On dissonance: watching the war as a Ukrainian-American Jew
Before last week, my greatest concerns were avoiding Omicron and looking for a new job. Now I’m waiting for news on when the war in Ukraine, the country my parents and grandparents were born in, will stop.
Over the past few days, my grandmother has made several calls to distant friends and relatives overseas, checking to make sure they’re alive. I’ve overheard my parents raging over their sense of powerlessness, claiming they want to fight for a country they haven’t lived in for over 30 years, yet still consider their roots. The weight of this war is not the same for me as for them, yet it is still a weight I carry all the same.
Even now part of me is unsure if I’m even entitled to grief, questioning whether my stakes in this conflict are even deep enough to merit comfort.
As a first-generation Ukrainian-American Jew, I grew up in Brooklyn, my home life powerfully influenced by a country I had never once stepped foot in. I was raised in a house that switched between Russian and English, eating foods such as baton sihivskiy, salat olivye, pirozhki, pelmeni, blini, shashlik and more. We celebrated Slavic traditions in addition to Jewish holidays, such as a New Year’s tree (which looks like a Christmas tree, but definitely isn’t) and opening gifts at midnight on Dec. 31st.
Ukraine always felt like a distant place. It was a country I was connected to by virtue of my blood, but also one I’d never had the chance to visit (my sister and I being the only people in our family who have never physically been there.) The promise of traveling to Kyiv — the city of my parent’s birth — had continually been broken by various political tensions and a pandemic. Now I’m not even sure if and when that promise will be kept at all.
As I watch Ukrainian civilians throw their bodies in front of tanks and schoolteachers take up arms to fight the Russians, a strong sense of guilt (perhaps one of the most familiar Jewish sensations) fills my heart. I am spared the terror that other Ukrainians my age must be going through thanks to my American passport. Yet how can I reconcile feeling guilty for abandoning a people and a country I’ve never visited?
For the children of immigrants, there are undeniable challenges in trying to live up to our family’s version of the American dream. It is up to us to fulfill the promise of success that our parents hoped they could guarantee to their offspring by moving someplace new, while in the process tearing themselves away from everything they had ever known.
Often we walk a tightrope balancing our parent’s dreams versus our personal desires when determining how to navigate our futures. We struggle to make sense of a hyphenated identity caught between two very different worlds: adapting to an English-dominant environment while floundering in our family’s mother tongues.
What I have gone through, what I am going through, will never compare to my parents’ experiences of moving and adapting to a country so different from the world they had originally come from. I will never be able to fully understand exactly how difficult it was for my mother to learn English while simultaneously attending nursing school and raising a family, all before age 25, the age I am now. The distance between our lives and our personal experiences is as wide as the body of water between America and Ukraine, a distance measured by time and memory rather than by miles.
Watching this war, I have to acknowledge my guilt, my anxiety, my terror and my hope. That I need to be more invested in the roots that made me. That I can acknowledge both the pain of separation and attachment to a country I’m both familiar and unfamiliar with. I pray this conflict will end one day soon, — lives that could have been mine — are taken.
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