Photo Credit: Yishai Fleisher

 

In the town of Medzhybizh is the tomb of the Baal Shem Tov – Rabbi Yisroel (Israel) ben Eliezer (18 Elul 5458/1698- 6 Sivan 5520/1760). The Baal Shem Tov or Besht, is the founder of the Hasidic movement in Judaism which stresses, among other things, a personal relationship with the Almighty, joy, and the importance of the Tzaddik, that is, the righteous Rabbi who leads his flock. The building housing the tomb encompasses many of the Besht’s top students and is considered by Hassidim as if it is actually a part of the land of Israel.

 

The Jewish motif is not far from the surface of Ukraine. Sometimes it is antisemitic, and other times it is portrayed as an intersection between the Russian/Ukrainian culture and the Jewish culture that grew there. These are matryoshka dolls, also known as Russian nesting/nested dolls, that is, a set of wooden dolls of decreasing size placed one inside the other. They are sometimes referred to as “babushka dolls” (grandmother doll). They can come in many themes, including this Jewish set.
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The hotel I was staying at, and where the conference was held, was top notch and in the heart of Kiev. Around the corner from the hotel was this Jewish-themed kosher-style restaurant called Tzimmes, named for a traditional Ashkenazi sweet stew typically made from carrots and dried fruits. The caricature at the front of the establishment clearly depicts a Jewish man with stacks of money and an abacus to count it all. I was appalled by the blatant stereotype, but Ukrainians flatly denied it saying that no harm was meant. What do you think?

 

At the conference plenum, we enjoyed the sounds of a large ensemble band, wearing traditional Ukrainian clothing, as they played a mix of traditional and Jewish music. The is a picture of the Bandura player – Ukraine’s national instrument. When they played “If I were a rich man” from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, it all came together. The musical ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories about Tevye the Dairyman, was the first commercially successful English-language stage production about Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Sholem Aleichem (1859 – 1916) was a leading Yiddish author and playwright from Ukraine and the Tevye tales still reflect a lot about the ambivalence and duality of Jewish/Ukrainian life. The Fiddler song that really came to my mind that evening was “Lechaim – To Life!” in the great bar scene where the Jews and gentiles dance together:
“Za Vashe Zdorovie – Heaven bless you both Na Zdrovie – To your health and may we live together in peace!”
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Yishai Fleisher is a Contributing Editor at JewishPress.com, Chief Editor at JNi.media, talk-show host, and International Spokesman for the Jewish community of Hebron, an Israeli Paratrooper, a graduate of Cardozo Law School, and the founder of Kumah ("Arise" in Hebrew), an NGO dedicated to promoting Zionism and strengthening Israel's national character. Yishai is married to Malkah, and they live on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem with their children.

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