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Across the Former Soviet Union Ukrainian Singer with Jewish Roots and New Name Takes Country by Stor

March 23, 2006
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The name Tina Karol is on everybody’s lips in Ukraine these days. But few Ukrainians know that the 20-year-old blonde, a burgeoning pop star, has Jewish roots.

Karol’s songs are at the top of the country’s music charts, and her face is on the cover of several glossy magazines.

In May, Karol will represent Ukraine at Eurovision — a European song competition with an estimated audience of 100 million that will be held this year in Athens.

Karol, whose real name is Tanya Liberman, rose to fame in the former Soviet Union last July when she took second place in the Novaya Volna, or New Wave, contest for young singers.

Now that she’s been selected to compete for Ukraine against singers from three dozen countries, journalists have been lining up to interview her.

Ukraine has only competed in Eurovision since 2003, and in 2004 Ukrainian singer Ruslana brought home the gold. Karol says she hopes to represent her country “with the best results” as well.

What Karol does not advertise is that her singing career began as a teenager when she took part in Jewish and Israeli festivals, both in Ukraine and abroad. She almost always took first place.

“For four years, I performed with the dancing ensemble at the Kiev branch of the Jewish Agency, and my repertoire included songs in Hebrew and in Yiddish,” she says. In 2000, she traveled with the ensemble to the United States, where the group’s appearances raised money for Jewish Agency for Israel programs in Ukraine.

Today, however, Karol is reticent to talk about her Jewish background. Her parents are intermarried — her mother is Ukrainian and her father Jewish — and when producers suggested that she take a less Jewish stage name last year, before the Novaya Volna contest, she didn’t object.

“It was a part of my agreement with the producers, but, to be honest, I am glad I changed my name. I felt like it hindered me in my life,” says Karol, who confessed she often felt discriminated against in school because of her Jewish last name.

Asked directly whether she identifies as a Jew, she demurs.

“I don’t like talking about self-identifications,” she says in a serious voice. “I feel myself simply a human being, who came to this world to make a change.

“There was a period in my life when I was deciding on my religious beliefs, but now I think I’ve found my stand on this,” she adds. “I believe in God, but I don’t identify with any particular religion.”

Local Jewish leaders say they have known and supported Karol since she was a teenager and they are proud of her achievements.

“Tina Karol — or Tanya Liberman — is a talented girl: She’s got voice, looks and positive energy,” says Alexander Zlotnik, a renowned Ukrainian Jewish composer and president of Ukraine’s Reform community.

Zlotnik says he is not particularly bothered that she has taken a stage name. “Although Liberman is a very nice last name, I understand why it may be easier for her to abandon it. Unfortunately, some people in our society still pay more attention to the name than to the actual talent,” he says.

Arkadiy Monastyrsky, head of a Ukrainian Jewish charity fund and chairman of the Shalom Ukraine Jewish festival, remembers Karol taking her first steps as a professional singer at his festival.

“Of course, nobody knew her then, she was a chubby teenage girl who did not know what to do with her arms and legs on stage,” recalls Monastyrsky. “But she has grown up, worked hard for her success, and I am proud that we gave her a start in her singing career.”

Kiev student Evgeniy Burenko, 22, says he didn’t know about Karol’s Jewish background, and it doesn’t bother him at all to have a Jewish singer represent Ukraine in Eurovision.

“She is Jewish — so what?” he asks. “She lives in Ukraine, and she is representing our country. I don’t see any problem with that.”

Karol, meanwhile, has been rehearsing the song that she will perform in Athens this May, and is feeling optimistic.

“My song is a simple one about love,” says Karol. She will sing in English, a choice designed to appeal to the millions of television viewers who will vote for the winner. “Eurovision for me is a window to Europe and an opportunity to popularize Ukraine and Ukrainian music,” she says.

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