From Zelensky to Waley-Cohen, Jewish tradition counts

President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky
President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky

Well, we Jews certainly can’t complain about not getting a good press at the moment. Volodymyr Zelensky is leading the heroic defence of Ukraine against the Russian invaders, and Sam De has won the Grand National.

The media are keeping a discreet silence about the religions of both men. Sam Waley-Cohen is occasionally mentioned as a passionate believer in Judaism, but not in the Sunday Times and the Sunday Mail. Perhaps it’s because it makes his marriage in St. Michaels & All Angels Church somewhat anachronistic.  It would also have been easier for us to celebrate the victory if the race hadn’t ben run on Shabbot. It seems unlikely though that the Aintree stewards would have accepted the rationale.

Volodymyr Zelensky was a hilarious comic before he was elected president, but that must have meant performing on Friday night and Shabbot as well.

It’s like inheriting a fortune but not keeping up the grave of the founder, for both men have so many Jewish attributes that their ancestors would not consider the apple had fallen far from the bough.

Sam Waley-Cohen has shown admirable grit and determination as a jockey. He has made his commercial fortune in the world of dentistry. The  Bible does consider dentistry as you know; Exodus 21.27 gives the instruction “And if he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth.” In Amos 4.6 the prophet reports “But I gave you also cleanliness of teeth in all your cities. …Yet you have not returned to Me declares the Lord.”

There is, however, another Jewish trait to Sam Waley Cohen’s development of a dentist cooperative company. That is our ability to spot the hole in the market. Dental care has not been one of the NHS shining lights over the years but it is much improved by the efforts of Sam Waley Cohen’s company.

Volodymyr Zelensky also has a number of Jewish traits even if we don’t know if he wears a tsitsis. It’s important. When Rabbi Dr. Schonfeld was trying to get the Home Office to grant entry visas to Jewish refugees before the Second World War, he was initially refused them. The Home Office pointed out that there were a large number of British unemployed and entry visas could only be given to emigrants who could provide a skill not available in the country otherwise. Solomon Schonfeld said they had such a skill; they could make tsitsim! The Home Office granted the visas. Has the same argument been advanced for Ukrainian refugees at this time?

The Ukrainian president has inherited from his ancestors a determination not to be bullied. The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, the Holy Roman Empire, Fascists and Communists, among other empires,  have tried to get rid of us. They have now vanished into the footnotes of history but we’re still here. Both President Zelensky and Sam Waley Cohen have children; the latest generation since Abraham. Will they be the last? Who knows, but if we don’t win the Grand National for a lot more years and we don’t get elected president of another Christian country, there will still be Seder nights as the oldest religious festival in the world moves through its fourth millennium.

Danny Kaye, the great American comedian, was telling a Jewish joke at the London Palladium at a Friday night performance 70 years ago. There was Jewish applause and Danny Kaye turned on those members of the audience. “I have to be here” he said “but you don’t.”

About the Author
Derek is an author & former editor of the Jewish Year Book