“We’re on the map”: Miriam-Feyga Bunimovich talks about Ukrainian culture in Israel

Translator and culturologist Miriam-Feyga Bunimovich (Copyright: Photo supplied by Miriam-Feyga Bunimovich)

Is there a Ukrainian accent in the Hebrew language? Miriam-Feyga Bunimovich, a culturologist and translator from Ukraine who has lived in Israel for nearly eight years, talks about Ukrainian language and culture.

Iryna Slavinska:  Our guest today is Miriam-Feyga Bunimovich, a culturologist and translator from Ukraine, who has been living in Israel for nearly eight years. She is a graduate of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, where she majored in philology and culturology. She is a specialist in Judaica and Ukrainian-Jewish cultural relations. In Israel she launched a Ukrainian BookCrossing project, founded a virtual community for the study of Hebrew in Ukrainian, and is organizing a virtual project aimed at learning Ukrainian in Hebrew. Naturally, our conversation will revolve around philological subjects, so I will start the program with this question. Does a Ukrainian accent exist in the Hebrew language?

Miriam-Feyga Bunimovich:  Accent in Israel is a very noticeable thing because there are a lot of expats from various countries here, and as a rule you can accurately identify people who belong to the largest groups of expats. American…that is, the English speaker’s accent—I didn’t say “American” first by accident, because for some reason the American accent is more striking. The British accent, as a rule, is obliterated somehow. The French accent is very noticeable. You spot the Russian one right away. And since my second native language is Ukrainian and my speech apparatus is accustomed to pronouncing the “h” sound, I can cope with all those Hebrew “heis.” Incidentally, I have to mention that Ukrainian has many ways to convey the specific features of Hebrew, particularly “het.” However, in the field of Judaica this is not used for some reason, and it is transliterated according to Russian transcription, which simply does not have these tools. The word “Haskalah” is rendered either through the [Russian] letter “г” to produce “Gaskalah” (the Haskalah is the Jewish Enlightenment) or “Galakha” or “Khalakha,” instead of the necessary “Ha-.”

It is worth using all this. Ukrainian offers us the possibility to get closer to Hebrew, and that is precisely why many neighbors in the area and simply the people whom I encounter comment that I barely have an accent or none at all. And they are very surprised that a person who has been in the country only seven years can function on such a level, and even if I say that I began learning the language ten years ago, they say that this never happens. There was a curious incident, when a girl came up to me and began speaking to me in Portuguese. She thought that I spoke Hebrew with a Portuguese accent.

Iryna Slavinska:  Is there a standard Hebrew pronunciation? In view of the fact that so many people of diverse backgrounds live in Israel and Hebrew is spoken with various accents, as we just heard, what is considered correct pronunciation? What is considered the right sound? What is the model?

