By Stacey Dresner
Boston – Every year on the anniversary of the day her father was released from a Soviet prison in 1986, Rachel Sharansky-Danziger’s family celebrated with a “seder.”
“My dad would tell us stories and then me and my sister would ask questions and my parents would give us answers. And the questions changed and evolved as we grew up. They started with, ‘Were there animals in prison?’ and it made it all the way to ‘How did you maintain your ability to relate to each other as husband and wife so that 12 years
after you were separated you were able to go on with your marriage?’”
Rachel, the eldest daughter of Natan Sharansky, the refusnik who spent nine years in Soviet prisons for treason, and his wife Avital, who fought passionately for his release – says that there was never a time when she wasn’t aware of her parents’ experiences, which to most of the world symbolized the Soviet Jewry movement.
“We grew up knowing about the struggle. I can’t remember a time when we didn’t know about the struggle,” she says. “Growing up as I did, the victory in that struggle is the one complete and well-known truth of my existence, because I wouldn’t have been here otherwise, I wouldn’t be alive if it didn’t work.
“It made me believe certain things, or know certain things about our ability as Jews to work together despite our many, many differences.”
For the past year, Sharansky Danziger and her family have been living in Boston while her husband Michael Danziger – a native of Los Angeles who made aliyah at the age of 17 — does his post-doctorate work at Northeastern University. She is enjoying her time in the U.S., writing her blog for The Times of Israel, and often featured on sites like Tablet and Kveller. She writes about everything from parenting, women’s issues, American Jewry, and of course, about her beloved Israel.
Sharansky Danziger and her sister, Hannah, who is three years her junior, grew up in Jerusalem in Beit Hakerem.
“It was on the edge of what used to be wilderness…with rocks and hills, and deer and wild rabbits and turtles,” she recalled. “All of my childhood was exploring nature there and finding wildflowers and figuring out what they were called and when did they bloom, and bringing turtles home from our walks and then putting them back out in nature.”
Around 1990, much of her old neighborhood was demolished to make way for the Begin Highway.
“So as a kid this was devastating…our childhood was desecrated,” she says. “But as an adult having to drive through Jerusalem and get my kids from place to place I am very appreciative of this road.”
Danziger doesn’t like to label or define her upbringing.
“One thing I can say is that the normal definitions don’t fit my family. You know, we went to religious-Zionist school and most of our friends were religious-Zionists. My mother would describe herself as religious-Zionist, my dad was somewhat religious,” she says, with a little laugh, “but definitely a Zionist.”
“We had many friends — family friends — who were not religious, or were Conservative or Reform, or more Orthodox than us. I grew up with a sense that definitions are not very important”
Today she is observant, falling with the Modern Orthodox camp.
But still, she says, “I don’t like definitions.”
Danziger says that she prefers not to talk about what kind of parents her mother and father were – that’s too private.
“But what I will say is that they were careful to insure we wouldn’t be exposed to reporters…my parents were careful to make sure the limelight they lived in wouldn’t touch upon us, that we would still have private lives and we would grow up as normal children. And they really made an effort. Looking back, I am very appreciative of that.”
While her parents were the poster children for the Soviet Jewry movement, she says she was not really raised in the “bubble” of the Russian-Israeli community that some of her current Russian friends were.
“My father was friends with people from America and other English-speaking countries, not with just one group,” she said. “A lot of our circle growing up were family friends that my parents acquired during the days of the struggle. So this was Jews from all over who remained connected to each other and identified with each other through their partnership in this thing that was bigger than any one group.”
That thing that was bigger than any one group helped to make Sharansky-Danziger the strong, confident woman she is today.
“We grew up with the story as a story of triumph and a story of ‘Look what we can achieve when we work together. Look what we can achieve when we really stick to our principles and a principled position.’ So for me it was incredibly empowering. I grew up feeling like we can do anything when we really put our minds to it. So I wasn’t angry at the Russians. Being angry at the Russians would be something like being angry at a hurricane. They were not the people in my story. The people in my story were the people who marched or who wrote letters or who survived prison; the people who fought and fought and fought to make victory happen.”
Sharansky-Danziger went on to attend the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she received her BA in Philosophy and Liberal Arts. She got her MA in American History, concentrating on the Colonial period. Her thesis was on pre-Revolutionary War Connecticut. She became interested in that subject after reading a book about the Puritans.
