Tales from the Hutsul region, the meeting place of Oleksa Dovbush and Ba`al Shem Tov

Our featured guest today is Boris Czerny, who teaches Russian language and culture at the University of Caen Normandy in France.

On today’s edition of Encounters, we have an opportunity to get to know a fascinating researcher and his work. We met Professor Czerny at the Paris Book Fair, an important international literary exhibition. At the Ukrainian national stand in the Literary Salon, I heard his presentation pegged to the launch of his book Contes et récits juifs et ukrainiens du pays houtsoule [Jewish and Ukrainian Tales and Stories of the Hutsul Region], which was published in 2018 by éditions PETRA. This book is devoted to Hutsul folklore and the two heroes of the tales from this region: Oleksa Dovbush and Ba`al Shem Tov. An interesting parallelism, wouldn’t you say? After the book launch, I talked with Boris Czerny on Skype. My first question was about the origins of his interest in the Hutsul region. This is his reply.

Boris Czerny: My name is Boris Czerny, and I have Ukrainian and Jewish roots. The Hutsul region as a territory piqued my interest as a researcher because this was where I discovered folk tales and stories that have both Ukrainian and Jewish characters. My interest is determined by this kind of duality in culture.

Iryna Slavinska:  How did you find out about the Hutsul region? Was it talked about in your family?

Boris Czerny:  First of all, I had a photograph of my grandmother, in which she is posing dressed in folk costume. I remember this clothing as well as the beads around her neck. It was a Hutsul costume. That’s how everything started. Eventually, I went there myself, heading for the Carpathian Mountains. I had a personal connection to this land, so I approached it in a personal way: I walked, I looked around. And, of course, I read a lot of books.

Iryna Slavinska:  Tell me about your first trip to the Hutsul region.

Boris Czerny:  My first trip was to Kolomyia. I walked around a bit on my own, and then I was invited to a well-attended local festivity: a wedding. From what I recall, I can name the statue of Dovbush. When I saw it, I became interested, for the first time, in this folk-tale character.

Speaking more generally about the Hutsul region, I also became familiar with the Hungarian and Romanian aspects. I had been interested in this region for a long time…

Iryna Slavinska:  When were you there the first time?

Boris Czerny:  I was still very young. I was born in 1961; the first time that I went to the Hutsul region was in 1973 or 1974. Of course, my journey took me through Kyiv.

Iryna Slavinska:  Was it easy to get access? I mean all those formalities connected with obtaining a visa, etc.

Boris Czerny:  It was not easy at all. But I was lucky. As the winner of a Russian language Olympiad, I won a prize. One of the prizes was a trip to Ukraine, which was supposed to include Kyiv, Odesa, Yalta, Lviv, and Kolomyia. The fact that I had won such a prize allowed me to go to Ukraine in a simpler way.

The second reason was that the Soviet government was trying to encourage the children of émigrés to return to the USSR.

Iryna Slavinska:  There seems to be a lot of irony in the fact that winning an international competition entailed a trip to those regions of Ukraine where Ukrainian was spoken first and foremost, not Russian…

Boris Czerny:  Yes, yes. It was a real hoot. During the trip I met children, my peers, who spoke Russian quite poorly; they practically didn’t speak it. During this period, I seized upon everything that I could, including a visit to a model Pioneer camp in the Crimea. Everything was amazing to little me; it was simultaneously strange and enchanting to discover this for myself.

At the time I was very surprised that during my visit to the Hutsul region I encountered quite a few men who resembled my father. They spoke the same language, with the same accent as my father. And this was delightful to my ears.

Iryna Slavinska:  Are you saying that you discovered the tales from the Hutsul region during this specific trip?

Boris Czerny:  Of course not. That happened later. I discovered those tales later, when I met a Ukrainian–Jewish ethnologist and ethnographer living in Israel, where he was working on Ukrainian and Jewish folklore—in the broadest sense of this word. He was not researching some specific region; he wasn’t researching the Carpathians. He was interested in all of Ukraine. That is when I discovered the existence of Hutsul tales, both Ukrainian and Jewish.

Iryna Slavinska:  You read those tales? Did they belong to the oral tradition, oral folklore?

Boris Czerny:  I read those texts. Their provenance is diverse. Among them were ethnographic stories collected by Ukrainian folklorists, like Volodymyr Hnatiuk. There were also tales written by Jewish writers from Galicia or the Hutsul region. There are also several transcripts collected by ethnographers from Israel, who noted down folklore from Ukrainian Jews who had moved to Israel in the 1970s.

