“The truth is rarely pure and never simple,” Oscar Wilde tells us in “The Importance of Being Earnest” (which is possibly one of the most elegantly funny plays ever written).
That perhaps self-negating statement (because it appears to be a truth that’s both pure and simple) applies very well to the world around us, and to the stories in this week’s paper
Take Yiddish in Palestine. Who (other than scholars, of course) knew that the ideological feuds between Hebrew and Yiddish speakers — almost all of them European refugees or their descendants, almost all of them most likely living with the constant rage that their early experiences had given them, an unwanted gift that kept on giving — were not only impassioned, but at times physically violent?
Take the war in Ukraine. As Alexander Smukler points out, it is possible to believe strongly in Ukraine’s right to exist as an autonomous nation, free from its belligerent, entitled neighbor’s deadly grasp; it is possible to be outraged by Vladimir Putin’s ability to kill thousands of people, just because he doesn’t care about whether they live or die, to get what he wants, without forgetting about Ukraine’s past.
The ground that’s drenched in Ukrainian and Russian blood now has been the ground where countless Jews were massacred, most recently by Nazis and Soviets but for centuries by Ukrainians. This new war in Ukraine is being fought on the Pale of Settlement, the part of eastern Europe to which most of us Ashkenazi Jews can trace at least some of our ancestors.
That does not mean in any way that today’s Ukrainians bear any responsibility for the past. It does not mean in any way that we should not support Ukraine.
It just means that the past, like the present, is complicated.
We are about to end the cycle of holidays that started with Rosh Hashanah and enter the new year, 5784, in earnest.
On Simchat Torah, we will begin to read our story once again from the beginning. After the dancing — in my shul it’s wild and long and glorious and exhausting and exhilarating and at times literally entrancing — we will begin the new year soberly, with festivals and celebrations behind us and the new season upon us.
But as we’re often told, history might not repeat, but it does rhyme. The world ahead seems precariously balanced right now. Tensions and polarization are high — in the United States, in Israel, and in much of the rest of the world as well. The survival skills that we once thought outdated might be useful again. Maybe, with luck and skill and goodwill — all characteristics that our leaders seem to lack, but maybe they’re just obscured — everything will work out.
I certainly hope so.
Until then, we wish our readers chag sameach, a joyous end to Sukkot and much happiness at Simchat Torah, as we twirl the sefer Torah to start again at the beginning.