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Across the Former Soviet Union Non-jews in Ukraine Help Mark Sholem Aleichem’s Anniversary

April 9, 2004
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Little in this sleepy central Ukrainian town is reminiscent of the time when Sholem Aleichem was born here 145 years ago.

Yet a tiny group of Jews who still call Pereyaslav home used this year’s anniversary to rekindle a spark of Yiddishkeit in the region, once heavily populated by Jews whom the Yiddish writer depicted so colorfully in his books.

The birthday of Sholem Aleichem, born Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, was celebrated last month in this and a few other Ukrainian towns where he lived and wrote his stories.

Organized with the help of Jewish cultural groups from Kiev, the festivities were similar in all of the towns.

After flowers were laid at Sholem Aleichem’s monument in Pereyaslav and on memorial plaques, ceremonies were held, then amateur concerts for groups of mostly elderly local Jews. The concerts included performances of Yiddish and Hebrew songs, Jewish dances, readings of Sholem Aleichem works and mini-plays based on his books.

Many of those helping to pay tribute to Ukraine’s Jewish heritage were non-Jews — a situation quite typical in contemporary Jewish cultural life in the former shtetls.

For example, a local dance ensemble that calls itself Naches, Yiddish for “happiness,” has no Jews among its members.

“The Sholem Aleichem anniversary to me means pleasure, fun and dances,” says Natalia Belyankina, leader of Naches. “Our group is not Jewish but, thanks to us, people can get acquainted with Jewish music and dances.”

Another amateur dance company from the town of Boguslav, where the writer also spent part of his life, treated a small group of Jews to some folk dances representing the region’s Jewish heritage.

“To be honest, I don’t know the name of the Jewish dance we performed,” says Vitalina Khomenko, a non-Jewish member of the Boguslav House of Culture dance troupe. “We participate in all events held in our town, and for each of them we prepare a special dance.”

At one of the concerts, a klezmer duo from the town of Kanev added a touch of authenticity to the program.

The leaders of the small Jewish communities in these towns wear many hats to fill the void left by the Holocaust, mass emigration and the aging of the Jewish population.

Violetta Karpenko, chairwoman of a Reform Jewish congregation from the town of Zvenigorodka, performed in a mini-play based on Sholem Aleichem stories. She also sang in Yiddish, as did Tsilya Gekhtman, chairwoman of the Pereyaslav-Khmelnitsky Jewish Culture Society.

“Our Jewish festivals, exhibitions and concerts — all this is our Sholem Aleichem,” says Elena Mironova, a Jewish activist from Zvenigorodka. “If you are Jewish, read Sholem Aleichem and you will know yourself better.”

As part of the celebration in Pereyaslav, guests from Kiev and nearby towns visited a Sholem Aleichem museum that opened after Ukrainian independence.

The museum doesn’t have much to show about the author’s life and work, but the exhibition tries to familiarize visitors with Jewish heritage by showing basic ritual items such as a Torah, yarmulke, tefillin and mezuzah.

Nina Zakharchuk, the museum director, is especially proud of six photographs from Sholem Aleichem’s family presented to the museum recently by Bell Kaufman, the writer’s granddaughter, who lives in the United States.

Inna Druz works as Yiddish program coordinator for the Association of Jewish Communities of Small Towns of Ukraine, which helps a dozen former shtetls revive some Yiddishkeit in their communities.

This year, Druz organized a series of mini-exhibitions dedicated to Sholem Aleichem that opened in small towns to mark the writer’s anniversary. The exhibitions mainly included copies of books and magazines in Yiddish featuring Sholem Aleichem’s works.

“Contact with Sholem Aleichem’s literary works in Yiddish is very important,” Druz says. “He was among the first to encourage the development of Yiddish as a language of literature. And it is we who are the characters of his stories — we are the same in our souls as we used to be.”

After a century of decline, the last decade has seen some revival of Jewish life in some of Ukraine’s former shtetls. But many local leaders say they don’t see any long-term future for their communities.

“There are about 90 members of our society, both Jews and non-Jews, and 48 of them have the right to repatriate to Israel,” says Vladimir Kapelevich, head of the Jewish Culture Society in Boguslav.

But, he admitted “there are no young Jews in our organization. Many people have emigrated. I don’t see the prospects for our society to develop.”

Others second his outlook.

“Only 10 to 15 people visit our community center at a time. There are practically no Jews left in Boguslav,” says Mikhail Brailovsky, a community member. “The elderly are dying and the young have already left for other countries.”

When Sholem Aleichem lived and worked in these towns in the 19th century, they were predominantly Jewish.

Now, says Roman Sokur, Pereyaslav’s mayor, a 2001 population census revealed only 17 Jews left in town.

Gekhtman, the local community leader, says the actual number may be a little higher but notes that there are only seven Jewish children of school age.

Religious life used to be the center of Jewish culture in small towns. But today many communities have no Jewish religious programs and no active synagogues.

Some of the typical programs these communities run include Yiddish clubs, Jewish cooking circles, women’s clubs and discussion groups.

There aren’t enough Jews to fill all the programs, but Jewish activists open their doors to non-Jews interested in the region’s Jewish past.

“We invite both Jews and non-Jews to our celebrations,” says Peter Rashkovsky, chairman of the Association of Jewish Communities of Small Towns of Ukraine. “This way we are vaccinating against anti-Semitism.”

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