Redefining the Traditional Vertep: An Issue in Ukrainian-Jewish Relations

Diana Klochko

The culturologist Diana Klochko talks about the tradition of the vertep, [a type of Ukrainian puppet theater re-enacting the Nativity—Trans.] and the contemporaneity of vertep characters that represent national minorities: Jews, Roma, Armenians, and others.

The Ukrainian vertep features a traditional character called the “Jew” (zhyd). Today this word is not used in the public space because it is regarded as politically incorrect. Who is this character and why does he appear in the vertep? Can one make do without him? 

Diana Klochko: I’ll begin by saying that this is not the only politically incorrect character in the vertep—everything in it is politically incorrect, inasmuch as this is the period of the late sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries; in other words, the concept of “nationality” as a political phenomenon does not exist yet. Ukrainian Christmas folklore is linked to a large group of representatives of different peoples. Among them we encounter the “Liakh” (Pole), the “Moskal” (Muscovite), and the “Lytvyn” (Lithuanian), that is, a Belarusian; we encounter a “Gypsy,” we encounter a “Jew.” This character is part and parcel of the lower-tier personages.

Iryna Slavinska: Do you mean that this is not some distinct, separate character but one that exists specifically within this “cluster”?

Diana Klochko: Yes. Moreover, it exists in the context of a fair. As you may recall, the vertep consists of two tiers. It is a unique, tiny building, a transportable puppet box. The mystery of the Nativity, Christmas, takes place in the upper tier. Everything connected with trade and everyday relations takes place in the lower tier.

Iryna Slavinska: Perhaps sociopolitical topics can also be included there. After all, a specific type of humor and a certain reaction to what alarms potential viewers, for example, fair visitors, are inherent in the vertep

Diana Klochko: Yes, this is a fair-based performance; a performance whose goal is to gather people at a fair and make money. Therefore, everything that takes place at a fair becomes part of the vertep. Student humor is also featured, and as such it is always a bit peppery. The characters in a vertep are distinctive, caricature-like.

Іryna Slavinska: The characters that appear in the lower tier of the vertep comprise a cluster of characters that represent national minorities, as they would be called in current parlance. Acting alongside them are characters that may be identified tentatively as “Ukrainians. “ Some themes probably emerge as a result of this contrast. Do the heroes who represent minorities share certain features? Who are they—foreigners, bad people, evil people?

Diana Klochko: They are those with whom there is contact as well as conflict. They are the carriers of various types of conflicts; those who generate conflicts. “Gypsy” characters are always associated with horses, with trade; they are horse thieves—now there’s a stereotype for you. And Jewish characters are tavern keepers. Furthermore, these two minorities are represented splendidly in western Ukrainian scenes of the Last Judgment. There, too, they were moved downwards, into Hell. It is precisely the conflictual, the most conflictual relations that were shifted there. But what is most interesting about the character of the “Jew” is that he had a clear-cut analog in the upper tier of the vertep. This is King Herod. There is a very powerful connection here: In sacred history there is a character who is the embodiment of all that is most despicable in government, because King Herod is a despicable ruler.

Іryna Slavinska: Despicable and cruel, as well. But the character of the “Jew” in the vertep does not possess any cruelty. According to the stereotype, this is someone with a thievish nature, someone who is crafty but not cruel. How, then, does this link work with King Herod? This parallelism is very interesting. I presume that some of our listeners have never even noticed this. This is a very grotesque fusion. So, let’s describe this pair a bit; let’s compare and develop this parallel.

Diana Klochko: Since they do not encounter each other in the plot of the vertep, there is no direct analogy here. No dialog ever takes place between them; they are situated in different parts of the world. The funniest thing about King Herod is that his head is always getting knocked off. This is generally a very baroque theme, because the lopping off or removal of heads is an utterly baroque reaction to war. As we know, King Herod launched a war against children, against his own people. The king appears without a head. This produced the most comical effect, in which the triumph of justice was perceived. There could be no such justice in the situation with the tavern-keeper hero. He was denigrated in accordance with the storyline. He could be beaten, pulled by the forelock, humiliated, insulted. This was a puppet for beating, which also embodied perceptions of justice.

Іryna Slavinska: Does something along the lines of fraternization, some kind of people-loving catharsis, ultimately take place?

Diana Klochko: No, the vertep is not something on which our perceptions of good and evil can be inscribed. This is truly a carnival spectacle, in which everything lies beyond the understanding of what is juridically and morally correct.

Iryna Slavinska: In European culture carnivals are connected with transgression, with a violation of that which cannot usually be done on normal days. If we look at the characters of these “different” minorities, the characters of bad heroes and good heroes in the vertep, what is transgressive about them? What rules are violated by the authors of vertep plays and those who perform them, when they don all these masks that are politically incorrect, as we would call them today?

