This feels different. And I would like to ponder why.
The war for Ukraine—I believe this to be the better descriptor than the benign Russia-Ukraine war—has affected me in ways that other conflicts and humanitarian crisis have not. While I remain exercised about America’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, the collapse of the country’s economy, and the knowledge that over twenty million Afghanis will soon face hunger and starvation (there are innocent children in that land too!), my heart looks toward the hourly reports from Ukraine.
Why my focus turns toward Europe, why my heart weeps more for Ukrainians gnaws at me, but at this moment I can only look toward Ukraine. This place matters to us. It matters to us as Americans. And it matters to us as Jews. I have only begun to articulate why.
Arise and go now to the city of slaughter;
Into its courtyard wind thy way;
There with thine own hand touch, and with the eyes of
Behold on tree, on stone, on fence, on mural clay,
The spattered blood and dried brains of the dead.
And many more made their way to America.
One of those was my grandfather who was born in what is now called Dnipro, a city on the Dnieper River that snakes through central Ukraine. One year after this pogrom, he left his birthplace. He was then two years old and came along with his mother and two older siblings. His other family members were already in the United States.
Papa Bill then made this country our home. And so, it is hard not to see what is happening now in Ukraine and not say, “That could be me.” They appear like my brethren.
And they appear even more like kindred spirits because they are fighting for exactly what my grandfather came to embrace. Democracy! And it is these democratic values that are now embodied in Ukraine’s besieged and defiant Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
Here are people fighting for their democratic rights, who wish to safeguard their sovereignty and loosen their dependency on Russia. Is this not what the early Zionists also believed, and what our students sing at the start of Religious School, “To be a free people in our own land”? Is this not what Bialik also dreamed about in his native Odessa?
I believe in democracy. I believe that Ukrainians should be free to elect their leaders and decide their fate. Putin, and his cronies, should not be allowed to bully others and subjugate them. It is he, and his Russian army, who appear more like Nazis than the brave Ukrainians defending their land or hiding in their cities’ subway stations. (How can we not think of this every time we stand on a New York City subway platform?). His claims of “de-Nazifying a Ukraine” led, and inspired, by the grandson of Holocaust survivors are absurd.
In this war for Ukraine, right and wrong, good and evil are clear. We must stand squarely with the citizens of Ukraine. And we must do more to support their struggle. Their fight is our fight.
My heart remains with the brave Ukrainians fighting to guarantee democratic self-rule. No war has the resonance of past world wars. And my heart stands with my grandfather’s birthplace. No war, in most of our lifetimes, has touched on these familial roots. These pull stronger than even my most stirring humanitarian impulses. I have come to realize. In this case they are one in the same.
We must stand with Ukraine. We must do more.
My grandfather’s hopes are now hiding in Kiev’s subway stations. How will we rescue them? How will redeem his dreams of democracy and freedom so that the whole world might see them?
My grandfather’s legacy depends on it. My children’s future rests upon it.
My heart will not rest. My heart cannot sit still.