Moment is publishing regular updates from Helen, a Soviet American Jew living in Kyiv. Read all the diary entries here.
When I met Moshe Azman, he identified himself not only as the rabbi of Kyiv’s central synagogue, but also as the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine. He suggested that I Google his name. To my surprise, I discovered that there are two men who call themselves the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine, and that both believe they hold the rightful claim to the title.
The day of the interview, the same three guards with Kalashnikovs greeted me in the same dark hallway. This time it was truly a greeting; they were not kicking me out, although I did witness another Jewish lady being escorted from the synagogue, which reminded me of my first attempt to visit it. The lady was politely inquiring about Passover celebrations, and she didn’t appear to present any danger.
It is disturbing that some Jewish people can’t enter the synagogue without being treated this way. In contrast, I remember walking by St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral, an Orthodox church. There were no guards, no Kalashnikovs. The service was in process, the choir was singing psalms. Everyone was welcomed, even just people passing by.
Back to the rabbi. When I first reached Azman via WhatsApp, he warned me that he would only have five minutes to talk, but we ended up speaking for an hour in both English and Russian. I could easily identify his strong, energetic personality; he filled the space with his presence. He was talkative, and he seemed to be sincere. He answered my questions right away, as though his responses had been prepared. (I know he has had ample experience speaking to reporters, both before the war and since.)
He did look tired, and no wonder—he said he had been working day and night. But it surprised me that he started every response with “I”: I built, I organized, I fed, and so on, even though there are so many people involved in all his remarkable deeds. I was taught to say “we,” even when speaking of personal achievements. He also said he is operating in the red, and he wonders where all the aid he keeps hearing about is going.
When I was leaving, the aggressive guard with the Kalashnikov apologized to me. “You, of course, understand that we act this way to provide more security,” he said. “Of course,” I replied.
Do I understand? Three Kalashnikov-armed guards kicking out of the synagogue a peaceful American Jewish lady, one who’s not exactly a spring chicken? No, I don’t understand.
Read Helen’s full interview with Azman here.
Photo credit: Tim Judah