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Comedy and Memory

Volodymyr Zelensky, President-elect, Ukraine

Sermon Shabbat Finale Pesach 5779

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona

I don’t know how many of you have been following events in Ukraine this past week, but I can tell you it has really been something to watch. If I told you that a 41-year-old Jewish comedian who plays the president on TV was just elected the actual president of a European country you wouldn’t believe me, would you? I mean, how can someone go from being a TV star playing a role to actually being elected president? That could never happen in an advanced nation, now could it?

That this happened in Ukraine makes it somewhat more believable, perhaps. Of course, Ukraine is not exactly a place that’s always on American minds, or ever on American minds. For those of you unfamiliar with Eastern Europe, which is most of us, Ukraine is a large country located between Poland and Russia, bordering Belarus, Romania, Moldova, Slovakia and Hungary, but mostly bordering Russia. Russia controlled Ukraine in Soviet times for nearly 70 years, except when the Nazis captured it during World War II. And almost ever since the fall of the Soviet Union and Ukraine achieved independence again Russia, particularly under Putin, has continually tried to separate Ukraine from its territory and its independence. After the last Ukrainian revolution five years ago, which overthrew a pro-Putin president, Russia took the Crimea from Ukraine militarily, and then initiated a war by proxy that has tied up the eastern part of the country without actually conquering it.

In any case, Ukraine has had a very corrupt president named Poroshenko for the past few years. He was elected in part because he was already very wealthy—he made his money manufacturing candy—and people rationalized that Poroshenko wouldn’t need to steal from the country, the way almost all Ukrainian politicians seem to do. Unfortunately, that didn’t prove to be true. He stole just as much as everyone before him had, perhaps more. And that led to something fascinating, and quite extraordinary taking place this last week.

But first, a little more Jewish background here. Before the Holocaust there were many Jews in Ukraine, more than 1.5 million of them. Odessa, the Black Sea city in the Crimea, had for a time the largest Yiddish-speaking population in the entire world and its most active publications. Kiev was a great center of Jewish life, as was Lvov. It was a truly great Jewish community. That changed during the Shoah when over a million Ukrainian Jews were murdered by the Nazis, many by Einsatzgrupen. Babi Yar, just outside of Kiev, became a symbol of the brutality of the Nazis. Still, a sizable number of Jews remained after the Soviet recapture of Ukraine. Today, in a country of roughly 45 million people, there may be half a million Jews, if you define Jewish identity broadly. In today’s world half a million is a sizable number of Jews, if only about 1% of the overall population of Ukraine.

The presidential election last week was the culmination of something that began four years ago. Back in 2015 the then 37-year-old Jewish comedian named Volodymyr Zelensky became the star of a popular television series called, “Servant of the People,” where he played the role of the President of Ukraine. In the series, Zelensky's character was a thirty-something high-school history teacher who won the presidential election after a viral video showed him ranting against government corruption in Ukraine. It remains one of the most popular shows in the country.

In a clear case of life imitating art, on December 31st of 2018, Zelensky’s new political party, also called “Servant of the People,” started running him for president of Ukraine, declaring that he would bring honesty and accountability to Ukrainian politics, probably for the first time ever. Zelensky easily won the primary election, held March 31st, and last week in the final election he was elected the new President of Ukraine by a stunning margin of 73% to 25% over Poroshenko.

Zelensky is now, at 41 years old and with no governmental or military experience, the President of Ukraine for the next 5 years. Oh, and the Prime Minister, a lesser but still important position, is also Jewish.

Now mind you, this is Ukraine, which has a rich and terrible history of anti-Semitism in its own right; its national hero, the George Washington of Ukraine, is a Cossack name Bogdan Chmielnitzky, who led some of the most brutal pre-modern pogroms of all time. Ukrainians sometimes collaborated with the Nazis in killing Jews. And as we know, Ukraine is not exactly the center of world attention most of the time; its most famous event is probably the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and it has one of the very lowest per capita income rates in all of Europe.

Still, what a remarkable event: Zelensky, a young Jewish professional comedian, actor and director who played a reforming president on TV, just got elected to the highest office of a country where Jews are a small minority and have been persecuted so often in the past. It’s as if Martin Sheen got elected for having played a president in the TV series “West Wing,” or Julia Louis Dreyfuss got elected Vice President for “Veep.” Or Kevin Spacey or Robin Wright from “House of Cards” got elected for having both playing the president. Or even that guy from the Apprentice getting elected president for playing the boss on that show.

Anyway, Ukraine now has a Jewish comedian president who appears not to be corrupt, which somehow seems like it might be a better idea than the professional politicians they have had fouling things up for the past 20 years or so. It has got to be more entertaining, at the least.

Which led me this past week, as I recovered from our massive and massively successful seders, to watch the only film set in Ukraine that I can recall seeing, the movie “Everything is Illuminated,” a gem of a film based on Jonathan Safran Foerr’s outstanding and difficult novel. “Everything is Illuminated” traces the quest of a young Jewish man for the history of his family in Ukraine before World War II, in particular the place and village where his beloved grandfather, recently deceased, grew up and lived before the Nazis came. The depiction of Ukraine is colorful, ironic, bizarre and quite funny, but gradually the humor turns to something more serious and much more poignant. Soon we come to realize just how much memory haunts the characters and shapes the choices they make in their own lives. What begins as comedy emerges as something quite different, more serious, more important.

In the film, as painful as some realizations are—and one senses that in Ukraine there is always going to be some pain in memory—there is nonetheless a winsome, evocative quality to the way that memory can tease at the edge of our minds, can touch our emotions in unique and delicate ways. When we take the time to remember, when we make memory a deliberate choice, we have the capacity to infuse our present with depth and meaning that would otherwise be absent. Memory allows us to bring to life, and to light, what has been obscured behind the filter of time. It is a challenging but ultimately critically important process for each of us.

Passover is, in a very special way, a holiday of memory. If the seder is, almost literally, a history feast, then this festival of freedom is a period that touches so many mystic chords of memory that it can actually seem overwhelming. We remember the tastes and smells of seders long past, the shared suffering of the week of matzah, the joy of finding the afikoman, the slight magic of Elijah’s cup—or, perhaps in years to come, the sudden jolt of seeing Elijah the snake.

But by now we are no longer at the beginning but the end of Passover, and this night begins the final day of Pesach. Soon this holiday too will recede into memory.

On this Shabbat, too, we will include the memorial service of Yizkor during tomorrow morning’s observances. Yizkor, especially, is a time of remembrance, the four-times-a-year ceremony when we recall those people whom we loved and who shaped our lives and who are now gone. It is a way of using memory to bring back, in love, those we have treasured, of opening ourselves up to the possibility that their souls and spirits remain with us, that the memories we treasure can be revived—not to bring us pain but a sweet sadness of remembrance.

The Baal Shem Tov said, “Memory is the beginning of redemption.” He meant by that, I believe, that in order to begin the process of healing, of seeking wholeness for ourselves and our world, we must begin by honestly seeing what has gone before. We must look at our past and see there the lessons that can help us embrace the present, and proudly face the future. We can be redeemed from loss and doubt,

I don’t know if President Zelensky can rise from comedy to become the leader his country now needs. Time will certainly tell. But I do know that to a large degree the secret for each of us, the source of our own ability to go forward with courage, confidence and direction, lies in our capacity to incorporate memory into our own experience, learn from it and use it to gain understanding and depth.

May this be a Shabbat, and a final Pesach day, in which our memories bring us both perspective and blessing.

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