Reckoning With Reality; Standing Up For Our Future
My sister and I were born in the wake of a historic triumph. My father, Natan Sharansky, was arrested by the Soviets on March 15th,1977, and tried as an American spy. His true ‘crime’ was his fight for the right of Jews like himself to immigrate from the USSR to the State of Israel, and for human rights within the USSR itself. But the truth- many people believed then- wouldn’t protect him. They expected my father to rot in prison or be killed.
They were proven wrong.
The Jewish people rose to the challenge, fought long and hard for Soviet Jewry and the Prisoners of Zion, and despite internal disagreements, persevered and brought the Goliath that was the Soviet Union to its knees. My father was released in 1986 and was reunited with my mother in Israel. I was born a year later. By the time I was old enough to retain memories, the Iron Curtain was gone.
I grew up surrounded by many of the people who achieved this victory and immersed in their stories. American activists and Russian Prisoners of Zion, Soviet dissidents and Jewish leaders – they all had stories to share around our table. And in all their stories, there was this world; a seemingly prehistoric place of horror. A world where ruthless leaders used force to crush their own subjects and conquer other countries, where people were enslaved by fear, where you couldn’t trust your neighbors not to turn you in. But to me, this world seemed as distant as the pyramids in Egypt or the remains of the Inca civilization. Those, too, were empires that enslaved their people, but the USSR of our childhood stories was as dead as them.
As fully gone.
Yet as I listen to Vladimir Putin’s speeches where he speaks of Ukraine as his rightful property, as I watch his army march into a sovereign country to give substance to his words, the archeological remains I glimpsed through my parents’ stories no longer look all that distant. Today’s Russia may not wield the power of the Soviet Union, but the old world of imperialist tyrants and Might Makes Right is ascendant and I can hear it knocking on our door.
As I write these words, the invasion maps are open on my screen, flashing familiar names. Kyiv, where 33,771 Jews were rounded up and then shot in neighboring Babi Yar by the Nazis. Odesa, where three of my grandparents were born, where the seeds of the Hebrew Haskalah movement grew roots and shoots and flowered. Uman. Kharkiv. Dnepropetrovsk. So many names that echo with our ancestors’ stories, where Jews both died and flourished, prospered, and were persecuted, sometimes at the very same time.
How odd to watch history unfold in all the old familiar places.
How odd to watch the future of the world fought out in this place so filled with pasts.
I walk through my day with this dread lying heavy in my stomach, with this incessant feeling that the essence of our world is on the line. I wake up thinking, “What’s the news? What’s happening? What can I do to stop it?” The same questions loop through my mind endlessly as I go about my daily chores and rhythms. Every new headline makes my breath hitch, and every new way to donate gives me a jolt inside.
But even as I jump onto this initiative or share that idea or consider this or that form of protest, I know that this jitteriness isn’t good, isn’t healthy. Because here’s another thing that I learned from the stories of my parents and their comrades: When you face a tyrant, you need to be prepared to run a marathon and not spend all your energy on one quick sprint.
So I make myself pause, push the urgency that weighs on me aside, and ask myself a different question: What strategic measures can we focus on in order to achieve true impact without burning out too fast?
Two answers come to me, both of them straight from the playbook of the Struggle for Soviet Jewry.
First: I know that the best way to topple an autocratic regime is from within it. To protect our world, it’s not enough to aid the brave – incredibly brave! – men and women fighting in Ukraine. We need to figure out how to support Russia’s courageous dissidents, the men and women who are standing up to Putin, risking themselves to speak up against the war.
Authoritarian regimes thrive in darkness. Whenever we look away, they can more easily expand and solidify their control over people’s lives. When my father started a hunger strike in prison, the whole Jewish world knew about it and kept demanding proof that he was still alive. Their awareness meant that the Soviets couldn’t simply let him starve himself to death as they did to other dissidents who weren’t known outside the Soviet Union. We need to find a way to keep our eyes on the people fighting for freedom within Russia and lend our awareness to their protection and their cause.
Second: Tyrants win when their opponents get distracted. Right now, most of the world stands united in its rejection of this new imperialism. But what will happen when this particular war ends one way or another? Will we lose focus and forget? When my mother traveled the world fighting for my father’s release, journalists sometimes told her, “but we heard your husband’s story already! Call us only if your husband dies or something else dramatic happens.”
If we want to stand firm past today’s battle, it’s important to raise awareness around us about history and reality and what a war like this means not just to its immediate region, but to the rest of the world, too. Let us understand the stakes so we can maintain our vigilance for long enough.
Neither of these answers is easy and I am not sure yet how to go about them. But each of them offers me a direction to pursue and frees me from the passivity of mere spectatorship.
So many people throughout Ukraine need our help right now. So I go on donating money, sharing those urgent “can you put us in touch with people in X to help refugees from Y” posts on social media, and praying and worrying.
But between these immediate urgent needs and my long-term worries, I want to make room for something more than offering help and fighting back.
If our world is in danger, I think we must affirm it.
We must take stock of all we love about it, all that we think is worth protecting.
We must acknowledge it, embrace it, bolster it, and build it up.
When my kids come home from school today, maybe we will pray together. I will hold them and we will think about the people of Ukraine, Jews and Gentiles alike. Because in my world, the free world I love, this is one of the core truths of humanity: to care about each other and hold each other tight.
Rachel Sharanksy Danziger is a Jerusalem-born writer and educator who explores connections between Jewish texts, history, storytelling, and lived experience. She teaches Tanach via Ma’ayan – Torah Study from the Sources, Torah in Motion, and other organizations, and her written work can be found in Tablet Magazine, Kveller, Times of Israel, 929 English, and other Online venues. Having researched the intermingling of religion, emotion, and storytelling in 18th century America for her MA thesis in American history, she now seeks similar connections in the Hebrew Bible and in real life.