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Vitaly Chernoivanenko: Now every student can become a pioneer in the study of Jewish Studies

The president of the Ukrainian Association for Jewish Studies discusses a new and relevant field of scholarship for Ukraine

The editor-in-chief of “Judaica Ukrainica” magazine, and lecturer in Middle Eastern and Jewish history at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, told Jewishnews.com.ua who comes to study Jewish Studies, and why.

What programs on Jewish Studies are now available at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy? How are they organized?

I’ll start from the beginning. Jewish Studies in our country has been developing for a long time, ever since Ukraine became an independent nation. In the Soviet Union this field of study was practically ignored. It was in Kiev that Jewish Studies gained the widest distribution. Besides the capital, programs and centers also function in Lviv and Kharkov. Alas, the International Solomon University has ceased to exist, and with it the department of Jewish Studies that existed there. This was the first academic institution which developed this field of study in the 1990s. At the Kyiv Mohyla Academy the first (certificate) program on Jewish Studies appeared in 2003. This program offers facultative courses which are available for students of the academy and other academic institutions. The program lasts for two years. During this time students study Hebrew, take other courses on Jewish history, literature and religion. On completing the program, students receive a certificate, but not an academic degree.

In 2012 the KMA and Vaad Ukraine created a program which offers a master’s degree. We decided that it would be easier to create a master’s program, as a bachelor’s program is much harder to realize. In 2014-2015 12 people graduated, and at present around another 11 full-time students and several non-degree students are also studying there. To ensure thorough work with the sources, two languages are studied at the program – Hebrew and Yiddish. We have several lecture halls, and good conditions for study. Vaad and its partners provide us with financial support.

What, in your opinion, is the reason for the growing interest in Jewish culture in Ukraine? Courses on Jewish Studies are being opened, this year at the Kiev linguistic university they have started to train philologists and translators from Hebrew…

The specialization of “Jewish Studies” does not exist in Ukraine. There is not even the specialization of “Oriental Studies”, so we work with students who study history. As part of this field of study our students receive diplomas of historians specializing in “Jewish Studies”. At the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv the situation is similar – they select a section of masters’ students who are interested in Jewish Studies, and work with them. At UCU Hebrew can be chosen as a first language. There are plans to do approximately the same thing at the Shevchenko Kiev National University.

An interesting but incredible fact is that more non-Jewish than Jewish students come to study Jewish Studies. An important reason why people choose this field is the novelty of the topics. People who come to study the history of Jews in Ukraine are mastering this topic, which has been little studied before them. There are very few specialists in this field, and so every student can become a pioneer in the study of a certain topic. At the same time, the number of sources that have not been investigated, at the Vernadsky National Library alone, is quite astounding. With a knowledge of languages, and after studying in our program, you can become a pioneer in this field and conduct fundamentally new research.

Did your personal interest in this topic arise from your wish to become a pioneer?

My interest in Jewish Studies arose in 2005, I found it interesting to study antiquity. For example, my first book, and also my PhD dissertation concerned Qumran manuscripts. I have long been interested in Biblical literature, and I choose Jewish Studies because of the Bible.

In 2005, after graduating from the pedagogical university, I enrolled at the Kievo-Mohyla Academy. I soon completed my master’s degree in history and a certificate program on Jewish Studies. Since then I have continued my professional path in this field. Last year my colleagues and I created the Ukrainian association of Jewish Studies, as a professional association, and I have the honor to be the head of it.

Tell us about your book. As far as I know, it is the only scholarly book about the Qumran scrolls to be published in Ukrainian…What reaction did it have?

When I was still studying for my master’s degree, the internationally famous Orientalist, specialist on the Dead Sea scrolls and professor at Chicago University Norman Golb visited Kiev. He was making a journey to the homeland of his Jewish ancestors who left Ukraine early last century.

Golb delivered a series of lectures at Mogilyanka, one on the Qumran scrolls. This topic interested me so much that I did my master’s degree and PhD in Qumran studies. Research revealed the problems of authorship of these scrolls and the nature of the place where they were found. There is no consensus on the first or the second issue today. My works are historiographical, their goal was the systematization and classification of the hypotheses and theories concerning the authorship of these documents and the identification of Qumran, the place where the majority of manuscripts were found.
I defended my dissertation in 2012. The basis of the book is the text of this work, to which I added my own translations of several Dead Sea scrolls. This is the first translation of Qumran documents into Ukrainian.

In 2014 my book was chosen to compete in the “Book of the Year” contest in the category of historical research, made it to the top 10 and gained seventh place. It was chosen for the short list, which is already a good result.

Additionally, in 2012 I founded the scholarly journal on Jewish Studies, “Judaica Ukrainica” with an international editorial staff. We print articles in English, Ukrainian and sometimes in Russian. Recently we were included in a prestigious scholarly database, which means that our articles will be indexed. Soon the fourth issue will be published, half of which will be in English. The journal comes out in two versions, printed and electronic, and all articles are freely available on the journal website.

What are the main difficulties of studying Jewish Studies in Ukraine? At what level of development is this field of study?

There are two sides of the coin here. On the one side, there really was an enormous gap in time, a so-called “lost time”, for Jewish Studies was not studied in the Soviet Union, and Oriental Studies were not widespread at all. From the 1930s, neither of them existed in Kiev.

