“Jews and Ukrainians: A Millennium of Co-Existence” by Paul Robert Magosi and Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern— Knowing Who We Are

Magocsi, Paul Robert and Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern. “Jews and Ukrainians: A Millennium of Co-Existence”, University of Toronto Press, 2017.

Knowing Who We Are

Amos Lassen

I had a great surprise when the mail came today and in it was a coffee table sized book, “Jews and Ukrainians: A Millennium of Co-Existence” and I figured that perhaps some of the mysteries of my own family might be answered in it. For whatever reason there was no talk about my father’s early years as a Ukrainian Jew and I thought that even if I did not the answers to the questions I has, I would still learn something about the life that had been there and that was probably the reason that the family left. It seems that there is much that ordinary Ukrainians do not know about Jews and that ordinary Jews do not know about Ukrainians. Because of this, those Jews and Ukrainians who care about their respective ancestral heritages and who want to know more usually see each other through incorrect stereotypes, misperceptions, and biases. With this that stops and we learn about some of the controversial moments of Ukrainian-Jewish relations. What we learn is that that the historical experience in Ukraine both divided ethnic Ukrainians and Jews also brought them together.

Through twelve chapters, we get a look at various aspects of the Ukraine— the geography, history, economic life, traditional culture, religion, language and publications, literature and theater, architecture and art, music, the Diaspora, and the Ukraine as it is today. The volume includes 335 full-color illustrations, 29 maps, and several text inserts that explain specific phenomena or address controversial issues. There is a great deal of information here and I was soon turning pages as quickly as possible realizing that there was so much to learn. For me this was a key to my past and the more I read the more I saw what factors caused my family to relocate and why they chose to be silent about it. I do not believe that they did not speak because they did not want to remember but rather because they wanted to remember it as it had been and those good memories became my father’s and my grandparent’s secrets that were too precious to share. This was heightened by my learning that Jews and Ukrainians have had a common history for a thousand years. As I read I began to feel that I was holding in my hands a book that told me the history of my people and there it is very special.

I grew up in an observant Jewish family and always felt that there was something strange about this because religion was never spoken about, it just “was” and if I asked a question about it, the answer was simply “because”. I was totally surprised to discover here that the Ukraine was once home to rabbinic scholars as well as Hebrew and Yiddish writers and philosophers. I had always thought of it as an intellectual wilderness. Some of the ideas of these thinkers are the basis for some aspects of Jewish life and culture today. During the age of the Nazis over four million Ukrainians lost their lives, as did a million and a half military workers.

I learned here that Jews actually helped develop Ukrainian towns and these towns became cities that developed the market economy of the Ukraine this causing the area to be thought about not just as an agricultural region. Ultimately this has something to do with the Ukraine being so much in the news today.

Both Jews and Ukrainians were agents of the colonialism of someone else and were also victims of colonialism. They were often turned against each other and commissioned to produce hatred. Yet the cultural elites of both groups were able to build solid relations that challenged that hatred. While the two groups were different socially and economically, they shared commonalities in the arts, music and literature and were interested in each other’s works.

Everything about this book is beautiful and it is a welcome addition to any library and especially so for Jewish libraries. So often, we are Jews think of ourselves as a smaller group within a larger society and here we see ourselves on equal footing in many cases. For that alone this is a fine book but there is also so much more.


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