Jews in Ukrainian Literature: Representation and Identity

Article excerpt

Myroslav Shkandrij. Jews in Ukrainian Literature: Representation and Identity. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009. xiv, 265 pp. Bibliography. Index. $55.00, paper.

Ukraine is a country of intersections. The borders that have, since 1991, defined independent Ukraine coincide with the historical homelands of Ukrainians, Russians, Poles, Jews, Germans, Turks, Rumanians, Romani and Ruthenians. So one of the unique challenges facing scholars of Ukrainian literature is whether to emphasize those aspects of Ukrainian literature that are utterly distinct from its cohabitant literary cultures or those that reflect Ukraine as a fertile land of intersections. Myroslav Shkandrij exemplifies the latter tendency, and his work, past and present, has proven Ukraine to be an ideal case study in transnational literature. His 200 1 Russia and Ukraine: Literature and the Discourse of Empire from Napoleonic to Postcolonial Times focused on the relationship between Russian and Ukrainian literature since the nineteenth century. In Jews in Ukrainian Literature, Shkandrij approaches Jewish Ukrainian coexistence through the gaze of Ukrainian writers from the nineteenth century through the present, offering a perspective that has been, up to now, largely absent from Judaic Studies.

Shkandrij examines a broad range of Ukrainian writers - including Taras Shevchenko, My kola Kostomarov, Panteleimon KuI i sh, Ivan Nechui-Levytsky, Panas Myrny, Ivan Franko, Olena Pchilka, Lesia Ukrainka, Leonid Pervomais'kyi, Ivan Dziuba, Viktor Nekrasov and Vasyl Stus - some of whom had never been considered relevant to Jewish Studies but who, by engaging in conversations about Ukrainian culture, also wrote and thought about the relationship between Ukrainians and Jews. Shkandrij begins with the period spanning from 1800 to 1 880, years that saw the flowering of a Ukrainian artistic and literary revival, as well as the transition from folk-inspired Romanticism to the more socially conscious Realism. Shkandrij assesses oft-used stories in which Jews appear to be the direct antagonists of Ukrainians. He provides cultural and historical context that forces the reader to question previously held assumptions about Ukrainian writers' prejudices. A popular motif revolved around Jews who, working for Polish landlords, kept the keys to Ukrainian churches. Whether a story had its roots in a plausible historical episode or in medieval libel, references to Jews in nineteenth-century literature are inextricable from the fashion for ethnography. But Shkandrij shows that writers, although occasionally guilty of embellishing an ti- Jewish motifs, sometimes actually sought to undermine them. By carefully rereading even incidental passages involving Jews, he corrects generalizations about Ukrainian literary antisemitism. Critics have long read a line in Taras Shevchenko's " Vid' ma" [The Witch], in which a madwoman proposes selling children "to the Jew for blood," as evidence of Shevchenko's antisemitism, rather than an intentional illustration of his character's insanity (p. 20). Mykola Kostomarov, a devout Christian, is far more liberal than Shevchenko in his use of Jewish stereotypes, but, according to Shkandrij, "ultimately embraces the New Testament message of peace" (p. 32). The writer and publicist Panteleimon KuI i sh often reproduced eighteenth-century stereotypes of Jews from the Vertep puppet theatre, whereas Hanna Barvinok, who was married to KuIi sh, portrayed Jews far more sympathetically, particularly in her later work. In her 1887 "P'ianytsia" [The Drunkard], a relationship is forged between the wives of a peasant and Jewish tavern keeper. Shkandrij shows that even writers who indulged in folklori c caricature sometimes sought to engage Jewish writers directly. Kostomarov and KuIi sh entered into a long polemic with Jewish writers over the use of the term zhyd, a word meaning "Jew" that could be read as derogatory or neutral depending on the region of Ukraine where it was used. …