Happy birthday, Ukraine! On August 24, 1994, the republic of Ukraine voted her independence. I wrote this Jerusalem post blog three years ago and it continues to make sense; Jews and Ukrainians are doing well in Israel; diplomatic relationships are mo...re difficult for various reasons, but the old connection between the two countries should open up new prospects.
One of the most peculiar issues we have to face as Israelis and Mid-Easterners is the existence of a State which is legally recognized internationally, mostly de jure or at least de facto. On the other hand, we have not succeeded to sketch out where our real historic and mental borders are located, provided that San Francisco's UN partition is only in the process of implementation and will obviously remain our concern in the region for the coming decades if not centuries. I tried to define in a previous blog that this is the normal procedure for a sort of grafting that goes far beyond any mental, cultural, historical development as usually outlined by human brains.
As regards the history of Israel, this grafting process is more than the organic structural proceeding of any return. Judaism is somehow aware that we are rooted in the realization of a project that started with the religious call to worship the One God Who took us out of the land of Egypt, the house of slavery. Geography is thus bound to psychology, culture and basically faith, tracking back to Abraham and the multitude of events accounted in the TaNaKh. We may technically speak of a return to Zion according to the Hoq HaShivat (Law of Return passed in 1950); the word is ambiguous: is it a "return = comeback" or "the renewed sequence of an ongoing process"? When we bless meals, we read Psalm 126:1 : " beshuv HaShem et-shivat Zion - when the Lord (will) return the exiles of Zion, we (will) have been like dreamers". It is evident that the word means "go anew, come back". But does it imply that we ever left? Thus, the thing is that as decades pass, old and newcomers discover that Israel's geography and "regions" are not merely a sheltering homeland for "wandering Jews". It is our birthplace even if we would a lot of people would never accept to settle in the country.
This widens the scope of our border marks. For example, "Land of Egypt = Eretz Mitzraim", and "mitzraim" means: "border from the mark traced on the ground with a rope to show a limit, a border". In the Biblical context this is highly symbolic and definitely not ethnic or political. The children of Israel are born out of the womb of a constrictive and limited space.
Okay, we are all limited: geographically, our body is spatially restricted as our capacities to use our brains, memory, envision the future and enlarge our views. Nonetheless, every human is shaped in the likeness of seeds of plenitude. Might not be so essential in our daily socializing, but it can help: "regard others as better than yourselves", says Paul of Tarsus (Philippians 2:16). Just the opposite of our tops: TV serials with handcuffs, jails, bonds, bondage, fences, walls, checkpoints and ropes.
Jewish souls are at their best when they outline spatial and mental freedom beyond any bonds.
Now, the Republic of Ukraine celebrated on August 24th last the fifteenth anniversary of its independence. Ukrainians show a "historic borderland disorder" very close to ours. The Jewish civilization has always developed and maintained strong ties with parts or all the regions of the present Ukraine. "U-kraina" in Ukrainian comes from "kraj" = a) land, country; b) border, borderland, mark (as for "Denmark" - "borderline/mark of Dan), c) krajina = country, principality. This interesting point is that, in Ukrainian, "za kordonu" = "(from) abroad" in the sense of being "beyond the rope" ("kordon" from French (cord, string). True, the country has always slid along flexible and uncertain borders. In the 20th century, the Ukraine was "independent" from 1917-1921, then from 1954 to 1990 within the Soviet Union and finally from August 24, 1991, i.e. 15 years ago.
The Ukraine is one of the most significant countries for the Jewish and today Israeli "civilisation or way of living". This started long ago as in folk’s tales.... As the Iron curtain recently fell, let's track back to the Iron age and the Scythians who took over the steppes where previous invaders had left the stone steles (3000 BCE). Then Greek communities settled together with Jews who also spoke Greek, mainly along the Black Sea areas and in Crimea (Simferopol). "There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free" wrote Paul (Colossian 3:11). From Persia over the Ukrainian steppes lived a large Jewish community, firstly named "Ashkenaz" as a possible pronunciation for "a-shkuz" (the Scythians). In the 7th century, the Khazars, Turkish nomads, converted to Judaism as it often happened, e.g. in North Africa and in that peculiar region of the Black Sea. The Khazars were defeated by the Viaryagy (Vikings) in the 9th century; this led to the adoption of Christianity as the prevailing faith under Volodymyr the Great in 988/9 although Jews, Jewish proselytes, first Christians were present in Scythia long before that year. To begin with, it did not formally exclude the Western Church, though Kievan Rus was baptized by the Greeks and was the first "Russian" Christian entity in this immense area.
