“What is there to give thanks for, anyway?”
That was the provocative question posed by the featured speaker on Thanksgiving Day 1968 at Kehilath Jeshurun, one of the largest Orthodox synagogues in Manhattan.
The provocateur was Elie Wiesel, recently turned 40 and nearly two decades away from receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Honor, and many other accolades. In those days, his Holocaust memoir, Night, still languished in near obscurity and his best-known work was his 1966 book about Soviet Jewry, The Jews of Silence.
“What is there to be grateful for, and to whom shall we be grateful?” Wiesel asked the Kehilath Jeshurun audience of 500-plus. “Shall we be grateful for racial hatred? For Vietnam, in which hundreds are dying for nothing? For the desecration of 11 synagogues in this city during the past three months?”
Wiesel’s gloomy list of worrisome developments didn’t stop there. He also cited “the vicious official anti-Semitism of the Polish [Communist] Government”; the “three million Jews who are doomed to silence in Soviet Russia while the world maintains an indifferent silence”; the Soviet Union’s massive arms supplies to Arab regimes; and “a France — the symbol of enlightenment — in which De Gaulle speaks openly about his anti-Israel feelings.”
Wiesel’s J’Accuse also took aim at the American Jewish community.
“Shall we be grateful for the failure of American Jewry to display solidarity with Jews behind the Iron Curtain?” he asked. Pointing to the Polish government’s refusal to permit a public recitation of Kaddish on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Wiesel said U.S. Jews should have “gathered a mass of people together to recite Kaddish at least on this free soil.”
Wiesel noted that “those who hate the Jewish people believe in a certain mystical unity that binds us together, a conspiracy of Jews throughout the world.” In fact, however, “the Jew himself frequently does not understand the brotherly bond which should unite him with his fellow Jews who suffer.”
Still, Wiesel continued, giving thanks is important, because “this is what makes us human and what renders us most Jewish.” Jews might not have “big thanks to be thankful for” in November 1968, “but we do have little things.”
“We can be thankful for a Russian Jewry that dances on the streets on Simchat Torah,” despite persecution and forced assimilation. “We can be thankful for Polish Jews who heroically refused to sign petitions against Israel” presented to them by Poland’s Communist rulers. Most of all, he said, “we can be thankful that despite all that has happened, we can still believe in God and in Israel.”
“With that,” Kehilath Jeshurun’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Joseph Lookstein, wrote in the KJ newsletter, “Elie Wiesel returned to his seat alongside the holy ark. There was hardly a dry eye in the synagogue. The spokesman for the Jews of silence had presented his message. It is to be doubted that any of us who heard that message will ever be quite the same again.”
Would American Jews rise to the challenges Wiesel had posed? Part of the answer to that question could be found in the very same issue of the Kehilath Jeshurun Bulletin that reported Wiesel’s speech. Just below the article about Wiesel was a large box, in bold print, asking congregants to “immediately” solicit at least 10 signatures on a petition attached to the bulletin, “protesting discrimination against Jews in the Soviet Union and other Iron Curtain countries.” The appeal urged KJ members: “Let each of us do his part.”
In 1968, the persecution of Soviet Jewry was far from a household issue, and upstart groups like the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry were waging a lonely battle just to make American Jews aware of the plight of their brethren in the USSR. But signs of an American Jewish response were beginning to emerge. Inspired by Wiesel, the congregants of Kehilath Jeshurun plunged into their first petition campaign for Soviet Jewry. It certainly would not be their last.