A Few Personal Reflections On Jews and Ukraine, Nostalgia and Points of Departure

The last several days have called up close attention to Ukraine by Jews on social media platforms.  There are those who remind us about the bad historical blood between Jews and Ukraine. Others reflect back on familial roots. Others have expressed an ambient sense of displacement. A few others, Jews and non-Jews, are already making anti-Israel and anti-Zionist hay out of the war.  Everyone in my social media circles is disgusted about Putin talking about Ukrainian neo-Nazis and are gob-smacked by President Zelensky and the idea of Ukrainian Jewishness he represents (I’m in that camp too).

About Ukraine, what do I feel? My family came from there, left there, like millions of Jews, because of anti-Semitic violence not too long after the turn of the century. To the best of my knowlege, they never looked back. I remember no affective historical-familial attachment, no nostalgia for that place, just bitter aftertaste. I was born in 1963, a bit less than twenty years after the Holocaust, when all the Jews, or most of the Jews in what we then still called “the Ukraine” were wiped out by the Nazis. I grew up in Baltimore in the 1970s. I remember in highschool reading Yevtushenko’s iconic poem Babi Yar, because of the Holocaust, not because of anything having to do with Ukraine. In my family and our social circles, we were never Ukrainian or Russian. These national designations never spoke to us. We were Jews or American Jews. Our place and our people were no longer over there in Europe, just here in the United States and over there in Israel.  

I am unsure of myself. At the very least, following Ukrainian resistance to this Russian war of aggression is, in one sense, nothing more and nothing less than a deep human response from a place of sympathy. I don’t care about the history that I “know.” Attention is now suddenly fixed on the present moment. For those of us with no personal memory of the place, no connection, no desire to be a part of that place, we are as if forced to think about the place, and to do so from a position of sympathy. Attention circles around in time and in place if only because I “understand” that my family, my people came from that place. Identification is the wrong word, but there is faint resonance that retains simultaneously a little and has nothing to do with Jewishness. Responding to some Jewish anti-Zionist hash on Twitter, David Schraub got it right when he posted, “My heart and soul goes out to all the people of Ukraine, Jewish and non, those bravely fighting and those forced to flee. No exceptions.”

About the phenomenology of nostalgia as it relates to this peculiar moment and this particular place, I’m turning to what my friend and colleague Gail Hamner wrote in Imaging Religion in Film: The Politics of Nostalgia. “Nostalgia,” she writes, “is often scorned as politically reactionary and socially impotent—as the ‘ritual’ that destroys life.” Having none of that, she sees in nostalgia “the ‘ritual convention that infuses life into life” (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, p.20). Thinking about the Jewish past in Ukraine, including my own alienated family history, I would follow this line of argument as it speaks to temporal and spatial displacement. “Nostalgia signals the felt tension between irrevocable loss and hope for a world that is different…On the one hand there is the desire for one’s knowledge of the past to work successfully to enact the hoped-for change; this desire posits the axiological locus of change in a past moment. On the other hand, this knowledge is effectively foreclosed and disavowed precisely because that past is no longer accessible” (ibid., p.25).

These comments by Saul Friedlander about personal and cultural memory resonate with Hamner’s analysis of nostalgia. Friedlander’s assumption is that individual memory and collective memory, especially traumatic memory, “leave traces of a deep memory beyond individual recall, which will defy any attempts to give it meaning.” (Saul Friedlander “Trauma, Transference and ‘Working through’ in Writing the History of the ‘Shoah’” in History and Memory, (Spring – Summer, 1992, Vol. 4, No. 1, 9-59), p.41)

I am interested here in closure, the closing of circles and moving on. Which means what?

In this case, I am interested not so much in individual memory, having no personal or individual memory of Ukraine beyond vague mental pictures. So it does not actually concern me, or at least I don’t think it does, when Friedlander, himself a survivor of the Holocaust reflecting back on the Holocaust, writes, “At the individual level, a redemptive closure (comforting and healing in effect), desirable as it would be, seems largely impossible.”  

What interests me is more generalizable about the working through of cultural memory. “At the collective level,” according to Friedlander,  “regardless of the present salience of these events, there can hardly be any doubt that the passage of time will erase the ‘excess.’….Thus, if we make allowance for some sort of ritualized form of commemoration, already in place, we may foresee, in the public domain, a tendency towards closure without resolution, but closure nonetheless….[A]n extension of historical awareness may be attempted….In that sense, the traumatic past would lead to….a ‘possibility of history,’ ‘a point of departure’ (ibid., pp.54-5).

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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1 Response to A Few Personal Reflections On Jews and Ukraine, Nostalgia and Points of Departure

  1. mghamner says:

    Reblogged this on affecognitive and commented:
    Not because I broke my wrist and can’t dig my back to blog-writing, and not because he graciously cites my work on nostalgia, but because Zachary Braiterman is a friend who says so well what needs to be said in these anxious days.

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