Diana Klochko: They violate the rules of coexistence. One way or another, it was necessary to coexist in the real world. In one, there could be a synagogue and a Roman Catholic church and an Orthodox church. And everyone who lived nearby was supposed to respect other people’s holidays. But in the vertep it was possible not to respect them. In a vertep it was possible to do without mutual respect, without any interest in other people’s religious customs.

Іryna Slavinska: And this violation was supposed to elicit condemnation among viewers?

Diana Klochko: It elicited delight. People said to themselves: At least there’s some place where this is permitted, where you can say exactly what you think of your neighbor. Unfortunately, it is clear that embedded in these folk forms are more serious foundations of that which we permit ourselves even today.

Іryna Slavinska: A wild unbridled Ukrainian is revealed during the performance of a vertep. Is there any sense at all in approaching the Ukrainian vertep both as tradition and contemporary practice? After all, vertep plays continue to be written, new ones continue to be staged. Is there any point in approaching tradition and the practice of staging verteps from the perspective of political correctness? To what extent is the presence of characters called the “Jew,” the “Gypsy,” the “Liakh,” or the “Moskal” fundamentally important to the Ukrainian vertep?

Diana Klochko: Yes, this is probably the most important question. On the one hand, it is clear that no one will be rewriting the corpus of texts. It will be read and commented according to a particular time period.

But what should be done about what is happening right now, when a vertep can be brought wherever people want, not just to a fair, not just where people are shopping for the holidays? The point of the performance, which we can see—the donning of masks—is very important. In any case, the vertep is a masquerade. It is folk theater. Remember that Paradzhanov’s film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors begins with a vertep being carried, and everyone is wearing folk masks.

Іryna Slavinska: And alongside them, probably, is the public that reacts and can also change the course of the performance.

Diana Klochko: Yes. That is why there are things to which the public today would never react at all because the specific context is already completely fading from our understanding. For example, a contemporary fair is not connected at all with horses, and so on. Likewise, storylines from the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries about distilleries and taxes on hard liquor, and conversations about who derives the most profits from this—and why—are no longer topical. In our present situation, who laughs at producers of beer or vodka? It would never occur to anyone to think about whether they are preying on us or not. These characters are now sliding out of economic details. In this sense, I repeat: A whole range of various types that are marked, one way or another, by nationality—all this existed before the beginning of the 19th century. This was a time when nationality had no relation to statehood. This has changed now. And when we speak about a certain nationality, we translate it to a certain territory, to a certain state. That is why the vertep drama should change.

Іryna Slavinska: And how can all the above be interpreted in terms of the very practice of the vertep? Is the point here that it makes sense to transform new vertep texts into more politically correct ones?

Diana Klochko: Into texts with new realities; into texts that, of course, do not resemble any kvartaly [a reference to a low-brow comedy popular in Ukraine—Trans.] or other pre-New Year’s shows. How sacred history is tied to the grassroots history of representatives of various nationalities, among whom, it must be noted, women practically do not figure, is also a very interesting question, wouldn’t you say? The female character is positive, for the most part. The vertep itself is basically a world of male relationships, aggressive relationships.

Іryna Slavinska: Let’s take a look at the visual design. Earlier, we mentioned scenes from the Last Judgment in which a handful of traditional vertep characters is also present. This means that there is a certain leitmotif that appears in various expressions of traditional culture, especially in works that invoke the religious tradition. If one translates this visual code and examines both it and the question of how it might look in present-day circumstances, is its evolution perceptible? How does one deal with viewing ancient Ukrainian scenes of the Last Judgment?

Diana Klochko: It must be noted here that the vertep emerged from the mystery play, mystery theater, and the entirety of mystery theater, including paintings of the Passion of Jesus Christ and the Last Judgment, is organized along the lines of stigma, that is, small parts, intermedes. This is an analog of the serial, which consists of separate episodes, discrete, completed subplots. It seems to me that the problem is not with the grassroots part of the vertep but its upper part. How does one narrate the eternal drama of the birth of God? Herein lies the problem, because we are always forgetting about it, right?

Іryna Slavinska: But is there a need in contemporary culture to narrate the upper part?

Diana Klochko: Yes, because otherwise there will be no vertep, it will not work. If there is no upper part, it will be some other genre; there won’t be that tiny building, this universe will not exist.

Іryna Slavinska: Wrapping things up, I have a question that will probably help summarize everything that has already been said. Can one say that some kind of particular anti-Semitism is inherent in the traditions of the Ukrainian vertep?

Diana Klochko: Of course, because it was part of consciousness. There was also a lot of it in everyday Ukrainian life, and this was fed by unacceptability, negligence, or threat. There were very many situations that constantly spilled over into what is, one way or another, a very strong anti-Semitic motif in Christianity itself. And it exists in the vertep, too. As regards contemporary life, it is necessary to be careful with this, because we do not have a different nation, a different history, a different vertep play; that was what it was like. You have to understand that this is history, and it is not mandatory to drag this from tradition, from history, into the contemporary world.

This project was made possible by the support of the non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadkse Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk
Edited by Peter Bejger