By the end of 1992 it is estimated that 1 million Soviet Jews will have left their homeland and emigrated to Israel, where they face Iraqi threats of chemical warfare, an Arab uprising in the West Bank and Gaza, high unemployment and a severe housing shortage.
Why are they leaving? Communism is coming apart at the seams, religion is no longer banned and a free market economy is beginning to emerge in the Soviet Union. Since most of these Jews are "secular" or non-practicing, having been forbidden even to learn Hebrew since the 1917 revolution - the exodus is especially puzzling.A new novel by Norma Harris, "Trumpets of Silver," traces members of a Russian-Jewish family as they flee Odessa for the Russian Pale and from there emigrate to America. Leaving their homeland is no more difficult for these fictional Russian Jews than for those in today's exodus because the alternative is the same - virulent anti-Semitism.
The book begins in 1891 at Passover time in Odessa. The stabbing of a young Christian boy by a soldier quickly turns into a pogrom - senseless mob anarchy. The age-old canard of Christian children's blood shed for Passover Matzah explodes in a frenzy of murder. Shmuel Ka-minsky and his young son Joshua are walking hand in hand through the marketplace when Shmuel sees a red glow on the horizon.
" `You're hurting me, Papa,' Joshua cried. `Let go of my hand!' The child's strident voice brought Shmuel to his senses, and those terrible words flooded his brain: Pogrom! Cossacks! Oh, God. No! In the distance, a thick cloud of dust mushroomed beneath fiery red torches. The rhythm of a hundred horses pounded in Shmuel's brain. Already, he could smell the smoke and fire, hear the cries of the dying and wounded. Please, God, protect us, he prayed. Then he strengthened his grip on the boy's arm, and, jerking it, shouted, `Come, Joshua! We must find a place to hide.' "
Coinciding with a priest's Easter sermon about Christ-killers, the murder of the young boy triggers the expulsion of all Jews who survived the pogrom. Shmuel Kaminsky, the language professor, gathers his family and heads to the gulag of that time, the Jewish Pale - a bleak section of land that once belonged to Poland. Catherine the Great called it the "Pale of Settlement" and forbade Jews to leave or to travel to Russia, so they couldn't join guilds or unions. The Pale meant grinding poverty and bar mitzvah boys drafted into the czar's army for 25 years.
"Trumpets of Silver" is a compelling story but is in many ways predictable: young Joshua becomes a Zionist and emigrates to Palestine; there are two Catholic-Jewish romances, and Shmuel and Sarah's daughter Sonia becomes the epitome of the stereotypical "princess." But the writing rises above formula when Harris describes the traditions that have kept Judaism alive through the thousands of years of diaspora.
As Sarah prepares for the Sabbath, the customs are explained: "No money could be carried, no business spoken of, no cooking or cleaning done, no light kindled. Even the paper in the outhouse had to be torn in advance, and every servant and animal given rest. It was a time for God and family."
As Jewish women have done for thousands of years at sundown on Friday night, "Sarah covered her head with a piece of lace. She blessed her family, then sparked the match to light the candles resting in her mother's silver candlesticks. She closed her eyes and, with her delicate tapered fingers, spun a magical web across the flames, bringing both fists to cover her eyes. Doing this, she sang an ancient Hebrew prayer that blessed her Maker, feeling a special warmth tonight. . . . Home was being together, honoring God on a Sabbath night. And she smiled, knowing that all across the Pale and around the world, displaced Jews were in shul reading the same Torah page, blessing the Lord and celebrating the Sabbath. And in these ancient acts and traditions they were connected, bound together, historically woven in an intricate and endless tapestry of God's beautiful design."
There is something very satisfying about reading a good story and having received insight into the very soul of a another people. The Torah verse, from Numbers 10:1-2, that gives this novel its name reads:
"And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: Make thee two trumpets of silver; of beaten work shalt thou make them; and they shall be unto thee for the calling of the congregation and for the causing the camps to set forward."
This scripture also offers a prayer for this generation: May we be called to set forward to a day of acceptance and tolerance.