, I thought, all the old ones would have passed on, and the shul would have closed. Instead, I found more people than a decade before. There were some middle-aged people, and even a few children.

“Another decade or so passed. How delighted I was to find that the shul was now bustling with people of all ages, with children running everywhere.

“A week ago, I visited again, and found fewer congregants than before. They told me that the shul had become so big that it had spawned two breakaway shuls, and siphoned off many people! Those few beaten-down survivors had succeeded in creating a vital community!”

He looked hard at the faces of the men who had known nothing but communist oppression for the last 70 years.

“What do you do when you are the only sane person left, when there is nothing but madness around?” he asked. “You keep to your principles. You keep doing what you know God wants you to do. You may discover one day that you have triumphed, and single-handedly rebuilt a better new world.”

Although these old men were hardened by adversity, there was hardly a dry eye among them. They recognized the message as the summation of their lives. To Lenin goes much of the “credit” for inventing state-controlled terror as an instrument of imposing the government’s will. Individuals simply did not matter. And religion had to be crushed to make way for more progressive ideas.

Many of us find ourselves crushed under the weight of a world burdened with a new variety of madness. At the same time, the principles and practices that offered Jews dignity and purpose in other stormy times are often attacked as outdated and insufficiently progressive.

Noah showed that tenaciously clinging to the truth can be profoundly lonely, but crucially effective. Ultimately, he got the best of Lenin. It just took a while to find out.

This column originally appeared in The Journal on Oct. 19, 2001.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein directs Project Next Step for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and holds the Sydney M. Irmas Chair in Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School.

Your Letters

Lenin Revisited

Contrary to Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein’s claims (“Lenin Meet Noah,” Oct. 19), “state-controlled terror as an instrument of imposing the government’s will” was not invented by Lenin. In fact, the revolution he led outlawed anti-Semitism and the pogroms that permeated Russia prior to 1917.

For 1,800 years throughout Europe, Jews had either been barred from settling altogether or confined by law to ghettos — from which they could not emerge at night or Sundays — shtetls or the Pale of Settlement, denied citizenship, land ownership, and admission to most professions, trades and occupations. Jews could not leave the ghetto without wearing yellow badges. State-authorized violence against Jews was perpetrated by military forces.

In 1791, the French emancipated Jews who joined with them as their armies advanced across Europe, tearing down ghetto walls. But in 1815, the Congress of Vienna rescinded the obligation of any nation to grant rights to Jews. In Russia, oppression of Jews remained as an instrument of imposing the government’s will until Lenin.

While the Soviets suppressed all religion, they fought Nazi genocide, which grew easily from the European soil in which persecution of Jews had been cultivated for centuries.

Ralph Fertig, Los Angeles

Teresa Strasser

To Teresa Strasser, regarding your latest column (“In Praise of Geeks,” Oct. 19). Keep your hands off my husband!

Janet Fuchs, Beverly Hills

Kosher Bunny

By the time I was done reading Lauren Linett’s letter poking fun at The Jewish Journal’s attention to “Kosher Bunny” Lindsey Vuolo (Letters, Oct. 19), I thought, this proud Jewish woman’s got spunk. Then, after I kept reading and noticed that The Jewish Journal made the smart decision to actually publish her photo, I thought, Playboy needs a talent scout to keep an eye on the pages of The Jewish Journal.

Name withheld by request

A Living Wage

It is easier to focus on the living wage issue of big hotels in Santa Monica (“Santa Monica Gets a CLUE,” Sept. 28) than to look into the remuneration of the people who clean our homes. Jewish employers of domestic help would be well-advised to read a book titled “Dom├ęstica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence.” Written by Pierreta Hondagneu-Sotelo, a USC professor who is also the daughter of a Latina maid, the book discusses issues in the informal, unregulated world of Hispanic household help. Hondagneu-Sotelo observes that among themselves, domestic workers share information about types of employers to avoid. The list includes “Armenians, Iranians, Asians, Latinos, blacks and Jews, especially Israeli Jews.”

Those of us who try to right wrongs and consider ourselves fighters for the underdog should look at our own treatment of household employees and other low-wage workers. It is much easier to make a case for what someone else should be paying. When low-wage workers can get better pay and benefits cleaning our own homes and offices, the hotels may be forced to pay the living wage to attract employees.

Karen Heller Mason, Los Angeles

For The Kids

As an 11-year-old Torah-observant day school student, I would like to point out some mistakes in the “For The Kids” section (Oct. 19). In the Tower of Babel article, the people decided to build the tower because they wanted to rebel against God, not because they wanted to come closer to Him.

In the article about Noah, it said that it took Noah 120 days to build the ark. It really took 120 years. The article said, “The rabbis ask: ‘Why did it take him so long?'” The article answered that God was giving Noah a chance to talk to his neighbors. The real answer is that God was giving the people one last chance to repent.

Noah Gruen, Los Angeles

Editor’s Note: The Torah has 70 faces and the author’s version is one of the many interpretations. But the midrash indeed suggests that it took Noah 120 years to build the ark.