The Wild Rose of Zionism: Living Through Our Parent’s Deaths

By David J. Chernobylsky. Photograph by Gennady Chernobylsky.

When a parent passes away it’s never easy—the first thoughts are: How is this possible? What do I do now? How do I keep moving forward? Yet, these are the very thoughts that hold us back from becoming the very thing our parents wanted for us in the first place: to be confident and happy individuals with fulfilling lives and close-knit families. So what can we do to walk proudly in the footsteps of our beloved parents, even when those footsteps seem like deep craters casting shadows of effervescent greatness? We can reference back—think and try to analyze who our parents truly were and what was at the core of their belief system.

This is what I intend to do for my father, who passed away a mere three weeks ago. I still feel his presence even as I write these words. For him, the core of his vibrant personality was the passion for his Jewish heritage. He had an innate awareness regarding the progression of the Zionist movement throughout history. Perhaps this is why my concurrent class at UCLA, Israel through its Literature, has played such a significant role in my re-discovery of my father’s belief system and my own Zionist core.

This course began with a reading of Robert Alter’s compilation of Jewish short stories, aptly titled “Modern Hebrew Literature”. The very first short story reading, “Shem and Japheth on the Train” by Mendele, threw me head-first into a reflection of my father’s own turbulent time as refugee from Ukraine, escaping from the persecution and Anti-Semitism of the region. It is through those stories that my father has passed on to me the themes of exile and Jewish hate. His stories about how he was beaten and humiliated in the streets because of his ancestry and heritage reminds me why I feel a constant uneasiness and vigilance about the world around me. It embodies the idea that perhaps I may be safe today, but what about tomorrow? This vigilance also inspires in me a sense of pride. The fact that we as Jews have survived. This was perhaps my first step in realizing who I was and what my ancestry meant to me.

Our next reading in the course was Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land”. His book opens up discussing his own great-grandfather’s first trip, in 1897, to the land that would become the State of Israel. Shavit writes about the emotions and romanticism his great-grandfather experienced being in the land. It is this romanticism that was alive and aflame in my own father’s beating chest. To him, there was a vital goal in connecting me to my Jewish identity and Zionist Spirit. By Zionist Spirit, I am referring to that core belief that Israel is a landmark of the historical continuation of the Jew’s past. It is a symbol of perseverance of thousands upon thousands of lifetimes of religious and racial persecutions across almost every single country and continent on Earth.

This understanding fueled his romanticism with the land, and this romanticism—along with the belief in Divine intervention—is the same that convinced him to celebrate my Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. It is this same romanticism that inspired him to travel with me to the Jewish Ghetto in Prague and in Venice to drive the point home of Jewish ancestry and persecution. He wanted me to understand the reality of Jews living in a world that is mostly not its own. He wanted to connect me with the very past that is synonymous with the overlapping tombstones at the Jewish Cemetery in Prague, and with the inhumanely-compacted rooms of the Jewish housing in Venice. To my father, this romanticism connecting the past to the present was the same that Ari Shavit’s great-grandfather experienced when he set his foot upon the shore of the then-growing port-city of Jaffa. It is the same romanticism that seems to be lacking in today’s reflection of what Israel means to the world and to Jews of this generation.

One of the final readings in our course was Amos Oz’s “A Tale of Love and Darkness”, in which he describes how his mother’s suicide affected the rest of his life. It led to him running away from his father, isolating himself from his home in Jerusalem and joining a Kibbutz. It was how he found his self-awareness as a human being, a writer, and a Jew. Now while my father’s death was not a suicide, it was also sudden and wretchedly unexpected. I do not question his death, as Amos Oz questioned his mother’s, but I do question his life. He did not choose to die, he chose to live. And it is my responsibility as his son to reflect on his life and the ideology he left behind.

To him, it was vital to live life with respect to the world around. Beauty was something to appreciate. People’s company and belief systems were meant to be understood. But not at the betrayal of one’s own identity and ideological beliefs in this world. He wanted me to remain grounded in my beliefs, to pursuing my dream of going to medical school and becoming a doctor, and also in continuing my work in Zionism. It was crucial for him that my writings had a purpose—that they weren’t just flowery language—but that they had sustenance and value. To me, the greatest analysis of my father’s passing would be to focus on his life, his Zionist ideology and as well as building my own Zionist ideology. That ideology would entail respecting the views of others but asserting what I feel in my heart is right for the survival and continued preservation of the Jewish people. I know he would be proud of me for this.

My course at UCLA, Israel through its Literature, is taught by Professor Arnold Band at UCLA. It is one of the most profound—and aptly timed—classes I have ever taken in my life. It has given me insights into vital subjects as they pertain to my belief system, my emotional capacity and my drive to do what I believe is in my power to progress common understanding of what it means to be a Jew who is self-aware and vigilant in this “modern” world.

As of yesterday, my mother and I have received a certificate that a tree has been planted in Jerusalem by the Jewish National Fund in my father’s memory. May it grow there, as beautiful and vivid as a wild rose, and remind us all why each tree in Israel is not just a tree but a reminder that our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents laid down their lives for our own prosperity. Each tree is also a reminder for us that we will live out our own lives until our time comes to pass and we are to leave behind our own memories, experiences, and beliefs for our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to hopefully follow and pass on in their own time.

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