Miriam-Feyga Bunimovich:  This is a very interesting question. It was discussed very energetically a hundred years ago also. It was a specific decision. Just like a certain Ukrainian dialect was taken as the basis, just like the conference on the history of Yiddish, which took place in Chernivtsi at the beginning of the twentieth century, where you had to choose which of the Yiddish dialects would become the main one, it is the same in Hebrew, where there are a few accepted, traditional pronunciations that in fact have been preserved thanks to the reading of the Torah several times a week in the synagogue. There is the Ashkenazi pronunciation, the Sephardic, and the Yemeni. The main choice was between Ashkenazic and Sephardic; they are very different. For example, the letter “taw” without the dagesh, a diacritic, in Ashkenazic pronunciation sounds like “s,” for example: “Torasekho” (“your Torah”), but in Sephardic pronunciation it is “toratekha”; the “a” becomes “o,” and so on. The characteristic feature of Sephardic pronunciation is that so-called guttural consonants have this kind of special overtone that does not exist in Ashkenazic pronunciation. It truly was a decision; it was accepted, as far as I can rely on the historical data at my disposal, by Eliezer ben Yehuda, an enthusiast of the revival of the Hebrew language. He is called the father of the revived Hebrew language. Historically, this is not quite the case, inasmuch as he had unnamed, so to speak, predecessors, Hebrew teachers, who taught both in Israel and outside its borders. But in fact, his contribution to the revival of the Hebrew language is inestimable. He was the first person to switch to the Hebrew language for personal usage; the first person to raise his son by spontaneously inventing names for such things as doorknob, plate, etc., not to mention toys, catarrh, and so on. And he compiled the first dictionary of the Hebrew language. He was a fundamentally irreligious person, even though he had a religious education. He wanted to break with this obsolete world of the shtetl, and he preferred the Sephardic pronunciation because the Sephardi are Spain, it is North Africa, it is Rambam, one of the founders of Judaism in the twelfth century. It is an elite Jewish culture. He took the Sephardic pronunciation as the basis, with the direct “r,” that is, in Hebrew until the 1990s “raw,” “artzeinu” sounded very close to Russian and Ukrainian. And it is this literary pronunciation to which the first generation in Israel gravitated. It is still heard on television, on the radio, but over time, as far as I know, with the waves of repatriation from Poland of those bourgeois strata of the population who had arrived here and wanted to continue speaking Yiddish, and publish newspapers in Yiddish, and put on plays in Yiddish—this sophisticated structure of the Hebrew language on the conversational level began to delaminate somewhat and become enriched—or tainted, if you look at it from another angle—by elements from other languages, particularly Yiddish, and so-called conversational, mainstream Hebrew was born.

Iryna Slavinska:  Is there a difference between the Hebrew that is taught in schools, the literary language, and conversational Hebrew? And, on the whole, how can mastery of these two different languages help create one’s image in the eyes of other people?

Miriam-Feyga Bunimovich:  On an informal radio show you won’t speak literary Hebrew. You will talk about current topics in popular mainstream Hebrew. But a radio announcer can’t allow himself this. If it’s some kind of talk show, there are no variants here. A professor from a department…. Well, today things are also quite blurry. Normatively, if it’s an official conference, some kind of solemn speech, it will be a highly literary Hebrew with complex phrases; pronominal endings that are attached to nouns; special grammatical forms that are absent in conversational speech; for example, the feminine and masculine genders in “ty” [you/Thou] are different in Hebrew. There are also various forms of the plural for the masculine and feminine genders, which do not exist in Ukrainian. And this is not used in conversational Hebrew, but those who ally themselves with high culture, they try to uphold these rules even in conversational speech. It depends on what kind of image you want to create in your surroundings. If you want to be cool in certain situations, you don’t need to speak literary Hebrew. If you speak literary Hebrew, you will look like a freak, who has wormed his way into the wrong place. Nevertheless, in my experience, people have a certain vocabulary that is common to everyone. I can’t say that something apart from accent distinguishes them. In principle, one expat is like another, regardless of where he has come from. As for borrowings in modern Hebrew, he uses various English words gladly, and in certain milieus this is even fashionable; entire, fixed expressions, like “politically correct”—that’s how it’s said in Hebrew.

Iryna Slavinska:  Continuing this topic, Miriam-Feyga Bunimovich shared her experience of studying at an ulpan, a language school [for the intensive study of Hebrew].

Miriam-Feyga Bunimovich:  In Israel there is an institution that all expats go through, the ulpan. Tuition-free Hebrew courses that last an entire year; you attend five days a week, for four to six hours a day, during the better part of which you converse. There are a few unique individuals, like, for example, my friend from Moscow, who learned Hebrew by herself; she repatriated several months ago; she’s an art teacher. She was simply bored at the ulpan, none of the most advanced groups suited her, and she goes there once in a while. Well, in advance groups they read newspapers. For example, I had an outstanding teacher, who loved to discuss current events. Not everyone liked discussing specific political things. But once you are hooked, you truly begin to express yourself. A Russian-speaking professor with whom I had occasion to meet at the university also noted this: that when the need arises for you to put somebody in his place or simply to articulate your attitude to a situation expressively, suddenly everything is activated, and a breakthrough occurs in you.

