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Jeffrey GaleBy BERNIE BELLAN Rabbi Jeffrey Gale served as rabbi for Winnipeg’s Reform congregation at Temple Shalom from 1988 to 1998. Prior to coming here, Rabbi Gale had also been a rabbi in London, England at a synagogue in the East End of London known as the “Settlement Synagogue”, from 1982-84.

Relying upon his experiences as a rabbi in London in the early 1980s, Rabbi Gale has now crafted a novel titled “The Ballad of East and West”. The name comes from a famous Rudyard Kipling poem which begins with that classic line: “OH, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”.
The story is told through the voice of a young rabbi by the name of Isaac Levin who, like Jeffrey Gale, is a graduate of Leo Baeck College in London, a rabbinical seminary and training centre for teachers primarily in the Reform branch of Judaism.
Prior to receiving his training at Leo Baeck, however, Rabbi Gale had majored in political science at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and had spent his junior year at the European Study Centre in Luxembourg.
According to a note at the end of his book, it was while he was a rabbi in London that Rabbi Gale visited the Soviet Union several times. “His visits to the Soviet Union in the early 1980s to visit refuseniks were highlights of his rabbinate in London.,” the book notes.
With that in mind it is clear that “The Ballad of East and West” is largely autobiographical. In fact, it is so detailed in its descriptions of the Settlement Synagogue and the homes of members of that synagogue that it often reads like a diary.

The book opens in New York, where Rabbi Levin has just presided over the bat mitzvah of a girl whose parents hail from Ukraine and Russia. The rabbi tells the bat mitzvah that 30 years previous he had presided over a bat mitzvah in which a 12-year-old London girl, Simone Da Costa, had a bat mitzvah in which she was “twinned” with a 12-year-old Russian girl by the name of Sanna Tsivkin.
As Rabbi Levin explains to the American girl, Sanna “could not learn Hebrew, could not learn about her religion, and certainly could not celebrate a bat mitzvah.”
In an e-mail to me, Rabbi Gale says that he was “so inspired by” a twinning of the sort described in his novel “that I vowed to write a book about it.”

As the book proceeds, we are taken back in time to 1984, which is at the height of the Soviet crackdown on Jewish “refuseniks”. The term “refusenik”, by the way, is taken from the refusal of Soviet authorities to grant exit visas to Russian Jews.
There were approximately 300,000 refuseniks altogether. Interestingly, for a period in the late 1970s over 50,000 Soviet Jews had been allowed to emigrate to Israel, which is partly the reason that subsequently so many more Soviet Jews did apply for exit visas, but by the early 1980s, especially under the regime of Soviet leader Yuri Andropov (a former head of the KGB), the doors all but slammed shut on Soviet Jews wishing to move to Israel.
Rabbi Levin is asked whether he would like to be part of a group going to Leningrad to meet with refuseniks and he readily agrees. He also agrees – along with the three other members of the group, to take with him quite fa ew gifts for certain refuseniks, including several Jewish books, despite the danger that he might be apprehended by Russian authorities.

As a study in Reform practice, “The Ballad of East and West” gives a detailed glimpse of how respectful Reform Judaism can be toward traditional Judaism. Rabbi Levin offers many learned discourses throughout the book on the relevance of many different passages in the Torah. He also takes the opportunity to suggest meaningful explanations of many Jewish prayers - both to his own London congregants and to the many Russian refuseniks with whom he comes in contact during his trip to Leningrad in 1984. At the same time though, it was hardly necessary to reproduce entire prayers or traditional melodies in the book, which happens on a regular basis.
Clearly Rabbi Gale has a vivid recollection of the time he spent both in London and in Leningrad, as he describes in rich detail many individuals and settings with whom he must have come in contact. As a glimpse into a period of history that has probably receded from the memories of most of us who lived through that awful time for Soviet Jews, this book serves as an illuminating reminder how difficult it was for Soviet Jews to maintain any open identification as Jews. I wish though that there had been a greater explanation of the politics underlying the Soviet clampdown on refuseniks.

In his afterword, Rabbi Gale says that he is now working on a sequel to “The Ballad of East and West”, in which he will disclose what came of many of the characters who he introduces in the first book.
“The Ballad of East and West” is available in paperback or Kindle format from Amazon.

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