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Zev Yaroslavsky: From Soviet Jewish activist to Los Angeles power player

by Tom Tugend

May 21, 2008 | 3:11 pm

Did you hear about the time that Zev Yaroslavsky rented a motorboat, and, using two toilet plungers, attached it to a Russian cargo ship in Los Angeles Harbor, then started to paint “Save Soviet Jews” on the ship’s side?


For some reason, the Russian crew objected and started pouring buckets of water on the young painter. Pressed for time, Yaroslavsky managed to spell out only “Let Jews Go,” adding a Star of David for artistic effect.

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This escapade took place in the late 1960s, shortly after which Yaroslavsky got busted by Los Angeles’ finest for smuggling a batch of black balloons into the Shrine Auditorium. He and four fellow activists intended to blow up the balloons, which carried the legend, “Save Soviet Jews,” and release them during the intermission of a performance by the Bolshoi Ballet.


In the subsequent trial, the judge dismissed the disturbance of the peace charges to the dismay of the defendants, who were hoping for a media-covered show trial. While the trial lasted, Yaroslavsky’s fellow defendant and co-conspirator was Si Frumkin, then a Lithuanian-born owner of Universal Drapery Inc. and who today remains a multitasking writer and activist.


Yaroslavsky’s evolution from a long-haired anti-establishment agitator has been far more public. Today, he has become one of the best-known and most visible local officeholders as Los Angeles County supervisor, with a constituency of 2 million inhabitants.


But 40 years ago, these two men were among a dozen front-line activists in Los Angeles, who harassed the Soviets using ingenious, nonviolent strategies to pressure the Kremlin to “let my people go.”


Their adventures and misadventures are part of the new documentary, “Refusenik,”—named for the appellation for Jews refused exit visas by Soviet authorities—which opens May 23 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Town Center in Encino.


Directed, written and produced by Laura Bialis over a four-year period, “Refusenik” traces the roots of the Soviet Jewry movement to Russia’s age-old discrimination against Jews in almost every walk of life, fueled afresh by Stalin in the post-World War II era.


Israel’s birth, and particularly the incredible victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, infused courage and a sense of Jewish peoplehood into Russia’s long-silent Jews.


In the vanguard was a small group, mainly scientists and intellectuals, including such names as Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky, Vladimir Slepak, Ida Nudel, Yuli Edelshtein, Yosef Begun and Vitaly Rubin, who dared the hitherto unthinkable of protesting publicly against the Soviet regime and demanding the right to leave the country.


Their bravery, often punished with long imprisonment, found an echo in the Diaspora. Established Jewish organizations took up the cause, but with a cautious approach that was rejected by a core of young activists who were short on experience but long on chutzpah and endlessly innovative in devising new guerrilla tactics to make life miserable for Soviet representatives.


Yaroslavsky came to his convictions and activism by heredity and the environment of Boyle Heights and the Fairfax areas, in which he grew up.


Last month, he surveyed his heritage in delivering the Carmen and Louis Warschaw Distinguished Lecture at USC, titled, “From the Plains of Czarist Russia to Los Angeles: How Three Generations of Jewish Idealism Informed My Life and Politics.”


Yaroslavsky expanded further on the theme last week during a lengthy interview in his Van Nuys field office. He recalled that there used to be a parlor game in which each participant had to name one person in the past to whom he or she would like to talk.


“My choice would be my maternal grandfather, Shimon Soloveichick, who came from the same area in what is now Belarus and was distantly related to the great Soloveitchik rabbinical dynasty,” he said. “Shimon belonged to the greatest Jewish generation since the Exodus, maybe even greater, marked by its audacious idealism, that gave birth to the revival of the Hebrew language and to modern Zionism.”


Grandfather Soloveichick played a part in these historic events. He was somewhat of a scientific genius as a youngster, taught himself Hebrew and Russian in a Yiddish-speaking environment, became a wandering Hebrew teacher and Labor Zionist and served as a delegate to three meetings of the Zionist Congress.


In the early 1920s, branches of the Yaroslavsky clan from the Kiev region and of the Soloveichick family migrated to Boyle Heights, married and eventually produced Shimona and her younger brother, Zev.


“My father founded the Hebrew Teachers Union in Los Angeles, and my mother taught Hebrew and algebra at [Los Angeles] City College,” Yaroslavsky reminisced. “They initially were Hashomer Hatzair supporters [the left socialist wing of the Zionist movement] but later split off and formed the [more centrist] local Habonim chapter.”


Yaroslavsky himself was an early Habonim member, and as a teenager, went on his first trip to Israel. It wasn’t a happy experience.


“I hated the place because they didn’t pasteurize the milk and didn’t make hamburgers the right way,” he recalled.


“My sister and I were raised with the object of making aliyah to Israel,” Yaroslavsky said.


Their mother, who was the idealistic force in the family, died of cancer when Zev was 10, and the aliyah plans were put on hold. Sister Shimona did follow through later and now lives in Haifa.


Growing up, Zev was always aware that he had aunts, uncles and cousins in the Soviet Union, although they rarely sent letters.


