Hromadske Radio: The Hasidim in Ukraine—What Do We Know About Them?

hr-zustrichi-14-12-26-turov-mp3-image-120x120Today Iryna Slavinska is talking with Ihor Turov, Doctor of Historical Sciences and teacher at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Dr. Turov is a specialist on the Hasidism, and therefore this talk is dedicated to the life of the Hasidim in Ukraine. Our discussion starts with a question about the close Ukrainian-Hasidic ties that can be observed every autumn in Uman, where the Hasidim visit during their pilgrimage. The project “Encounters” is supported by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Iryna Slavinska: We recall the Hasidism when we talk about Uman, where Hasidim from all over the world visit for their pilgrimage. If taking into consideration this annual event, how much can we conclude that the cultures of life in Ukrainian Uman and the culture of religious Hasidism blend or coexist?

Ihor Turov: I think that nowadays the Hasidim who come to Ukraine are those people who have now long lived their lives in separate neighborhoods in the United States, Israel, and Canada. Now there is contact with people who are very distant, a contact between contemporary Ukrainians and those Hasidim from closed and exotic communities.

But at the age when Hasidism just started to emerge, the contact was very strong and developed. At that time we were talking about neighbors who were in the same environment and who had many cultural intersections. Of course, the influence was more historical than modern.

Iryna Slavinska: In this case, let us go one or even several steps back and ask what is Hasidism, when did it emerge, and who are the Hasidim?

Ihor Turov: Hasidism is a mystical Jewish religious movement that emerged in the middle of the eighteenth century in Podillia. The first decade of its existence was mainly in the regions of Podillia, Volyn, and Galicia. Later this movement spread to almost all regions of Eastern Europe and then—due to revolution, civil wars, world wars, and various disasters—a large number of Hasidim moved to other countries. Now they are a significant percentage of the Orthodox Jewish of Israel, America, Canada, and England.

Iryna Slavinska: Where did Hasidim come from in Ukraine? Did they always live here or is it a nation that came here?

Ihor Turov: Hasidic Jews are not a nation. Hasidic Jews are a new trend in Judaism. The fact is that Judaism had for centuries a mystical doctrine, which was available only to narrow circles of the elite. But the founders of the religious movement created in “Hasidism” a new version of Judaism, so to speak, where some secret mystical concepts have been used to reform worship, instruction, and daily life, and to build a common doctrine for the masses of the Jewish people.

Meanwhile, the supporters of traditional rabbinical teaching perceived Hasidim negatively for some time, and there were even several attempts to destroy Hasidism in the late eighteenth century. It was supposed to be declared a heresy, but Hasidism evolved and now it exists as a separate stream of Orthodox Judaism.

Iryna Slavinska: How did this movement of Orthodox Judaism come to Ukraine?

Ihor Turov: The founder of this movement, Eliezer Baal Shem Tov, lived in Medzhybizh and was so highly respected in his community that he was even exempt from taxes. A legend about his life says that he lived a long time in the Carpathian Mountains, and Carpathian outlaw rebels liked him a lot because once they saw him walking in the mountains, deeply engrossed in thought. He walked off a cliff, and then the mountain turned and he did not fall. They say that after that they made a deal with him. He would pray for them, and they would not rob Jews. According to the legend, they even showed him a tunnel that led from the Carpathians to Jerusalem. The trip to Jerusalem failed however because the tunnel was guarded with a fiery sword.

Interestingly enough, Ukrainians also have some legends about Dovbush [Oleksa Dovbush, a renowned Ukrainian outlaw and rebel leader, often compared to Robin Hood, editor’s note] establishing relationships with Baal Shem.

Iryna Slavinska: How much can these legends and stories be historically accurate?

Ihor Turov: This is a complex issue. I would only say that in the year 2000 two monographs were published by Jerusalem University. Professor Etkis, who asserted these legends are historically true, wrote one. Professor Rosman, claiming they are all false, wrote the second. The academic world is the academic work but mostly it is serious. The existence of the person at least has been documented and proven. Moreover, there exists a huge body of Hasidic texts, with more than 1,500 texts, and some texts consist of a dozen volumes.

