I have been musing about living in a new reality, new for me, and for my children and grandchildren. How do I explain what is happening to them, when I am hardly able to explain it to myself? How do I understand the myth, or the hope of democracy in this world fading into the mist? Is there a new symbol, a new myth, an old myth, a trusted fairytale, a trickster figure that can emerge from the darkness of my psyche, our psyche, that can help me identify a new form, or, an old form re-configured for the future?
The events in the Ukraine spring unexpectedly to mind. Many of us of Jewish origin have heard our grandmothers or great grandmothers speak of the Pale. I know, in particular, my grandmother spoke of Kyiv, of the, pogroms, and the Cossacks who were particularly ferocious towards the Jews. She spoke most poignantly of her sister, an outspoken, writer of powerful seditious poetry, who felt compelled to jump out of a high window to her death to avoid impending rape and murder.
This is my grandmother’s story. It is the story that has taken the form of a haunting within me. It is a wound, an undefined darkness that is always threatening to catch up with me, rendering me terrified of my own words, and penetrating me with an indescribable dread. This story is now embodied in the form of panic and fear of self-expression that has permeated my family’s life, and at the same time coalesced my family’s extraordinary ambition. I know, also, that except for my grandmother’s ingenuity, stamina, and concentration, I would be one of those displaced, terrified by Putin’s recent moves, forever separated from having the space to know what I need to know to live.
My grandmother’s words about this were always in Russian. She never could bring herself to speak of it in Yiddish, her comfort language, the language of her intimate home, and never, never in English, as she would not allow these experiences to be translated forward, joining her new life to her old one.
I knew that we were from outside of Kyiv, as it came to me that Jews were not allowed to live within the city limits, but instead only allowed permanent residency in defined areas within the Pale. Ukraine in particular, was famously and infamously, violently anti-Semitic. However, now, moving beyond its ugly past, Ukraine has elected a Jewish man, Volodymyr Zelensky to be its president, and is clearly involved in seizing control of its own history. This moment in history, these events, would have been unbelievable to my grandmother.
My personal hauntings took on a new form when the president of Russia informed the world in an hour-long mesonic rant recently (February 2022) that he thinks “that Ukraine should not exist at all.” Thanks to promises of American protection, Ukraine has had the confidence to step away from Russia’s authoritarian shadow. Biden, while powerfully empathetic to this cause has of this date refused to offer substantial help. He has failed up to this point to pair diplomatic overtures with sufficiently powerful credible military pressure. For now, the Ukrainians are on their own. However, in my experience of this kind of moment, one is often and necessarily on one’s own.
It seems at this moment in time, the arc of Ukrainian history, and the history of the wandering Jew, wanting a homeland, and wanting to be free in that homeland, have actually coalesced for me, and, perhaps, for the Ukrainians. For centuries a sense of “Ukrainianness” developed as they too would not assimilate into the Russian Empire. According to Applebaum:
to say “I am Ukrainian” was once upon a time, a statement about status and social position as well as ethnicity. “I am Ukrainian” meant you were deliberately defining yourself against the nobility, against the ruling class, against the merchant class, against the urbanites. Later on, it would mean you were defining yourself against the Soviet Union…The Ukrainian identity was anti-elitist before anyone used the expression anti-elitist, often angry and anarchic…
Ukrainianness in this century has become intertwined with aspirations for democracy, for freedom, for rule of law, for integration in Europe.
Ukraine has elected a Trickster figure to lead the way—the Ukrainians have unanimously elected Volodymyr Zelensky, a total outsider, a Jewish actor born in eastern Ukraine who has no political experience. His only credential is the that he is famous for playing a downtrodden schoolteacher who rants against corruption, and wins.
In his comic narrative, Zelensky portrays extreme powerlessness. He is extreme in his self-effacing nature, pathetic in his lack of any of the social qualities, and connections that would allow him to do this, but he does it. He reverses the course of power, the powerless become powerful through an inner resource that emerges because their powerlessness is played out magnificently and humorously by the trickster who always knows how to turn the tables on those in power. This is the kind of narrative, and the kind of heroic character, that Ukrainians value the most.
Zelensky combines an unassuming nature, with the profound ability to articulate, and to reach to the inner struggle of each of us to manifest ourselves in an unjust world in better correspondence with our souls. He combines the ability to make his impact stronger through humorous unexpected twists. He combines this with embodied Ukrainian physical courage, and a bloodless determination when necessary. All of this seems to emerge from a natural and powerful anarchism.
With this, he redefines the image of the Jews, who for me, walked seemingly without a fight into the Warsaw Ghetto and forward to the death camps. Zelensky helps me squarely confront my own inter-generational dread of speaking out boldly, of acting boldly—a paralysis built up of many generations of the experience of inexplicable violence, loss and grief.
He is pictured in the news, with a gun on his shoulder, fighting, not announcing that he will have others fight. He seems to know and has accepted that he will be most likely “murdered” as a result of his willingness to head this insurrection.
Zelensky, speaking for his country has a spark, that may ignite the world to fight along with him. But this same spark will ignite Putin to escalate. He has a quiet fire that may ignite many fires. This is a very dangerous stance. But for me, his presence changes the image that has held me captive for a lifetime—the image of the wandering Jew who can’t find a safe home, always wandering, and always exposed to inexplicable and unpredictable violence. This Jew is often the object, rarely the subject. Through Zelensky, it may be possible for me to witness another side of this hidden character within me, perhaps hidden in the shadows, perhaps always there—an aspect that has often been silently murmured on the lips of many new generations of Jews since the Holocaust.
Zelensky speaks a bit for these generations. He said recently, while refusing an escorted escape for him out of the Ukraine: “I am here. We are not putting down arms. We will be defending our country, because our weapon is truth, and our truth is that this is our land, our country, our children, and we will defend all of this. That is, it. That’s all I wanted to tell you.”
It seems I might need this kind of actual and mythic trickster in order to continue with the business of being and becoming myself.
Anne Applebaum, “Calamity Again,” The Atlantic, February 23, 2022.
Joan Golden-Alexis, PhD is a clinical psychologist and Jungian Analyst practicing in New York city. She is the Director of Training of the Philadelphia Jung Institute.