Last week I was sitting with a non-Jewish colleague at the Jewish Community Federation offices in Richmond, Virginia, expressing my deep concern for the current political situation in Ukraine.
“Well, you’re not Ukrainian are you?” the colleague asked.
Am I Ukrainian? Well, that’s not an easy question to answer.
Four of my great-grandparents immigrated to the United States between 1915 and 1920 from areas that are now considered Ukraine, shtetlach (little villages) outside of Kiev and Lvov. If you asked them where they were from, they would say that they were from “Sometimes Russia, sometimes Poland, it depended on the borders at the time.” My grandparents and great grandparents all spoke Yiddish in the home. I’m not exactly sure which local languages were spoken before they came over as those languages never made it across the gates of Ellis Island and into our American homes in on the South Side of Philadelphia and the Lower East Side of New York.
Once they arrived here there was a great focus on becoming Americans, loyalty to family and loyalty to local Jewish lanzmen, fellow immigrants from the same villages. My great grandmother, Anna Zuckerbraun Gerb, arrived alone on the Lower East Side at the age of 15 from “sometimes Poland, sometimes Russia” and took a job in a cigarette factory. Soon enough Anna realized that a cigarette factory was no place for a proper young lady and moved in with relatives in New Rochelle to work in a ladies dress shop which would allow her the chance to learn English without a Yiddish accent.
Yiddish connects me to the old world, my heritage and my family. Ukrainian and Russian does not. When my 7 year old hears my husband or I use a foreign word that is unfamiliar, she automatically asks if it is “Hebrew or Yiddish?” Yet as little as 100 years ago, literally all of her all of her ancestors were living in “sometimes Poland, sometimes Russia” and had settled there hundreds and hundreds of years before. It’s hard to deny that Jewish blood runs deep in Eastern Europe.
At the tender age of 20, I was very lucky to have been given the chance to spend a year serving the Jewish community of Bucharest, Romania as a Jewish Service Corps Volunteer for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). I will never forget the first time that the word “Romania” entered my brain space. I had been pining for a volunteer position in exotic Bombay, India.
As I sat, my stomach a bundle of knots, in the volunteer program director’s office in New York City, my hopes and dreams of a year eating samosas and wearing saris came to a crashing halt when the director asked, “Well Shoshanna, what do you think about Romania?”
Romania? What did I think about Romania? “I don’t think anything about Romania!” I blurted out before I could collect my thoughts. I tried to keep a smile on my face, but inside I was devastated. I knew, however, that if I wanted to secure a position in this prestigious volunteer program, I needed to appear flexible and open minded. Maybe this was just all a big test to determine if I was overseas material?
Alas it wasn’t, and in the weeks that followed, subsequent interviews and meetings kept pointing in one direction and one direction only, Romania. At the time, I could not fathom what it was about me that “screamed” Romania to the JDC staff. Despite my disappointments in not being given India, I decided to take a leap of faith and accept the year-long Romania volunteer position.
Not a single part of my 20 year old self was prepared for the journey that I was about to experience, and, even as I write this almost 13 years later, the deep connection that I would feel with the local Jewish community from the moment that I set foot on Romanian ground. When my ancestors and many of the other 2 million Eastern European Jews immigrated to the United States at the turn of the century, they stepped onto American soil and never looked back. In fact, why would they want to look back? My personal family stories of dire poverty, pogroms, and anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe are certainly not unique.
Another Great Grandmother, Rose Schechter, traveled alone with 4 young children, including my grandfather who was a baby at the time, on the long and complicated journey from Vienna to New York. Having flown alone with my own 3 children, I cannot even imagine how hard that journey must have been, especially as Rose was a fervently religious rebbetzin and insisted on stepping off the train headed towards their European port to observe Shabbat with her four children in a foreign train station. Despite what modern ultra-Orthodox historical revisionism has to stay about life in the shtetl, the fact remains that simply put, it was rough and often miserable. 2 million people do not get on boats to leave their hometowns when life is easy and idyllic.
So, imagine my surprise when the Romanian Jewish community began to work its way not only into my heart, but the most basic parts of my Jewish identity as well. To say that my time working with Jewish communities overseas “changed” my life is highly inaccurate. It’s probably more appropriate to say that the experience “shaped” my life and the person that I would become. I’m also very lucky that during my year I was able to participate in camps, seminars, and programs for Jewish young people from all over Eastern Europe, truly allowing me to develop an ever evolving appreciation for the concept of “Global Jewish Peoplehood.” My Romanian friends have grandparents and great grandparents that spoke Yiddish just like mine. We share a deep collective memory of hardship and survival that binds us at our core.
I despise the concept of “Jewish Heritage” trips to Eastern Europe that paint countries like Ukraine, Poland, and Romania as massive Jewish graveyards. Despite what your parents or grandparents might have told you, thanks to organizations such as the JDC, Jewish life is still very much alive in Central and Eastern Europe. The reasons that the Jews of Eastern Europe stay are diverse and complex. It is my personal belief that the only way for an American Jew to truly understand the situation of modern Jews in Eastern Europe is to take the time to visit and meet these people for themselves. Visits to local Jewish communities should be included on every “heritage” or Mission trip.
So am I Ukrainian? I don’t think so. In fact, my great grandparents might have even been offended if I claim Ukrainian heritage and wave the Ukrainian flag. But that does not stop me from being deeply concerned for the 300,000+ Ukrainian Jews, my brother and sisters, who are in danger and need our help. With a twist of fate or perhaps a little less desperation from my ancestors, I myself could be living in Kiev instead of Richmond, Virginia. If there is nothing I have learned from my work in Eastern Europe, it’s the the Talmudic concept of “kol yisrael are’viim zeh la zeh” that all of the nation of Israel is responsible for one another, will forever ring true. At this time more than ever, we cannot forget the piece of ourselves that is still living and most probably suffering, in Ukraine.