By BRIAN PAULS Do you remember where you were when you heard the legendary Foster Hewitt utter those words, on September 28, 1972? I do. My wife Jeanne and I recall the moment very well. We were there – in person at THE GAME in Moscow, while millions of our fellow Canadians were celebrating as part of what amounted to an undeclared National Holiday back home.
It had been a snap decision back in the spring of that year, never regretted since. After arranging for our infant son to stay with relatives, we purchased a ten-day package to fly from Winnipeg to Moscow on Aeroflot, priced to include hotels, meals, tours, game tickets, what have you.
We packed two dozen siddurim underneath the clothing at the bottom of our suitcases, fearing that we would be searched and arrested upon arrival. We weren’t. The flight to Moscow featured unlimited vodka but limited staff enthusiasm to clean the barf-filled toilets, so we were tired and quite uncomfortable but very happy to arrive. Whereupon uniformed soldiers, police or customs officials (it was impossible to determine which was which) started questioning all passengers with Jewish-sounding surnames. We weren’t hassled, presumably due to a decision in the 1920s to abbreviate our Yiddish surname by my wise paternal grandfather upon emigration to Canada. On departure from Moscow, the unfortunates with the more Semitic-type surnames underwent a similar rigmarole. By then, that represented merely a minor inconvenience, such as all of the toilet paper and soap that accompanied us being stolen by hotel cleaning staff when we were out. Which also happened.
On the first Shabbat after our arrival, which coincided with the first day of Sukkot, we got into a taxi from our hotel and headed to services at the Great Choral Synagogue of Moscow – the ONLY shul allowed by the Communist authorities in 1972 to remain open in a capital city inhabited at the time by hundreds of thousands of Jews. We got part of the way there, but the driver (whose English was quite good) strenuously declined to approach very closely, stating that he feared being hassled or worse, and giving us directions instead as to the remainder of the route for us to walk.
The siddurim and we slowly got there, we successfully evaded the KGB spies (there were quite a few) and we had a marvellous visit with a large but aging group of excited worshipers who crowded around us and spoke to us in various languages, Yiddish more than any other.
It was a memorable time in history, of the Refuseniks – the Jews desperate to leave but forbidden, of organizational activism in North America and of Cold War hostility across the broad spectrum of international relations.
Eight days later, most of the Jews among the 3000 Crazy Canucks, as the media described us, invading the Soviet Union along with the hockey team, had connected with one another and were trading anecdotes. Our own story was unique. So when we reported not only on our specific experience but also that we had been asked by the congregants to invite Jewish visitors to attend the shul on Simchat Torah (the final one of our scheduled ten days in the Soviet Union) my wife and I ascended to informal leadership of what became a group of approximately two dozen or so who proposed to do precisely that. We had returned to our hotel after the services on the first day of Sukkot via subway upon receiving directions from congregants as to how to maneuver the underground system (since we couldn’t understand the Cyrillic lettering on the directional signs). Thus we were assigned that leadership role to return with the others primarily based upon our courageous prior Moscow travel EXPERIENCE (hah).
Well, it worked out magnificently. In all of the times that my wife and I have participated in the Hakafot on Simchat Torah from childhood to present, there has never been a more joyful one.
The Bolshoi Ballet, St. Basil’s, the matryoshka dolls, Red Square, the Kremlin and the Armoury Museum, the Galleries, the Lenin Mausoleum, the GUM store, the four exciting hockey games each decided by a single goal…nothing compared to the pleasure experienced by each of us, alongside the Jews from far away and Jews living close nearby who danced 7 times around the aisles of the Great Synagogue, each individually taking a turn at hoisting aloft a Torah scroll.
It was the trip of a lifetime.