Iryna Slavinska: How important is the cooperation and coexistence between, for example, the Hasidim and Ukrainians for the history of the coexistence of nationalities in Ukraine in general? Are these legends a history of exceptional stories or not?

Ihor Turov: Regarding Ukrainian legends, there are many stories of Hasidim who helped Ukrainians not only the past but also in contemporary Ukraine. In Chernivtsi there is a tradition that local Ukrainians attend the synagogue and present different requests to the rabbi. I asked people, and one older man told me that if he had a headache he would go to the rabbi. The rabbi would pray and everything would go away. Another woman had a problem that her husband did not spend nights at home. Thus, she wanted to go to the rabbi so that he would pray and her husband would again become faithful. In today’s Ukraine the rabbi would be Chabad Hasidic. But Chernivtsi, especially before the First World War and the Civil War, was a very important center of the Sadhora rabbinical dynasty of Hasidism.

On the other hand, there is a highly developed theme in the teachings of Hasidism for the necessity of contacts and assistance to people of other faiths. Of course, it is not that Hasidim overcame prejudice towards Orthodox believers. Usually all Orthodox denominations are somewhat inclined to believe that other religions profess a false version of religion. But the Hasidim had an interesting view, based on the Jewish Kabbalah, which states that in the early years of creation God’s light fell into darkness. The light is captured there, and the aim of believers is to let these particles of light free. Jewish mystics were searching for ways of how to do this and the Hasidim have a solution. This solution is in communication with the Gentiles, praying for their health and well-being. It is a remedy for the rise of light, hidden in their midst, to God’s source. It should be done, as it is an additional gift to the Lord. This is very important, and therefore praying for the Gentiles and helping them in this way is a very important aspect of their ministry. Such aid results in the fact that these nations of the world start treating Jews in a good way. The persecution disappears, and a quiet and calm life ensues. The Hasidim have many stories about the tzadikim [the “righteous ones,” editor’s note] who helped believers of other faiths, including the Ukrainian peasantry and aristocracy. This is mentioned in some Ukrainian legends and folklore in Western Ukraine. The Hasidism, more than those of traditional Orthodox Judaism, were more open in their earlier history to all kinds of contacts.

Iryna Slavinska: Is such openness to contacts preserved in modern Hasidism?

Ihor Turov: Judaism is a complex religion with 613 commandments that cover all aspects of human life. In the early twentieth century there was a mass withdrawal of Jews from religion. Currently about ninety percent of Jews are out of religion. There are new versions of religion being created: Neo-Orthodoxy, the Reformist current, etc. The reaction of Orthodox people is that the world plunges into darkness. Since it is important to keep the faith and tradition, they begin to live in gated communities. They are generally quite isolated from the modern world. When I was in Jerusalem I spoke with representatives of the Orthodox communities. The youth for example asked me with great interest to tell them what a university was. They really do not know. Their lives are built in a way that they are isolated. The Hasidim are also more isolated than they were before. The Hasidim believe that visits to the places where the tzadikim are buried are very important, and they keep those traditions that they had when they still lived in Eastern Europe, including Ukraine. For example, many Hasidim sing Ukrainian songs. They do not understand what the words mean, but it is their sacred text that they learn by heart. Hasidic Jews come, of course, to Uman, but it is not the only place they visit. They are coming to Medzhybizh and to other cities. In Ukraine there are hundreds of cities that are sacred to Hasidim and that are related to the life of the tzadikim. Hasidism is different from other streams of Judaism primarily by its cult of leaders. The tzadik is a mediator between God and men, the embodiment of divine holiness, and the man who can make a miracle, etc. By the way, in the history of Judaism there are no more such things. Some researchers, including me as well, believe that the specific relationship between the Jews and their neighbors in Ukraine and specific traditions that have been in Ukraine during the birth of Hasidism contributed to the emergence of a quite exceptional phenomenon.

Iryna Slavinska: How is it possible to recognize the Hasidim today? Is it because of their special clothes, peculiar behavior, gestures, and rituals of life?

