What do Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, Sholom Secunda, and Isaac Stern have in common?
Um, they all were Jewish musicians?
Yes, in fact they were. But there’s more.
They’re all European-born?
Yes, that’s right.
They came from Russia, didn’t they?
Well, sort of. They came from the Pale of Settlement, in what had been the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. But there’s more. Want a hint?
Add Golda Meir, Simon Wiesenthal, Natan Sharansky, and Nachman of Bratslav. (And forget about the musician part.)
Still not entirely obvious? Add Volodymyr Zelensky and Alexander Vindman.
They’re both heroes.
And they all came from Ukraine.
Rabbi Joseph Prouser, who leads Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes, plans to dedicate his tikkun leil Shavuot, the late-in-the-night study session that’s tradition on the evening of Shavuot, to “Jews From Ukraine.” (See below.)
It’s the first tikkun — and really the first ambitious program — that he’s undertaken since covid shut everything down, and Rabbi Prouser’s sure that Ukraine is good way to bring the shul back to life. “People are relating to Ukraine very personally,” he said. “The crisis, the war, is on everybody’s mind. It’s occupying everyone’s emotions. So this is a way not only of being relevant, but of personalizing a major issue of the day.”
The emotional connection is in part because of the clarity of the issue; there is no question that in invading Ukraine, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, was trying to take over a sovereign nation by force. So Rabbi Prouser’s congregation not only “has some knowledge of the country’s history, and how it intersections with Jewish history,” but like most American Jews of Ashkenazi descent, his members “see it on a more deep and personal level.”
The history of Jews in Ukraine is a complex and at times terrible story, Rabbi Prouser said. “But now, it has produced a president, Zelensky, who is a folk hero for many people, including Jews. It does have a dark history with its Jewish population, but it seems to some extent to have overcome that history by electing a Jewish president.
“Zelensky says that no country is more remorseful about how it treated Jews throughout its history than Ukraine is.”
Talk about complexity — “last week, it was reported that the Russians destroyed the historic synagogue in Mariupol,” the straightforwardly named Old Synagogue. “They shelled it,” Rabbi Prouser said.
For the erev Shavuot program, Rabbi Prouser asked some congregants to pick one from the list of Ukrainian Jews, learn about that person, and then talk about that research after davening next Saturday night.
“The one I knew least about was Shalom Secunda, so I will finish the program by talking about him,” Rabbi Prouser said.
This is part of what he learned: Shalom Secunda was born in Aleksandriya, Ukraine, in 1894 and, after a pogrom in 1905, his family fled to the United States. Little Shalom Secunda already was considered a wunderkind; he was a chazzan until his voice changed. He went to the Institute of Musical Art, which later became Juilliard; he worked for Philadelphia’s Metropolitan Opera, and he composed for the secular world around him. But he also always stayed connected to the Jewish world; he was a significant presence in Yiddish theater as it flowered on Second Avenue in downtown Manhattan. He wrote the music for the Andrew Sisters’ hit Bei Mir Bistu Shein.
And in 1941, Secunda wrote “Dos Kelpl,” the heartbreaking Yiddish song of a bound calf, in a cart, on the way to slaughter as doves fly in the blue sky above him. “Many people thought it was really about the Holocaust and Jewish submissiveness and victimization,” Rabbi Prouser said. “It’s not completely clear if that was his intent, but it makes sense.” That song became “Dona Dona,” “a staple of the 1960s and the civil rights movement, and the human choice between submissiveness and slaughter on one side, and freedom to take flight on the other,” Rabbi Prouser said.
“The song is a Yiddish standard; it was popularized by Joan Baez and translated into many languages, including English, German, Spanish, Hebrew, and Vietnamese. It is about Secunda’s experience as a Ukrainian refugee, but it led to this expression of freedom that became very much an American folk standard.”
And there’s more — the question of what the refrain means. “In Turkish, ‘dona dona’ means a weaned calf; why Secunda would be using that is beyond me,” Rabbi Prouser said. “There’s another theory that dona dona is like giddyap.” It’s what the driver would say to the horse or donkey pulling his cart.
“But it seems clear — and this is not original to me — that it really is Adonai,” My Lord, one of the names of God we use so often in our liturgy. “When you repeat dona dona, you hear Adonai. The original Polish or Ukrainian transliterations spell ‘dona’ as ‘donaj,’ and that really is like ‘ay.’ So when you hear this song, you realize that not only is this Ukrainian refugee, this child cantor, getting the whole world singing in Yiddish, but calling to God in Hebrew.”
