Rabbi and the Torah
In the course of our circumnavigation, we often sought out Seas that were not regularly visited by cruising sailors. For that reason, and because my own family was from the Ukraine and because I am a history buff and had recently reread Appolonius tale of the passage of the sailing ship Argo in the Black Sea in search of the Golden Fleece. I was compelled to follow JasonŐs wake.
Sailing in the Black Sea is awkward. There are no weather reports, the sea is shallow and the winds come from every which way. The shallow sea and the winds make for most unpleasant motions and I recall that once, in a passage from Istanbul to Odessa we had aboard a very unhappy passenger. The passenger was the Lady Saline who had come along to do a piece on the travels of Unlikely. She forever will remain in my mindŐs eye when, after a day of the most abusive beating into winds and seas, she announced with dignity,
Well, I guess it is time to throw up now. And it was indeed tme to throw up as the passage was so bad and the Black Sea seas and winds so contrary, that it was one of the few times in 15 years that we turned and ran back, saving our bellies for a better day.
The liveliness and unpredictability of the Black Sea at its surface belies the utter abscence of life of the sea itself. The Black Sea has a dead, black bottom from which its name is derived. It is not an attractive place to be.
We came into the Soviet Union from the Black Sea in 1988 and landed in Odessa. 1988 was the year that Gorbachov saved the world from nuclear Armegeddon and, in the process, destroyed a great power. The USSR went down and with it the self confidence and pride of the Russian people, a very dangerous condition much like that of Germany before the Second World War.
But in 1988, that was all in the future. In June of that year UNLIKELY became the first Western sailing vessel ever to visit the port of Odessa. That port had been closed to all western sailors since the Revolution in 1917 and since, cruising under sail as we know it, only came of age in our lifetimes, the entrance of Unlikely was, for Odessa, an historic event.
Curiously, there had been and still was a Yacht Club founded by the minions of the Tsar. The Odessa Yacht Club was over a hundred years old in 1988 and had been taken over by Soviet sailing clubs as a base for their own limited efforts at racing small boats.
Cruising was out of the question. Even the departure of a small fleet of 20 footers for a two hour race had to be arranged weeks in advance and the equivalent of an exit visa had to be obtained.
Therefore, when a large, enormous in their eyes, private yacht appeared sans visa, sans commissars and sans permits, the event became a source of wonder for Russian sailors and a source of confused agony for the Immigration people and the NKVD which is the CIA, or more correctly for 007 fans, the SMERSH of the Soviet Union.
A few months earlier, before Gorbachov's leap into History, we would have been at risk of a Soviet trial and Jail and the loss of our vessel. But now all was confusion and transition. The past did not work anymore and the future was unknowable. The erosion of beaurocratic self confidence had begun. No one knew what to do with us.
So the process of appeal to higher authority began. A process brought to a high art by apparachiks terrified of making a mistake. First the Mayor of Odessa, then the regional governor, then the Ukranian authorities and finally the NKVD leadership in Moscow were appealed to. Even the NKVD had no formula, very important in a Communist society, for a private yacht arriving sans permission.
Ultimately the matter went to Mr Gorbachov who telegraphed the Mayor of Odessa with an approximate message over his own signature. Here was an absolute clasic case of bucking down.
In the matter of the vessel Unlikely, I have just declared all power to the local Soviets.......so you guys make the decision.
Turmoil and dismay roiled about in the local government but since throwing us out would have been a larger, more abusive, decison than passively allowing us to stay, Unlikely a became a footnote to history.
But the old habits of control and suspicion persisted and that persistance is the basis for the adventure of the spirit that followed.
Whenever Unlikely enters a port anywhere East of Suez or East of the Bosphorus I make it clearly known that I am a Jew This is a ploy that, for two reasons, confuses my hosts and grants a strange kind of protection to my boat.
In the first placefolk in those climes are all more or less wary of Jews and are accustomed to their own Jews hiding their identity. To proudly and unashamedly claim Jewishness disconcerted them to the extreme
The second reason is more curious. The best known spy organization in the World is the Mossad, the efficient and dangerous counter intelligence arm of Israel. It is better known in the East, better than even than their own spies.
Evidently by simply announcing our Jewishness, the image of the feared Mosad was evoked for why else would this strange vessel appear on their shores. Host countries hosts became even more wary.
