My grandfather – whose 90th birthday, in relatively good health and clear mind, I just had the pleasure of celebrating with our entire family in Israel – is an old-school Soviet Jew. That means he cares little about the Jewish religion but cares mightily about being a Jew. After retiring from his career as an engineer, he’s written two books about Jewish history in the Soviet Union. He prides himself on keeping (almost) all Jewish friends, having (almost) all Jews in his family, living in Israel, and most of all on helping other Jews learn about their past and their identity. He will grab any listener interested or passive enough and talk to him for hours about Jews.
What is this identity? Why does it matter? It is easy to dismiss Grandpa’s hyper-secular, emphatically atheist committment to Jewishness as little but a combination of racism and holding on to a memory of past suffering. If your sense of identity is founded entirely in shared persecution, won’t you need, and crave, and constantly suspect, new persecution in order to maintain it – to the point where there will be little to you but that? (Helen Thomas is doing little to alleviate such suspicions.)
If my grandfather stands on one side of a phenomenon, the other side is populated by Ukrainians and other traditionally Orthodox and Eastern Catholic people. In 2007-2008 I spent nine months in Western Ukraine, and loved worshipping with people there (especially these wonderful people at the Ukrainian Catholic University). And because I loved worshipping with them, I found it hard to separate out and repudiate the nationalism that penetrated their piety in a variety of forms – from the crude, with Cossacks showing up in Christmas pageants, to the wistful and charming, with songs about the Virgin walking the fields of Ukraine, to the deep unspoken pride shared particularly by the intelligentsia that encompasses the land, the nation, and the nation’s church – a pride that, like pride in a child’s artwork or an elderly parent’s wisdom, has its origin in love.
To be continued…