Ukrainia has ever since gone through dramatic historic events. No real borders, except of the left Russian left bank of Carpathia intermingling Ukrainians, Russyns (specific Slavic mountain tribes), Poles, Belorussians (White Russians), Hungarians, Romanians and Turks, Muslims, Tatars, Mongolians that recurrently invaded the steppes, threatening Europe from the East. Thus, the " kordon" - rope, borderland, mark" has always been insecure and imprecise.
In 1648, hetman Bohdan Khmelnytzky, leader of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, created a Zaporozhian entity viewed as a "ruin" by the Poles. A non-judgemental but realistic viewpoint of this situation shows how deeply the development of a real Ukrainian body has been affected by the absence of stable and defined unity or cohesion. The Jewish memory has kept the horrible pogroms carried by the Zaporozhian leader that murdered more than 700,000 Jews. Nonetheless, the pitiful relationships deviating from the Poles, the Russian Empire and "shapeless Ukraine" profoundly affected the harmony between Jews and Ukrainians. In 1789, when the French architects were called by Empress Catherine the Great to build Odessa and other "fake" towns, Jews and other "foreigners" were allowed to dwell in these Ukrainian and White Russian regions, on the borders with Galicia (Halych, Transcarpathia and Bukovina and the Eastern part of the present Ukrainian republic, Kharkiv). From that time till the first pogroms in 1880, the civil war (1917), World Wars I and II and the fall of communism, Jews have been present all over the Ukraine. Poor peddlers and rich merchants, filthy inhabitants of impoverished shtetlekh (ghettos), or mixed intelligentsia in Kiev and Odessa, undoubtedly enriched the local culture. From the marks of Poland and Lithuania, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire to the influence of the Ottoman rulers and the presence of French and German traders, the Jews brought their economic and scientific skills and, mostly participated in the growth of the local spirituality: "di Yiddishkayt", Yiddish tongue grew into authentic rabbinic Jewish creative lifestyles and ethics. It may be today a question whether true East-European Judaism has survived the dramas that broke down Jewish civilization in the Ukrainian regions as also the Gypsies, Armenians, Gagauzes and Tatars.
The Ukrainian language was subject to terrible rulings and forbidden for decades; still, peculiar how close it is to Church Slavonic. This "borderline" aspect is present in today's existence of more than 15 Eastern Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Latin, Armenian Churches, segmented in pieces as a result of local tragedies. It should be noted the presence of the "First Calvinists" who did influence Christian Eastern and Western Churches... On the other hand, Hassidism developed in the Ukrainian and neighbouring regions (Baal Shem Tov along with Satmar, Belz, Chabad and, curiously the parallel Ukrainian oriental spiritual movements inherited from the traditional Greek theology! (Saint Gregory Palamas). The Bratzlover Rebbe's tomb attracts at Uman daily crowds of faithful arriving from Israel and other parts of the world, though no one should ignore Baby-Yar's massacres.
15 years of an independent and now a "quaking, feverish" State in search of its identity! This means that Ukrainians - even those who had been deported to Siberia, Central Asia by Stalin or immigrated to the New World over the past 150 years - often mixed with Jews. Why did hatred and suspicion prevail over more than 2500 years, from the time of the Scythians and Ashkenaz? Not always at present. A lot of common traditions and know-how: cooking, architecture, music, spirituality, cosmetics, techniques... and a lot of Ukrainian newcomers in Israel.
Tragic destines of Jews among the Nations? Or, a true symbol of atonement in the Holy Land and Eretz Israel. Ukrainian is a major tongue in our backgrounds, even if people would doom it as "folkloric". It is real and "down-to-earth", pragmatic and now spread all over Mediterranean countries and islands.
Late Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky of L'viv (or Lemberg, Lwow, L'vov, Leopol) wrote letters to his Greek catholic clergy throughout World War II. He is the only "individual" (thus speaking in the name of the catholic and someway the Eastern Christian Churches) who, for the sake of God, dared imperil his life, alerting Himmler and Hitler about their obligation to stop the extermination of the Jews.
He warned his faithful about moral, ethics, human rights and dignity; he had, in a unique historic situation of full disorder and swaying borderline changes, to fight and face devilish treasons and structures. He never stepped down from his task. He helped the Russian Orthodox Church to arrive in Western Europe in the twenties (Metropolitan Evlogyi). When I read his "Trudy" ("Works") every night before going to bed, I think this man and his country share a lot with the "borderline" situation that smashes our society at the present. Only faith and profound confidence in God could motivate such a character, maybe unique and somehow "too similar" to a authentic Jewish believers... kind of real "A-shkuz - Ashkenazic Scythian Ukrainian Eastern rite, Latin born Polish, Galician Transylvanian Austro-Hungarian, beyond Habsburg and tzarist "man of God"... True faith makes believers like everybody else, just a little more...
If so many newcomers arrived from the Ukraine and still go there because of our cultural links, we may expect a lot from parallel developments conveyed by atonement.