June 17, 2024
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June 17, 2024
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The October I Didn’t Get Married

In July 1985, I got engaged. The plan was to get married in October 1987, or at least to begin the process to get married. Under the circumstances, I couldn’t have just eloped, gone to a local court, or organized a more traditional Jewish wedding as would have been my inclination. My fiancée was a Soviet Jewish refusenik. I proposed marriage the day we met in July 1985. The idea was that I was going to marry Kate to get her US citizenship, bring her to America, and use her becoming an American to get the rest of her family out.

Given how Soviet Jews were persecuted daily in every facet of life, this was my little battle to seek the freedom of at least one family.

I was committed to this arrangement, although it would have been fictitious and illegal according to US law. I referred to Kate as my fiancée for two years and made arrangements to try to learn what would be needed to initiate a Soviet civil marriage, at a time before the advent of the internet, when phone calls and even letters were monitored by the KGB. So I couldn’t just google how to get married in the USSR, and I couldn’t write or speak about it in our communications lest we get caught.

I am not sure my fiancée fully understood how serious I was, whether she considered me her fiancé, or had any grasp of what I was doing to raise awareness (and funds) to make this “marriage” possible, albeit under the radar so neither the Soviets nor the American government would have been on to me. I understood the US penalty for a fictitious marriage and was prepared to risk it, despite a hefty fine and possible jail time. As serious as I was, and overall my efforts were admired, sometimes people joked that it was a way to buy myself a Russian bride or they made other, less PG-rated suggestions.

I suspect it’s still illegal for a US citizen to marry someone for the purpose of getting them US citizenship, and since I never did it, I suppose it’s safe for me to talk now about a crime I didn’t commit 35 years ago. But it’s strange that hundreds of thousands cross the US border regularly albeit illegally for much less noble reasons, and filing any legal charges against them are unheard of. Yet had I been caught, I could have spent the full decade of my 20s in jail, and my “wife” would have been deported.

My plans to return to the USSR in October 1987 were well underway by the time I got a phone call from Kate that July, sharing the news that she and her family had just been freed from the USSR. They thus became four of fewer than 900 Jews to be given permission to leave the country that year. Ted Koppel, theABC News anchor who was telling part of the story in March 1998 summed up the situation well, “It’s hard to tell why the Soviets do what they do.” But conventional wisdom was that because of my activism and the spotlight on her family, they were released to avoid the continued headache of the publicity I had already generated. Little did they know what I had had in store.

I was committed to this fictitious marriage despite knowing it would change and complicate my life, though I don’t think I was aware of how much, even assuming that I wouldn’t get caught. Therefore, the Soviets granting Kate’s family their freedom was one of the best non-wedding presents I could have received.

I don’t think about this part of my past so often, but this year is my 35th “anniversary.” It’s a milestone. A non-anniversary I celebrate alone.

What really made me think about it most recently is the visit a few weeks ago of my ex-finance’s 16-year-old son, Mehael, to meet my family and spend Shabbat with us. Despite having never met him, I felt a kinship to Mehael immediately. Hel is studying in the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program. It’s no little thing that he has a strong connection to Israel and the Jewish people. Growing up in the US, he could just as easily assimilate into American society. But his Jewish identity and connection to Israel are so strong that he made it a priority to spend a semester of high school in Israel, not waiting for a gap year between high school and college. In fact, Mehael talks about making Aliyah and serving in the IDF.

If one understands even a little about how the Soviets persecuted Jews and prevented them from practicing Judaism or connecting to their heritage, it’s of course understandable why Jews wanted to leave, and eventually did so en masse. But it’s not to be taken for granted that as a first generation American child and grandchild of people who identify as Jews but are by far not practicing Judaism, that Mehael would proactively choose to undertake the path he has.

His determination reminded me of myself at his age when I adopted his family, became a pen pal to his mother, and committed to getting them all free, even through a fictitious marriage if need be. While I felt connected and was able to share things about Mehael’s family that he didn’t know, he was surprised to learn about my plans to marry his mother. For me, it was a huge undertaking and is still a relevant part of my life. He couldn’t imagine that I would have done this. In retrospect decades later, there is something unimaginable about it.

Mehael is tremendously bright and inquisitive, wanting to learn more about Israel and the Jewish people. He’s fluent in Russian and was impressed that I taught myself to read Russian to get around Moscow on my own, without calling attention to myself as a 20-something- year-old lone tourist who was plotting to marry a Soviet citizen just to get her free. As much as he knows about the history of the USSR and the Jews, and his family there, he still doesn’t know many things. That’s all the more so among his peers who are fourth- and fifth-generation Americans and who have no idea of the historical persecution of Soviet Jews, or the complementary struggles to get them free among both the Jews in the USSR and in the West.

The history of the persecution and redemption of Soviet Jews is an essential chapter in our modern history as a people and along the timeline of Jewish history in general and the history of Israel in particular. Whether they know Russian or not from speaking to their parents and grandparents, I hope that students like Mehael, in the US, Israel and everywhere else, will be able to l take the story of someone who was once their age as a model to be connected to and to benefit our people for generations.

Forgetting the modern exodus of our people from the USSR would be as bad as forgetting the Biblical Exodus, both central events in our history and crucial to understanding where we are today. As much as my idea of marrying Kate was unimaginable, forgetting this chapter in our history would be incomparably worse.

Jonathan Feldstein, formerly of Teaneck, made aliyah in 2004 and now lives in Efrat.

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