Rabbi Mendelevich related that, as a young man, he had lived the good life, by Soviet standards. He attained a university education, was a member of the Communist Party, and was well versed in Russian poetry. Although he knew that he was Jewish, he – like most Jews in the U.S.S.R. – initially felt ashamed to be a Jew. Later, he changed his attitude toward his Jewish identity, and considered it a privilege to be Jew. He and his Jewish friends were angered by the Soviet empire’s oppression of their people, and organized an underground movement to fight it. Behind the government’s back, they attended synagogue service, published a newspaper and taught others what little they knew of their Jewish heritage.
As the Jewish underground expanded, Yosef Mendelevich realized that the Soviet Union was no place for the Jewish people, and that their only choice was to emigrate to Israel. Yet, leaving the Soviet Union was no simple feat. After being turned down by the government officials, Yosef decided on a different tactic: he and his friends would hijack an airplane to a Western country and publicize the plight of Soviet Jewry. It was a great idea, until they were arrested at the airport and imprisoned.
From his cell, Yosef continued to combat his jailers, and came up with an ingenious strategy: by building a wall of separation between himself and them. His interrogators tried to convince him to cut his ties with Jews and with religion in general, to be a good Communist and to contribute to the country. Yosef openly defied them at every step of the way. His wrapped a handkerchief around his head to serve as a yarmulke, a traditional head covering. He found clever ways to pray and to observe the weekly Sabbath. Eventually, his captors realized that this Jewish prisoner could not be broken; when he finally left the Soviet Union, the very people who had earlier refused to let him leave their country escorted him to the airport.
Rabbi Mendelevich recounts his fascinating experience in his book, Unbroken Spirit, which you can purchase here. His story is a lesson for us all, Jews and non-Jews alike. In a broader sense, the struggle against Soviet oppression was a battle against the stifling mind-set that the Soviets represented. It’s a mind-set that poses a danger to people in Western societies, too.
The world expects little of the typical person. Society demands that we perform at tolerable, acceptable levels, rather than pushing ourselves to achieve our very best. Seth Godin has articulated this point well: “The safest thing you can do, it seems, is to fit in. Total deniability. Hey, I’m just doing what the masses do.” Average performance is not only the expectation; it’s the demand. Creative thinking and innovation are frowned upon and feared. Who among us has the courage to be different? You have to be crazy to fight back against that tide of withering assimilation and conformity.
One of the most important lessons to teach our children, and ourselves, is that sometimes you have to be a little crazy. Whether in the four walls of a Soviet prison or the four walls of an office cubicle, think of achieving something beyond your natural limitations. Yosef Mendelevich had an easy way out: drop all of that religious nonsense, the stuff of underdeveloped people, and just be a good Soviet citizen. Instead, he dreamed of something bigger, and fought back. Today, he is celebrated as one of the many heroes who brought down the Evil Empire. We can all be heroes, too.