In the Fall 1986 Bible Review, several articles were devoted to the Book of Psalms, including one by BR managing editor Suzanne Singer entitled “The Power of Psalms in Our Time” that recounted the effect of the psalms on the Soviet Jew Anatoly Shcharansky (now, since his immigration to Israel, Natan Sharansky).
On November 29, 1987, Sharansky addressed a packed audience at Temple of Aaron, a synagogue in St. Paul, Minnesota. Moved by the article in BR and with the help of Rabbi Bernard Raskas, I arranged to visit with Sharansky before his address. The following are some excerpts from my talk with him.
JL: Mr. Sharansky, tomorrow morning I will begin teaching a course on the psalms to about 35 students at a Lutheran seminary here in St. Paul. On my syllabus which each of the students gets is a quotation from Martin Luther: “The Psalms might well be called a little Bible.” Then, right below it is a quotation from Natan Sharansky, words you uttered shortly before your final release from prison, when your Soviet guards tried to take away from you your Book of Psalms:
“I said I would not leave without the Psalms that had helped me so much … I lay down in the snow and said, ‘Not another step.’ ”
I wonder if you would say a word to my students about what the Psalms meant to you during the time when you were a prisoner in the Soviet Union.
NS: In the Soviet Union, I didn’t know anything about the Psalms simply because the Jews were assimilated. The majority of the Soviet people have no access to religion. But later—as I began to come back to our national roots, to our history, our culture—tradition started playing a bigger role for me. Shortly before my arrest, I received a little Psalm book from my wife, Avital. She wrote “I feel that the time has come for this book to be with you.” I had long struggled with the authorities to have this one book with me. I spent many hundreds of days in the punishment cell so that I could have it with me. It was in Hebrew. I read and read, but my Hebrew wasn’t good enough to 011understand it. Then after a time I began to understand more and more, and through this book of Psalms I could feel myself as part of our people, part of my family, part of my country, part of our history. The words “and when I go through the valley of death I won’t fear anything as You are with me” (Psalm 23) became a part of my life; and also the words from Psalm 27, that mother and father have left me, and only God is with me. And many other wonderful Psalms which I would repeat.
JL: like Psalm 133?
NS: (smiling) Yes, it’s about how pleasant it is to sit together with brothers. I sang it in the punishment cell when I was alone, then I sang it at the airport when I came to Israel, with thousands of my friends.
JL: Thank you very much! I’m going to play this for my students tomorrow. This may be the first time you’ll be on the same program with a quotation from Martin Luther!
NS: (laughter) OK!
Later, at a press conference, the following exchange took place:
JL: I asked you earlier about the Psalms and you talked about learning Hebrew. Can you tell us how you learned Hebrew while you were in prison?
NS: Well, of course, I had studied a little bit before, in our illegal underground Ulpan [a Hebrew cram course]. In prison itself I couldn’t study except for one short period when the prisoner in the neighboring cell was Yosef Mitalevitch, another Soviet Jew. Of course we were not permitted to make contact from cell to cell, but if you pumped out the water from the pipes of the toilet and, well, if you were very careful that the guards didn’t see you, you could try to talk through those pipes. If they saw you, you were immediately put into the punishment cell. My neighbor’s Hebrew was very good, of course all from memory. For some weeks he gave me lectures on Hebrew, on Torah, but it was only a couple of weeks during all those nine years.
Question from the audience: Where was God in all this?
NS: I became religious in prison. The Psalms of King David helped me to survive and gave me strength. Proof that God is still with us is the survival of the Jewish people. [applause]
When I meet a new class of Hebrew students in the fall, I have a hunch I’ll be quoting Sharansky.
In the Fall 1986 Bible Review, several articles were devoted to the Book of Psalms, including one by BR managing editor Suzanne Singer entitled “The Power of Psalms in Our Time” that recounted the effect of the psalms on the Soviet Jew Anatoly Shcharansky (now, since his immigration to Israel, Natan Sharansky). On November 29, 1987, Sharansky addressed a packed audience at Temple of Aaron, a synagogue in St. Paul, Minnesota. Moved by the article in BR and with the help of Rabbi Bernard Raskas, I arranged to visit with Sharansky before his address. The following are some excerpts […]