“I had a grandmother who went back to the Soviet Union in the 1930s and survived the 900-day siege of Leningrad by the Germans,” he said. “When I was about 9 years old, we got a letter from her, and it’s still etched in my mind how excited my father was.”


At the time of Zev’s bar mitzvah, a telegram came from an aunt in the Ukraine, but she was careful not to mention the Jewish ritual itself. “Congratulations on your 13th birthday,” the telegram read.


While the Yaroslavsky family sensed the fear of their Russian relatives on a personal level, the overall situation of Soviet Jewry was changing.

Stalin's growing paranoia led to the murder of 13 leading Yiddish poets in 1952, and the same fate awaited Jewish doctors who were allegedly plotting to poison the dictator, when Stalin died in 1953. "Jews pretended to be sad" at his death, comments a refusenik in the film.

Golda Meir became the first Israeli ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1948, and she and her successors began to reach out to the local Jewish population.

As Jewish consciousness grew within Russia, New York College students launched the first protest march in 1964, and two years later, Elie Wiesel published his incisive "Jews of Silence."

The impact of the near miraculous Israeli victory in the 1967 war decisively raised the resolve and spirits of Jews in the Soviet Union, as in the rest of the world.

The same year, Yaroslavsky graduated from Fairfax High School and enrolled at UCLA, where he co-founded the Jewish student newspaper, Ha'am, and in 1968 established California Students for Soviet Jews.

One of the group's first actions was to picket the Soviet track team after learning that it was staying at a USC dormitory. Then, as later, the students made certain that the press was notified in advance, but the resultant media coverage did not please the Jewish Federation Council, nor were the protests reported by the local Jewish weeklies, except for the iconoclastic Heritage.

"The Federation's Commission on Soviet Jewry spent a good deal of time trying to dissuade us from making our public protests," said Yaroslavsky. "We were told that our actions were endangering the lives of Soviet Jews."

At the same time, though, the students were in direct contact with leading refuseniks in Russia, who urged them to make as much public noise as possible.

Looking back 40 years later, Yaroslavsky said, he could see that The Federation needed to hew to its own tactics, but at the time, its prudence struck him as a sellout. An exception to the general establishment caution was Rabbi Richard Levy, then the UCLA Hillel director, who overtly and covertly backed the students, and eventually The Federation started to take a more militant stand.

In 1969, a valuable ally met with the student group. It was Frumkin, who had spent three years in Lithuania's Kovno ghetto, then was deported to a Dachau satellite camp and worked under inhuman conditions in an underground factory manufacturing jets for the Nazis.

Frumkin was 14 when he was liberated by American troops. After studying in Switzerland, England, Venezuela and New York, he made his way to Los Angeles to work at a textile firm, later becoming its president.

Frumkin spoke Russian fluently and had the gift of imitating spot-on foreign accents, which he used in phone calls posing convincingly as a high-ranking Soviet diplomat, a Russian priest and other roles.

He had formed the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews in 1968, and now he and Yaroslavsky formed close personal and organizational bonds. Frumkin, who was older, and Yaroslavsky complemented each other in thinking up and carrying out outrageous schemes to draw media and public attention to the Soviet Jewry cause, without inflicting physical harm on anyone.

In a collection of "(Mostly) Funny Stories About a Serious Struggle," Frumkin relates the case of Lt. Gen. David A. Dragunsky, the highest-ranking Jewish officer in the Red army, who toured America in the early 1970s as an apologist for the communist regime.

Through an elaborate ruse worthy of a Hollywood caper movie, Frumkin, impersonating various Russian functionaries, convinced the general's American hosts, the media and Soviet authorities that Dragunsky had decided to defect because of rising anti-Semitism. The dumbfounded general was whisked back to Moscow and was never allowed to leave the Soviet Union again.

Yaroslavsky, who managed to squeeze in bachelor and master degrees in economics and history at UCLA and a job as Hebrew teacher at three synagogues between his Soviet Jewry activities, ran for the Los Angeles City Council in 1975 and, to the astonishment of the pundits, won a seat. The once-scruffy agitator has become somewhat of a fashion plate, married for 37 years to Barbara and father of two.

These days, after 19 years as a city councilman and 14 as a county supervisor, he is constantly in the news, recently for his battles against the overdevelopment of residential neighborhoods. Yaroslavsky is also the subject of recurrent speculation that he may one day run for mayor of Los Angeles.

Looking back on his career so far, the 59-year-old Yaroslavsky returns to his forebears to explain the underpinning of his ideals and political action.

"My great-grandfather in Russia leased his flour mill from a local nobleman, and that sensitized me to the rights of nonproperty owners when it came time to vote on upholding rent control," he said.

"My mother's death of cancer influenced my view that everybody deserved health care," he added. "And my parents' constant fight for social justice shaped my entire outlook."

Of all his considerable accomplishments, Yaroslavsky has no difficulty in selecting the most important one.

"The eight years I spent on behalf of Soviet Jews form the singularly most important part of my life," he declared. "The further we get from that period, the more improbable it seems that we, in our youthful innocence, actually made a difference.

"We learned one lesson," he concluded. "Wherever human rights and civil liberties are violated, activism is the only hope and silence is a sentence of death. Perhaps that lesson will encourage those now struggling for the people of Darfur and Burma."





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