My Boubby the Philosopher, of blessed memory for more than a half-century, hailed from Berditchev. Her mother died birthing her, and her father did as widowers with small children who needed care often did at that time — married a widow with small children who needed a breadwinner.
His new wife already had two daughters and wasn’t thrilled to acquire a third, so Boubby grew up much like Cinderella, with two overindulged stepsisters. But the marriage got her to America in time — although the ship’s manifest listed her as the family’s maid.
“In time” means she missed the pogroms and the Babi Yar massacre in her native Ukraine. That Jewish community was blasted to smithereens by Russian and Nazi persecution. Here, she led the life of a fairly typical immigrant woman: taking care of home and children and putting up with the foibles of her hardworking husband, while both observed their Judaism as they had learned it far from America. She never spoke of knowing any Ukrainians.
Now, just in time for Yom HaShoah, comes a new book that hopes to educate Jews about Ukrainians, and vice versa. Jews and Ukrainians: A Millennium of Co-Existence means to fill in gaps of knowledge and bridge years of misunderstanding. That’s a big order for just over 300 pages, but its ample size, attractive cover and profuse maps, photographs, and other illustrations qualify this volume for coffee-table status.
The two men who took on this daunting writing task have stellar qualifications. Paul Robert Magocsi chairs the Department of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Toronto. Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern is the Crown Family Professor of Jewish Studies at Northwestern University. Magocsi has taught at both Harvard and Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. Petrovsky-Shtern won the National Jewish Book Award in 2013 for The Golden-Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe. Magocsi has had some 800 publications focusing on East-Central European history; Petrovsky-Shtern is frequently interviewed by The Associated Press, National Public Radio, and even Al Jazeera about the current situation in Ukraine.
Advance publicity for this impressive undertaking clarifies what the volume is trying to do: It wants to introduce both today’s Jews and those of Ukrainian Christian descent to the great rabbinic scholars, Hebrew and Yiddish writers and major Jewish thinkers of past Ukraine; It hopes to let them know that Jews developed the market economy which helped turn villages into towns and then into cities, and inspired Ukrainian social activism.
“Jews and Ukrainians, more often than not, were agents of somebody else’s colonialism, and both were victims of that colonialism,” it says. “Different socially and economically…quite often they were hideously turned against one another and commissioned to produce mutual hatred…” But the authors jointly explore some lesser-known efforts by both groups that managed to challenge the hatred, and tell of their results.
Because Ukraine is a part of the world that’s constantly in today’s news, the book’s presentation of both past and present is aimed at educating all people as well as Jews and Ukrainians. The University of Toronto Press, its publisher, says “an important moral factor” brought together the two authors for this major effort: “They believe emphatically that Jews and Ukrainians know little about each other, and what they do know are common misconceptions…They are committed to overturning generalizations…Most people are unaware that ethnic Ukrainians and Ukrainian Jews have a common 1,000-year history…”
The two authors have different religious backgrounds: Magocski is Protestant, Petrovsky-Shtern is Jewish. But they share geographic roots: Petrovsky-Shtern was born and raised in the Ukraine that was also the home of Magocski’s ancestors. They know, and want others to know, the millennium of history shared by ethnic Ukrainians and Ukrainian Jews.
My Boubby the Philosopher augmented and gave meaning to her repetitive daily life with ample doses of reading. The Bible was her favorite, but she would have loved reading this book. I’ll read it for her, in her memory.