Iryna Slavinska:  What was your first impression of these texts? What was so moving about them that you began to do scholarly research on them?

Boris Czerny:  You know, a scholar always seems to be on a quest. I also think that people set about writing the kinds of books that they themselves would like to read. In research there is always a personal dimension—both in the reasons behind the research and in its object.

I personally was interested in dual culture, the duality of culture. When I was in Ukraine, I felt at home there, like in a space that is familiar to me. That is precisely why in Hutsul tales I searched for texts that contain Jewish characters from the Carpathians and the Hutsul region. I was searching for a dual plan of representation and duality of the represented cultures.

The goal, the object of my research, was the desire to show that connections and a shared cultural space existed.

Iryna Slavinska:  That’s entirely natural. Ukrainians and Jews lived alongside each other, like neighbors in a village.

Boris Czerny:  Yes, they lived together in villages; they lived next to each other; they had a lot of things in common. At the very least, they encountered each other at bazaars or the marketplace. They also met on holidays, both Jewish and Christian ones.

One often hears words about the antagonism between Jews and Ukrainians, about anti-Semitism…. Naturally, I am not saying that this never existed. But for me as a researcher, it was important to show a different history: a history of relationships, relations, closeness, good neighborliness between peoples, the intersection between these cultures. This was the object of my research.

It was not just blood, killings, extermination, ruination that existed.

Iryna Slavinska:  For our listeners who are less familiar with Hutsul folklore, let’s present some of the stories that might be called the most typical of the region. I am talking about the tales that you researched. Let’s introduce some heroes. Who are they?

Boris Czerny: So, in the stories and tales that were collected by Ukrainian ethnographers and ethnologists, we have Dovbush, first and foremost. Let’s put it this way. Dovbush was a great, famous brigand of the [eighteenth] century, who was imprisoned by the Poles and executed. There are also Jewish characters in these tales, for example, owners of taverns and overnight lodgings, bankers, usurers, butchers, and others.

Present above all in Jewish stories and tales is the figure of Ba`al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, which emerged in the [eighteenth century]. Ukrainian heroes, including Dovbush, are also encountered in stories about Ba`al Shem Tov. Yes, they encounter each other in stories, although in real life it is unlikely that they ever met.

Both one and the other are symbolic characters for the identity of Hutsuls, Ukrainians, and Jews. They strike me as very telling, significant, symbolic. I think that in no other folklore in the world can you find stories depicting the encounter of two national heroes from two different cultures of two different peoples. The folklore of the Carpathian Mountains is very special.

Iryna Slavinska:  In other words, people who could, say, read stories about Dovbush would have to have known stories about Ba`al Shem Tov, am I right?

Boris Czerny: Not necessarily, no. The people from whom stories about Oleksa Dovbush were recorded recounted tales and stories about how Oleksa Dovbush went to a tavern, where he met, say, a Jewish butcher. In other words, in stories about Dobvush, Jews appear as a nation, as a people who live in villages. Meanwhile, in Jewish stories in which Ba`al Shem Tov figures, the subject of his encounter with Oleksa Dovbush is regularly featured.

It turns out that Ukrainian folklore had a more democratic character, as ordinary folk there meet the hero. In Jewish folklore, it turns out, there are more elitist notes. You sense an encounter taking place between two heroes, two leaders.

Iryna Slavinska:  What would a comparison of the heroes reveal?

Boris Czerny: So, let’s begin with Oleksa Dovbush. He represents a kind of “magnificent savage,” in the sense in which Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote about this. He is proud, valiant, and strong. Everything about this image speaks about strength and resistance to the Polish aggressor, resistance to the landlords. As a character, Oleksa Dovbush also represents justice as well as physical strength.

The character of Ba`al Shem Tov is the embodiment of the spiritual dimension. This is no surprise, inasmuch as he is the founder of Hasidism. He is a reflection, a special philosophy of life, religiosity…. At the same time, he is not weak, he is not physically weak.

If we were to generalize, then we might that Oleksa Dovbush is the archetypal embodiment of machismo, while Ba`al Shem Tov appears to be his complement; a female archetype. Both of them balance each other; neither can exist without the other.

