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Dzhankoye’s in the news

The semi-mythical place of our happy childhood Yiddish songs should be a place for fun and joy, not a target in the fight between Ukraine and Russia over Crimea
Smoke rises over the site of explosion at an ammunition storage warehouse of Russian army near the village of Mayskoye, in the Dzhankoi area of the Crimea, August 16, 2022. (AP Photo)
Smoke rises over the site of explosion at an ammunition storage warehouse of Russian army near the village of Mayskoye, in the Dzhankoi area of the Crimea, August 16, 2022. (AP Photo)

There is a village in Crimea called Dzhankoy— Dzhankoye in Yiddish. On August 16, a Russian military base there exploded. The war in the Ukraine is intensifying, and nobody seems to be doing anything to stop escalation and organize a peace conference. Russia is being accused of bombarding the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant, but at the very same time it is also accused of militarily occupying it. That would mean it would be firing missiles at itself. The propaganda is called “doublethink” by Orwell in his novel “1984” — and the Western media, by repeating this doublethink constantly, as though it were logical, are just following Joseph Goebbels’ prescriptions about how to spread the Big Lie. But you don’t have to be an Israeli listener to the BBC to know that the mainstream media stopped giving us the news a long time ago.

Putin, for his part, is playing footsie with the terrorist murderers in Iran and the loony tune monstrosity of North Korea. Israel’s getting blamed by both sides for being neutral: Если в кране нет воды/ Значит, выпили жиды, “If there’s no water in the tap/ It means the damn Yids drank it,” goes the old antisemitic rhyme. The Chinese are watching all this, looking at Taiwan, licking their lips, and sharpening their knives. I don’t mean to look down from a high horse. Here in America, we’re ruled by a corrupt gang of thieves infected by political correctness: this is not a free country anymore and, again, it hasn’t been for a long time. For the American administration, the Ukraine is just a proxy war, part of a century-long war against the Russians, Biden’s willing to fight this war to the last Ukrainian, innocent people are dying, and it’s sickening. It’s scary as hell, too, since we’re escalating, inching ever closer to an incident that could start a nuclear war.

Ukrainian special forces have carried out a number of serious attacks in the Crimea in recent days, and Mr. Zelensky, feeling emboldened to throw some more fuel on the fire, has crowed that there will be no peace agreement until Russia is entirely out of the Crimea. What he knows full well, but evidently doesn’t want anybody in the West to know, is that the Crimea was Russian for centuries. It was subtracted by Nikita Khrushchev, the year before my kid brother was born, from the Russian SFSR and added to the Ukrainian SSR, when both were republics of one country, the Soviet Union. The transfer didn’t mean anything then. But the very idea of Russia surrendering its only warmish-water naval base at Sevastopol — which is in the Crimea — to any foreign state is about as unlikely as the USA handing over San Diego to China.

Who lives in Crimea? All sorts of people. In ancient times there were Greeks and Scythians. In Late Antique times, the Goths moved in. Later on, Turkic-speaking Tatars settled there and the Crimea was part of the Ottoman Empire. Many of the Turkic speakers were Jews belonging to the Karaite sect. After Russia conquered the peninsula from the Ottoman Turks, Crimea became part of the Pale of Settlement— the part of the Tsarist empire where Jews were allowed to live. So in addition to Tatar, Russian, and what was then called Little Russian (and now, Ukrainian), Yiddish was spoken (as well as Greek, Armenian, and the many other languages of the Black Sea littoral).

During World War II, Stalin deported many Crimean Tatars from their homes, accusing them of collective responsibility for collaboration with the Nazis. This happened to a number of Soviet ethnic minorities: after the war, Stalin decided to deport all the Jews to Siberia, too, and the only reason that didn’t happen was that he died in early March 1953 — the same day, by the way, as the composer Sergei Prokofiev. Which is why the day isn’t a holiday.

Ukrainian special forces have mounted a series of spectacular and extremely destructive attacks in the Crimea over the past week. Today, they struck a place called Dzhankoi. I never thought I’d hear the name on the news. It is Tatar-Turkish and means “the heart’s village.” Before World War II, there was a Yiddish-speaking, Jewish collective farm there — Jewish Communists, like the Zionists in the Land of Israel, thought it would be a good thing for our people to get out of the crowded cities and back to the old, biblical way of life — agriculture. The Dzhankoye kolkhoz was not a great success, but a song about it became very popular and was performed by left-leaning American folk singers like Pete Seeger.

I don’t know, it expressed a kind of defiant optimism about life, about the survival of the Jews in a place we had called home for a very long time, and anyhow it was a good song. It’s the song (see below) that spurred the memories that follow.

When I was a kid, my parents used to take my brother and me for the summer to a bungalow in Champlain Colony upstate in Crown Point, NY — on the shores of Lake Champlain. The lake is beautiful, mysterious, and deep there. We swam every day, fished for perch, rowed to Clay Island on the Vermont side, past a buoy with the number 34 painted on it whose chain dropped fearsomely into the murky depths. We went hiking in the Adirondack mountains. Fort Ticonderoga was nearby, a relic of the American Revolution and earlier. We went across to Vermont to a great family restaurant, the Dog Team. Crown Point was a beautiful little town with a village green and an antique store full of treasures.

