On my first trip to Ukraine, I got scolded by an old woman for crossing my arms in church. Apparently the only cross allowed in an Eastern Orthodox service is the one hanging on the wall. Who knew?
It was the fall of 1979, and I was on a field trip to Kiev as part of a semester abroad at Leningrad State Univer-sity. It was a quasi-exchange program — two dozen American students went to the USSR, and no Soviet students came to the United States.
Yes, that’s a Russian joke.
I’ve been back to Ukraine a dozen times in recent years, as a reporter. Each year, the country seemed brighter, the people more energetic. Kiev is a friendly capital city, filled with parks. Odessa is mysterious and romantic. Lvov is charming, as is Poltava.
As a Jew, I have a conflicted relationship with Ukraine. Both my father’s parents fled Ukraine as children, following pogroms in pre-revolutionary days. They always said they were from Russia, but they were really from Ukrainian towns in the Pale of Settlement, which covered very little Russian territory. Like most immigrants in those early years, they stopped speaking Russian to assimilate more quickly in America. It was up to me, the second generation born in America, to learn it again.
And so I did, part of a lifelong fascination with the Soviet Union and, since 1991, with Russia and Ukraine.
I’ve met extraordinary people on my reporting trips. Most were Jews, as I was always working for Jewish media outlets. Whenever I spoke with someone my own age, I’d think, if not for my grandparents’ fortuitous journey, this could have been me — if my family had survived the Nazi invasion, not to mention Stalin’s purges.
In June 2005, I hired a car and driver in Kiev and, with my aunt and cousin, headed north to the town of Priluki, where my great-grandmother Celia Levine was born (she married Harry Fishkoff in 1903, and in 1905 they set sail for New York with their four children, including 2-year-old Al, my grandfather).
It was a cold, rainy day. I had arranged a meeting with leaders of the so-called Jewish community, which numbered some 150 souls. (When my family left a century earlier, there were 9,000 Jews.) We all sat around rather morosely, trying to find something in common to talk about. I leafed through a book of local Jews who had been shot in a nearby ravine in 1942 by the Nazis, hoping not to find any Levines there.
We traipsed through the city’s Jewish cemetery, but no Levines there either. Most of the names on the old tombstones were too worn to read. We took the community leaders to lunch, dropped some dollars in a box and got back in our car. I think everyone was relieved when we left.
Seven years ago, I had a very different experience in Kiev with a wonderful group of Jewish women activists from North America and the former Soviet Union called Project Kesher. Created in 1989, Project Kesher is the largest Jewish women’s organization in the former Soviet Union, with groups in more than 180 communities that bring together thousands of women to fight social ills such as domestic violence, AIDS, ethnic hatred and human trafficking.
Early this week I received an urgent email from the group’s Illinois-based executive director, Karyn Gershon, conveying news from her activists in Ukraine. They’re all terribly worried, of course. But what struck me most about the comments Karyn passed on was that these Jewish women span the political spectrum — from those happy to see Russian control asserted in Crimea to others who support the Maidan movement and the new pro-Western Ukrainian government. There’s even one female activist in Crimea who wants Ukraine and Russia out, so Crimea can be independent.
The through thread in these women’s heartfelt letters and postings is fear — of violence, of instability, of economic collapse — but also solidarity. This isn’t a Jewish problem, they write. It’s a Ukrainian problem.
The women are stunned, Karyn told me, that Jewish leaders in the United States and Israel are talking about evacuating the Jews of Ukraine. They said to her, “We have no fear as Jews. We have fear as Ukrainians. For the first time, we’re being accepted as Ukrainians.”
Why, they asked, would they leave their country?
Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J., and can be reached at email@example.com.