Russian Space Day, the Mimouna and me

The anniversary of Russia's space launch is celebrated in Russia, but I celebrate it as the day I was punished for keeping Shabbat. Op-ed.

Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch ,

Prison watchtower
Prison watchtower
Flash 90
Note: The Mimouna is a celebration which ushers out the Pesach festival. Its origins are in the traditions of Jews from North Africa, but has been adopted by many Israelis..

It happened on the day of the Mimouna. Well, not exactly, on the day of the Mimouna holiday which is celebrated on the day immediately following the Pesach holiday, but rather, several days later, on the 24th of Nissan.

If not then on the exact date of the Mimouna, then on what other significant anniversary? - On the anniversary of the Soviet space launch that began to be observed as a holiday of sorts marking Russia's first cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin's flight into space.

What is my connection to Yuri Gargarin? A direct one. He was launched into space exactly 10 years previously, and on the 10th anniversary of his historic space flight, in 1978, I was hurled into a particularly severe prison punishment cell.

And so you may ask: Why?-The answer is because I stopped working in a Soviet forced labor camp on Shabbat.

A forced labor camp in Soviet Russia means that prisoners must work long hours in the camp's factory under conditions of extreme cold.

A roll call (no picnic, standing in the freezing cold!) was conducted (lest there be no shirkers) and we were sent off to the factory. The camp for the residential section was made up of the barracks and the factory section.

The camp was labled in Soviet hypocritical nomenclature as an "institution for re-education." Educate opponents of the dictatorship by forcing them to be "reeducated" to be disciplined slaves.

Those who refuse to work: off to the dungeon. Lie down on cold concrete, eat meager bread rations and drink a limited amount of water.

On Shabbat I would go out to the factory. I did not refuse to work demonstratively because the words written about Shabbat in the Torah say that it (the Shabbat) is "a sign between me and you" - between me and God.

I arranged with a Ukrainian labor prisoner that I would prepare the required labor quota in advance and that he would report that I had met the required production.

One Shabbat before Pesach 5768 I secretly stood in the factory for the Shabbat prayers.

Suddenly I heard footsteps behind me - I turned around, and it was the deputy commander of the prison, Major Fidorov and several other officers.

"Get to work" he said. "If you do not work, you will not get food."

"I am a Jew", I answered. "Jews do not work on Shabbat".

So he started ranting and raving: - "Where do you think you are - in a convalescent home? Go to work right away. If not - I'll put you under the ground, you'll die."

His state of mind is clear. But I thought to myself - meanwhile he is only shouting at me. There is no life-threatening situation which would justify breaking the laws of working on Shabbat.

I told him - "Do not shout, I am not afraid of you. I have another Master - the Holy One Blessed Be He".

"Take him to the pit", Fidorov said: an abbreviation for the punishmnt cell.

Immediately two Russian sergeants came to escort me to the pit. I sang silently to my self - "To my right the angel Michael and to my left the angel Gabriel ...".

I said to myself: - "Thank G-d for this honor - to receive a punishment for observing the Sabbath."

After a month of being in the pit I was sentenced to three years in prison under a very serious prison regime for "breach of discipline". And that was on the anniversary of the Russian cosmonaut Gargarin's flight into space.

I was happy to be punished because of Shabbat.

At that time political prisoners began demanding that they be recognized as political prisoners. And as a result of their demand they were punished and sent to the same prison I was in. It bothered me that these were my friends, who were punished for their opposition to the government. I had to seemingly identify with them. But it was not my struggle, so I did not join them. - Mine was a different struggle - to be a Jew in the Jewish state.

Thus I was characterized as one who seemed to abandon the common struggle.

That is why this punishment did wonders for me. Yes, I suffered together with my friends, but in a struggle for my own principles and not theirs.

That is why I'm celebrating Russian Space Day!


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