Jews and Ukrainians

A Millennium of Co-Existence

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Paul Robert Magocsi, Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern
  • Toronto, ON: 
    University of Toronto Press
    , November
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In a sweeping volume, leading scholars Paul Robert Magocsi and Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern offer a definitive account of the history of two neighbors, Jews and Ukrainians. It is an impressive undertaking. In Jews and Ukrainians: A Millennium of Co-Existence, the authors cover, as the title suggests, one thousand years of the past, as well multiple thematic subjects. Their approach is to “construct a parallel narrative,” alternating between a Jewish and Ukrainian story. In doing so, they claim “a single story” emerged, “in which ethnic Ukrainians and Jews displayed as many similarities as differences” (1). The authors include high-quality, colored illustrations and maps on nearly every glossy page of the text that aid in this storytelling. The book’s intent is to confront a disjoined record. Importantly, it begins by offering a tandem account of “stereotypes, perceptions, and misperceptions” held by Jews and Ukrainians on key controversial events—such as the Khmelynytskyi uprising/Catastrophe, Great Famine of 1932–33, and BabynYar massacre—in a text insert. (2–3) The authors continue this tactic of separately engaging divisive issues throughout the book, all the while offering their own steady, narrative. The book’s nearly eighty-page historical sketch is worth reading alone in order to understand junctures in need of careful deliberation.

The book’s treatment of spiritual culture and religion in two individual, thematic chapters is particularly robust. Readers learn, for example, of the influence of Kabbalistic belief on the development of Hasidic mysticism. Attempts by the Russian tsarist government to suppress Hasidism because of its perceived irrationality generally had an opposite effect. The population viewed Hasidic leaders as martyrs and their popularity rose. What the tsarist government did not realize, the authors argue, was that Hasidism reflected the “cultural universe” of hundreds of thousands of Jews and “Hasidic piety became an inseparable part of the rising Orthodoxy and mystical spirituality that permeated the minds of traditional Jews, even if they were not Hasidism.” (110) Hasidism was not the only feature of Ashkenazi Judaism in eastern Europe, although today the graves of Hasidic leaders attract tens of thousands of pilgrims annually to Ukraine. Magocsi and Petrovsky-Shtern succeed in reminding us of the tremendous religious diversity of Jews in “the Ukrainian lands,” noting in particular the rise of liberal trends in Judaism through this varied space, but grant that by 1914 “most observant Jews” remained “traditionally Orthodox” (133).

The authors note that the majority of ethnic Ukrainians have historically identified themselves as Eastern Orthodox Christians, but sorting out the history of Christianity in the multiple states Ukrainians inhabited is as complex as doing the same for Judaism. In 1596, some Orthodox leaders in parts of Ukraine then under the rule of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth agreed to recognize the ecclesiastical leadership of the pope in Rome. The Polish state granted adherents to this agreement, known as the Union of Brest, sole permission to practice their faith according to the Eastern rite (23). These so-called Uniates, the authors maintain, “thought they had returned from schism to the fold of the one universal Catholic Church in which they were allowed to maintain the basic beliefs and rituals they had as Orthodox” (127). However, many Orthodox Christians dissented and the Polish state’s persecution of them as “schismatics” created a rift. Eventual Muscovite/Russian incorporation of Polish and Cossack land on either side of the Dnieper (Dnipro) river meant that Orthodox believers in Ukraine transferred their loyalty to the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church (128). In parts of Poland annexed by Austria, the Uniate—or Greek Catholic—Church survived, functioning as a mainstay of Ukrainian national identity.

The history of the Ukrainian absorption into (and influence over and partial post-Soviet break with) the Russian Orthodox Church is a complicated and protracted story, but the book presents an authoritative summary. It is ambitious enough to cover the internal theological disputes, governance, and vernacular traditions of two major faiths equally. Therefore, it is not surprising that the book’s parallel treatment of religion suggests a picture of a people who most certainly co-existed, but often lived conceptually and physically apart. The authors might have dedicated more space to the ways in which faith structures interacted. There are hints to this potential in references to the Jewish and Christian Sabbaths and the effect that their observation had on trade and the marketplace, an indisputable space of contact, mutual benefit, and tension. A detailed discussion of the ways in which respective high holidays overlapped and were perceived by ordinary Jews and ethnic Ukrainians might have elicited a more critical discussion of shared features of celebration as well as perhaps the roots of misunderstanding and conflict.

Outside of the topic of religion, the book references multiple moments of interface and mutual influence. The book excels in its discussion of the “cross-fertilization” of language, literature, theater, visual arts, and music, in what the authors often situate as a shared colonial context. During the 1920s, when the new Soviet government actively promoted the expansion of Ukrainian- and Yiddish-language culture (while simultaneously repressing Hebrew), Jewish and Ukrainian writers collaborated frequently. The Jewish author Leonid Pervomaiskyi (born Ilya Gurevich) began writing in Ukrainian at this time, depicting ordinary Ukrainians and Jews as “victims of the historical calamity that underscored their common tragic fate [under tsardom]” (180). Soviet policy, urbanization, violence, and demographic shifts also had an inevitable effect on language as state authorities increasingly promoted Russian-language use, especially in Ukraine’s cities and industrial areas, and the Holocaust (and post-war Soviet repression) decimated the republic’s Yiddish speakers and elite. But the past influence of Ukrainian and Yiddish on one another remains, as the authors ably demonstrate in a text insert, a hybridity that marks Ukraine’s “multi-ethnic legacy” (141).

The book ends with an essential consideration of the history of the Jewish and Ukrainian diaspora and recent contemporary events. It is a hefty volume and might be used by some scholars of religion exclusively as a reference text. But its larger argument is poignant and deserving of attention. It aims to deconstruct interpretative myths of the Ukrainian and Jewish past, undermine the arguments of commentators and politicians who seek to keep them alive, and offer a clear-eyed, detailed, and accessible account. In this effort, it is without equal.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew D. Pauly is Associate Professor in the Department of History at Michigan State University.

Date of Review: 
November 20, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul Robert Magocsi, FRSC, is professor of history and political science and holds the chair of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Toronto.

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern is the Crown Family Professor of Jewish Studies at Northwestern University in the United States.


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