What is Judaica, or how do “open universities” combine history, languages, and religion?

We are speaking with the president of the Ukrainian Association for Jewish Studies about the multidisciplinary research being done at young Ukrainian universities.

Andriy Kobalia:  In Ukraine today Jewish Studies, that is, Judaica, are offered at only three universities. Every year up to ten M.A. students graduate in this field from the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy (NaUKMA). At the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) in Lviv, this program is headed by the distinguished historian Yaroslav Hrytsak. Local experts focus more often on the history of Galician Jews, and they collaborate with the Jagiellonian University in Poland and with Israeli centers. But at the National University of Ostroh Academy there is a possibility to study the Aramaic language. Vitaliy Chernoivanenko, the president of the Ukrainian Association for Jewish Studies and co-director of the Master’s program in Jewish Studies in the History Department at Kyiv Mohyla Academy, explains why Jewish Studies appeared in these three educational establishments. 

Vitaliy Chernoivanenko:  It is difficult for Jewish Studies to fit into the traditional, in fact post-Soviet, idea of professional training. “Philology,” “History,” “Philosophy,” and “Religious Studies” exist separately in Ukraine. Programs that are established must exist within the framework of a chosen specialty. That is why interdisciplinary studies in Ukraine function very poorly. But there is no other way for Jewish Studies. Otherwise, you would have to create separate Jewish Studies programs within the specialties of “Philosophy,” “History,” etc.

Both at Kyiv Mohyla Academy and the Ukrainian Catholic University these programs exist formally within the framework of the “History” specialty, although in fact they are not purely historical. And these programs are practically the first of their kind in Ukraine. This is an illustration of the fact that it is not necessary to focus on a single specialty. What does this give students? For one thing, a maximum expansion of the horizon. Students learn languages as well as culture. Without language, it is simply impossible to work on these topics. The historian works with sources. In order to work with Jewish sources, you must know languages. That is why Hebrew and Yiddish are studied in both Kyiv and Lviv.

Andriy Kobalia:  Is it a coincidence that Jewish Studies exist at these three “new” universities? 

Vitaliy Chernoivanenko:  These programs appeared where universities are open; open to learning something new, to changes; at institutions that are able to introduce such programs into their curriculum. These universities are open to dialogue. Why does Ukraine need Jewish Studies? One of the reasons is that an active Ukrainian-Jewish dialogue is taking place today. Despite all the stereotypes and mutual recriminations that spread throughout the Jewish and Ukrainian communities over a long period of time, today, fortunately, we are observing an exchange of thoughts. And the study of Judaica is an important component of it. The UCU, NaUKMA, and Ostroh Academy realize the importance of this dialogue. The people in these higher educational establishments were more interested in such programs.

You are correct in saying that these three universities are new, they do not have the experience of Soviet times. They do not tolerate corruption, and they are oriented toward the finer international academic traditions. They are seeking to collaborate with universities in other countries.

Andriy Kobalia:  I think that “Judaica” is not just the name of a curriculum but a specific circle of lecturers and students. And movements or intellectual centers in Ukraine are often isolated. Do these programs try somehow to popularize Jewish history? 

Vitaliy Chernoivanenko:  As regards Kyiv Mohyla Academy, this is a specific concept of the maximum expansion of knowledge about Jewish culture, history, and religion within broad circles of Ukraine. That is why our program regularly invites leading foreign lecturers. We have up to ten such lecturers a year from Israel, Canada, and the U.S. Unfortunately, there are few programs in Ukraine that, apart from local experts, invite guest lecturers.

All our public outreach efforts (lectures, discussions, etc.) are open. We write constantly about this on the website of the Ukrainian Association for Jewish Studies and on Facebook, we do regular mail-outs. It is important for people to know that such events are taking place. Someone can open the door and become more closely acquainted with this.

In 2012 the program was created at NaUKMA, and the first students graduated in 2014. As of today, there have been four rounds of students who have graduated. Some of them are very successful. Our graduate, Mariana Motrunych, won a prestigious international journalism award for which nearly three hundred people competed. Maria Berlinska, whom a lot of people in Ukraine know as the coordinator of an aerial reconnaissance project in eastern Ukraine, also completed our program. Maria was included in the Kyiv Post list of the thirty most influential Ukrainians under the age of thirty.

