Millions who know not his name owe him an incalculable debt of gratitude
It is surely no stranger to history that some of its main actors die penniless and in obscurity, unknown or underappreciated, as if their efforts on this mortal coil left no footprint, as if the world came and went none the richer for their lives. It is certainly no stranger to the historical record that some people long forgotten enjoy a glorious posthumous career that would have stunned them in their lifetime, when they peered from between cracks in the latticework onto an indifferent world that acted as if they were minor players, if even that.
We have no prophetic knowledge as to how history will treat Jacob Birnbaum; we do know how he was treated in his lifetime, certainly the last 30 years of it. Can you name the heroes of the Soviet Jewry movement — that is, not the heroes inside Russia, but the actors outside the communist prison that opened the gates? Elie Wiesel? Abraham Joshua Heschel? Avi Weiss? Henry “Scoop” Jackson? Meir Kahane?
Can you name the Soviet Jewry movement at all?
No doubt, hundreds of dedicated activists around the country and the world devoted countless hours, mounted numberless demonstrations, devised untold creative techniques to secure the attention and break the will of the Soviet Union in its refusal to let Soviet Jews identify as Jews and to let them leave their prison. Equally, there was one man — one lonely voice hammered down by American Jewish indifference and even hostility — who kept coming back again and again. Who insisted with the force of a Jeremiah on the addition of Soviet Jewry to the American agenda, and the American Jewish agenda. Who sought no personal glory, publicity or material benefit for himself in raising the specter of millions of imprisoned Jews. Who founded one organization, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, not in order to solidify, expand, enhance, finance or raise the specter of this organization, but just the opposite. Who founded what came to be known as SSSJ in order to goad larger Jewish organizations to take notice of Soviet Jewry.
To the extent that SSSJ was finally eclipsed by Jewish leaders of far more powerful, influential and wealthy organizations who, after years of indifference, took up the cudgels for Soviet Jewry, Jacob Birnbaum was pleased.
Jacob Birnbaum was there for the cause, nothing else. For the pain in his gut that saw millions of Jews robbed of their identity and heritage — and forgotten by the rest of the Jewish people.
It would be pointless to enter a debate as to whether history is moved by great actors or by “forces” that far transcend the individual. Whether, for example, the Soviet Jewry movement would ever have taken off without the boost in Jewish confidence triggered by the Six Day War, or without the boost provided by the civil rights and ethnic politics in the American ‘60s. Or whether, alternatively, it was a result, preponerdantly, of the dogged, almost anonymous work of one forgotten man, Jacob Birnbaum. Of course there are “forces” that drive history. Equally, there are great actors who help create, catalyze or harness those forces. That was Jacob Birnbaum, who died last week, nearly penniless, surely overlooked.
It is astonishing, yet emblematic, that even so fine an historian as Jonathan Sarna, in his authoritative American Judaism (2004), mentions Birnbaum not once. History, it has been said, is lived forward, but understood backwards. One of the problems in understanding history backwards is that when the results are in, when the consequences of the “forces” are clear, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to recapture the landscape, to reimagine the reality, before these forces unfolded. Back in the day, as they say, when the phrase “Soviet Jewry” elicited, if anything, a “duh” or “who?” or “what’s that?”, one man was hitting his head against the wall.
Not occasionally, as a writer, or a professor, or a politician, or a rabbi, or a student, who had many other things on his plate, but full time. Day in and day out. Lonely, small meeting after lonely, small meeting. Supporting himself, somehow, living in rented quarters, scrapping for food money, not really focused on any of that because of the passion that consumed him: freedom for Soviet Jewry.
Jacob Birnbaum and his faithful assistant, Glenn Richter, imagined the release of millions of Jews when other Jews didn’t even know that Soviet Jews were systematically stripped of their freedom to be Jewish. Birnbaum imagined a Jewish establishment utterly transformed and energized by his passion when the few people who gathered around Birnbaum thought he was just this side of daft.
But he persevered. Student by student. Dollar by dollar. Small, unnoticed demonstration by small, unnoticed demonstration. All at glacially slow speed. Until, very gradually, the Jewish people began to pay a little attention. Which did not dent his ferocity a bit. He was not in this for small victories. He would not be satisfied by a somewhat bigger demonstration, a politician's supportive statement, a major Jewish organization’s resolution, a rabbi’s urgent sermon, even the emergence of a Soviet Jewry “movement” — or, even the release of a few thousand Soviet Jews. So long as the Soviet Jewry movement was not successful in securing freedom for all Soviet Jews, the fire in Birnbaum’s belly, the intensity of his planning, lobbying, demonstrating, phone-calling, organizing, analyzing and speaking did not diminish one bit.
And now he is gone. Perhaps history will one day see him for what he did. One thing is clear: Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people who have never heard his name owe an incalculable debt to this unadulterated, unwavering idealist, this blessed son of the Jewish people, Jacob Birnbaum.
Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News