An Explanation

A student comes by my office and delivers the following monologue:

“I just wanted to tell you that I always mean to come to class but there is always something more important that comes up. Like today, I really wanted to come because I know we will be practicing for the oral exam and I wanted to be there but then a friend asked if I could drive her to the airport. I mean, she could take the shuttle but since we don’t have anything important, like anything graded in class today, I thought I should drive her.”

This is the same student who can’t say, “My name is. . .” in Spanish at the end of Spanish Intermediate course. Her version of this ultra-complex statement is “Mi llama es. . .”

On Revolutions

Cliff Arroyo says:

With very few exceptions, revolutions are terrible ways to try to improve societies.

Unless the population is well educated and/or financially stable and/or culturally composed* enough they’ll for sure end badly.

I agree completely. Both on the level of societies and in what concerns personal development, a revolution is an attempt to forego slow and painful process of transformation. And that never works. You have to work patiently and consistently for a very long time to create anything worthwhile.

Ukraine’s Economic Future

David Bellamy asks how I see Ukraine’s economic future. Unfortunately, to me it looks quite grim. Today’s massive protests in Ukraine are very similar to what we saw during the Orange Revolution of 8 years ago.

In 2005, Ukrainians managed to overturn the results of the rigged elections and place a democratically elected president in office. Sadly, that victory did not lead to any change in how everybody lived. This is why I see no reason to hope that this time protests will lead to any real transformation.

As much as it pains me to recognize this, today’s protests – as well as those of the past – share a single goal. Ukrainians are looking for a magician (or a group of them) to make everything better. Today’s conflict in Ukraine is over who those magicians will be: Russia or the EU.

However, even if either of these entities had only Ukraine’s best interests in mind (which they don’t), their actions will never be enough to repair a country where people are not reading to abandon stealing, bribery and corruption in favor of working, producing, and paying taxes.

I can’t blame Ukrainians for this state of affairs. For centuries, every effort was made to quash the spirit of self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship in our people. It is ridiculous to expect the results of colonial domination to evaporate after formal political independence is achieved. If for hundreds of years people are told they can’t survive without an external agency that manages their lives, they will interiorize that belief.

I don’t know how long it will take to shed the colonial legacy. But 22 years are obviously not enough.

What Makes You Jewish?

People often try to be nice and welcoming by wishing me a happy Hanukkah or asking what I did for Rosh Hashanah. Every time, I explain that “I’m not that kind of a Jewish person” and that I have a very vague idea of what Hanukkah and Rosh Hashanah are. I even had to Google them to see the correct spelling for this post. And for generations, my Jewish ancestors have had no idea what these words even mean. This is in no way unique to me and my family. There are millions of post-Soviet Jews whose way of being Jewish has nothing to do with practicing a religion. We have our very different rituals and traditions that are in no way less valid and meaningful to us than lighting menorahs and eating kosher.

“Then what makes you Jewish?” people sometimes ask.

The basis of Jewishness, in my opinion, is the experience of anti-Semitism. Jew-haters don’t care two straws which traditions you uphold, what religion you practice, or whether you know what Purim is. If there was a moment in your life when you discovered that you are different in a way that you don’t control and that this difference will force you to confront hatred and persecution, then that experience is at least just as valuable as keeping Sabbath or placing a mezuzah in your doorway.

My father tells me that when he was a very little boy, he felt ashamed of his very Jewish last name. He had no idea at the age of 5 what was wrong with that last name. He only knew that he had to conceal it. Instead, he invented a Russian-sounding last name of Orlov and pretended it was his.

I also discovered at about the same age that I had reasons to feel fear and inexplicable shame when somebody mentioned the word “Jew.” I also found out that the seemingly unfinished question of, “So. . . are you?” could only have a single meaning. It was also the only question that my mother-in-law asked her son when he told her he met a woman he cared about. “Is she?” And when he answered “Yes, she is,” in his mother’s eyes, that equaled confessing to a big personal failure.

Of course, there are also positive ways of being Jewish that we practice. Our dedication to learning, the burning need to be the absolute best at everything, the obsessive desire to succeed – these are all elements of our Jewishness. They, too, however, arise from the millennial experience of anti-Semitism. One had to do so much better than everybody else just to get a chance that others possessed by virtue of not carrying the taint of Jewishness.

Holidays, synagogues and menorahs represent a valid and effective way of feeling togetherness as a people, especially in the face of the experience of the Diaspora. But not having access to them doesn’t really change anything. As the old saying by Soviet anti-Semites goes, “We don’t care what’s in your passport [where people’s ethnicity was stated]. We won’t hit you in your papers. We will hit you in your face.”