As a Jewish Mother, President Zelensky Gives Me Courage
I will celebrate this moment, when a Jew is leading the country where just forty years ago most were kicked out
When I learned that President Volodymyr Zelensky had decided to stay and fight in Ukraine, declining President Biden’s offer of safe passage out of his war-torn country by declaring, “I need ammunition, not a ride,” my Jewish heart swelled. I called my dad to ask him how he felt about Zelensky and without skipping a beat, he said, “Are you kidding? I’m happy any time a Jew is in the news for something good.”
My earliest memories of living with my father when my sister and I moved in with him in 1979 were of him pointing out the Jewish actors on TV. When we watched Kramer vs. Kramer it was “Dustin Hoffman is Jewish”; when we sat in front of the TV for Star Trek, it was William Shatner and Leonard Nemoy; and when we saw Private Benjamin, it was Goldie Hawn who especially impressed me because I couldn’t believe someone who looked like her was one of us.
Out of the world’s population of seven billion, Jews currently make up only about .02%. I sensed from a young age that the more attractive, more talented, and more accomplished contributors to culture and society we were, the safer our minority would be.
But aside from challah on Shabbat, a bar mitzvah for my father, and naming children after a relative who had passed, our lives weren’t that religiously Jewish. My parents were both children of first-generation Americans whose ancestors left Belarus, Odessa, and Poland before the Nazis invaded, and they grew up secular Jews in Brooklyn and the Bronx, respectively. My grandmothers pinched my cheeks and called me mamalah, we used our hands a lot when we talked, and I knew I was different from my classmates because most of them celebrated Christmas and, much to my chagrin, my father would never let us get a Hanukkah Bush.
Halfway across the world, my friend Diana Kupershmit, a social worker and writer, was growing up in Soviet Ukraine without realizing she was Jewish. Her family, like all of the Jews under Communist rule, had to lay low and assimilate; their country was rife with anti-Semitism. In her memoir Emma’s Laugh, she writes that when she was little, “the director of a music school I had applied to told my parents in front of me they would accept me based on my talent and that they’d overlook that we were Jews. I’d never heard that word before but it sounded and felt dirty.”
Diana’s family left for the US in 1979 and joined the thousands of Jews the Soviet Union allowed to leave during that period. They were “political refugees, fleeing persecution,” she writes. “Communism was alive and well, atheism was the religion of the land, and Jews were, as ever, persona non grata.”
When Diana arrived in the US, she didn’t understand why her family no longer put up a tree to decorate as they did to better blend in back in Ukraine. “Because, we are Jewish,” her mother answered, exasperated that she had been asked the question at all. But “since when are we Jewish,” she wondered, “and what the heck does that even mean?”
I, too, wondered.
My grandmothers pinched my cheeks and called me mamalah, we used our hands a lot when we talked, and I knew I was different from my classmates because most of them celebrated Christmas.
In 1979, Diana and I were both in elementary school and shrugging off the Jewishness our parents embraced. My father sent me and my sister to Hebrew school even though he himself didn’t love going to synagogue; when I complained, he said we went because it was “what you do.” I didn’t feel much of a pull toward Judaism because, like most kids, I didn’t want to be different. Diana says she, too, was reluctant to publicly identify herself as Jewish. “I think that fear was embedded in my DNA,” she says. “You didn’t talk about it. It was still a stigma I carried with me into adulthood.”
But both of us began to change as we got older and became mothers. When my kids began attending religious school at our synagogue, I taught Hebrew reading and writing as well as WWII and Holocaust history, calling on some of what I had learned from my father. Diana also embraced her Jewishness: her kids were bar and bat mitzvah’d like mine, and both of our daughters wear Magen David necklaces which neither of us even considered doing when we were their age.
Today, 350,000 Jews call Ukraine home and scores of synagogues have sprung up. Diana says she never felt so much solidarity with her Ukrainian roots as she does now, “which is saying a lot. We came out unwelcome, oppressed, persecuted. It looks very different 40 some odd years later.” Both of us feel a responsibility to be publicly Jewish given our history and what Jews have overcome.
When Zelensky was first elected, Diana said she thought, “Oy, this guy is going the be the sacrificial lamb. He is going to be the scapegoat like Jews have historically been. He will be blamed for everything that goes wrong with the country and everything else. I was scared for him.” Now there is war and so much more to fear, but Diana is very impressed with him. “This guy is sticking around. He could be lifted out to safety but he’s standing and he’s fighting.”
Today 350,000 Jews call Ukraine home and scores of synagogues have sprung up. Both Diana and I feel a responsibility to be publicly Jewish given our history and what Jews have overcome.
Not only does Ukraine have a hero, but Jews around the world also do, too. I will tell as many people as I can that Zelensky is Jewish, and I will celebrate Zelensky and the strange full-circle moment that a Jew is leading the country where just forty years ago most were kicked out.
I talk about my Jewishness because it absolutely is part of who I am and because I don’t have to worry about persecution. I do it for those who aren’t ready or are not in a place where they feel safe to live as Jews. It’s a privilege to be able to embrace who you are.
I’d never actually asked my father why he always pointed out famous Jewish people doing good things when we were growing up — I was too busy rolling my eyes. So, before we got off the phone the other day, I did.
He told me, “I wanted you to and your sister to be proud that you were Jews.”
I truly am.
Ronit Plank is a writer, teacher, and podcaster whose work has been featured in The Rumpus, The Atlantic, The Iowa Review, Writer’s Digest, The Washington Post, HuffPost, and Lilith among others. Her stories and essays have been nominated for both the Pushcart Prize and The Best of the Net and she is author of When She Comes Back, a memoir about the loss of her mother to the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and their eventual reconciliation. Her short story collection Home Is A Made-Up Place won Hidden River Arts’ 2020 Eludia Award and will be published in 2022.