Moreover, Rabbi Prouser added, in the Talmud, in Baba Metzia 85a, a calf bound for slaughter, as in the song, escapes and runs to Yehuda HaNasi, asking for sanctuary, but is denied and handed over to be killed. “That’s why you’re a calf,” the hard-hearted rabbi said. “Then God visits all sorts of problems on him, because he is not compassionate.” But later, when he is on his deathbed, Yehuda HaNasi tells his would-be comforters who are sweeping mice out of his room “leave them alone,” and that act of compassion, that clear sign that he had learned to soften his heart, helped his disease into remission.
“In the song, the farmer takes the place of the rabbi, to make it more accessible. And the rabbi’s message becomes not ‘Go to slaughter, that is what you were born for,’ but that you should take wings and take flight.
“One could argue that this is all because of Sholom Secunda’s experience as a Ukrainian refugee.”
One other fact about Secunda — there will be many more on erev Shavuot, but one more for now — “he saw himself in very Jewish terms,” Rabbi Prouser said. “He stuck to the Yiddish theater. And his gravestone has just his names and dates in Hebrew and English, and a harp. It says, ‘The sweet singer of Israel.’”
The figure the congregants whom Rabbi Prouser approached as possible speakers most wanted to discuss was Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the Ukrainian-born American Jew who agreed to discuss President Donald Trump’s so-called “perfect phone call” with Mr. Zelensky, which led to the former president’s first impeachment. Robert and Susan Yudin of Wyckoff got the plum assignment.
Mr. Yudin has the background to understand Lt. Col. Vindman, who was the director for European affairs for the National Security Council when he was on the call between Trump and Zelensky.
“I am a former naval office and I was a navigator during the Vietnam War,” Mr. Yudin said. “With my first squadron, I was involved in the Cuban missile crisis, and in the second one, we made early flights in Vietnam.
“I flew at the same time as John McCain,” the late Republican senator from Arizona and longtime POW who ran for president in 2012. “He was a pilot on an A4 attack squadron, and I was a navigator on a C130 heavy airlift squadron. And I was a legal officer. I was a lieutenant JG in the navy.”
He learned many things, some of them life-transforming, during his time in the service. Among them, he learned that “all orders are assumed lawful, but an unlawful order should not be obeyed. That’s in the UCMJ,” the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
“That’s why Vindman did what he did when he was on a call with the president of the United States, who tried to get the president of Ukraine to find dirt for him on Joe Biden’s son,” Mr. Yudin said. “He went through the chain of command, to do it the right way.
“When he was called to testify, he told the truth. That is a cardinal rule for officers. You have to tell the truth. Never be afraid of the truth.”
It’s that steadfast refusal not to lie that stymied Vindman professionally but showed his character and his Jewish values, Mr. Yudin said.
Ms. Yudin read Mr. Vindman’s book, “Here Right Matters,” and she will discuss it on erev Shavuot, she said. “I have a lot of questions. Some of them I can answer. Some of them I cannot answer. Some are for people to think about.
“How does an immigrant from Ukraine rise to such a great job? This is a Jewish immigration story.” It also elicits questions, at least in some quarters, about dual loyalty, and about the value of expertise.
“There’s an old question,” Ms. Yudin concluded. “Did the Jews keep Shabbat, or did Shabbat keep the Jews? Is antisemitism keeping the Jews? If not for antisemitism in Russia and Ukraine, the world would have been so different.” On a very specific level, if antisemitism had not chased the Vindman family from Ukraine, the world would have been different.
Or, as Rabbi Prouser put it, “Alexander Vindman’s autobiography is very moving. His motto is a very Jewish definition of teshuva, when he says, ‘Don’t just start over. Keep on starting over.’ That is a very Jewish approach.”
And a very American one.
All those approaches will be combined in Franklin Lakes on erev Shavuot — and there will be cheesecake.
Who: Rabbi Joseph Prouser
What: Leads “Jews From Ukraine,” as part of erev Shavuot davening and study
When: On the evening of Saturday, June 4; study begins at 7 p.m., services are from 9 to 9:25, and then study resumes.
Where: At Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes
What’s to eat: Dairy buffet, through the evening.
To learn more: Go to tenjfl.org