Iryna Slavinska:  I remind our listeners that today we are speaking with Boris Czerny, professor of Russian language and literature at the University of Caen Normandy, in France, who is discussing his book Jewish and Ukrainian Tales and Stories of the Hutsul Region. His book focuses on the folklore of the Hutsul region and the two heroes who appear in stories from this region: Oleksa Dovbush and Ba`al Shem Tov. So, in the earlier part of our conversation, we briefly discussed the characteristics of Oleksa Dovbush and Ba`al Shem Tov. Next, we will be discussing their encounter in Jewish stories of the Hutsul region. What kinds of adventures do these two experience? What happens to them?

Boris Czerny:  If we are talking about the two… If we are talking about Jewish stories in which Ba`al Shem Tov and Oleksa Dovbush meet, these are very different types of stories. For example, they may be about Dovbush encountering Ba`al Shem Tov in some kind of situation, for example, on the Sabbath, when you can’t do much of anything. And he tries somehow to exploit the situation, for example, to lay his hands on the Sabbath wine. But he is stopped by an invisible, magical force. In other stories, the hero’s charm acts in place of his strength; his beautiful songs, his healing medical skills.

There are also stories in which Ba`al Shem Tov tries to acquaint Dovbush, who expresses physical strength, with another dimension of life, a more spiritual one; for example, to experience union with nature, to renounce enrichment as the main goal of life. In such stories, they are like teacher and pupil.

Iryna Slavinska:  And what about Oleksa Dovbush?

Boris Czerny:  In the Jewish stories, Oleksa Dovbush acts as a force of resistance, which is based on his own physical powers. But gradually this strength recedes, finding an ally for itself in the person of Ba`al Shem Tov. For example, there is a tale in which the two of them are digging a tunnel beneath the Carpathian Mountains; this tunnel is supposed to lead straight to Jerusalem. And at a certain moment an invisible, magical force stops them, in order to tell Dovbush that he cannot end up in Jerusalem because there is no place for him there yet. It is not the right time for Ba`al Shem Tov to be there. This particular artistic image itself is fascinating. Both of them are sitting inside a mountain; both of them are digging one route in one direction. Of course, one complements the other.

Iryna Slavinska:  Does this image of Oleksa Dovbush differ markedly from the one that appears in Ukrainian stories?

Boris Czerny: In the Ukrainian stories he is the embodiment of strength, revenge, of the oppressed peasant. He is supposed to correct mistakes that have been made. He is cruel. I think that in the Ukrainian stories he is even crueler than he is in the Jewish ones. For example, sometimes he cuts off heads, rips stomachs open—all this violence is against Polish as well as Ukrainian lords.

This cruelty is not present in the Jewish stories. They also have a more nostalgic ring to them; sadness, an idyllic view of the world. This you will not find in the Ukrainian stories.

Iryna Slavinska:  How do these stories help us understand the history between Ukrainians and Jews in the Hutsul region?

Boris Czerny:  The most important point is that these two peoples coexisted. Yes, this sounds self-evident, but people often forget this. They don’t know. They don’t dare to know. For confirmation, you can listen to music, become acquainted with the folklore. Also very telling is food, especially certain dishes. All this can demonstrate that there were relations, connections between Ukrainians and Jews, and a cultural exchange also took place.

All this helps us understand that Ukraine was part of the “bloodlands,” as the American historian Timothy Snyder calls it in his works. People here suffered during the entire twentieth century, but they also had relations with each other, they had occasion to meet. If one draws just this one conclusion, that is already saying a lot.

Iryna Slavinska:  Is there anti-Semitism in these stories? There is a stereotype of Ukrainian anti-Semitism. It would be interesting to know whether this stereotype is present in the tales and stories.

Boris Czerny: I can’t answer this question. I am a Jew. Anti-Semitism is not my problem, because this is a problem for anti-Semites. I don’t know how this can be illustrated for greater understanding. It’s like asking, “Why don’t you like me?”

Anti-Semitism is definitely not my problem, but a problem for those who feel a special hatred toward someone only because that person is Jewish. It’s the same thing as asking Ukrainians why the Russians don’t like you. Ukrainians cannot explain these reasons. There is no answer to this. There is no logic to this dislike. It is pointless to look for it where you will not find it.

Iryna Slavinska:  Is hatred present in these tales? Can one discover other emotions there, like love, understanding, cooperation?

Boris Czerny:  In the Ukrainian tales there is no hatred. There is a lot of honor in them, and pride, revenge, the quest for justice, which is lacking. For example, if a shepherd is robbed of a cow or a sheep, it is necessary to restore justice. Nor is there miserliness or greed in these tales. On the contrary, there is a lot of generosity. In the tales, Dovbush gives away everything that he owns.