Andriy Kobalia:  Ukraine’s Jewish history begins in the Middle Ages. In the prewar urban space there were many carriers of Yiddish, and synagogues often stood right next to churches. This world was destroyed by totalitarian regimes and the wars of the twentieth century. Today it is very difficult to spot the traces of those times in Ukraine. Vitaliy Chernoivanenko talked about the multiethnicity of Ukrainian history, memorialization, the development of the Yiddish language, and other topics. 

Vitaliy Chernoivanenko:  No matter what period you study, you inevitably encounter Jewish history. How does one work with this topic? Does one simply ignore it? Fortunately, right now most historians understand that Ukrainian history is not monoethnic. It is necessary to encompass all accessible sources. These historians consult us frequently.

In Soviet times there was a lengthy interruption in the development of Jewish Studies. Judaica was actively studied only in the 1920s. Subsequently in the Ukrainian SSR neither Jewish Studies or Eastern Studies in general existed. And what International Solomon University did—unfortunately it was unable to last long—what NaUKMA, UCU, and Ostroh Academy are doing is just the start of the journey.

Andriy Kobalia:  Incidentally, about the neglect of Jewish history. In Ukraine there are few monuments attesting to the presence of Jews. There are also few memorials devoted specifically to the Holocaust. If you look for execution sites on the Internet and then drive through central and western Ukraine, you can see that these sites often feature inscriptions about “Soviet citizens,” or “Soviet soldiers” who were executed. In Berdychiv, where executions of Jews took place, it is written that “residents of Berdychiv” died there. Yes, people of various ethnic groups did perish there. There were also soldiers, but for the most part it was Jews. And Jews were not shot because they were Soviet citizens. Often, the Ministry of Culture or local communities are insufficiently active in memorializing these sites. Have there been attempts by the scholarly associates of these programs to influence this somehow? 

Vitaliy Chernoivanenko:  We have very many plans for non-academic fields as well. In the meantime, there are not too many experts. But we will get to this question, too. Along with what you said, the discussion about Ukrainian textbooks has not ended. How to write the history of Ukraine? Is it necessary to include the history of other ethnic communities? I am not an expert on the Holocaust, but I know that changes are taking place very slowly. This is a gradual process. In time, it will be marked on all sites: who died, how many, and, what is no less important, at whose hands. And right away the question of Ukrainian collaboration arises. This is a very difficult question that must be discussed. But I know concrete places where there are new plaques already, including at sites where there were none earlier.

Our colleague, Volodymyr Muzychenko, a local Jewish community leader, works in Volodymyr-Volynsky, although the community practically does not exist. There is only a handful of people, but they are very active. This is an example of “one man is a warrior on the battlefield.” With some help in this Volynian city, once a very Jewish one, where the Jewish population suffered greatly during the Holocaust, this colleague has managed to erect an information board. It stands in the village of Piatydni, where Jews from the city and the raion were shot. Nearly 25,000 people were killed there. A monument to the victims of the Holocaust has been erected in the city itself. Mr. Muzychenko wrote and published a book about the Jews of this city. The book first came out in Ukrainian, then people in the U.S. became interested in it. It was translated and published there by Academic Studies Press. Last year he went to launch the book. He was invited by Harvard University. I must emphasize that this is a person who does not belong to the narrow academic world. And his book is not a purely academic work. In Ukraine it would be called a “regional history.” But how many Ukrainian colleagues have had books published in the English language in America? And who among them was invited to present them at Harvard? The question is practically rhetorical.

Andriy Kobalia:  You mentioned that the students in the Judaica program study the Jewish languages. Many carriers of Yiddish perished during the Holocaust. In our time Israel is supporting Hebrew. Is Yiddish culture, as well as Jewish culture, developing in Ukraine, and is this fostering the study of Judaica? 

Vitaliy Chernoivanenko:  The State of Israel supports Hebrew because this is the official language of the State of Israel. During the Soviet period, by the way, this language was stigmatized in every possible way because it was associated with the State of Israel and with Zionists. It was practically impossible to study it, unless clandestinely.

As for Yiddish, some people survived the Holocaust; many people were evacuated during the war. One can encounter carriers of the Yiddish language in various countries. There are many of them in the US. There is even a center in South Africa. As regards Ukraine, in recent times we are noticing a renaissance. It is connected with a few individuals who had their students, and they in turn began to teach. Yiddish is taught at the NaUKMA and UCU. We allow all those who are interested to come. There are not very many of them, but they exist! When I was studying, there was no such possibility.

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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