The Challenges of Studying and Preserving the Jewish Cultural Heritage of Ukraine

The first center of the Jewish culture appeared in the Crimea more than two thousand years ago. History of the Jews of Ukraine has more than one century. Since ancient times Ukrainians and Jews lived side by side. The relations between these two nations have transformed over the centuries. The culture, whiсh was created by Eastern European Jews, was distinctive, unique and has not escaped significant influence of neighboring cultures. Scientists, researchers, ethnographers have yet to determine the degree of cross-cultural influence of the two peoples living side by side.  In modern Ukraine until recent times there were numerous Jewish communities. In the early XX century in the towns of Galicia, Podillya and Volyn the Jewish population was usually more than 50% and sometimes even 80%. Jewish Culture in Ukraine, Shtetl culture (Jewish small town) no longer exists. This happened because of the tragic events of the Holocaust during the Second World War, the departure of the Jews into the cities and abroad. From time to time, various Jewish institutions and non-Jewish funds organize journeys to villages and small cities of Lviv, Vinnytsia, Khmelnytsky regions for all those interested in history, culture and life of the Jews in Ukraine. In general, the routes run through the places that had been visited a hundred years ago by a famous expedition ethnographer Semen Ansky. He and his colleagues collected valuable ethnographic material. Modern historical and ethnographic expeditions were organized mainly by the Diaspora Research Institute of St. Petersburg Jewish University. Articles containing description of the expedition research, libraries and archaeological research, and process of collecting oral history periodically appear in various scientific collections devoted to the topics of Jewish Studies. The first expedition started working at the beginning of 80s. Then there was a possibility to take interviews with local people – Jews whose native language was Yiddish. Research findings, photos, drawings, descriptions and measurements of synagogues, Jewish development towns, and Jewish tombstones unfortunately do not stay in Ukraine. In recent years expeditions to former shtetl which where initiated by various Jewish institutions rather can be called a tourist trip than historical and ethnographic expeditions.  In our times, unique buildings and fortresses of stone synagogues XVI -XVIII centuries are falling apart as we speak, in ancient times they were defending not only the Jewish community, but the whole town in general. Unique works of Jewish artists in stone engraving continue to disappear as the towns and cities expand, destroying Jewish cemeteries with tombstones that date back to XVI-XIX centuries. One of the most famous medieval Jewish cemeteries in Ukraine, which is the Old Jewish Cemetery in Lviv, founded in 1414 – is now virtually non-existent. It is known that earlier tombstones had been moved there. Most of the ancient Jewish cemeteries were destroyed by people and time. However, until today many tombstones are preserved from XVI century in cemeteries in Busk, Satanova, Medzhybizh, Hawtin, Shargorod and many other old towns. Often tombstones are impressive because of the professional artistic skill, but those created by non-professional artists can also be greatly admired for their skill in this uniquely Jewish decorative art. Epitaphs on matsevas were very interesting for ethnographers, symbols images on the ceiling has been very little studied, although at one and the same cemetery you can find a huge variety of artistic motifs. This lack of interest is worrysome because in many cases it is all that remains of the many Jewish communities in Ukraine. Impressive images in wooden synagogues, pagodas in Western Ukraine can now be seen only in the reconstruction of the Khodorivska synagogue (near Lviv) at the Tel Aviv Museum of Diaspora (Israel).  A collection of Jewish ceremonial objects and jewelery at the Museum of Historical Treasures of Ukraine (over 400 objects) has been studied very professionally. However, such detailed studies have not yet reached all of the museums in our country. For example, at the Museum of History of Ukraine there is a small collection of Jewish ritual objects made ​​of bronze, which are of great artistic value. The items are not on display and their meaning in the inventory cards is not mentioned. There are judaica collections in regional museums in Vinnytsia, Medzhybizh and other cities.  To do professional work with Judaica objects, one must know Hebrew and Yiddish, Aramaic is desirable, and also possess a good knowledge of the Tanakh, Talmud and other classical Jewish texts. Unfortunately there is only a few specialists who possess all the knowledge about Judaica in Ukraine. Lacking language skills and little knowledge of the Jewish tradition often leads to major mistakes. Moreover, nowadays it is very difficult to find funding to conduct professional expeditions to endangered shtetls. Today, from time to time, there are unexpected findings that require detailed study, research, description, and preservation of the historical environment. Old Jewish cemeteries are vanishing, whole streets are disappearing and some buildings that once shaped a remarkable personality of the Jewish patriarchal lifestyle. Jewish ritual objects, the purpose of which a few decades ago knew almost every Jew, can now be seen only in museums and that if they will be included to the exhibition. In the early 90s, the Judaica found at the Museum of Historical Treasures of Ukraine was displayed in two halls. Now visitors can only see a small part of the collection. There is no doubt about the originality and uniqueness of the architecture of synagogues of Ukraine and other Jewish residential buildings, decorative arts and crafts: ritual objects, tombstones, matsevot, design ktubot and reyzele illustrating old books and manuscripts. The centuries-old experience of wandering from country to country, the distinctive features of the Jewish history and life, clearly became reflected in the works of masters. But by far the unique feel of the Jewish art, Jewish architecture stems from the strict adherence to the 3000-years-old Jewish tradition, keeping of the foundations of Judaism. Jewish ritual objects can be used only in the Jewish liturgy and nowhere else. In Ukraine, for several centuries, there were jewelry schools, each with its own distinguished style. Matsevas (tombstones) of Ukrainian Jewish cemeteries are clearly unique. To verify this, just visit the old cemetery in Lviv, Volyn and Podolia. Once again I want to emphasize that the apparent lack of specialists in Jewish studies and attention to Jewish antiquity could lead to the final loss of a very important component of Ukrainian culture.  You can find the activities of the Kiev Center for History and Culture of East European Jewry on the website of the institution. At the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy a disciplinary certification program in Jewish studies was organized. Ukraine needs more productive and promising programs for the study and preservation of Jewish Studies.