In Jewish tales with a Ukrainian presence, one divines closeness, contact, the process of coming closer, rapprochement with the Other—the Ukrainian. I say this not without nostalgia; after all, Jewish-Ukrainian tales were mostly written by Jewish-Ukrainian writers at a time when they were no longer living in Ukraine. They wrote them in Israel, the U.S., or in other countries that were far from their homeland.

Iryna Slavinska:  You mean that there is nostalgia in these texts?

Boris Czerny:  Precisely. It is nostalgia for a lost paradise. I can’t recall his name, but there was a Jewish writer from Galicia who wrote a lot about the Carpathians. He wrote in Hebrew about those areas, and his texts were filled with nostalgia. He died not too long ago.

Iryna Slavinska: What does this lost paradise resemble?

Boris Czerny:  The lost paradise is first and foremost the landscape: the forests, the streams, the mountains…. It is also the feeling of great intimacy among the various nationalities. I tell you, this is what fed my nostalgia.

Iryna Slavinska:  Let’s continue talking about your research. Was it easy to do it in France? Is this research subject interesting to academic circles?

Boris Czerny:  In academic circles, my research has been given a rather lukewarm reception. But in Ukrainian and Jewish circles my work has been received enthusiastically, both in Ukraine and in France.

I did research in the archives of Kyiv and Lviv, as well as in Israel. There I discovered and translated into French texts that were written in Ukrainian and Russian as well as in Hebrew and Yiddish.

You know, my publisher says that the book is selling well. I don’t have exact figures, but I am told that they are not bad at all. I wrote this book for myself, knowing that the reader will appreciate things that are done out of love.

Iryna Slavinska:  But do French readers appreciate your book? Perhaps they like the tales, or they have discovered an important opportunity to establish contact between Ukrainians and Jews?

Boris Czerny:  No, I haven’t heard anything about this at all. But I have received feedback from Ukrainian readers as well as from readers of Jewish background or Jewish-Ukrainian background. But not from French readers, no.

Iryna Slavinska:  Has this book been translated into Ukrainian or Hebrew?

Boris Czerny:  No, the book came out only in French.

Iryna Slavinska:  So, how were your readers in Ukraine and other countries able to discover this book for themselves?

Boris Czerny: They read it in French—in France, in Belgium. During the Paris Book Fair, a lady from Canada bought quite a few copies to show them in Canada. I don’t know. Maybe an English translation will come out there one day.

Iryna Slavinska:  Another question about language. When you were working on this book, was it easy for you to read the Ukrainian language?

Boris Czerny:  When these were texts in Ukrainian—classical, academic language—it was not difficult. I can’t say that I speak Ukrainian well, but I have enough knowledge in order to read and understand it by ear. But the Hutsul dialect is another thing. Here I was helped by some excellent dictionaries. Furthermore, at the end of books containing those tales, for example, in the book issued by the Lviv Archaeological Institute, there are glossaries featuring words in the Hutsul dialect and in literary Ukrainian. For the translations and my own comprehension, I used these sources. But here and there it was utterly difficult. One particularly complex aspect was that when I was translating, I tried to preserve the rhythm of the original texts, especially the versified ones. I wanted the translated rhymes to be as similar as possible to the original.

When I was translating from the Ukrainian and the Hutsul dialect, I seemed to hear the voices of my parents, especially my father’s. Little bubbles containing familiar words seemed to pop into my head; they would pop up then burst, just like champagne bubbles. This was a very pleasant experience for me.

The stories about Ba`al Shem Tov are written in Hebrew. My mother spoke Yiddish, so this was also a way to hear my mother’s voice and very pleasant as well.

Iryna Slavinska:  Can one view this as a unique journey to the land of childhood or family memories?

Boris Czerny:  That’s exactly what it was. I lost my father and mother a long time ago, so this work was like an opportunity to hear them once again.… And to recall the taste of varenyky, deruny [potato pancakes], little homemade pickles, and mushrooms; an opportunity to discover culinary satisfaction, not just to savor language. It was a chance to prolong my pleasant feelings.

Boris Czerny’s answers were translated from the Russian by Iryna Slavinska and voiced in Ukrainian by Andriy Kulikov.

This program is created with the support of the Canadian philanthropic fund Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

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