Ukraine, Anatevka, and the water’s edge

Ukraine, Anatevka, and the water’s edge

Joanne Palmer

Vladimir Putin is beginning his invasion of Ukraine right now.

He’s been threatening for weeks, he’s doing it, at least right now, with what he seems to intend to be plausible deniability, and it is terrifying.

When we read about Ukraine — not to mention when we see images from that huge besieged country — it’s hard for many of us Ashkenazi Jews not to think of it as a place from which some of relatives escaped and others did not. There are probably few Ashkenazim who do not have any ancestors from the Pale of Settlement, which included most of Ukraine, or Russia or other parts of Eastern or Central Europe, all of which are threatened in some way by Russia’s lawless aggression.

It’s easy not to identity with what’s going on there — haven’t people always had to live through war? — as, perhaps shamefully, we do not identify with people like, say, the Afghans, or the Uighurs, or the Burmese, to name just a few groups, almost at random — because they do not look like us or live like us. But the Ukrainians do — maybe they’re a bit more Slavic-looking than most of us, because they are Slavs and we’re not — but they live 21st-century lives, with electronics and social media and good food and good books and good coffee at outdoor cafes. And their president — of all ridiculous things, their president, a former TV comedian — is Jewish, God help us all.

The Tuesday morning episode of the Daily podcast, recorded in Ukraine just as the invasion began, made that point clear. Terrified people using their phones to record what was starting to happen all around them. It’s a nightmare.

I keep thinking of “Fiddler on the Roof.” No matter how light some productions are able to make some parts of that fantastic musical, much of it is dark, and that darkness grows as the show progresses. It ends in the slow trudge out of Anatevka, out of home, out of that uncomfortable, unlovable, unwelcoming place that nonetheless was home. But those were the lucky ones.

There’s a striking contrast between “Fiddler,” the iconic American Jewish musical, and “The Wizard of Oz,” an iconic American American movie. At the very end of “The Wizard,” Dorothy wakes up. She’s back home in black-and-white Kansas, surrounded by her family and friends. She’s learned a lesson. “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard; because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with,” Dorothy says. It’s a reflection of the isolationist movement that was strong in 1939, when the movie was made, but it’s also a reflection of the luxury that we Americans have. Jews back then, and quite possibly many Ukrainians in a few day’s time, have no backyard to return to. They will have to seek their hearts’ desires elsewhere.

Back home, much of our community is continuing to live as we always have. Many of us are flourishing, many of us do a great deal of good in the world, through philanthropy, through volunteer work, through teaching and talking and thinking, by fighting to make our communities more inclusive, by taking Jefferson’s permission of the pursuit of happiness seriously.

That’s a very good thing.

Around us, our country is being divided. We can’t let that happen. Our internal politics have become crude, ugly, nearly unrecognizable.

After World War II, the United States operated with the understanding that politics stops at the water’s edge. Senator Arthur Vandenberg, a Republican from Michigan who was the chair of the Senate’s foreign relations committee, created that concept in 1948, and demonstrated it by working closely with the president, the Democrat Harry S Truman.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could go back to that time and place? If we could put aside our distrust of each other as face the outside world together?