Unfortunately, the fact that this field of knowledge is new for Ukraine has an effect on the number of good specialists in this field – there are not many of them of them. If someone wishes to gain education in the field of Jewish Studies, they come up against a lack of a comprehensive approach. Even here, at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, far from all aspects of Jewish Studies are represented, although we offer a wide choice of courses. Students don’t have the opportunity to learn what they want to.

Additionally, as Jewish Studies is not a specialization, the curriculum cannot only consist of disciplines from this sphere. As we work within the boundaries of the “History” specialization, we are forced to share the curriculum with other historical fields. This affects individual subjects, and also we cannot allocate more hours to Hebrew or Yiddish.

There are difficulties, and not everything depends on us. But I said that there were two sides of the coin. The second is that the modern world is open. Education and science are global. So someone who is motivated and wishes to develop professionally has broad opportunities for this. If a person wants to, they can go to study Jewish Studies in another country.

International practice shows that very often people who complete a master’s degree continue to work in scholarship in their subsequent life. The realities here are different, we have big problems with science. The salaries are very low, so the sphere of application of the skills and knowledge gained in the program is wider than the scientific world. This has a positive aspect. Some of our student enroll in postgraduate programs and continue scientific activity, others are more interested in separate projects. Again, as in Ukraine a large Jewish heritage has accumulated that has not been investigated, which is held in museums, archives and libraries, a large number of specialists are required to work with these sources. Ideally, competent people should work with these documents, who could catalogue and process documents from storage.

How willingly do employees of archives and libraries work with scholars who want to study these documents?

This is quite a serious problem. I can say straight out that none of the heads of archives have any prejudices about the fact that these are Jewish documents. It is rather the case that in Ukraine there are certain rules which still do not allow access to what is kept in storage. The system must be changed, the museum, archive and library rules, which concern access to what is kept in storage.

I must say that the employees of institutions who are concerned for the preservation of what they have are glad to accept our students and graduates. But as far as the rules allow them, of course.

Our students have compulsory practical training, between the first and second years of the master’s degree. This takes place in Kiev and Lviv and lasts two weeks. The aim of the practical training is primarily familiarization. Every day the students visit a new institution, and they learn how it works, and about the collection or the archive of Jewish Studies materials held there. In Kiev we visit the Vernadsky National Scientific Library, the Central Historical Archive, in Lviv the Stefanik National Scientific Library, the Museum of the History of Religion etc. There have already been three summer practical training sessions, and I can say that employees of these structures are mainly very open for our students and are happy to receive them.

What topic from the history of the Jewish people draws the greatest interest from students? What surprises non-Jewish students?

Most of the students focus on studying Ukrainian-Jewish topics of early historical periods. You should remember that many students who come to our master’s course were not previously familiar with Jewish Studies. For them all the topics are new. They see Hebrew as a very exotic language, for example.

Additionally, students are interested in the Jewish religion, and we make visits to synagogues. Students like to celebrate Jewish holidays with their teachers, such as Sukkot or Hanukah, for example. Recently, rather high-ranking guests, by university standards, have started to visit us for Hanukah. The year before last, for the first time in the history of the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, Hanukah candles were lit by the university president, and last year they were lit by the vice-president for science.

The majority of our students are either secular or Christians. For them this is interesting and important. Christians, say, understand the connections and history of their religion, and see the roots of their world view in Jewish Studies. Or this may involve a phenomenon of cultural nature, when students realize how great the Jewish contribution is to the development of world civilization.

How do non-Jewish students react to conflict situations in the Ukrainian-Jewish history of relations?

At our history faculty, the dominant opinion is the one that was formed in many ways under the influence of the renowned Ukrainian historian Natalya Yakovenko, who called to look for bright and positive events in Ukrainian-Jewish history, with a positive experience of co-existence. This certainly does not mean that we should keep silent about tragedies. It can’t be said that the Ukrainian and Jewish peoples were hostile to one another in everyday life. On the other hand, modern historical studies have reviewed certain events, including ones during the Khmelnitsky uprising. Nothing was straightforward; you can’t say that all Ukrainians were pogromists, just as you can’t say there were no pogroms. You need to look for a balanced solution on the basis of different facts.

It can’t be said that the Ukrainian and Jewish peoples were hostile to one another in everyday life. On the other hand, modern historical studies have reviewed certain events, including ones during the Khmelnitsky uprising. Nothing was straightforward; you can’t say that all Ukrainians were pogromists, just as you can’t say there were no pogroms. You need to look for a balanced solution on the basis of different facts.

If we’re talking about the pogroms that take place during the Khmelnitsky uprising, here there are also some interesting aspects. The profoundly historical methods of study have been recently supplemented by demography, which has shown that the losses of the Jewish population, if we compare them with traditional Jewish sources, for example the chronicle of Nathan Hannover, were greatly overestimated. Shaul Stampfer, a professor of the Jewish University in Jerusalem, wrote a very good and important article about this.

But at the same time, history should not be examined separately from the processes taking place today. Alas, tragedies are remembered most of all. A certain memory has formed from these tragedies which influences relations between peoples. In recent years, Ukrainian-Jewish dialogue has been gaining momentum. Some organizations work actively in this direction, in particular some time ago the “Ukrainian Jewish Encounter” initiative was founded in Canada. The goal of this organization is to make a constructive breakthrough in relations between our peoples and establish constant dialogue between them. Various events and conferences are held for this, and intellectuals are invited both in Ukraine and outside it. The two peoples can learn from each other, because there is plenty to learn. Ukraine, for example, in light of recent events can take a lot from the Israeli experience of building democracy, and also in the spheres of security, the economy, science and so on.

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