“It was a book in Hebrew written by an Israeli professor about the Puritans and about how they came up with all of these utopian ideas about what society should be like, arrived in New England and tried to implement them here – the difficulty of the implications of that but also the passion that they came with,” she said. “And I read this book and it really rang a bell, it really hooked me, because as a Zionist and as a religious Zionist, I recognize these kinds of emotions. That ‘we can build something great; we can build something better. We are not just building a new country, we are also going to build the ideal utopian, perfect country and then, the point that inevitably follows because they are not alone. Many people have many dreams they are trying to enact in this new country and those dreams clash and you have to compromise. Reality is complicated with all those disappointments and frustrations. But the Puritans back in the day felt very familiar.”
So of course, she has reveled in this chance to hang out in Puritan territory. She had only been in Boston one other time, visiting when her husband attended a conference in the city.
“I loved it then and I love it now,” she says. “Being here for more with my background is like being in a candy store for a kid…As soon as we got ourselves a little settled, I took my baby and he and I were partners in crime and we went exploring. We went to see the graves of the people I researched and went to see all the historical sites.”
Her eight-year-old son and five-year-old daughter attend Shaloh House, “a wonderful Jewish school in Brighton. It is amazingly warm and welcoming.”
“We usually daven at Kodimah Toras Moshe in Brighton. The nice thing about the Jewish community here is that while there are a lot of shuls, the feeling is that we are part of one big community. We go to other shuls and other people come to our shul. It’s a very interconnected and welcoming Jewish community.”
She has easily been able to continue her blogging while living in Boston. She also is the founder and chief editor of Jerusalem Moments, which celebrates “the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem’s reunification by sharing different people’s ‘Jerusalem Moments’- the images, stories and artwork that capture Jerusalem as they experience it.”
She also writes her own personal blog, “Imaleh.Li: Parenting, Judaism and Other Crazy Journeys.”
While she has always wanted to be a writer, her dream was to write fiction. She says she became a non-fiction writer by chance.
“I kept feeling that I had something to say. Things were happening in Israel and in the world of social media you can see what a lot of people are thinking, but often the voices that are most heard are the extremes, from the right or from the left. And I kept feeling frustrated with these voices both on the right and the left and feeling there really should be more people speaking from the reasonable center.”
In the summer of 2014 when three Israeli teenagers, Eyal Yifrach, Naftalki Fraenkel and Gilad Shaar, were kidnapped and murdered, she needed to express herself.
“There was so much negative emotions both from the left and right that I just had to kind of pause and say, ‘I keep waiting for more voices to write from the middle, but I can do it. And if I have something to say it is my responsibility to say it. It is our responsibility – the people not on the extremes to speak up so our voices are heard.”
She opened her blog on Times of Israel’s free blogging service.
“Once I started writing and commenting, I started writing about parenting, life in Israel, and about Jerusalem. I’m very in love with Jerusalem.”
But she demurs when it comes to speaking about the Jewish community in Russia today.
“I can tell you that there is cause for concern with trends in Russia today — In terms of backing out of democratic advances, and backing out of civil and human rights. Which definitely can, and I suspect does, impact the Jewish community in some ways. Though I think we don’t know yet where it is going to end.”
She treads delicately when speaking of the standing of former Soviet olim – immigrants – in Israel today.
“Every aliyah brings with it a unique set of challenges, since it introduces different cultural patterns and needs into Israeli society. The olim from the former Soviet Union are no different. The concentrated Soviet effort to erase Jewish identity in the USSR left many of the olim uniquely disconnected from our history and heritage, and it made it hard for them to find their place in Israel’s traditional-minded majority. The pressure to seek professional and academic excellence as a way to avoid persecution in the USSR means that many of the olim find the education system in Israel, and the job openings they had to compromise for, disconcerting at best. And some of the experiences continue to shape the experience of those olim and their children today. At the same time the need to integrate the Soviet olim reshaped Israel. Every aliyah contributes something to our versatility, dynamism, and resilience, and I believe Israel society is the better for it.”
Sharansky Danziger says she and her family will be in Boston for another year. She would like to do more scholar-in-residences and some public speaking while she is here. And while she loves Boston and recalls fondly taking her baby for walks around Boston and its historical sites, and writing her blogs at Boston Commons while her son slept in his stroller, she will be glad to go home.
“Jerusalem is my home with a capital H.”