Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Tuesday, March 1, 2022
In This Moment: March 1, 2022: Babi Yar; Volod V. Vlad
In This Moment
Special Babi Yar Edition
Last Friday night, I used thenew outdoor synagogue at theBabi YarMemorial in Kyiv as my virtual backdrop. Today the memorial to one of the largest killings of Jews to take place during the Holocaust was brutally attacked by the Russians, killing a number of people in the area. Is this what Putin has in mind when he speaks of de-Nazification? The erasure of memorials - and of memory itself - to foster his own warped narrative? Just last week he attacked Uman. pilgrimage destination for the followers of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav. And it's not the first time the Russians have tried to erase the memory of Babi Yar.
The cry must now become, as with Masada, Babi Yar shall not fall again! Never again shall the memory of its tens of thousands of victims be allowed to sink into the ravine of conscience.
In recent years, Babi Yar has become a highly charged symbol of Ukraine's checkered past in regard to antisemitism and the Holocaust. But during the Soviet era, the government tried to wipe out the memory of its Jewish victims altogether. In 1961, protesting the plans to build a sports arena over the site, poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko wrote the classic poem, "Babi Yar," decrying his government's refusal to erect a proper memorial to the Jewish victims who were killed there. It begins:
No gravestone stands on Baby Yar;
Only coarse earth heaped roughly on the gash:
Such dread comes over me.
The whole poem is stirring, but parts are eerily prescient, given what's happening this week. This poem broke the silence once. Perhaps the attack on Babi Yar today, while attempting to silence a Ukranian TV tower, will be the bridge too far that awakens the conscience of silent Russians once again. Here's an excerpt:
O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.
I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The antisemites have proclaimed themselves
The “Union of the Russian People!”
Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.
And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.
No fiber of my body will forget this.
May “Internationale” thunder and ring
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.
The ravine at Babi Yar, 1941
In other news....
See below the archived video of last week's Meet N' Greet Shabbat for Cantor Kaplan.
According to Google, The name Vladimir is Slavic, meaning, "of great power" (folk etymology: "ruler of the world", "ruler of peace") / "famous power", "bright and famous." The two main protagonists of the current Ukraine war both carry forms of that name. Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky. The two first names are virtually identical. They are polar opposites, yet in some ways interchangeable. There is something so perfectly Purim about this.
There are other Purim parallels too. Like the uncanny mythological undercurrents of this very real battle between good and evil. Today, in his speech to the European Parliament, President Zelensky framed it as a struggle between darkness and light. That message resonates with the triumphant conclusion of the Purim story, Esther 8:16. "The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor." But before that light, in chapters 1-7 there was a lot of darkness.
Have you ever seen the Purim story playing out so in such perfect synchronicity with our front pages? A mad despot - some call him crazy - embarks on a genocidal plan, only to be thwarted by a Jewish leader so empathic that he makes translators cry (one whom they are calling a Modern Maccabee, though I see him more as a modern Mordechai). And, in the true spirit of Purim, protagonist Putin - whose name is almost identical to "Purim" (and Haman is called the evil one - or "rasha" in Hebrew) - is a cartoonish, germaphobic and paranoid villain, while Zelensky is a comedian by trade, best known (before the "perfect phone call") for playing Hava Nagila with his private parts. And now he is a modern Jewish hero. You really can't make this up!
Zelensky's Hebrew name is Vladimir ben Rima, a transliterated Russian name, since he was of the generations denied full access to their Jewish heritage during Soviet and Nazi rule. He was part of the lost century of Jews, who now, stunningly, have reappeared to take their place in history. Russian Jewry had been left for dead - but like Mordechai and Esther, they've emerged from oblivion to save the day, in, of all places, a former killing field in the diaspora.
Putin's Hebrew name would presumably be Vladimir too, if he were Jewish. But he's not.
Purim is a holiday whose motto is "hafoch hu," from Esther 9:16, The very day the Jews were marked for destruction, they gained control over their enemies. The world was turned upside down. That's what's happening now, at least in some respects. Look at at the British tabloids - and just the fact that I even said "Look at the British tabloids" tells me that the world has gone nuts. his week has brought the whole world together in a manner we have rarely seen, to the point where British tabloids, Poland and Turkish leaders are all sounding like principled people, especially in contrast to you-know-Pu. Check these headlines from earlier this week. I especially like the "madder than a box of frogs" headline in the Star.
It is said that would should drink on Purim until we can't tell the difference between cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai. Such moral ambiguity has a home in Judaism, which revels in the hidden complexities of life. The Bible paints few of our heroes in bold, simplistic strokes. Arguably, Judaism’s most towering figures, Moses and David, are among the most flawed. There are no “happily ever afters” to be found. No one is purely good, nor is anyone entirely evil.
Except for Haman. Jews are expected to have some sympathy for just about every enemy, with the exception of this guy.
But our resolve is put to the test. The custom of getting so drunk as to not be able to tell the difference between two polar opposites seems to undercut the Bible’s assertion that Haman is the pure embodiment of evil. It introduces the possibility of moral ambiguity to this narrative too, or worse, a moral equivalence between Haman’s intentions and those of his accusers. Long before Putin mastered the art of Fake News, there was Purim and there was Manischewitz, muddy wine to muddy the mind.
The rabbis were determined not to paint any person with too broad a brush, teaching us that no human being is completely evil or completely good, no real person is that cartoonishly evil. But we've seen some real evil people and Putin is one of them.
So we have our protagonists. I pray that Volod survives this ordeal by combat, but if he does not, God forbid, his star will shine even brighter. Volod's courage has rendered him Vlad proof. Just as with Purim, you fast and you pray, but ultimately you simply flip a coin and hope it lands right.
Purim means "lots," and the world is hoping that coin lands on Volod, and not Vlad. If that happens, the Jews of Shushan's celebration will have nothing on the people of Ukraine. The taverns of Ukraine will rock as they haven't since the days of Tevye and Lazar Wolf. Volods and Vlads will split the tab - Manischewitz for the house!
One of the core foundational anecdotes of the mythology of Vladimir Putin is the story of his time in Dresden, in the unrest before the Berlin Wall came down. The KGB headquarters was swarmed by demonstrators, and Putin called for reinforcements. “We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow,” the reply came. “And Moscow is silent.”
For Putin, this was a sign that it all would come to an end. The unforgivable sin was that Moscow was silent in any crisis. The centralized power he has forged in Russia since his rise to the presidency was to address the specter of losing control.
And yet, in this moment of crisis, it was Volodymyr Zelensky who called Moscow, and Vladimir Putin who was silent on the line.
Let this poetic bookend be the beginning of the end for Putin. Let us have the will to be done with his terror. Let us have the resolve to do what is needed to win this war we never wanted, and move on through this century with democracies on the ascendant, and with autocrats uncertain of survival.
Ukraine is the fulcrum. Don’t choose the abyss.
Looking forward to a return to the warmth and intimacy of in-person services!