May 21, 2008
Zev Yaroslavsky: From Soviet Jewish activist to Los Angeles power player
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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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