My grandparents fled Ukraine looking for the rainbow

My grandparents fled Ukraine looking for the rainbow

“What do we leave? Nothing much! Only Anatevka…”*

I sang those lyrics in theaters from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to the lights of Las Vegas, and always with a sort of melancholy, playing the role of Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Where is Anatevka? In the stories of the Yiddish writer Shalom Aleichem (“Tevye the Dairyman”) and later in “Fiddler,” Anatevka is a shtetl in Ukraine.

Interestingly, the Times of Israel published a story about Anatevka (this is a short paragraph from the article, but the article itself is NOT a glowing testimony) — “Anatevka, a displaced persons camp southwest of Kyiv, was built from the ground up in 2015 by Chabad Rabbi Moshe Azman, who presides over the restored 19th-century Brodsky synagogue in central Kyiv.”

The bombings of residential neighborhoods in the city of Kharkyv (which Jews pronounce Kharkov) bring back horrendous images of my mother’s parents who fled Kharkov in the early 1900s as the pogroms intensified.

I’m sure that you’re familiar with the name Babi Yar. That’s the place, just outside Kyiv, where 33,000 Jews were murdered. I heard stories about family members who were butchered, along with 15,000 other Jews, at Drobytsky Yar, a ravine outside Kharkov.

I grew up with trepidation because of the stories about the Nazis, and the pogroms all over Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Ukraine, that I heard from my parents and many of their friends.

I went to the Yeshiva of Flatbush, an Orthodox yeshiva in Brooklyn, for elementary school, and then my parents gave me the choice of three ultra-Orthodox high schools. I told them that I’d applied to Stuyvesant High School, had already taken the entrance exam, and if I got accepted that was where I wanted to go. Neither of my parents had any idea what Stuyvesant High School was, but my dad nodded and said, yeah, yeah, Stuyvesant High School, we’ll see.

I got in.

Stuyvesant High School was a real eye opener for me. Talk about a melting pot! The boys there (yes, back then it was an all-boys school) were of every race, religion, and ethnicity, and quite a few came from St. Georges Academy, a Ukrainian Catholic parochial school in New York City. There was plenty of animosity between the Ukrainian boys and the Jewish boys, and it wasn’t always just unkind words.

With all of that background noise spinning through my brain, I wasn’t sure how I was going to react as my wife Shelly and I sat and watched hour after hour of the horrors being inflicted on the people of Ukraine.

My thoughts raced. Are they getting what they deserve? Is it payback after 75 years? And then, what the hell are you thinking, Lenny, I said to myself, with the tears pouring down my cheeks, my feelings turning into rage.

I thought about a story I told from the bimah on erev Yom Kippur a few years ago.

I held a glass of water in my hand and asked my congregation how heavy it was. Answers ranged from 8 to 20 ounces, but, I said, “the absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it’s not a problem. If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my arm. If I hold it for a day, my arm will feel numb and paralyzed. In each case, the weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.

“The demons that possess us, the stresses and worries, and the anger in life are like that glass of water. Think about them for a while and nothing happens. Think about them a bit longer and they begin to hurt. And if you think about them all day long, you will feel paralyzed — incapable of doing anything.

“Put the glass down, or spill the water out, and move on!”

I had spilled the water out of my glass in this respect some 25 years ago, and I’ve reached out to many of my Ukrainian friends — some from my high school days — offering help of any kind, and certainly daily prayers for the safety of their friends and family still in Ukraine.

So, where is Anatevka?

For most it’s a mythical place, but for many, and certainly for the people of Ukraine today, it is a reality full of fear and terror.

To quote Yip Harburg’s lyrics from “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” (Harold Arlen wrote the music):

“When all the world is a hopeless jumble and the raindrops tumble all around, Heaven opens a magic lane. When all the clouds darken up the skyway, there’s a rainbow highway to be found, leading from your window pane. To a place behind the sun. Just a step beyond the rain.”

I pray that the people of Ukraine wake up where the clouds are far behind them, and like the Jews in Israel, they too find somewhere over the rainbow.

Hazan Lenny Mandel, also an ordained rabbi, has been the cantor at Congregation B’Nai Israel in Emerson for 25 years. He is an ardent Zionist, a raging champion of Jewish causes, and stood up against injustice for many non-Jewish causes as well.