Recently, the holiday of Purim has been celebrated by Jews around the world.
The origin of Purim, from the Book of Esther in our Hebrew Bible, is a special Jewish story celebrating victory over the evil plot to exterminate the Jewish people during the time of the Persian Empire.
Although neither Purim nor Hanukkah appear in the first five books of Moses – the Torah – these two holidays are significant because they require us to celebrate two major anti-Semitic assaults on the Jewish people throughout the ages:
• The attempt to persecute the practice of Judaism.
• The attempt to annihilate – and remove the physical existence – of the Jewish people.
We Jews have known both types of hatred, and throughout our long history we have survived to see the fall of mighty empires and tyrants who have tried to crush our religion and wipe us off the map.
In 1920, my family left their village of Skvira, Ukraine, before finally going to America. My mother was born in a Romanian barn on the way to the boat that would take my family across the pond to freedom in our blessed land. My great-great-grandparents were killed in the pogroms that broke out against the Jews of Ukraine between 1918 and 1921.
There is a long history of Jews in Ukraine, beginning in the 16th century when the first Jews settled in the Polish-Lithuanian state that encompassed much of today’s Ukraine. Jews thrived there for a time, but were massacred during the Ukrainian national uprisings of the mid-17th century. During this process, a third of the Jewish population of Ukraine was murdered.
In 1941, after Germany invaded Ukraine, many of the Jews who remained in the country were murdered by the Nazis, encouraged by Ukrainian Nazi sympathizers. This horrific genocide led to the greatest massacre of the Holocaust: during a two-day period in September 1941 in Babi Yar, a ravine outside present-day kyiv, more than 33,000 Jews – including members of my family – were murdered before and on our holiest day, Yom Kippur.
There are, miraculously, between 200,000 and 300,000 Jews still living in Ukraine, a country I have visited a few times to restore synagogues and carry out other efforts on behalf of its welcoming Jewish population.
However, even after this long and arduous historical past, it is still possible to hear a figure like Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president, refer to Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, as someone “of a certain ethnic group”. — a comment that only stokes the age-old anti-Semitic ducks.
Most people are unaware of the Jewish stake in what is happening in Ukraine right now. And that’s why, as a member of the Jewish community, I want to say to the Ukrainian community that we stand with you in your fight for freedom – and in your fight to destroy the murderous plans of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Ukrainian people will win because the story of Purim tells us that all despots eventually fall. And one day, Ukrainians will be able to tell their children how the nation’s Jewish president led the valiant fight to preserve Ukraine’s national dignity and freedom.
We, the Jewish people, remember our past and strongly support the struggle of the Ukrainian people to live in peace in their dear homeland. Keep fighting – we are with you.
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler is the rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom in Sarasota.