More than 40 days of war have passed since my last note, a time that has completely changed us. Many people died, many lost everything they had.
Personally, in these 40 days, I have completely rethought my life. It's like a desert that you go through for 40 years, leaving and leaving everything. These days also became a turning point in the war itself. The Ukrainian army liberated part of its territories. Putin's plans to encircle and capture Kyiv, destroy the Ukrainian state in a blitzkrieg did not materialize. We moved on to the second phase of the war — in the Donbass.
Forty is a special number. It occurs many times in the Torah. Forty days of the ark's voyage in the global flood, forty years of wandering in the wilderness. This number means a special stage of growing up.
These forty days helped me build this ark for myself. An ark in which you can face any flood. And even go to the desert. But let's go in order.
After almost two weeks of living in a village in the Kiev region, where we immediately fled after the start of the war from Kyiv, we left for the west of Ukraine.
At first, I thought about leaving somewhere in the Kyiv district to Bucha or Irpin, in a northern direction, but thank God, in the end we decided to go in the other direction, to relatives to the south. Photos and videos of what the Russian invaders did show how these towns are now plunged into darkness and horror.
The first weeks of the war in the countryside were calm, but it was not clear where the war would go, where the Russians would continue to advance.
Every day I watched news reports, Telegram channels and tracked the advances of Russian troops so that if they moved in our direction, we would leave.
Western Ukraine, cities on the border with Poland, Romania — a place where it is much more difficult for Russians to reach — would be an excellent option. Therefore, a huge flow of refugees immediately went here.
Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Ternopil, Uzhgorod — these cities received tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the war.
It was very scary to go west. Wife, two children, a dog and a cat, the war is all around.
The decision was difficult — the road is about 700 km, there are a lot of Ukrainian checkpoints — in almost every village or town, which create big traffic jams. These checkpoints are organized by the efforts of the local territorial defense — armed civilians, who, under the leadership of military officers, perform the function of protecting their communities.
I have thought many times about why people did not leave their cities and did not run away from the war during the occupation by the Nazis in World War II? Why didn't they flee? After all, they could survive?
I understood and fully experienced why myself. Horror and panic that covers you, understanding what is happening around.
You find yourself unable to make decisions. You are afraid to leave by car because you might be stopped. They can shoot. You will run out of gas and you will stop in the field.
Just getting up and leaving the house — where everything seems familiar and understandable to you — becomes an impossible task.
Even when I planned. Even when I understood in my head that it was right to leave for the west of the country. For weeks I simply was not able to leave the house, leave the familiar and understandable. The atmosphere ousidejust paralyzes you.
Here it is critically important to find an inner, saving resource that will help you make the right decision. Calculate everything. Do not be scared. Act. Break the paralysis. Go out into the desert.
And I found this resource.
Minyan as Combat Coordination
In combat groups, special forces have a practice called combat coordination. When a group learns to act together and feel what is happening literally with a common sensor.
I also have this group. This is my minyan.
We are in constant contact several times a day via zoom. We read a prayer, we say words of support to each other.
Now we are scattered all over the world. Someone in Amsterdam, someone stayed in Kyiv, someone in Poland. But we are all the time internally together.
And at this particular moment, we were together, with my haverim.
It was a difficult decision. We got together as usual with my comrades, with my ten. They supported me very much and in the end all the factors miraculously came together. My friend found us an apartment in Ivano-Frankivsk, a city completely clogged with visitors. Finding a place to stay there had seemed simply unrealistic. We resolved all the issues and, at one moment, decided to go, packed up and left.
On The Road
I was afraid that there would be traffic jams from all the checkpoints and roadblocks.
It was impossible to check on Google maps, since Google had turned off this function so that the occupiers could not see crowded places for strikes. Road signs were painted over for the same reason.
We found a way out. Boris, my old friend and friend of my family from New York, offered to watch the traffic on my route while in America. This function was still displayed there and communicated in WhatsApp. So we decided to go.
