Former refusenik Yosef Begun still keeps a series of black-and-white sketches of Moses, and other biblical figures and scenes, that an inmate in a Soviet prison had drawn for him more than 30 years ago.
Begun, who was arrested in the late 1970s for promoting Jewish education and identity to a Russian Jewish populace that had lost many of its traditions, happened to be relating the Passover story to several fellow inmates those three long decades ago. One of them, who had a Jewish father but hadn't ever identified as a Jew, was so inspired by the tale he heard that he immediately began to draw images linked to the story.
That same young man -- Begun said that he's lost touch with the fellow and doesn't recall his name -- was among the throngs of people who greeted the refusenik when he arrived a free man at Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport on Jan. 20, 1988. (Three months earlier, Begun had been carried aloft by a celebratory crowd upon his return to Moscow after his release from the Gulag.)
To this day, Begun said, the drawings represent for him the power of Jewish education to transform an individual.
Begun, now 78, recounted similar stories of his long struggle against the Soviet Union on behalf of Jewry there -- and the right to immigrate to Israel -- during a recent local program sponsored by the Jewish National Fund. He's currently in the midst of an American speaking tour, where he's focusing on the importance of promoting Jewish identity and education in Diaspora communities.
In an interview prior to his talk at Temple Beth Hillel/Beth El in Wynnewood, Begun said, in somewhat halting English, that the goal of his tour is to "strengthen Jewish identity, Jewish solidarity and the unity of the two separate parts of the Jewish people -- the Jewish state and the Diaspora."
Begun, who now lives in Israel, recalled that well into his 30s, he knew so little about Judaism that the Torah and the Hebrew language were utterly foreign concepts to him. These days -- speaking softly with animated hand gestures -- he called himself a pluralist, but one who maintains that notions of religion and God cannot be divorced from Jewish peoplehood.
Symbol of the Struggle
Begun was a senior researcher at the Moscow Economic Planning Institute when, in 1971, he applied for an exit visa to Israel.
He was summarily stripped of his job and arrested multiple times; in 1983, he was convicted of anti-Soviet agitation and sentenced to seven years in a harsh labor camp. He became one of the best-known Soviet political prisoners of the period, as well as a symbol for the Soviet Jewry movement.
Marina Furman, a former refusenik herself who now heads JNF's Philadelphia office, stated that no refusenik had served more time -- or a more grueling prison term -- than Begun. His incarceration included months of solitary confinement in freezing cells, she explained, often with minimal nourishment.
"He went from an OK prison to a really horrible prison to the prison that none left alive -- except Yosef Begun," pronounced Furman, who introduced him at the JNF event. "I don't know how anybody can survive what he survived."
Furman said that she's long encouraged him to write an autobiography, and added that she worries that many refusenik stories will one day be lost or forgotten.
Begun may not be as well-known as another former refusenik, Natan Sharansky, who now heads the Jewish Agency for Israel after more than a decade spent in the trenches of Israeli politics.
Furman explained that the two individuals actually represented different perspectives: Sharansky linked the plight of Soviet Jews to other human-rights activism, while Begun focused more intensely on raising Jewish consciousness through education and identity building.
Once in Israel, Begun did not resume his academic career and never sought political office. Instead, he founded several Russian-language journals and started Daat Publications, which produces books on Jewish culture, history and tradition.
Speaking of Sharansky, Begun lauded his efforts to shift the Jewish Agency's focus from encouraging aliyah to bolstering Jewish identity in the Diaspora.
Differing from the classic Zionist narrative that exhorted all Jews to move to Israel, Begun argued that Diaspora communities will always remain in existence somewhere. Promoting education, he said, is just as vital as encouraging aliyah when it comes to the Jewish future.
"There is Israel, the Jewish state, and there are a lot of Jews living outside of the Jewish state. And it is very important to have some sort of connection, some solidarity, especially nowadays," he said. "There is a lot of hatred against Jews, a lot of lies against Jews."
Begun also played down the latest diplomatic flare-up between the United States and Israel over the latter's recent announcement of plans to build new housing units in eastern Jerusalem -- inconveniently, some say, while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting on behalf of the Obama administration.
In fact, he praised Biden's speech at the time, reaffirming the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
"American leaders understand the importance of Israel," affirmed Begun. "At such a level, politics are very, very complicated."
Later, during his speech, he whipped out a slightly worn copy of The Jerusalem Post and began reading Biden's text. After a while, Furman interrupted, suggesting that it was time to wrap it up and answer questions.
But Begun just kept going -- and she quipped that "now you know why he was arrested three times."