This week, I got an email from my friend, Ranen Omer-Sherman, the Judaic Studies chair at the University of Louisville. He wanted to share a poem by the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. He asked me to read it at an open mic session I was organizing, since he couldn’t be there himself.
The theme of that open mic: Ukraine:
Now, when the waters are pressing mightily
on the walls of the dams,
now, when the white storks, returning,
are transformed in the middle of the firmament
into fleets of jet planes,
we will feel again how strong are the ribs
and how vigorous is the warm air in the lungs
and how much daring is needed to love on the exposed plain,
when the great dangers are arched above,
and how much love is required
to fill all the empty vessels
and the watches that stopped telling time,
and how much breath,
a whirlwind of breath,
to sing the small song of spring.
A hopeful poem, especially that last line, “…sing the small song of spring.”
We could all use a dose of hope as we watch on TV how one country – Russia – savagely invades and degrades another – Ukraine — forcing more than 3 million people to flee across open borders (thank God) to Poland, Hungary, Moldova and Romania.
Many of their countrymen are not so lucky. In the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, thousands of civilians remain trapped, while news reports reliably inform us that the besieged city is being leveled.
This should remind those old enough to remember places like Warsaw, Stalingrad, Leningrad.
Yes, two of those cities are in Russia, begging the question, how can the leader of a country that suffered so much destruction in one war, inflict the same destruction on another country in another war?
I have no answer.
And yet, it could get worse, with the leader of that same country, Vladimir Putin, cryptically saying through a spokesman that he would use nuclear weapons should his country experience an “existential threat,” as several news agencies have reported.
An existential threat? What, in the toxic mind of Vladimir Putin, comprises an existential threat? Supplying arms to the Ukrainians to defend their homes? Branding Putin – correctly – as a war criminal? Imposing sanctions, both economic and noneconomic, against Russia in a nonviolent attempted to persuade it to withdraw?
Could any action to help the Ukrainians at so dark an hour be interpreted as an existential threat by this man?
I don’t know.
This is the hardest column I have ever had to write. It hardly writes itself. I debate with myself as I type, all the while trying to make sense of the images I see on my TV, of bombed out buildings, blown bridges, ditches filled with bodies, elderly husbands and wives clinging to one another as they join caravans of the displaced.
I was a young man when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. I thought we were fortunate to live in such a time when the future seemed filled with possibilities.
We were fortunate, we just didn’t know that it wouldn’t last, and we had no idea that some of those future possibilities were downright evil.
I don’t know where this war will take us, whether it can be contained to a regional conflict or will erupt into World War III. Whether an “existential threat” means an outright attack or tightening sanctions.
Right now, I’m just thinking about that Amichai poem.
German born, an immigrant to Palestine in 1935, Amichai would join the Palmach, a strike force of the Haganah, fight in World War II for the British army and later for Israel in its war for independence.
He saw plenty of war, yet he could still write a line like “…sing the small song of spring.”
He could be that hopeful. Can we?
(Lee Chottiner is the editor of the Jewish Community of Louisville.)