Iryna Slavinska:  We are continuing to discuss the topic of studying at a language school. Of course, I would like to ask, how the students of different ages and different backgrounds get along? Do students need to have a shared language for learning Hebrew? Maybe it’s simpler to master a new language if there is a possibility of relying on a shared linguistic basis. 

Miriam-Feyga Bunimovich:  I was in a very mixed group. In principle, if I were to build some kind of joint study process, I would try not to combine in a single group people with one common language because they will simply be chattering in their shared language, аnd not listening to the lecturer. And interest in being in such a mixed group is anthropologically incredibly huge. People are constantly recounting something from their life, [saying] in our language it’s this way, and in ours it is this way, and this is very enriching.

Iryna Slavinska:  We are continuing our conversation about studying at a language school. We are talking about whether one can learn not just Hebrew at an ulpan but also how to be an Israeli. Miriam-Feyga Bunimovich shares her experience and personal observations.

Miriam-Feyga Bunimovich:  Well, first of all, the ulpan teaches one how to be an Israeli woman, as I have already said. Perhaps this was felt particularly in my group, thanks to the female lecturer, who, among other things, attends literary events at the President’s House. In other words, she had a mission, besides boosting our language skills, to tell us as much as possible about Israeli culture, even things that we should know about some political figures. As far as I know, there is a tendency among English-speaking expats to find a place for themselves in their English-speaking niche, and they continue to live as though they are in the world that they left and which they bring here. They have this Anglo-Saxon culture. Among Russian-speaking expats who live en masse in large cities, there are entire districts that speak Russian, and there are grocery stores with Russian signs there. There are people who simply do not even experience the need to express themselves in Hebrew, except at the bank or the post office, if they are not lucky enough to find a Russian-speaking employee sitting there. A lot depends on whether you arrived at a young age and managed to study in school here and serve in the army, or whether you arrived as a specialist who works in a very narrow field and communicates only within the framework of the specialty, or whether you got married here or arrived already with a family; which language your children speak. This is also absolutely not clear-cut because there are families that decide that they want to proceed along the Zionist path and not speak other languages at home besides Hebrew. My Hebrew teacher and rabbi in one of Jerusalem’s religious colleges does this. He is from Donetsk, his wife is from Zaporizhzhia, the children speak Hebrew exclusively. And at a certain stage they realized that the only problem that they have encountered is that their children cannot speak with their grandfather, who is also from Zaporizhzhia. And then they began to show them Russian-language films, so that the children would at least understand what their grandfather wants from them; so that there would be some kind of feedback. There are other examples, where people send their children to native Russian-language courses (my niece is one example), and they develop a person’s ability to make full use of their cultural heritage, too, and simply to enrich themselves with another language, another culture.

Iryna Slavinska:  We have started talking about the mutual penetration and interaction among various cultures. Naturally, the following question arises: Is there a place for the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian literature in today’s Israel? Miriam-Feyga Bunimovich says that at one time she explored this topic. She has noted an increase in interest in Ukrainian culture in recent years, and cites examples of the study and presence in Israel of other cultures, for example, Lithuanian, Dutch, or Russian.

Miriam-Feyga Bunimovich:  At one time, I completed a pioneering exploration of Ukrainian literature in Israel. I found four people who write in Ukrainian. Only one of them has a professional education in this field, and he translates a lot, incidentally, from Hebrew into Ukrainian and from Russian—for example, he translates [Sergei] Yesenin very nicely; his name is Yohanan Potemkin. And with this my hopes for finding something more significant in Ukrainian were exhausted. But in recent years we have seen that changes are taking place, although, sad to say, this is due to the crisis that Ukraine is experiencing. Interest is growing in the Ukrainian language, Ukrainian cultural figures are being invited, there is a need to read Ukrainian books. All this has begun to move in a certain direction. And individuals like me are interested in people communicating with each other in Ukrainian; at least they have some place to go, besides running into each other somewhere in a café once every three months and chatting. Therefore, I can say that some kind of subculture, a kind of subethnic culture is being created in front of our very eyes. And this cannot fail to gratify me. On the other hand, I am constantly asking myself whether I will teach my children Ukrainian.

