What Changes in Forty Years: An Interview with Corey Salka
Written and Illustrated by Amanda Leiserowitz
In 1979, Corey Salka published an article in Leviathan titled, “Russian Refuseniks: a view from within.” It was a true story about Corey’s trip to the Soviet Union, where Corey and his companion met with Soviet Jews who were repeatedly denied the ability to emigrate. Their attempts to leave in search of better lives cost them jobs, and put them under suspicion of the government. I interviewed Corey at the beginning of this May, not only about his article and experiences, but also some of the overall changes he’s seen in the Jewish community since he graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 1981.
Amanda Leiserowitz: How old were you when you went to Russia to do these interviews and wrote this article?
Corey Salka: It’s interesting you phrased it that way. I was 21…It’s interesting you characterized it or thought about it as me going to do interviews. It was, as I mentioned in my email, the peak of the Cold War — depending on how you look at it, some people would say the Cuban Missile Crisis was the peak of the Cold War — I was only 4 when that happened, so it actually peaked on my fourth birthday. But anyway, it was the peak of the Cold War, and it was before the Internet, and you know, the way people learned what was going on was by people going back and forth. And so the whole Soviet Jewry Movement, I don’t know if it’s well understood by young people today, but one of the things I find particularly cool about [the Free Soviet Jewry Movement] is that it was a movement that was started by college students, in which young Jewish college students fought against the Jewish establishment to make it a priority. If you go back, historic things started around 1964, and so this was kind of, for those of us at Santa Cruz from ‘77 to ‘81 — I used to joke that we were clinically depressed not to be ten years older and not be around when the really good stuff was happening, you know? But the point is this was a movement really driven by young people, by young college students. And for the most part the information that came back and forth was from young college students going back and forth.
People would go and visit… in a pre-Internet world, even just getting information out once you had it, could be challenging. People would go and come back and share what they had learned, either in the form of the article I wrote for Leviathan, or slideshows, back in the day, or speaking in synagogue about that world. But it’s kind of strange now because it is such a different world.
[…] That struggle for Soviet Jewry precedes your experience on the earth in a similar way to mine and the Holocaust, actually. You know, I was born thirteen years after the end of the Second World War so it was already history. And yet it’s a piece of history that is well studied and well understood. The struggle of the Soviet Jewry is not well understood, but it happened, and it’s actually an incredible success. It should be really inspiring to people who want to think big and make big things happen in the world.
AL: Definitely, knowing a little more of the context helps me understand the article as a whole. […] This was before the Internet and that’s how information traveled, through speaking.
CS: But also remember this was still the Soviet Union, so again, I briefly said in my email, you know, we were followed by the KGB [security agency for the Soviet Union] — we were interrogated by the KGB at the airport and they gave us a good scare. Our parents were pretty freaked out and completely opposed to it. My dad said, “If I knew how to stop this, I’d hire a lawyer, find a way to stop this…” [I said] Well, “Sorry dad, I’m going!”
AL: When you took this trip to Russia as a 21-year-old, what kind of impact do you feel that had on your experience as a student and as a young person and a Jew?
Courtesy of The American Jewish Historical Society and the Center for Jewish History
CS: My going and doing that is in the top ten or top five of the things I feel like are among the most important things I’ve done in my life. It feels weird to say that about something that happened so long ago and I was so young, but it remains with me to this day in certain times in terms of how we think about what’s really stressful. When I’d be really stressed out I’d reflect back to what it was like with those two KGB guys in the airport when they separated my friend and I in separate rooms and proceeded to rip through everything. That felt really scary. And so coming back, you can imagine, oh I’m stressed out over a paper…I just think back to that time there in Leningrad, and it’s not so bad. And literally to this day sometimes if I’m really stressed out about something, that will pop into my head.
But going back to the core of your question, I think I was already someone who was involved in different expressions and connections to Jewish life. Not necessarily in a religious way, perhaps more of a political way. But that’s where my connections were. And I think much of that has stayed, has remained, and I think I learned at a really young age that individuals can make a huge difference. It’s not always at the macro level, sometimes it’s the micro level. [If] it’s ten people whose lives I made a big difference in… that’s huge.
Through the Internet I’ve reconnected with some of those people. I actually met with, the people I felt closest to, and most tense about were these two [refusenik] couples in Kiev — Alex and Pauline Churniac and Lev and Channah Elbert. Lev was a Hebrew teacher which was kind of weird, because I was teaching at the local synagogue on the side as a student at Santa Cruz, except that what he did was illegal. We could all be arrested if the KGB decided to come in. The thought of that was really bizarre. And both he and the Churniacs ended up being imprisoned during the [1980 Moscow] Olympics. They were imprisoned in a psychiatric ward and shot up full of drugs and what not, but the Churniacs ended up in San Francisco, and I’ve since seen them. And Lev Elbert ended up in Jerusalem and we’ve reconnected over the Internet. It was really big seeing the Churniacs in San Francisco when the last I’d seen them was a generation ago, in such a horrible and depressed situation, without much hope for the future. And here they’ve ended up raising their children in San Francisco, and one works at Google. Just completely unimaginable from the experiences we had.