In fact, by the time I left, there were noticeably fewer checkpoints. From the very beginning of the war, they were set up in every village. This greatly complicated the path of humanitarian supplies that traveled from Europe. The government later decided to leave only the most necessary ones, which eased the flow of traffic.
The checkpoints that we met on our road were made of concrete blocks of a barrier on the road, around which there were representatives of domestic defense forces with machine guns.
At one point, we got lost. We did not know where to find the right turn. It was getting dark.
Then a friend from Israel called. He read a Hebrew passage from Rabbi Nachman, as sage who lived in Uman, not far from where we were, 300 years ago:
You must not allow yourself to fall off altogether, for it is necessary to experience all those falls, descents, and confusions prior to entering the gates of Kedusha, and the true righteous, too, have gone through all of it. Know, that man must cross a very, very narrow bridge, and the rule and the most important thing is not to be afraid at all.
I listened, thanked him and, in just a couple of minutes I found the right turn.
Even in the interior of Ukraine, despite the relative calm, there is a possibility of penetration by sabotage, reconnaissance groups or marauders, so this type of security is necessary.
You drive up, slow down, stop, open the windows, turn on the lights in the cabin and show the documents.
In our case, they saw that we, with children, with a dog and a cat, did not pose a threat. We were easily let through everywhere.
We did not drive on the main highway, but along country roads. This approach greatly increased the route but at least felt safer.
Servant of the People
I did not vote for Volodymyr Zelensky. I was afraid that the Jewish president would cause a flurry of negativity and a wave of antisemitism if he failed. The risk was great.
A professional comedian with no political experience — unless you count playing a high school teacher who gets elected on Servant of the People — becomes president in a country that has been fighting for 8 years with one of the most powerful armies in the world.
To everyone’s surprise, Zelensky became the exact leader that Ukraine needs today.
It was under Volodymyr Zelensky that cohesion of Ukrainian society — all its parts — became possible. It was under the Jew Zelensky that Ukraine was able to enter into a real national war.
Both banks of the Dnieper River — two parts of Ukraine, two narratives that historically clashed with each other by different politicians in their different worldviews — under Zelensky united into one powerful, invincible force.
And what was Jewish in Zelensky that could unite the two banks of the Dnieper — the left and the right?
Why do I always return to Jewish symbolism in my story about Ukraine? I think this is very relevant. Especially at this moment.
The sages of Kabbalah tell us that the world consists of two main forces — the right and left lines.
These are two primary elements that are opposite and mutually exclusive.
The power of light and the power of the vessel. The power of giving and the power of receiving. They are present everywhere, in every phenomenon in different combinations, like a kaleidoscope.
In cultures and religions.
This, in turn, was reflected in the calendars — the solar Gregorian, which is used by all Western civilization, and the lunar Arabic calendar.
For Jews — Yehudi from the word Yehud, Yahad — together, unity is an additional force that does not exist in nature from the very beginning. The power from above, which is able to unite the foundations of nature and human nature.
That is why, by the way, the Jewish calendar is solar-lunar. It is the most accurate, combining two lines and is calculated with virtually no errors.
So Zelensky, I believe, serves as such a unifying force for Ukraine, whether he realizes it or attributes it to his Judaism.
He was able to activate 75% of the Ukrainian electorate — different people with very different outlooks on life.
Russians approve of their leadership at almost the same level but the sociology could not be more different. Falling into line out of fear lacks the strength and solidarity of being pulled together by the middle line — what we live for, what future we want.
Again About Friends
And I return again to my friends, to my minyan.
I am convinced that this type of connection — such a social link, such a dynamic spiritual space — can create communities that can nurture themselves, support the broader society and withstand the most terrible threats, including war. Because in such a connection, there is always power in the middle line —.
I wish you never find your family surrounded by war. I wish that, even in times of peace, you surround yourself with people whose support will sustain in spite of whatever unknown the future holds.
Vlad Goldakovskiy is an architect, artist and founder of Goldakovskiy Group Architects.