Chanukah started off unusually hot this year, but by the end of the holiday, the winter was upon us with lower temperatures and some much-needed rain. But even in the cold weather, there were many touching moments that kept our hearts warm. One day, as we approached the Old City, the walls were lit up with projections of menorahs and other Chanukah symbols. The Kotel had a celebratory feel with a huge Chanukah sign, a very big menorah, and a significantly larger crowd than on a typical day, which made for a very festive and pleasant atmosphere. Notwithstanding, finding a seat was not too difficult and one didn’t need to hide in the shade. As I sat and davened next to my daughter-in-law, I was treated to a moving rendition of Hallel sung by a mother and her approximately ten-year-old daughter. Arm in arm, they sang the entire tefilah out loud, audible enough for me to hear the innocent and tender voice of the little girl, but quietly enough so as not to distract those nearby from davening. What a sweet moment!
Walking back from the Kotel through the Old City, my son noticed Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich, a modern-day hero, standing on the stairs by himself, taking in the scene of hundreds of Jews freely visiting the Kotel. Such a sight is something that I don’t believe he will ever take for granted. Yosef Mendelevich was a Jewish refusenik from the former Soviet Union, also known as a “Prisoner of Zion.” Born in Riga, he put himself at risk by forming a forbidden movement of underground Jewish education. He became well-known when, at the age of 22, he was arrested along with 12 others who participated in “Operation Wedding,” an attempt to hijack a plane and escape from the Soviet Union. He and his fellow activists had hoped that their act would heighten global awareness of the plight of Jews in Soviet Russia who were suffering terribly. They were not aware that the KGB had already been aware of their plan for months and they were arrested before they even boarded the plane. As a result, Rabbi Mendelevich served 12 long years in a Soviet Gulag. He was finally released in 1981 as a result of massive international pressure, and came straight to Israel. Once a free man, he never forgot about his brothers back in Russia and took an extremely active role advocating on their behalf. He also became a rabbi in order to lead the Russian Jews living in Israel. He continues to inspire people to this very day.
As a child, I attended many rallies on behalf of Soviet Jewry and even had a poster of Yosef Mendelevich prominently displayed in my room. Yosef Mendelevich was a well-known and inspiring figure back then. I happened to be in Israel when he and his wife got married and was privileged to attend their wedding. Unable to hold myself back, I approached Rabbi Mendelevich and told him that I attended his wedding and remember it well. He jokingly answered that he remembers it as well. As we spoke, a gathering of Rabbi Mendelevich’s children and grandchildren came up the stairs and crowded around him. Seeing me talking to him, one of them commented, “It’s starting.” I guess the Rabbi enjoys or suffers from (hard to know which) celebrity status whenever he goes out in public. Rabbi Mendelevich didn’t seem to be bothered by my presence or that of my family, who had joined me by then. Continuing where we had left off, he mentioned that his memories of his wedding are all in his mind because his photos of the event went missing. I was shocked! How is it possible that with all the hundreds of guests as well as photographers at such a high-profile wedding, he was left with no photos? He explained that he himself doesn’t understand what happened but somehow the photos got lost. I was delighted to tell him that while he has no photos from his wedding, I actually do. When he asked that I send him some, of course I told him it would be my pleasure. As I added his phone number to my contacts, he reminded me that his name is Mendelevich. I was amused. Like I forgot. Right. It was very heartwarming to see Rabbi Mendelevich surrounded by his family which, after so many trials and tribulations, he was able to raise here in Eretz Yisrael. In his wildest dreams he could not have imagined such a scene during his dark years in the Gulag.
That night I dusted off some old photo albums but, hard as I tried, I could not find any photos from his wedding. I guess my photos went missing as well. I immediately contacted a few of my friends who had also attended the wedding and put them to work looking through their own albums. Fortuitously, with everyone’s help, I was able to forward a nice number of photos to him. They weren’t professional by any means, but they did capture the spirit of the highlights of the wedding. I also sent him a closeup photo of himself standing together with my father z”l, who had worked to alleviate the plight of refuseniks in those years. He was very grateful when he received everything I sent.
To round off the day, we walked through Mamilla, where we were so happy to finally see the faces and hear the voices of tourists who had been sorely missed during the long period of corona. There were so many Americans that when we sat down at a café, the waitress spoke to us in English - not a typical occurrence. Having our “family” from abroad is also something not to be taken for granted. On this Chanukah, we understand that events which in the past may have been viewed as an “ordinary,” are miracles as well.