AL: In your email you included some of the follow up on them. I really appreciated that, because after I read your article, I was able to go back and say, “Okay, so these people, they have happy endings.” That made me very happy.
CS: It does, and that’s so cool about it. This one guy we met, Vladimir Kislik, we met him within a couple of days of when he’d been rustled up by the KGB for a few days. The guy had a heart condition, he was very overweight. He looked like he was barely alive when we saw him. And at the time I didn’t think he would make it out of there, and he’s been in Israel for a long time now, so that’s pretty cool.
AL: In light of how different it was in the state of the world, I saw a pretty big difference between your article and the style of Leviathan today — at first when I opened up that article I thought I was looking at a newspaper. Do you have any thoughts on the style of the journal, and the political or apolitical content, changing over time?
CS: Yeah. It’s actually some really interesting history and I don’t know how much of it is even known, but the original founders of Leviathan, shortly after it was founded, ended up moving to UC Berkeley and some of them ended up being hard core Left in Israel. We were definitely very, very political. Again, as I said earlier, we were the generation that wished for this time that had passed us by, and so there was a piece of that in our paper. Perhaps, as young people, we were fairly far Left, and when I said far Left, I mean having conversations around the notion of a two-state solution in 1978, this was like radical, incredible. Back then, the idea you would talk to the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] was this radical, crazy idea. And yet it was something that many of us were comfortable with, and many of us had spent extensive time in Israel.
Anyway, we ran some really provocative kinds of things that we wrote. The editor at the time was Dan Pulcrano. Dan really brought the professional newspaper graphic layout, edginess, to some of what we did back then. And that was really his. He was the one that made a lot of things hum. But a lot of the political orientation of our cohort was very deep, and very much on the surface of what was expressed at the time.
We had some stuff that wasn’t political, but — and again I don’t know what it’s like being a UCSC student today and what the level of political awareness is among the students is — but it was pretty high in our time. Those expressions really embodied what people wanted to communicate and why they were passionate about spending their time that way. So for example, if people’s passions were in the arts, if an artist had something that we could publish, and we knew about it, there was some art published. But for the most part the people that were really passionate about art weren’t really a part of us, so perhaps we ended up self selecting this sort of a congre of people who inherited the earliest legacy of Leviathan as being this really almost purely political thing, more of a newspaper, more polished, professional, with deeper articles and some variety. But again, it was a really political time.
AL: How would you define a Jewish lens? For example, when I was starting to write my questions, I was starting with things like, “From a Jewish lens…” and one of the editors asked me, “Well, what’s the definition of a Jewish lens?”
CS: The first thing that comes to mind is there’s no such thing as a singular Jewish lens because I would assert that every person’s Jewish lens is a little bit different. And although there may be some commonality, you can’t separate the Jewishness piece of someone from the rest of them, and so it’s always going to have some unique flavor. Both my kids are artists — my elder is a painter at UCLA and my younger is a jazz pianist. And they both express their Jewishness through their art. In my time, and my wife in her time, expressed it in more political ways, perhaps at a time, more spiritual ways. For our kids, that lens is one of being a young Jewish artist, and what that means around the spoken word or visually.
I’d say that a Jewish lens starts with the whole person. If we’re thinking metaphorically, if the whole lens case is the whole person, perhaps the piece of the lens that does the focusing — just the glass prism part, perhaps, is the Jewish part. Is it a religious connection? Is it a cultural connection? Is it a spiritual connection? Is it a political connection? Whatever it happens to be, I think everyone’s lens is going to be different, and yet for the most part, there’s these shared commonalities. There’s some frayed edges around where that is, in today’s Jewish world, perhaps more so now than when I was in college.
AL: That’s a really hard question, and I think that encompassing the whole person is a really important part of that. But the end of your response leads into one of my next questions really well, which is, what are the changes you see from the time you were a college student here at UCSC to the current world landscape?
CS: I’m thinking about two axes here. One is an axis of US and Israel, in the context of the entire world. And one is an issue of young people and Jewish establishment in the US. If one identified as Jewish in the late ‘70s, Israel was a subject around which people didn’t always agree, but it was a subject around which people could conduct respectful discourse on their differences.
Israel was a topic around which there was a certain degree of Jewish shared value that pretty much cut across communities, Left and Right, religious and not, and so on. That’s not true anymore. Israel is actually perhaps one of the most divisive topics in our community. It’s very painful that it’s divisive in that way, but when we were in Leviathan, we could express our very left views and people didn’t always agree with us, and yet I’m not even sure that could be done today. If we published stuff today that was as far out of the mainstream as some of the stuff we did, I think you’d be having some of the challenges that occur around discourse around Open Hillel and things like that. And to me it’s very painful that we live in a world, in a community, where we find it so hard to have respectful discourse. But I think we’re just a microcosm of the rest of the world — you don’t have a respectful discourse in [the] US political arena, and we certainly don’t have it in the Israeli political arena. It saddens me that that change has occurred.