Iryna Slavinska:  Why do you have doubts?

Miriam-Feyga Bunimovich:  Because there is no natural environment. Let’s say I live in Shiloh. This is the historical first capital of Israel, right now it’s a settlement where 350 families, or approximately 3,000 people, live; this figure is constantly rising. We have six Dutch families that speak the Dutch language, and for me this is an outstanding example of a very small minority that is preserving the language. In their homes I even see books on Jewish topics in Dutch. And the girl, who is growing right before my eyes—when I arrived, she was five, right now she’s twelve—I photographed her bat-mitzvah [a traditional, Jewish coming-of-age ritual]—speaks pure Dutch, and this inspires me. On the other hand, I am even more inspired by the example of my neighbor, who comes from Kaliningrad oblast; his native languages are Lithuanian, Russian, and Polish, but he is most fluent in Hebrew. He came to Israel when he was fourteen, his four children know the Lithuanian anthem and various other things, in addition to Russian, of course. Because he does this. In other words, in front of me he asks them: “What is this or that called in Lithuanian?” They smile and reply. It would seem: What is the goal, apart from the fact that they have the capability to express themselves in that language when he takes them on some private trips to Lithuania?

Iryna Slavinska:  We are continuing to talk about the movement from Ukraine to Israel, and what such a move resembles. From one’s own experience, can one arrive at some conclusions about the main lessons of such a move? Miriam-Feyga Bunimovich says that she managed to maintain contact with Ukraine and the Ukrainian language, living in Israel and associating, for example, with other translators and people who are interested in Ukrainian culture.

Miriam-Feyga Bunimovich:  I remember the interview with Linor Goralik, who used the expression that, when she moved from Dnipropetrovsk [now named Dnipro, Ed.] with her family and their passports were taken away from them, her family seemed to die overseas, die in Israel. I experienced something like that, coming from Ukraine and for the first little while not having an opportunity to speak a word in Ukrainian with anyone. And that’s why I set up my gmail address in Ukrainian and Facebook, so that somewhere at least it will be in constant use. And when my Kyiv-Mohyla girlfriends, Ukrainian women who study Judaica began coming here, I was so excited. Would I be able to maintain a lively conversation? I had this kind of feeling during the first years in Israel, but right now everything is different; it’s absolutely the opposite. Thanks to increasing interest in Ukrainian things among people that you would never think of, those natives of Ukraine who live in large cities, volunteers, Israeli Friends of Ukraine, and everything that is all around, people who themselves do not speak Ukrainian, but whose lively interest is simply pulsating. In addition, I have found people like Anna Khromova-Fleitman, a literary figure, a poet with whom I cross paths only at these events, but there is a feeling that we exist—the Israeli expression is “we’re on the map.” So, we are, we exist, and this is not just my feeling. This is extraordinarily inspiring. In addition, everything Ukrainian that is taking place this year at the literary festival in Jerusalem: five literary events attended by both professors and writers. We are! And there is this interaction, it is not simply a case of bringing something exotic, Ukrainian here; it’s not just living by things Ukrainian which continues to live in our country. It is interaction; Israeli writers, poets, Yonatan Berg, whose father is from Odesa, who has already attended a literary festival in Ukraine; has interviewed Kateryna Babkina about Ukrainian literature and its differences from Russian: the fact that this conversation is taking place, and it was recorded and it is taking place in English, and any person who has at least a passing interest can hear this, and Babkina explained all this wonderfully. I am involved in this mission. I am glad that this has been broadcast, that someone did this; in other words, everything is heading somewhere, there is interaction, there is friendship, there is joint creativity. Life is bubbling over.

Iryna Slavinska: And Ukrainian life in Israel is truly bubbling over. An good example of this is the 2017 Jerusalem Book Fair, where we had this conversation with the culturologist and translator Miriam-Feyga Bunimovich.

This program was made possible by the Canadian non-profit organization 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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