April 17, 2003
A Hero for Seder
I don't remember how long ago it was that Michael visited Los Angeles. Fifteen years? Twenty? I do remember that I was driving him around the city when he said, "Could you stop the car for a moment? I would like to photograph this."
I was puzzled. "Photograph what?" I asked.
There was nothing remarkable that I could see. Michael laughed.
"The street sign, of course. They named a street after me."
Sure enough. There it was. Sherbourne Drive. I am certain that whoever named it had never heard of Michael Sherbourne. A pity. He deserves having a street named after him.
Later that day, he told me of another honor.
"I am probably the only Jew who was promoted to a member of the British nobility by a communist newspaper," he said.
In the 1970s, Pravda, the major Soviet newspaper, ran a lengthy editorial about that "Zionist provocateur and a typical representative of the rotten British ruling class, Lord Sherbourne." Michael never asked Pravda for a correction. The truth is that Michael's father, who escaped from czarist Russia to England, was a sailor on a British merchant vessel in 1914, when England went to war with Germany. The other sailors gave him a hard time because they though he was German -- his name was something like Ginsburg or Friedman. When the ship returned, Michael's father got a copy of "Burke's Peerage and Baronetage," a listing of all the titled names, found a name he liked and had his name changed to the, oh-so-very British Sherbourne.
Michael and his wife went to a kibbutz in British-ruled Palestine in the 1930s. He joined the navy when war broke out and later ended up teaching French and metal shop at a London high school. It was there that he accepted a challenge that changed his life. A colleague sneered at French as a language. It was too easy, he said.
"Now Russian is a tough language. I bet you couldn't learn Russian," he taunted.
Michael smiles when he tells the story.
"It was tougher than I thought," he said. "I was in my 40s by then, and I almost gave up a few times. But I did it eventually."
He did indeed. Last time I saw him was in London in 1999. My formerly Muscovite wife Ella, Michael and I were having a sandwich in a London deli, with Michael chatting away in pure and fluent Russian with Ella. She asked him if he liked Russian literature and what he thought about the great Russian poet Pushkin.
"Pushkin?" Michael said. "I love Pushkin. His poetry is like music. Just listen."
And then he began reciting "Evgeny Onegin," chapter after chapter, by heart, without a pause.
In the 1960s and '70s, when the Soviet Jewry movement in the West was born as a reaction to Soviet anti-Semitism, Michael became the voice of the Jews in the West to the refuseniks and activists in the USSR. He made hundreds, maybe thousands of phone calls in Russian to the Jews who didn't know whether their voices were being heard in the West. He knew the phone numbers and names of all of them -- all the activists who were harassed, arrested, tried and sentenced by the authorities who couldn't understand what motivated the handful of Jews to fight the Soviet superpower. He was the indirect conduit and lifeline to thousands of others. The information he gathered helped us fight the Soviet Jewry battle in the West.
He used different names, but the authorities knew who he was. An operator in Moscow told him so when he pretended to be a Russian engineer calling from Dnepropetrovsk.
"We know who you are, Mr. Sherbourne," she laughed.
Michael called me a few months ago to tell me that he was coming to spend the Passover with his granddaughter who lives in Washington, D.C.
"Why don't you come and join us for a Russian seder in Los Angeles," I asked.
Michael was surprised.
"A Russian seder?" he asked.
I explained that Los Angeles has been celebrating Passover with a community seder for the last 10 years. It started out as a joint project of the Bureau of Jewish Education, the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews and the Association of Soviet Jewish Emigres. We produced a Russian-language haggadah; invited Svetlana Portnyansky, a major international singing star to serve as our cantor, and I appointed myself to conduct the evening. The first year about 150 people showed up. They were senior citizens with vague childhood memories of Passover. As time went on, attendance grew and more younger people and children came. For the last three years, we had to have it on both nights to accommodate the more than 600 people. This year we held it at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills on April 16 and 17.
There was a moment of silence on the line.
"A Russian seder? Really?" And then, "I would love to come."
And so, on April 17, Michael had a chance to take a look at what the challenge by a colleague 35 years ago had wrought.
I wish I could add "Michael" to the Sherbourne Drive street sign so that there really would be a street here named after him. He deserves it. And he doesn't need to be a real lord to be one of the noblest men I have ever known.