Until last month I didn’t know you existed. I didn’t think there were Jews in Ukraine. Well, maybe a few. Old, visibly Orthodox, living a 21st century version of the lives my grandparents left over 100 years ago.
That changed the day Russia invaded, when I found out your President is Jewish. I knew him from the perfect call, but only that he’s a former comedian. When I learned he’s a Jew, it hit me: If Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who only happens to be Jewish, exists, maybe you do too.
Do you recognize anyone in the picture? In was taken near Dnipro (Ekaterinoslav) some time after 1910. My Grandma Anna is the girl in the framed photo on the left side of the table; her younger sister Freida is in the photo on the right. They’d already sailed for America when the family picture was taken, already working in a clothing factory and sending money back home so the others could follow.
Grandpa came from Kremenchuk, 100 miles up the Dnieper River, toward Kviv. He left so he wouldn’t get drafted into the Russian Army. He and Grandma met in Rochester, New York, at the Workmen’s Circle, a mutual aid and labor organization for Eastern European Jewish immigrants.
After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Grandma, Grandpa and their friends never heard from anyone again. Nothing. They eventually assumed everyone had been killed. Which is why, despite my knowledge of the Holocaust, I grew up believing there were no Jews in Ukraine.
Life went on. Grandma, Grandpa and their friends learned how to make family out of community, because community was all they had. The circle would eventually include my paternal grandparents, who emigrated from White Russia (Belarus), from less desperate lives. Grandpa Gertzy’s brother actually went back! My grandparents rarely mentioned their origins or expressed any connection to Russia, as they called it. When we asked, it was always a version of, “Not much to say. We were lucky. We got out.”
Their feelings informed mine. In elementary school, when the cafeteria ladies said, “Eat! Eat! The children in Russia are starving!”, I ate. And I took it further. To this day I’m filled with jingoistic glee when an American beats a Russian at the Olympics. This embarrasses me, but I accept it as the logical outcome of an essential fact of my life: Eastern Europe was not good to my people. America was.
My grandparents thrived. They had families and started businesses. They voted, celebrated the Fourth of July – every holiday with flags and parades – and always believed they’d won the lottery.
They also reflected a good slice of what it meant to be an American who happened to be Jewish. Some were active in synagogues. Others had no interest. Grandpa Gertzy was fond of saying, “Religion is bullshit!” Uncle Michael, who married Tante Freida, was a macher, a leader in the Jewish community, frequently recognized for his service. Once, his picture was in the paper for an award he’d received. My brother asked how he could be Jewish if he didn’t belong to a temple. My mother answered, “Never judge someone’s Judaism by whether or not they go to temple. He’s as Jewish as anyone who calls himself a Jew.”
The freedom to decide how to be Jewish, or how Jewish to be, was perhaps America’s greatest gift to my family. The day I learned your President is Jewish, I googled my way to confirm that Jews have endured centuries of slaughter in Ukraine. But I also found stories of contemporary Jews, orthodox and secular, and a Jewish cultural center in the city Grandma Anna fled.
And I know you live. Some of you, anyhow. You are the great and great great grandchildren of my grandparents’ brothers and sisters and cousins.
My favorite TV show, Finding Your Roots, solves mysteries like ours, but for famous Americans. White guests often walk away with detailed genealogies and rich stories about their ancestors. It’s much harder to trace the roots of Black guests, for reasons I’m sure you understand. But it happens, and I’m always filled with joy when their roots come to light. Almost how I feel now.
Meanwhile, I’m cheering you on as you fight for Ukraine, a country that offers you what it didn’t offer my grandparents. And after 105 years I’m sending money back again. As Grandma Anna would say, “You should live and be well.”