Natan Sharansky on Pesach and Freedom

Natan Sharansky is greeted by then Prime Minister of Israel Simon Peres as he steps off the plane in Ben Gurion following his release from Soviet prison on February 11, 1986. Photo: Nati Harnik/Israel Government Press Office

My formative years included leaving an empty chair at the Seder table for the Jews of Russia, reading Elie Wiesel’s book The Jews of Silence and attending rallies and marches for Soviet Jewry, chanting “Let my people go!” As time went on, those amorphous faces became names, and one of the most famous was that of Anatoly Sharansky, who, after his aliyah to Israel, became Natan Sharansky.

Born in 1948 in the Ukraine, Sharansky was a human rights activist, became a dedicated student and teacher of Hebrew, and emerged as one of the most famous refuseniks, banging on the gates of the Soviet Union.

In 1973, Sharansky, who has a degree in mathematics from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, applied for an exit visa to Israel, but was refused. He and Avital married in 1974, a day and a half before her exit visa expired. The day after their wedding, she left for Israel, hoping Natan would soon follow.

In 1977, after being falsely accused and then arrested for collaborating with the CIA, Sharansky was sentenced to thirteen years of imprisonment, including solitary confinement and hard labor, enduring hunger strikes and torturous forced feedings. In the Gulag, he exhibited remarkable spiritual resilience, lighting a little wooden menorah created by his non-Jewish prison mates who were impressed with his explanation of Chanukah as a holiday of national freedom. He was overjoyed when his precious little book of Psalms, a gift from Avital, was returned to him in prison.

Avital tirelessly petitioned and pleaded with heads of state throughout the world. After nine long years, the international pressure finally led to Sharansky’s release.

With his wife Avital by his side, Natan Sharansky calls then US President Ronald Reagan from Ben Gurion Airport to thank the President for his part in the international pressure that led to Natan’s release. Photo: Nati Harnik/Israel Government Press Office.

Thousands of us watched TV on February 11, 1986, mesmerized, as Sharansky walked across the Glienicke Bridge in Germany to freedom. He reunited with Avital in Israel; today they have two daughters, Rachel and Hannah, and eight grandchildren.

Between 1996 and 2006 Sharansky was in politics, serving as a Knesset member and often as a minister. He opposed the Oslo Accords, and resigned from Ariel Sharon’s government in 2005, due to his objection to the Disengagement Plan. Referring to both plans, he says: “It is an illusion that it’s not our business who are our neighbors. We have to find those who will be strong enough to deliver peace.”

From 2009 to 2018 he served as Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Today he chairs five non-profits, including several that combat antisemitism, and is proud of a program he initiated about twenty years ago, to send Israeli fellows to university campuses in America. He says their work is especially valuable now. Among his many awards was the Genesis Prize; today he is the chair of its advisory board.

Photo: Mark Neyman/Israel Government Press Office

Toby Klein Greenwald: I understand you celebrate two sidrei Pesach two different times of the year in your home. Can you tell us about it?

Natan Sharansky: That’s true. Our family celebrates two sidrei Pesach—one on the fifteenth of Nissan, centering on Yetziat Mitzrayim, leaving Egypt, and one on Bet Adar Alef, the day of my liberation from prison, my Yetziat m’Soviet Union, leaving the Soviet Union.

On that day, I wear a kippah a fellow inmate made for me and pull out the small black Book of Psalms that was my companion in prison. Avital and I retell the story of our exodus, and our children, now our grandchildren, ask questions.

When my children were five years old, they asked questions mainly about what kind of animals I had in my cell. When they were twelve years old, they asked [more sophisticated questions such as] about how Jews the world over helped us and how I managed to survive.

And when they were seventeen years old, their questions got even more sophisticated, and they asked about the Soviet Union and about the nature of Communism and Zionism. Now we go through the same routine with our grandchildren.

We use the Haggadah to illustrate the story of Soviet Jewry. There were at least two generations of Jews in America who dedicated their lives to the struggle of Soviet Jewry over a period of twenty-five years—they demonstrated, gathered information, traveled to Russia—all of which led to the Jewish people’s greatest victory since the establishment of the State of Israel over the largest and most powerful dictatorship in the world. Sadly, in many cases, the children and grandchildren of these former activists don’t know anything about the struggle for Soviet Jewry.

Jews are always looking for stories in our history that can strengthen Jewish pride and identity among their children and grandchildren, but they don’t have to search too far; they only have to tell their children about their own lives, and how they helped tear down the Iron Curtain.

