Refusenik History in the Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel

Gorfinkel - Graphic Novel Haggada 3D + pages

As we approach Passover, called hag haherut (the festival of freedom) in Jewish prayer, stories of persecution and oppression once again rise to our consciousness. Told by our grandparents, parents, and other influential people in our lives, these personal stories shape and reaffirm our collective narrative and remind us that B’chol dor vador”, every generation encounters those who wish to destroy us as a people. By the same token, every generation has leaders whose courage and vision have inspired us to survive.

For those who lived during the Soviet period, names like Natan Sharansky, Ida Nudel, Yosef Mendelovich, Vladamir and Mariya Slepak, and the current speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein, are etched in our memories. They were refuseniks –Jews who attempted to emigrate from the USSR to escape institutionalized anti-Semitism, only to be refused over and over again by Soviet officials. Many of the Refusenik activists were imprisoned, put in solitary confinement, branded as enemies of the State. Many were exiled to hard labor in the freezing tundra of Siberia.

Cartoonists Jordan B. Gorfinkel and Erez Zadok recognize the relevance of the refusenik movement in the context of the Passover story. In their newly released Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel (Koren Publishers, 2019), a number of moving panels vibrantly illustrate what the refuseniks experienced – including forced labor under strict watch (see page XYZ), receiving secret packages with kosher wine and matzah smuggled into the region enabling them to (covertly) observe the Passover holiday, their eventual reunion with loved ones after their liberation.

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There’s also a beautiful panel showing, decades later, the same refusenik character sharing his story as he walks freely through a plush vineyard in Israel. The symbolism of the lush grapes, an ancient and iconic symbol of Israel, which is then turned into wine, presumably produced by this same, now liberated Jew, is moving and inspiring.

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The corresponding Hebrew text across from this panel appropriately reminds us (in Hebrew and easy-to-read transliteration): V’Hi She’Amdah La-Avoteinu B’Lanu: She-lo echad Bilvad amad aleinu l’chalotenu, eh-la she-b’chol dor vador om’dim aleinu l’chalo-teinu.

The former refusenik-slave-laborer-turned-wine-producer says: “It is that promise that has sustained our ancestors and ourselves. Because there was no only one individual who rose up against us to destroy us. Indeed…in every generation there are those who try to destroy us.”  (p. 50-51)

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Here, we see a lineup of guards representing those who oppressed the Jewish people throughout history: the Egyptian, the Greek titan, the Crusader, the Nazi, the Soviet, and a modern-day terrorist.

“The refusenik is a recurring character throughout the Haggadah,” Gorf says. “I do not identify his overlords as Soviets, but rather as umbrella totalitarians. This was intentional to be as universal as possible and employ archetypes. I wanted to explore areas of our history that are often overlooked.”

A vibrant illustration of Natan Sharansky appears elsewhere throughout the Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel, but you’ll have to search through it to find out where.

Today’s generation may be removed and distant from the narrative of the Refusenik movement, but this vibrant imagery in this Haggadah certainly makes their story relevant and resonant.

 

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