"Why, as a WASP, am I doing this?"
Jane Fonda bristled Thursday when asked why she, a non-Jew, took up the cause of Ida Nudel, a Soviet-Jewish refusenik who has been trying for 14 years to obtain an exit visa. Nudel, who cannot openly practice Judaism in the Soviet Union, wants to join her sister in Israel.
Fonda spent three days in the Soviet Union with Nudel in 1984. She described the meeting to 200 guests at a fund-raiser in Universal City sponsored by the San Fernando Valley women's division of the United Jewish Fund.
Nudel was sentenced to four years in Siberia after she hung a banner from the balcony of her apartment that read: "KGB give me my visa."
Since her release, the 53-year-old woman has continued to pressure Soviet authorities for exit visas for herself and thousands of other Soviet Jews who wish to go to Israel. She also sends weekly letters, often containing hidden messages in Hebrew, to 35 imprisoned refuseniks. Fonda said, "Once you say, 'I want to go,' your life is never the same."
Nudel's cause, and Fonda's adoption of it, have made the Russian woman one of the most visible of the so-called prisoners of conscience. But, according to Fonda, Nudel has said, "It's not for fame I fight. It's for home."
Dressed like a Vassar alumna in a gray cashmere sweater and pearls, Fonda showed slides of the meeting and told how her fame had provided the Jewish activist with "a mantle of protection" from Soviet persecution.
Fonda, who wore a "Running for Ida Nudel" T-shirt in last year's 10-kilometer race for Soviet Jewry, said she knows what the media really mean when they ask why she champions the cause of Soviet Jews.
"What they are really asking is: 'Why is a shiksa speaking at these events?' " she said, prompting a laugh with the Yiddish word for a Gentile woman.
"Nobody ever asked the Jews who marched with Martin Luther King why they were involved. Jews have been involved in practically every progressive cause . . . and nobody ever asked them why.
"It is from that kind of generosity that I take my cue," the actress said.
Such conviction, she said, reflects a belief that an injustice to one is the responsibility of all. "Those are the values that I was brought up with by my father, the ultimate WASP," she said in an interview.
Fonda visited Nudel in the small town where she lives alone, without telephone or indoor plumbing, and they were bonded by their conviction that Soviet Jews should be free to emigrate. The women also swapped beauty tips. Among the skin-care secrets Nudel offered the celebrity authority on fitness and beauty: "Don't feel jealousy--at least not for long."
Fonda had been discouraged from taking the trip by Soviet officials. She offered a deal that was quickly refused: "If you don't want me to go, let her out."
The actress said her celebrity status gave her certain privileges, even in the Soviet Union. Most tourists' luggage is searched for contraband, including menorahs, Torahs and other religious articles.
"If you're famous, they don't do it, so we brought a lot of stuff in," the actress said.
Fonda was also assigned a government car and driver. She said Nudel enjoyed the irony of the government's delivering her to a telegraph office where she dispatched a telegram protesting the government's treatment of Soviet Jews.
But Fonda said she had been aware since the late 1960s that her celebrity gave her both an opportunity and a responsibility to speak out in the causes she feels are just. She recalled a parting conversation with Nudel. "She told me my visit had created a mantle of protection around her."
Asked if she planned to make a movie about Nudel, a women reminiscent of the heroine of her film "Julia," she laughed and said: "I don't write a book or a make a movie about everything. "