Refusenik Art

By Rudy Stoler

“The voice was distant and the English was faltering, but the message was clear. People huddled around the Chizuk Amuno Synagogue in Baltimore County and listened to Natan Feingold in Moscow describe his struggle to emigrate to Israel.”

This heart-wrenching telephone call in March 1973, described by Earl Arnett in the Baltimore Sun, brought Baltimoreans’ attention to a letter signed by Feingold, his wife Julia, and 12 friends—among them the famous dancers Valery and Galina Panov—requesting that the USSR recognize their right to dual citizenship with Israel under the International Declaration on Human Rights. “You have to admire the courage of that man,” proclaimed Fabian Kolker, the local activist who arranged the call, adding “He’ll probably get into a lot of trouble over the call.” In fact, after his release, Feingold wrote Kolker that he and Julia “were pained very much, when our telephone and other connections were broken.”

Fired from his job as an engineer in an aircraft factory for applying for an exit visa to Israel, and forced into limbo by the Soviets’ notoriously loose stipulation that he had access to state secrets, Feingold returned to youthful love of art. Joining a number of refusenik artists whose works toured American Jewish communities in the early 1970s, heralding the determination of Jewish culture despite Soviet oppression, he asked Kolker to take his paintings to America for exhibition. Next July, nearly four months after the phone call at Chizuk Amuno, the same congregation opened the momentous display.

On the first night of the exhibit alone, over 600 people viewed Feingold’s 40 oils and watercolors, many abstractly embellishing Hebrew letters or depicting religious characters, alongside his 10-year-old daughter Leah’s watercolor impressions of nature. Spending the next few weeks at the congregation, the exhibit then traveled down Park Heights Avenue to the Jewish Community Center in preparation for an international tour! Not long after—perhaps in response to the attention devoted to this talented refusenik—the Soviets released Feingold and his family. Hoping to make his “modest contribution in the efforts of all Jews of the world,” Feingold joined the exhibit in person to tell Jewish communities “about the real status of Jews in [the] U.S.S.R. and about [the] actual present-day situation and the problems of Russian Aliya.”

The “To Paint in Freedom” exhibit eventually joined Feingold’s paintings with those of Boris Penson, a Prisoner-of-Conscience arrested in connection with the 1970 Leningrad hijacking plot, and Anatoli Kaplan, a celebrated Soviet Jewish artist focused on Jewish themes.
Penson’s website features a sample of his paintings and a film about his Zionist activities, his creativity, and “the life of freedom….”

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Filed under Israel & Overseas, Jewish Learning, Volunteering & Advocacy

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