TKG: How do you view freedom?

NS: The Jewish people have always insisted on being free and belonging at the same time—to be a people of one G-d, one book, one history, and at the same time, to be people who enjoy freedom.

“Freedom” means that [no person] can tell you what to do. And “identity” means you are a part of something that is bigger than yourself. In other words, when one feels that his life is much bigger than his own career, his personal history, that he’s part of something much bigger—of the history and religion of one’s people.

Like every Jew in the Soviet Union, I was fully deprived of my Jewish identity—I grew up totally assimilated, knowing nothing about my history, my tradition, my religion, about the State of Israel. I was born three years after the war against the Nazis ended; I grew up in the killing fields of the Holocaust—in each of these places—Odessa, Kiev, Kharkov, etc.—tens of thousands of Jews were killed, including many of my relatives. But we grew up knowing nothing about the Holocaust. That was the policy of the Soviet Union—to deprive us of our memory, of our identity and of our feelings of solidarity so we could be slaves to the cause of Communism. At the same time, I was deprived of my freedom.

We knew the state would decide for us what to say, what to think. When did I find the strength to fight for my freedom? When I discovered my Judaism. In 1967, Israel emerged victorious against its enemies who were supported by the Soviet Union. Israel’s victory was a huge humiliation for the Soviet Empire, and suddenly I felt a connection to the State of Israel. I [and a handful of other Jews with me] decided to explore this mystical connection between ourselves and the State of Israel; we started studying in the Hebrew underground our history, our language, the history of the State of Israel. American and European Jewish tourists would bring us books. We realized our history did not start with the Bolshevik Revolution; it started with the Exodus from Egypt.

And we began to feel strong—strong enough to fight for our freedom. My desire to be free and my identity were discovered together. [Italicized section is paraphrased from a video presentation Mr. Sharansky delivered for TorahCafe entitled “The Courage to Be Free,” at].

[Nowadays] many young American Jews on the college campuses tell me they want to devote themselves to perfecting the world, they are looking for tikkun olam; I tell them, if you want to make the world a better place, the first thing you need to do is strengthen your Jewish identity.

If you are deprived of your history, of your roots, of your identity, like it says in the first chapter of Psalms, then you have no source of strength . . . you are powerless.

When did I find the strength to fight for my freedom? When I discovered my Judaism.

True freedom is a product of a strong Jewish identity and connectedness with one’s history and traditions. Jews need to discover that they have a history and a people; they need to be proud Jews connected to the past and the future. As I wrote in my book, Defending Identity, “Identity gave me the strength to become free. When Jews abandon identity in the pursuit of universal freedom, they end up with neither. Yet when they embrace identity in the name of freedom, as Soviet Jews did in the 1970s, they end up securing both.”

We left Egypt and became free people at the same time. Jews are a unique people whose history says how identity and freedom go together . . . . G-d gave us free will, and we need to choose our [Jewish] identity as a free people, and not as a nation of slaves.*


TKG: What gives you strength? What gives you hope?

NS: We are in the midst of a big crisis, because we lived with one view of Israel—an Israel that was united and where Jews took responsibility for one another. It was Israel of the Six-Day War and of Entebbe. And that image of Israel collapsed, because suddenly the Jewish State was not able to protect its civilians and to get the hostages out immediately. We took it for granted that [something like October 7] cannot happen. But it can happen. On October 7 we were reminded in the most powerful way that we cannot take our security for granted.

On October 6, we were one of the most polarized societies of the world. Everybody was participating in demonstrations. Half of the country believed that the other half was trying to steal the country from them. But on October 8, we showed what a strong, unified society we are, where there was—and I hope—there still is, no left and no right. Suddenly, we are one family where everybody is mobilized, where we are loving and supporting of one another. We have so many volunteer soldiers, and everyone, from the Chareidi to the most secular, is involved in actively supporting the soldiers, volunteering in many ways throughout the country. Our son-in-law was in reserve duty in Jenin and Avital and I were on “reserve duty” as Savta and Saba—our daughter Hannah and their five boys lived with us.

If there is anything good that can come from such a tragedy—it is that we see how strong and idealistic our people are, and how the younger generation is no less Zionistic and Jewish than the older one.

Now we have to fully destroy Hamas and bring back our citizens and make sure that in the future such a catastrophe will never be repeated. History teaches us that we have to fight—but we have all the resources to be very optimistic.

May we hear good tidings.

Toby Klein Greenwald is an award-winning journalist and theater director, and editor-in-chief of

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