I’ve often noticed how themes seem to develop in the paper; we haven’t planned them, but they’re unmistakable.
This year, the same theme has come up two weeks in a row. It’s history.
It’s well timed. This Monday was Juneteenth, and July 4 will be in about two weeks. Both of those days celebrate turning points in American history. Juneteenth marks the final end of slavery, the primal American sin, and the Fourth of July commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence, that gloriously written paean to freedom. (I know that Thomas Jefferson was problematic; he was an enslaver, and his relationship with Sally Hemming — a relationship whose emotional truth we never will be able to understand — was based in profound injustice. But oh could he write!)
This week, we have two stories about Jewish history — one that’s within living memory and another that’s being made right now, in front of us, and detailed online in a way that’s brand new.
The first one is “I am a Palestinian Jew,” this week’s cover story, a memoir by Margalit Edelson, now of Caldwell, but until she was a young adult, of Jerusalem. Her book dovetails with Israel Story’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered?” the podcast’s series of interviews with the descendants of all the people who signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence, in commemoration of the country’s 75th anniversary.
It’s possible to give birth to a new country without pain, blood, and massive upheaval, no doubt, but it’s hard to think of any examples of it. Israel’s existence was in reaction to the evil of the Holocaust, and its neighbors’ reaction to its birth was war. Margalit lived through those times, had a small part in it, and talks about it with clarity and love. It is extraordinary to know that we still have a witness to that time among us — much less one who wrote her first book now, at 93, to let the rest of us know about it. She is a hero.
And then there’s Ukraine; a nation that already was born — a very old nation, in fact, but one that was reshaped many times over, most recently with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Many of us Ashkenazim have come to realize that although we’d been told that our families were from Russia, Russia was shorthand for the Soviet Union, and really they came from Ukraine, Belarus, or some other part of the FSU. They were less likely to have come from Russia itself unless they’d left it fairly recently; Russia was outside the Pale of Settlement.
We know that there was hideous antisemitism in Ukraine, and its record during World War II is terrible. We know that there is some question about some of the symbolism and affiliations of some of Ukraine’s fighters (although the extent of it is not at all clear).
But we know something else too.
We know that Ukraine elected a young Jewish man to be its president.
That’s amazing. The United States, which has a history of antisemitism, as all Western countries do — as Abe Foxman says, most of the time that antisemitism has lived at the bottom of our sewer system, but recent events have blown the manhole covers off, and the filth is oozing out — has never had a Jewish president.
Volodymyr Zelensky isn’t a particularly connected or committed Jew; he’s the grandson and great nephew of Holocaust victims and survivors, but he grew up completely secular, in a country that permitted no Jewishness to surface. But he’s openly Jewish nonetheless.
He’s a fascinating figure — we’re often told that he was a performer, who came to the presidency from starring in a television show about a hapless performer who played a president and ending up being one. Life, we were told, was imitating art. But we have to remember that he’s also a lawyer, as well as a businessman and artistic director who ran theater companies. He’s very, very smart. He’s also very funny, and his theater-honed sense of timing is serving him well too.
We have a story about Zelensky this week because Vladimir Putin, the autocrat running Russia who invaded Ukraine and seems to be losing the war he started, said that he is not only not really Jewish — a claim based apparently on nothing — but also that he’s a disgrace to his people.
I think that most American Jews find Volodymyr Zelensky inspirational. We are proud of him. And we should be proud of him.