IT is a cold night in Washington, DC, and Natan Sharansky is doing what he has done for years, speaking to a group of American Jews, this time participants in a Reform movement conference. He is sick--his eyes are bloodshot and he looks paler than usual--but the crowd listens attentively as he touches upon subjects ranging from Russian Jewry to Jewish unity, arms gesticulating wildly. He rambles--he rarely uses notes--and although his English is fluent, it can be difficult to follow because of his thick Russian accent. No matter that he seems tired, even dour. The applause is loud when he stops speaking.
Sharansky is 64 now It has been 26 years since the Jews of the West rallied together to pressure the Soviet Union to release him from the Gulag. The world has changed--the communist behemoth has vanished from the geopolitical map, replaced by a contentious Russia and a motley array of 15 republics. Its Jews are scattered throughout the U.S., Europe and Israel, with those who remain free to go, leaving the Jewish world without a cause that transcends its differences. And Sharansky--the public face of Soviet Jewry who stared down his oppressors and emanated charisma--is no longer the boyish man of seemingly endless energy. His 5-foot-3-inch frame has filled out, the skin surrounding those intense eyes is slightly puffy, and what's left of his hair has grayed at the temples. Although he is hardly physically imposing, there remains something monumental about him. Nine years in a Soviet prison and labor camps--including some 400 days in solitary confinement and 200 or so not eating--stay with a man.
After a decade in Israeli politics, three books and a stint at a neoconservative think tank, he is now the director of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the organization founded in 1929 that brings Jews to Israel, absorbs them and teaches them Hebrew. Until 1948, it was the de facto government of Israel, and its bloated bureaucracy is legendary. This might seem like an odd job for a man of superhero proportions, a man who, upon his release, was so respected that he had his choice of far more visible and highly paid positions and was one of four non-U.S. citizens to be awarded both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal (the others are John Paul II, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela).
But Sharansky, who took over the Agency in 2009, tells me that he has come full circle. "This is the job I've been preparing for all my life," he has said.
It all goes back to the moment when, as a young man struggling against the Soviet Union, he realized he was part of the Jewish people. "All of a sudden, I was connected to something bigger than simple physical survival," he says. "So when they began arresting me or telling me that they would take my life if I didn't cooperate with them, I didn't compromise. But you can only do this if you've discovered something that is more important than your physical survival. And that is identity," he adds, "or as we call it, 'peoplehood.'"
And peoplehood, he believes, is that magical ingredient that can cure what ails the Jewish world today.
Born in 1948 in Donetsk, then known as Stalino, a city of about 50,000 Jews without a single synagogue, Anatoly Borisovich Scharansky was raised in a family of Soviet Jews that was, as he describes it, "assimilated by force." Like many Jews of his generation, his father had hoped that the Russian Revolution would put an end to discrimination against Jews. And though he was bitterly disappointed, he taught his son early on that being Jewish was "nothing to be ashamed of, which was an important lesson in a society where well-bred people considered it vulgar to use the word 'Jew' in the presence of a Jew," Sharansky writes in his 1988 memoir, Fear No Evil.
Like many of his fellow Jews in the Soviet Union, he felt a secret pride in his ancestry but knew little about his religion or culture except that, as a Jew, he was subject to state-sanctioned anti-Semitism. It meant that the young chess prodigy needed to outperform other Russians and not just succeed but excel. "To go to the world of science, or to the world of arts, or to be a good chess player, or to be a good musician, to be somebody where your profession can protect you, it can make you more valuable," he has said.
It was a lesson the young Sharansky internalized early on: At age 14, he was the chess champion of Stalino, and his high grades in school earned him a coveted place at the prestigious Moscow Physical Technical Institute, where he went on to study cybernetics and the ways in which computers could be programmed to play chess. (Decades later, he would beat chess champion Gary Kasparov in Israel.) It was then that he first felt the pull of Zionism. Like many in his generation, the Six Day War made a deep impression on him despite the anti-Israel propaganda of the Soviet regime. It was a revelation for him to discover that there was a Jewish world beyond die borders of the Soviet Union. "After 1967, we wanted to understand why the world connects us to Israel, and we started reading underground books brought by American Jewish tourists," says Sharansky, recalling how Leon Uris's Exodus especially stirred him.
In 1972, Sharansky took a position as a computer specialist at the Institute for Oil and Gas in Moscow. A year later, inspired by his new sense of identity, he did what until then had been largely unthinkable: He applied for an exit visa in the hopes of migrating to Israel. Sharansky's request was denied on "security grounds."
Together with other "refuseniks," the term for Soviet citizens (often Jewish) who were refused permission to emigrate, Sharansky--now known as Natan to his fellow Jewish activists--attended underground Hebrew classes and meetings at which participants discussed their various disciplines--mathematics, physics, engineering--as well as more existential questions of identity, culture and religious legacy. Sharansky, outgoing and charismatic, was a leader in the group from early on. "The moment I found my identity and my roots, the moment I felt that there is a long history behind me, it became the first source of strength to speak my mind openly."
His refusenik status opened the door to romance. No sooner had he thrown himself fully into the life of an activist than he met Natasha Stieglitz. Her brother had recently been arrested, and when she went to a Moscow synagogue looking for help, she was directed to Sharansky. He invited her to join him at his underground Hebrew lessons, and a month later, she moved into his apartment. "From the day we met I felt we were kindred...