Donate to RNS

This is our Jewish superhero

As we used to say, this is a ‘tough Jew.’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits Ukrainian troops in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine on Dec. 6, 2021. (Photo by Ukrainian Presidency/Handout)

(RNS) — “We don’t need another hero.”

That was how singer Tina Turner put it.

Actually, she was wrong.

It turns out that this moment in history calls out for heroism, and one man has conspicuously heeded that call.

I refer to the Jewish president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a former comedian, actor and producer. He has stood up to the Russian invaders of his land. He has shed his usual presidential street garb and has put on a military uniform. In a selfie video, he proclaims that he is here, with and for his people.

Some have called him a “modern Maccabee.”

I will go one step further: He is a Jewish Churchill.

As Tom McTague writes in The Atlantic:

Perhaps this is why Zelensky is so inspiring. Western countries don’t have this type of leadership anymore: unembarrassed, defiant belief in a cause. So many people in the West have given up on the fairy tale of their own superiority because they understand how badly the West has behaved over the decades, from wars for colonial control to the War on Terror.

We have always known that there are things worth fighting for.

Now, we know it again.

I write this — in the midst of the suffering of the Ukrainian people, in the midst of a refugee crisis that Europe has not seen since 1945.

And yet my tears of pain for the Ukrainian people mingle with tears of joy and pride for Zelenskyy. Never before in modern history have the world’s eyes so clearly focused on a Jew, demonstrating a sweet mix of character, patriotism and sheer courage.

Every Jew in the world today can hold his or her head up higher because of Zelenskyy. More than that: Every Jewish young person now has a hero that they can call their own.

A real, live, not merely historical or Jewish-holidays hero. Zelenskyy is our generation’s Hank Greenberg. He is our generation’s Sandy Koufax.

This is Diaspora Jewish heroism.

And yet, I cannot help but notice that this is the second time in six weeks that the courageous, selfless acts of a Jew have reached the headlines.

I am talking about Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, who stood up to a terrorist who had invaded the synagogue building and who stood by his people during an agonizing 11-hour hostage ordeal.

Again, I hear Tina T. singing in my ear: “We don’t need another hero.”

But, we have needed heroes. I felt that way about my colleague, and I feel that way about Zelenskyy. Both of them exhibited stalwart moral courage, and a vigorous and stubborn sense of doing what needs to be done.

Zelenskyy has shown toughness, resolve, calmness, a sense of humor, an abiding love of his family and his people, and a sobering, chilling understanding that his life, and that of his family, is in danger.

“I need ammunition, not a ride,” he said. 

We usually see Diaspora Jews living in their heads and hearts as competent professionals, business people, thought leaders, entertainers, etc.

Here are two Jews who, while capable of living in their heads and hearts, also lived through their bodies. These are shtarkers — strong people. These are “tough Jews.”

Back to Ukraine.

True — Ukraine is not only about the Jews. Hardly.

But, it is a very Jewish story, because it is about the redemption of history — about one nation’s history.

Many historians and pundits, including me, have noted that the story of Ukraine and the Jews is a mixture of light and darkness, of good times and horrific times. Some recent writers have seen fit to repeat the goriest elements of that story.

We know. We remember. Yesterday, the Russians bombed the memorial at Babi/Babyn Yar. On that site, Nazi forces executed almost 34,000 Jews — on Sept. 29-30, 1941. It was the single largest mass killing in the Holocaust.

That is why it is incumbent upon us to remember who Volodymyr Zelenskyy is — a Jewish comedian, whose grandfather fought Nazis in World War II, who lost family members in the Holocaust.

I repeat, for those who have not been listening. Ukraine elected him as its president! It also elected a Jew, Volodymyr Groysman, as prime minister!

Wait. The land of the Cossacks? The land where a statue of Bogdan Khmelnytsky, who had more Jewish blood on his hands than anyone before Hitler, stands in Kyiv? They elected Jews to be at the very head of their government? Really?

Yes. Really. Those people.

Kind of makes you wonder: What would happen if Jon Stewart ran for president of the United States?

So, yes, it happened in Ukraine …

  • The birthplace of Hasidism
  • The birthplace of our great-grandparents, in the Pale of Settlement
  • The birthplace of early proto-Zionist movements
  • The birthplace of Israel’s Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir and Moshe Sharett, as well as Natan Sharansky
  • The birthplace of such Jewish literary and spiritual heroes as Sholom Aleichem, Isaac Babel, Hayyim Nachman Bialik, Ahad Ha’Am
  • And, yes, the death place of countless Jews …
  • And, yes, the only country in the world, besides Israel, to elect a Jewish president and a Jewish prime minister simultaneously (actually, Israel’s presidency is not an elected post, but you get the idea).

The Jewish story in Ukraine testifies to the ambiguity of history, to the absolute impossibility of making an absolute moral judgment against a country and its history.

More than that: It testifies to the words of the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel, who overturned the idea that children would pay for the sins of their parents. If modern-day Germans are not responsible for the sins of their grandparents, so, too, modern Ukrainians are guiltless for the sins of their ancestors.

Judaism does not believe in hereditary guilt within families, and within nations.

As Gal Beckerman, a historian of the Soviet Jewry movement, writes:

If Zelensky has now become synonymous with the blue-and-yellow flag of his country, it might signal an unexpected outcome of this conflict that has found Jews feeling finally, improbably, one with a land that has perpetually tried to spit them out.

So, no: I am not going with Tina Turner on this one.

I am turning, instead, to the late David Bowie.

We can be heroes just for one day.”

No. President Zelenskyy, and the people of Ukraine, will be heroes.

Want to be a hero? Donate to help Ukraine here, through the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach, or through the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Hard to believe, but there are at least seven progressive (i.e., Reform) synagogues in Ukraine, as well as Masorti (Conservative) and Orthodox synagogues.

To quote David Bowie: You can be heroes, for just one day.