Ihor Turov: The Hasidim wear conservative clothing. Ashkenazi Orthodox Judaism in Eastern Europe is divided into two large groups: Hassidic Litvaks, obviously from Lithuania though some were in Ukraine, and other Orthodox currents. There are many currents. They usually wear a suit and hat. Many Hasidim wear gowns, long stockings, and shoes that look like they could be from illustrations of Gulliver’s Travels. In Jerusalem some Litvaks might wear gowns but not long stockings and eighteenth century shoes outside Jerusalem. Other Hasidim do. Hasidism has a large number of branches. It all depends on the tzadik, whose power is hereditary. Usually one tzadik has many children and therefore some branching exists. For example, a large number of tzadiks in the nineteenth century proclaimed that traditional clothing is holy and cannot be changed. Therefore, these Hasidim still wear clothes of the eighteenth century. Litvaks in the beginning of the twentieth century changed and no longer look so exotic. Some Hasidim modernized their clothing due to decrees by their tzadiks. While perhaps their clothing is not very contemporary, they nonetheless wear suits.

Iryna Slavinska: If we are talking about the behavior, gestures, cuisine, are there any things that can be noticed when speaking to the Hasidim?

Ihor Turov: Surely there are many stereotypes which tradition ascribes to the Hasidim. For example, the stereotype that the Hasidim like to sing, like to have fun, and like alcohol. However, Orthodox Jews during the holidays also love these things mentioned above, but do it less. In Hasidism there is a tradition to drink in the synagogues after the holidays. Overall, Hasidim also cultivate the Yiddish language significantly more than other currents of East European Jews.

Iryna Slavinska: Are we talking about Yiddish in everyday life or using it in some sacred processes?

Ihor Turov: In general, the requirements of Judaism stipulate that all movements of the person should be dedicated to the Lord. Whatever a person does, his action must always be associated with the implementation of some commands. The Hasidim go further than that though and they see sacred actions in any type of household activity: in observing the plants, domestic work, communication, etc. Generally speaking, according to the views of the Hasidim, the world is the Lord who had concealed Himself. And we always live in Him; we are His part, though we think that we live in a world separate from Him. Our world is in the folds of the Lord’s clothes. Therefore, everything that the Hasidim do is sacred, even when they are getting drunk. Hebrew was traditionally the language of worship, theological works, prayers, and sacred texts. Yiddish was the language of everyday communication of the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. But with the appearance of the Zionist movement in the Jewish world, the Zionist idea to renew the Hebrew language and its transformation into the official language in Israel was perceived ambiguously. This project was successful, but certain groups of Orthodox, not only the Hasidim, believed that the conversion of the Hebrew language from the sacred to the language of everyday communication is a crime and it should not be done. On the other hand, in the modern world, Jews are exposed to the great danger of assimilation and switching to the language of environment is also impossible. There is an idea that Yiddish is a sacred language that has to be the language of everyday communication, and although it is not a direct language of worship, it is a language for preserving the Jew as the servant of God in his sacred space. Therefore, the cult of Yiddish is best preserved in some Hasidic communities.

Iryna Slavinska: Where?

Ihor Turov: The most vivid presentation is in the Williamsburg neighborhood in New York. Once you are there, you find yourself in some Yiddish republic, where Yiddish is heard on the streets, and the names of the shops are also in Yiddish. Yiddish language books are for sale. In America, there are a few other places where Yiddish culture is presented very clearly. Borough Park in New York has a very strong Yiddish culture. If we are talking about Israel, the Geula quarter in Jerusalem also has a big Yiddish language presence in the streets. However, the dominant language in most of the Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem now is Hebrew. But Yiddish is still strong in Geula and there are many Hasidim there.

Iryna Slavinska: You have been listening to the program “Encounters” that is dedicated to Ukrainian-Jewish relations. We spoke with Ihor Turov. As a reminder, I would like to say that Hromadske Radio produces this program with the support of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in:

Translated by: Olesya Kravchuk, journalist, interpreter

Additional translation and editing by Peter Bejger