Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, once one of the most visible Jewish leaders in Los Angeles, has spent most of the last 2 1/2 years in Russia, hassling with recalcitrant Russian officials over a 12,000-volume collection of religious and philosophical works that has been in hostile hands since the chaotic days of World War I.
Despite favorable court rulings and the declared support of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Cunin has made little progress beyond confirming the existence of the trove assembled over the last two centuries by the chief rabbis of the Chabad movement of ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews.
He has had to deal with a chief archivist who vowed to burn himself together with the collection rather than see it leave the Russian State Library, once named after Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin.
And the issue has been seized on by nationalist elements in Russian political life. Early last year, the conservative newspaper Sovetskaya Rossia quoted a library official as saying that the documents contain descriptions of "so-called ritual murder," a time-worn anti-Semitic accusation.
Between sit-ins and demonstrations to dramatize his cause, Cunin has also managed to set up schools, day camps, synagogues and kosher kitchens and produce television programs that have been aired across Russia and other nations of the old Soviet bloc, he said in an interview back at his Westwood office last week.
One show features startling footage from a Hanukkah candle-lighting in the Kremlin itself, where thousands of Jews gathered in the hall in which the grim visage of Lenin once gazed down on conferences of the devoutly atheist Communist Party.
This is not the first time that Cunin has been sent off to spread the teachings of the Brooklyn-based Chabad Lubavitch movement of Hasidic Jews. Twenty-seven years ago, Chabad's chief rabbi, believed by many followers to be the Messiah, told him, "Go. California is yours."
Cunin proceeded to build a network of 42 synagogues, 12 social service centers and 14 schools from the Mexican border to the San Francisco Bay area, raising money and winning public recognition from a yearly telethon.
Now, the chief rabbi, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, has added oversight responsibility for all of the old Soviet Union to Cunin's portfolio, not to mention the quest for the 12,000-plus books and 381 manuscripts sent off for safekeeping in 1915 and not seen since. He helps son-in-law Baruch Hecht run the California operations by nightly telephone calls from Moscow. No wonder his beard is graying.
"I'm tired with all these time zones," the 52-year-old said. Back from Moscow to remind the Clinton Administration about his 2 1/2-year struggle, Cunin popped over to Los Angeles last week for a brief visit with his wife and 13 children.
"Thank God I've got a switch in my head," he said. "When I need to, I can hit the switch and sleep five hours and I'm ready to go again."
After a five-day stay, Cunin jetted off to Washington, where he met Monday with Thomas R. Pickering, the Clinton Administration's ambassador-designate to Russia.
Thanks to a lobbying campaign led by two of his sons, seminary students who were so successful with then-Senator Al Gore that they virtually worked out of the Tennessee Democrat's office, Cunin finds that his message gets through.
He hopes to meet with the vice president by early next week.
"There's nobody in the government that has any meaningful role that has no knowledge about the books," Cunin said Wednesday. "Our major feeling at this point is that Vice President Gore is the man who carried the ball and felt a phenomenal responsibility to see justice done in this case. We're going to keep him as the one who is our champion."
Marla Romash, the vice president's communications director, confirmed Gore's interest in the case.
"I think it's out of respect for the collection and what it represents," she said. "The vice president believes that the Lubavitch rabbis are, as the Russian courts have declared, the rightful owners of those texts, and he certainly understands how deeply they feel about them."
Last year Gore led an effort to get the signatures of all 100 senators on a letter warning that financial support for the troubled Russian economy may be threatened by the delay in handing over the books.
"This experience reminds us that even though Russian courts may rule in favor of American litigants . . . political interference wins at the end of the day," Gore wrote his colleagues.
The result was a tailor-made amendment allowing the secretary of state to block U.S. aid to any agency that fails to turn over property determined by a Russian court to belong to any American individual or organization.