The locals in Crown Point were glad to sell ice cream, with tight-lipped smiles, to the summer vacationers from what some of them called the “Jew Colony.” It was many years before I realized that we kids had never, ever had any local friends. Once I crossed paths with boy my age on the dirt road near the railroad tracks. He kept looking at my head and I let him come up and feel it: no horns. The town’s school library, where our day camp went every Friday to borrow books, had a bloodcurdling assortment of antiSemitic tracts. “Red Star over America” was about the Jewish conspiracy. I remember the phrase “bloody little Israel” from it. Back then, it was the right-wingers, mostly, who hated us. “Jesus Was Not Jew” — that one sported the myth he was a Galilean “Aryan” (White supremacists still spew that).

So the families in Champlain Colony, instead of looking for local company, socialized happily with each other. It was the early to mid-’60s. The young parents were World War II vets. They got together before cookout dinners, mixed “martoonies,” and ate Triscuits, with cubes of cheddar cheese or dip made from sour cream mixed with the contents of a package of dried onion soup. We kids — America was later to call us “baby boomers” — played rough games, had fights, made up, went on treasure hunts. Once there was a competition between two teams to pull a greased watermelon out of the lake. I was a fat, unathletic boy, but I thrived in the water. The head of the opposing team was an even fatter, mean, unpleasant bully. All of his family, come to think of it, were both fat and mean. Like, he taught me to play Klop mir, a card game where you get to hit people. When he hit you, he wasn’t playing. The battle of the greased watermelon came down to yours truly vs. that kid. He had the watermelon. He tried to poke my eyes out. I reinvented myself as a U-boat, plunged, and rammed him as hard as I could in his balls so that he doubled over in agony, taking in water and choking. Then I grabbed the watermelon, and won the game. Which wasn’t a game at all.

Every Saturday night, the adults put on a show in the social hall for each other. The kids weren’t invited. We had to be in bed. My mom and dad and their friends, the Fanshels and Fishleders and Farkashes, plus the resident scholar of William Blake, Burt Shapiro, spent a month composing a witty musical with all sorts of references to comedians and sleazy slapstick, to the Yiddish theater, to folk music. They set the song “Dzhankoye” to new lyrics. Here’s the Yiddish song:

And the new lyrics:

It’s a long way to Crown Point
And when you get there, disappointing;
But it’s really quite a place.
For the lake is so inviting;
And the people, so exciting—
That the summer seems to race.
Hey there, hey there Crown Point,
Champlain Co-lo-NY in Crown Point
Is the only place to be!
Hey there, hey there Crown Point
Champlain Co-lo-NY in Crown Point
Is the only place for me.

Nothing at all is left of Champlain Colony. Every single bungalow has been torn down. It is all gone. There was a big old whitewashed hotel from before the Civil War where the owner, Mr. Popovits, lived with his family. The attic was full of bats sleeping upside down. I captured one and kept him in a jar with a perforated lid for an afternoon. He shuffled about like an annoyed little old gentleman in a kapote. In the evening, two friends and I let him out. He climbed onto the dirt road, took his bearings, launched into a few circles widening in the air, and was off. One room of the Popovits’ house served as an old-fashioned grocery store. I think we called it the Commissary. I still have a smooth silver half dollar from the change for some purchase there. That’s how long ago it was: we used silver coins.

Another room in the house served as a shul where we davened on Erev Shabbos. You just had to look out the window at the green branches fluttering in the breeze, the shining, dancing ripples on the lake to understand that all those verses in the Psalter about the trees singing and so on, are not metaphors.

It’s all gone, most of our parents have passed, and I guess we’ll be dead, too, before too long. That collective farm in the Crimea, Dzhankoye? The Nazis destroyed it. Very few Crimean Jews survived the Holocaust. And today Dzhankoye is a war zone with explosions and people dying. Dzhankoye, the semi-mythical place of our happy childhood songs. It makes me ashamed to be alive, to have lived to see our life’s work, our hopes and strivings, disintegrate into this barbarism.

But that is not a note to end on. Don’t mourn, organize! said the trade unionists of my dad’s generation. When things are really bad it just means you have to fight that much harder, said an old Red sailor, a veteran of the Lincoln Battalion, when Studs Terkel interviewed him in the film “The Good Fight.” We need to end this war and all wars, and each one of us has to take his part. I’m not dead yet, and I’ll fight till I drop. Because if WE don’t end the war, then it could get nuclear and your children will burn to death before your eyes and nothing, no country, no ideology, nothing, is worth risking that. STOP THE WAR! I’ve given you one soundtrack, the song “Dzhankoye,” to cheer you up. Ready, aim, sing!

МИРУ— МИР! — שלום שלום — Peace to the world!

About the Author
Born New York City to Sephardic Mom and Ashkenazic Dad, educated at Bronx Science HS, Columbia, Oxford, SOAS (Univ. of London), professor of ancient Iranian at Columbia, of Armenian at Harvard, lectured on Jewish studies where now live in retirement: Fresno, California. Published many books & scholarly articles. Belong to Chabad.
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