I have been viewed as a Mossad agent in every arcane and esoteric port into which I ever sailed simply on of the basis of telling folk I am Jewish. A real spy would certainly attempt to hide that fact of Jewishness. That obvious fact never seemed to occur to my hosts. Furthermore it did not hurt that 40% of the population of Odessa were closet Jews.
At any rate, since I had caught the attention of Gorby himself and out of NKVD fears that I may be Mossad, I and my crew and Unlikely herself luxuriated under a blanket of warm and fuzzy protection.
We could do nothing wrong. In fact, the Mayor of Odessa, unsolicited, had issued to me a document, which I still have, addressed to the Police which declared that I had his permission to do anything I liked in Odessa except drive a car the wrong way up a one way street.
And thereby hangs a tale.
The Jewish Community, both those in closet and the few who were out, was abuzz with this strange American who was not ashamed of his Jewishness. We were besieged with folk who, out of the side of their mouths, admitted to their real names which had long since been Sovietized for protection. They all seeked help and advice about how they should face the new dangers of transition now that the old dangers of Stalinism were abating.
We helped where we could, encouraged where we could not help and, since the closed doors of the Soviet Union had cracked open a bit, we advised emigration.
By virtue of arriving on our own bottom, and being that rarest of beasts, a Jew who announced it, we were a major curiosity. I was soon summoned to meet the Chief, and only, Rabbi in Odessa. I was instructed to come alone.
The Rabbi hemmed and hawed, took me upstairs to his study in the one synagogue in Odessa, locked the doors, pulled the blinds and announced that he was putting his life in my hands. I was not given the choice of either accepting or rejecting this heavy responsibility.
He did not quickly reveal why, but it was clear that he was terrified and had only brought himself to speak to me out of the strange circumstances that surrounded the visit of UNLIKELY.
After small talk and additional exhortations to secrecy he revealed his terrible secret.
He had a Torah, a scroll of the law, the most holy instrument of Judaism, hidden away. It had been passed from Rabbi to Rabbi in secret in the half century since ownership of the scroll which the mere ownership of which represented a real danger. Had it been made known to the Soviet authorities, it would have been confiscated not as a religious ikon but as a valuable work of art, all of which were, naturally, owned by the State.
Why, I inquired,
tell me all this?
The Rabbi answer in Talmudic measures.
Consider who you are, where you are. You are an announced Jew, an American under protection of your flag. You have been publicly acknowledged by Gorbachov himself and by virtue of all this you have frightened the NKVD into inactivity.
More to the point, you own your own vessel and have the astounding freedom to come and go as you please.
I could not see where all this was leading. The Rabbi continued,
The odds, my friend, against a Jew arriving in a private sailing vessel in Soviet Odessa, protected against the NKVD and acknowledged by Gorbachov, must be truly astronomical odds. It is an event which could not happen for the past 50 years and now, at this moment it has happened, here and now to me. It is a gift from God.
I agreed that the odds were great and the Rabbi finally revealed how these odds could become a blessing and why a Gift from God?
I have secreted away a Torah. It is the only thing of real value that I have in this world. I wish to emigrate to America but cannot do so with out funds.
A light began to dawn. The Rabbi continued.
The Torah is held captive in the USSR. There is no way that it can be taken out of the country by sea or land or air except......
I picked up the thought,
Except by a Jewish sailor who just happens to be in Odess and who can easily smuggle it out on his own boat.
The Rabbi beamed with delight and we settled down to talk a little treason
The deed was done. I wrapped the Torah in an old newspaper, like fish for the sabbath and tucked it under my arm. I sashayed past the armed guards thrown around Unlikely by the NKVD. I had long since corrupted them with US cigarettes. I buried the precious package, now carefully waterproofed, in my bilge and sailed out of the crumbling Soviet Union to the blessd freedom of the West feeling like the finder of the Lost Ark. Eventually, through the sale of the precious Torah, I arranged that the penniless Rabbi from Odessa would have $10,000 to start a new life awaiting him on his arrival in New York .
It is one of the few acts in my life about which I am inordinately, but undeservedly, proud. By no effort of my own I was able to serve the Rabbi, serve my religion, serve my own country and, finally, serve, in my own small way, the cause of freedom.
The Universe cast the dice that day for the Rabbi from Odessa, for Jews, for the sacred Scroll and for me the unwitting messenger.
For once, we all came up winners.