Soviet Jews and Ukraine, things one writes in prison, compassionate conservatism, American utopias, and saying no to paganism
How many unicorns does it take to change a lightbulb? No idea, but it does take a gathering of unicorns to form a blessing upon your Saturday. Here’s the latest and wildest herd.
Earlier this year, Agnes Howard reviewed Masha Rumer’s Parenting with an Accent for Current. I was thrilled to see this interview between Masha and Lea Seltserman, “The Soviet-Jewish Experience in North America.”
A taste from Masha’s reflections on writing her book:
While working on this book, I found common threads across cultures and immigrant generations and gained more empathy than ever before. I also got to tackle family traumas common for many people from the former USSR. The roster includes Holodomor, World War II, the Holocaust, the Gulag, antisemitism, and the infamous Soviet kindergarten. Yikes, that’s a long list. Needless to say, it was not easy to revisit those family stories, some of which I wasn’t even aware of.
And a taste from Lea about her immigrant memories:
I came here as a toddler, actually, so I don’t have direct immigration memories. We flew from Leningrad to Vienna, and then a couple weeks later, to Rome, where we lived for six months while awaiting our Canadian visas. Growing up, most of this was nothing more than a talking point—something I was told, but didn’t feel. Instead, I think it seeped out in the ways I was raised, and all the ways I thought my family was weird, without fully understanding that it was because we were immigrants with some intense family history of trauma. I have some distinct memories of things like asking my parents how to say “ресторан” in English (spoiler: it’s pretty much the same word) when I was six. But often it was more subtle, like the lack of tooth fairy visits, which I internalized as “why can’t my parents be normal?” without realizing that the tooth fairy simply didn’t exist in their child-rearing playbook.
On a related note, Vladislav Davidzon’s article from last month is quite timely to read right now: “The War Comes to Odessa.” Odessa, the Crimean port city, was long a center of Soviet Jewish culture, but it was also a cultural center overall, boasting a rich history and architecture—now actively under attack and destruction by Russia. But as some Odessans have left, new residents from other parts of Ukraine have moved in. A taste:
The government refuses to provide statistics regarding how many people have left the city in the midst of the conflict, but I suspect that Odessa’s demographics have not changed this much since World War II, or at least since the time of the mass Jewish emigration in the ’80s and ’90s. This would mean that Odessa will be a very different city at the conclusion of the war. At the philharmonic, I observed a group of young women give themselves away as newcomers to the city as they marveled at the gorgeous carved decorations of the crenelated and frescoed ceiling. They argued in Russian about whether it was neo-Oriental or Turkish in style. I intervened to inform them of the answer—the Odessa variant of Venetian Revival Gothic widely practiced by the early 19th-century Italian architects who designed the center of the city—and found out that they had all recently resettled after the destruction of Mariupol.
I always enjoy Joel J. Miller’s Miller’s Book Review, so it means something when I say this essay is my favorite of his recent ones: “Unpredictable Futures: Bonhoeffer and Bots.” What should a theologian be writing in prison, and how does the choice to create art help us distinguish between humans and machines? As Joel notes, WWII interrupted Bonhoeffer’s work on his magisterial Ethics. When he finally had time to write—in prison, awaiting execution—he could have gotten back to it. But he didn’t. A taste from the piece:
Bonhoeffer wrote poetry, worked on a play, and started a novel. Given his passive and active resistance against the Nazi juggernaut, including joining an unsuccessful plot to assassinate Hitler, this might strike us as curious, maybe even disappointing.
“Bonhoeffer spent his final months,” they say, “creating art.”
The reason some might judge this pursuit frivolous, they say, owes to our tendency to reduce people to what we deem their primary purpose. If you’re an activist theologian working against a maniacal and murderous regime, we expect you to keep up the routine—not drop out and start telling stories, let alone counting iambs.
Switching gears from Ukraine to the U.S., Marvin Olasky revisits his two books on poverty and compassionate conservatism for a special issue of Religion&Liberty. A tiny taste from his essay, which is worth reading in full:
Why, according to Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, did my central message “hit the conservative movement like a thunderbolt”? My message was simple: Conservatives had lost out to the left on poverty issues because they kept saying welfare was too expensive. But it’s not for a society as rich as ours. It’s stingy, however, when we refuse to offer personal help that recognizes how we are all made in God’s image and that we should not treat others as I treat my dog: Put some food in his bowl, walk him twice a day, don’t expect much from him except entertainment. We can do better than mere welfare handouts, assuming some of us are willing to truly love our neighbors as ourselves.
Andrea Turpin, whose review of Beth Moore’s memoir at Current this summer has taught editor Eric Miller who Beth Moore is (I cannot confirm that Eric is currently going through multiple Beth Moore Bible studies all at once to catch up on all the ones he’s missed, but I cannot deny it either), has a fascinating piece at the Anxious Bench about American utopias, “The Oberlin Option: A Sending City on a Hill.” A taste:
I have long had a fascination with utopias and their not-too-distant cousins, dystopias. This fascination began in college, when I read for one course Thomas More’s Utopia and later for another course Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, the inspiration for both 1984 and A Brave New World. It continued in grad school when I read Lawrence Foster’s Religion and Sexuality: The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community.
Foster observed that the 1820s through the 1840s were a peak time for American communitarian groups, more colloquially called utopian experiments. He zeroed in on Shaker communities, the Oneida community, and communitarian villages within the newly-founded Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (colloquially known as Mormons). Other utopias like the shorter-lived Transcendentalist Brook Farm experimented with equal pay and equal work for women and men, but the other three groups went further.
All came out of the Christian tradition but altered historic Christian ideas about marriage. All did so because of a niche interpretation of the dominant eschatology, or end-times theology, of the nineteenth century: postmillennialism.
Worth reading in full, but here is an excerpt from Leah Libresco Sargeant’s roundtable contribution:
In pagan cultures, the annihilation of the vulnerable was virtuous. In ours, it is cloaked in euphemism (“terminating a pregnancy” not “killing a baby”; “death with dignity” not “prescribing poison to the elderly”). Our delicacy is a small, fragile pledge of our resistance to paganism’s bloody frankness. Our killings are quiet, civilized, and we work hard to find ways to describe them as an act of generosity to the victim, not a rejection or a willingness to spend their lives to buttress our own.
Abortion doulas offer “non-judgmental support,” holding the hands of women who come to abortion clinics, asking them about their favorite tv shows, hearing one women repeat over and over, “I didn’t want to have to do that.” Non-judgmental support means listening but not asking follow-up questions about why or what other options might be available.