The other change is very much related to that. So, Baby Boomers are sort of known as being a “me” generation, of being focused on themselves and what they wanted to do, whether that was being a hippy or whatever other things are out there. And although the Boomers were a “me” generation, they embodied an “us” expression and an “us” voice politically, and we live in a world where we’re used to labeling ourselves down into these little things, and one of the things that I wonder is, have we ended up forming these sort of micro-communities that keep us a little bit isolated and that make it really comfortable not to engage with people who have differing opinions? For example, on one hand, I regret that we in our community can’t have respectful discourse around Israel, and at the same time, that there’s a flip side of the coin, I think related to concepts of safe spaces. I wonder if there comes a point around issues of safe spaces where people are no longer willing to engage in conversation with people they disagree with. And I think there’s a relationship between our desire to constantly feel safe and our inability to interact with people whose views are very different than ours.
When I look at that spectrum of from the individual to the community, what I see and I hear in my kids and in my friends’ kids, is it’s not a lack of interest in things Jewish, but really their interests are somewhere else. And I get it, I understand it. I was fourteen when the Yom Kippur War happened and we thought Israel might get destroyed and Israel was very much the underdog, and wow, fast forward a generation and a half, and it’s completely different. They’re certainly not the underdog. If we’re gonna engage in critical thinking about Israel it causes us to ask questions, and to engage in tough issues if we’re gonna be honest. I think many people just want to be doing different things. And again I’ll speak to my kids both as artists who identify strongly Jewishly — but perhaps their primarily identity is as artists. And so they seek a Jewish expression in that. The cognitive dissonance and the tension that’s present in the conversations around Israel makes it easier for young people to not really engage in the broader community. And that saddens me too, because we need new ways of thinking and new ways of approaching the world, and we need to listen to things that might make us uncomfortable even if we don’t want to.
If Not Now is a group of largely Jewish students, very leftwards leaning, and they [look at how the] Jewish community is embodied in things like the Jewish Federations, or Israel and want to see changes there. The reason I mention them is because we had a 70th anniversary Israel celebration here in Seattle. Twelve hundred people there, and there was a group of young people protesting outside. It was funny, because I looked at them, and I was like, wow, I totally know if I was their age I would be with them outside, I would not be inside. I would be with them outside, not because of what they’re saying — I actually don’t agree with what they’re saying — but because it would have been my cohort. I almost reached out to them to meet with them — I thought even though I disagree with them completely, their heart’s in the right place. Because their heart’s in the right place, we should have a conversation, even if it makes us uncomfortable. The big change in the world that I see is largely around how we conduct ourselves within our local communities and how our community here in the US relates to Israel. Across all those dimensions, it’s a very different world.
AL: How do you think that you might express yourself differently from what you did in college if you were in college now in 2018? Do you think that you might express yourself in the same ways that you did or that you would have acted in different ways?
CS: That’s a really hard question, in part because, without sounding like a really old guy, when that much time has passed, there’s romanticism you have for younger periods in your life. So it’s hard for me to seperate the romanticism around the things I did and the roles I played from what I would do today. If I start with the core foundation of being a person who was generally an activist, someone who believed we should take a stand and make a difference — I’m someone who was that way from the sixth grade. I’m gonna stand out and make a difference. Some of the things that I participated in as a college student, I think today were largely in disagreement with the establishment. I would like to think that spirit would still be with me, and that’s why I said if I was a young person I might be one [of] the people out there. Again, I actually think they’re really misguided; however, the spirit of, and the gestalt of who they are, felt very very similar to me and my experience at Santa Cruz back in the day. So I think I would like to believe I would still be an activist and take a stand. I would like to believe I would still think big.
[In college] some friends [and I] […] ended up being asked to lead the crowd of a [Israeli Prime Minister] Menachem Begin speech to three thousand of the top knockers and movers and shakers of the Jewish world and the US — we somehow got asked to lead the crowd in “Hatikva”. But we decided we had some messages we wanted to share first. Menachem Begin wrote a book called The Revolt, and he struggled against the Jewish community in Poland before he made his way to Palestine. And so we brought on a passage from his book, where he talks about how important it was to struggle against expected norms and to challenge some of it, and to challenge things that are held to be true, and the importance of the role of the young person to challenge the community in that way. And we literally quoted the book and looked down at him and said, “Is it okay if we continue?” And he had this big grin and was like, “Yeah, go, go forward!” So I feel a certain romanticism for that, and I would like to believe I would step up and take a stand on whichever way my passions took me today. So that said I don’t think they would actually be much different. I think I would probably be doing Leviathan and I guess the bigger question is are there other things in the world that as a young person I would rather be doing? Who knows?
Left to right: Kislik, mentioned in article, and Salka