Over the past month, as the Russian army circled Ukraine tighter and tighter, I meekly tried to suggest to my parents to leave the provincial town they live in, one in which I was born and where I lived until my teenage years. My father, who is an accomplished Ukrainian journalist and the editor of a weekly newspaper was decisive: “It’s all just a complex political gambit. The conflict will all dissolve in the final minute, just like the Cuban missile crisis did.” My cousin who lives in Ukraine, and is a successful businessman, told me to cool off, too. He knew people who knew, he pointed out. It’s just an informational war. They are both very smart, and both understand regional politics far better than I do. They weren’t alone in thinking nothing would come of this.
This is what I understand today: Nobody in their right mind believes that they will find themselves in a state of war. How could they? Knowing wars exist, in theory, is one thing. But it’s impossible to fully grasp the possibility that it will come for you and for those you love. Especially in the Former Soviet Union, where every city, every single town and village I’ve ever been in contains numerous monuments commemorating World War II. We grew up revering the veterans, and through their stories, were inoculated against wars, knowing with utmost clarity that nobody among us could possibly want this again. Nobody believes the war is coming until there’re rockets flying, and running away is no longer an option. Ukrainian airports are bombed and there’re no tickets to be bought. Gas stations are out of gas, cash machines are out of cash, and the Polish border is clogged for miles and miles with desperate refugees from the Eastern regions. Nobody believes the war is coming until it is staring them in the face.
In the weeks leading up to the invasion I wearily watched some of my friends on social media change their profiles to include the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag, which came with the inscription: “I stand with Ukraine. Slava Ukrayini, Glory to Ukraine.” An easy show of solidarity, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. For one, I don’t do flags, especially on Facebook: It brings back memories of flag-waving at the mandatory Soviet demonstrations. But it’s not just that. The Ukrainian flag as such reminds me of Ukrainian nationalism, which in turn reminds me why I left, and why so many other Jews left. The Ukrainian brand of nationalism had always come with a side dish of antisemitism. It’s not that I don’t “stand with Ukraine.” I do, and if not exactly entirely with, then maybe just a little diagonally. And that, I think, is what numerous Jewish immigrants from Ukraine all over the world are feeling right now: the bitter aftertaste of the motherland that systematically persecuted us, and the deep, heartbreaking concern for our numerous relatives, friends, and neighbors who stayed.
Being a Ukrainian Jew in America is not glamorous. In fact, it’s as opposite of glamour as it gets. It is never exoticized—not that anyone needs that, but wouldn’t it be nice to get some mileage or attention for your tsuris? No, you’re just another white American Jew, but with a funny accent and no generational wealth. I’ve always felt that the only cultural asset I am holding is my native fluency in Russian, which has given me intimate access to the greatest literature in the world. I have read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Gogol and Turgenev, Nabokov and Akhmatova in the original. It is every bit as glorious as you’ve heard it to be, and there are also innumerable others, lesser known in the West, but just as rapturous. Ukrainian literature, in contrast, always struck me as vastly inferior, and thus reflective of Ukrainian culture, too.
Then again: What do I know of Ukrainian literature and culture? I was 11 when the Soviet Union collapsed, and Ukraine became its own country. Our school curriculum was hastily assembled and included a play with explicitly antisemitic content. Having to read it out loud with the rest of my class finally and irreversibly cemented my understanding of the “real” ethnic Ukraine. I never gave it another chance after that. If I were to read an antisemitically tinged book for pleasure, it better be a very good one: I’ll take Gogol and Dostoyevsky, but nobody lesser than that.
The cultured and educated people I knew in Ukraine all spoke Russian: Certainly all of the Jews did, and it wasn’t only because nearly all of the Jews I knew were well educated. My grandmother was a teacher of Russian language and literature. My aunt was a teacher of Russian language and literature. I probably would have ended up as a teacher of Russian language and literature, too, had I stayed.
Somewhere down the line it was communicated to me that people who spoke Ukrainian did so because they were provincial, unsophisticated. On rare occasions when I met people who were brilliant and spoke robust, beautiful Ukrainian, I shrugged it off, thinking them either eccentric or crazy, or both. There was a term, zapodentsi, that loosely connoted nationalistically minded Ukrainians from somewhere far in the west of Ukraine, where the most nationalistic folks lived, and where we kept away from. It was a world I certainly wasn’t welcome in.
In recent years, though, it occurred to me: Was our obsession with Russian not related to what we call colonialism these days? Is it not the way for the empire’s culture to assert its domination—by causing the young and impressionable, passionate folk to fall in love with its cultural riches? To watch a Tarkovsky film in the original alone could make you want to be Russian. Perhaps Franz Kafka, though living in Prague, spoke German and wrote in German for the same reason we spoke Russian. It was the language of the empire and of its brightest minds. In the Soviet Union, it aligned us Jews with, however poorly implemented, the vision of brotherhood of all ethnicities. (The word “brotherhood” had far less valence in Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union.) Brotherhood implies peace, and it was both a hope, and, in retrospect, a colonialist machination.
Yes, Ukraine is fraught with contradictions: It was the underdog but had its own vicious pecking order; it was the province, but it moved toward liberal and democratic values in leaps and bounds; it was utterly corrupt, but its people were generous and kind. Now, under attack, all such calculations go out the window. I just desperately want the war to end, and we can detangle my grievances some other time, at our leisure.
Today, on the first day of the Russian invasion into Ukraine I was teaching a poetry class. It was the sort of class I would have wanted to start by talking about the significance of poetry, and the need for poetry. This need never felt more obvious, and more clear to me—a need for a poem that would feel like a prayer. And so, I shared “Wildpeace” by Yehuda Amichai:
Not the peace of a cease-fire,
not even the vision of the wolf and the lamb,
as in the heart when the excitement is over
and you can talk only about a great weariness.
I know that I know how to kill,
that makes me an adult.
And my son plays with a toy gun that knows
how to open and close its eyes and say Mama.
without the big noise of beating swords into ploughshares,
without words, without
the thud of the heavy rubber stamp: let it be
light, floating, like lazy white foam.
A little rest for the wounds—
who speaks of healing?
(And the howl of the orphans is passed from one generation
to the next, as in a relay race:
the baton never falls.)
Let it come
suddenly, because the field
must have it: wildpeace.
Amichai knew something about the desire for peace, and Benjamin and Barbara Harshav, who translated his “שׁלוֹם בּר” into a neologism, “Wildpeace,” perfectly conveyed the sense of impossibility in Amichai’s poem, the intensity that rises above all possible ways to articulate this need and call for a brand new word. The poem starts by dismissing political realities and scriptural dreams. Instead, there is something so personal in the peace Amichai depicts: Nothing is more personal than one’s own exhaustion, and in the exhausted hallucination that is “light, floating, like lazy white foam.” And then, as an addendum—half-afterthought, half-revelation—Amichai adds the tiny second stanza and really nails it: It is a prayer and an inevitability. A vision of peace bursting forth.
May it come. Please, may it come.
Jake Marmer is Tablet’s poetry critic. He is the author of Cosmic Diaspora (2020), The Neighbor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Talmud (2012). He has also released two jazz-klezmer-poetry records: Purple Tentacles of Thought and Desire (2020, with Cosmic Diaspora Trio), and Hermeneutic Stomp (2013).