Euroasian Jewish News
The Encounter Prize is a new hope for the New Year
Every New Year heralds hope for meaningful change. Some hopes are ephemeral, and others enduring, the result of years of planning or a simple leap of faith.
My year begins with a hope unlike one I could have imagined several years ago. It has to do with a book prize which I, like others, believe will further a broader understanding of Ukraine as a tolerant multi-ethnic state.
On Dec. 20, 2019, the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter announced “Encounter: The Ukrainian-Jewish Literary Prize.” The result of many years of discussion, the prize celebrates the common experiences of Ukrainians and Jews over the centuries, as expressed in literature and nonfiction. The deadline for nominees is March 16.
Encounter Prize will be awarded annually to the best work published in Ukraine in literature and nonfiction (in alternate years) that fosters Ukrainian-Jewish understanding. Priority will be given to original Ukrainian-language books, but exceptional works translated from other languages into Ukrainian will also be considered. The prize strives to solidify Ukraine’s role as a multi-ethnic society and gives truth to UJE’s motto, “Our stories are incomplete without each other.”
Partners in this endeavor include the Lviv Book Forum, Ukraine’s oldest literary festival, and the Ukrainian Book Institute, which among its objectives is to popularize Ukrainian literature globally.
The prize focuses on a very special type of relationship. Ukrainians and Jews have lived side-by-side on the territory of modern-day Ukraine for over a millennium. Separately and together, they have woven a tapestry that has left an indelible mark on Ukraine’s cultural, linguistic, and historical legacy. Long periods of peaceful co-existence were also interrupted by years of tragedy, separating Ukrainians and Jews through different historical experiences and narratives.
UJE, a privately organized multinational initiative, was founded in 2008 with the goal of deepening an understanding of the breadth, complexity, and diversity of Ukrainian-Jewish relations over the centuries, with a view to the future.
The prize will encourage authors to explore these experiences and to acknowledge those who have already started to delve into various aspects of the Ukrainian-Jewish relationship.
Growing up in the diaspora, I each Saturday attended Ukrainian school, where, along with language, history and religion, my classmates and I learned about Ukraine’s literary giants—Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko, Lesia Ukrainka—and other writers. But I don’t recall ever hearing about the Jewish authors—Mendele Mocher Sforim, Raisa Troianker, S.Y. Agnon—who contributed to Ukraine’s literary heritage. (Sholem Aleichem was perhaps an anomaly. The Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, which was based on Aleichem’s Tevye and His Daughters, is so tightly tied to American culture that it is easy to forget Aleichem was writing about the Jewish experience on the lands of Tsarist Russia, which included parts of contemporary Ukraine).
That education only came later and opened a new and exciting world, deepening my own understanding of Ukraine and the important dialogue which has taken place between Ukrainians and Jews in literature.
Two excellent books, both published in 2009 by Yale Press, shed important light on this discourse and have helped shape how I think about the Ukrainian-Jewish literary dialogue. Both books were recently translated into Ukrainian.
The first is Jews in Ukrainian Literature: Representation and Identity, by Myroslav Shkandrij, a professor of Slavic Studies at Canada’s University of Manitoba. His pioneering book is the first to show how Jews have been seen through modern Ukrainian literature and challenge the often-held notion that Ukrainian and Jewish communities were continually antagonistic toward each other.
The other volume, The Anti-Imperial Choice: The Making of the Ukrainian Jew, was written by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern. Petrovsky-Shtern explores how Jewish writers contributed to and became an element of Ukrainian culture. He focuses on five writers, one of them being Moisei Fishbein, one of Ukraine’s greatest poets.
It is through Wolf Moskovich, professor emeritus of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and UJE board member, that I have come to view the Ukrainian writer Ivan Franko (1856-1916) in a different light. Moskovich, considered the father of Ukrainian studies in Israel, has written about the vital relationship between Franko and the Zionist leader Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky (1880-1940).
Although there is no evidence the two ever met, both made critical contributions to the creation of their national states, Ukraine and Israel. In an article published in the 2016 German-language book Ivan Franko und die jüdische Frage in Galizien (Ivan Franko and the Jewish Question in Galicia), also published in Ukrainian by Krytyka, Moskovich wrote:
“Franko was ambivalent in his relation to the Jews. Some of his statements and characterizations of Jews can be considered philo-Semitic, while others can be seen as anti-Semitic. His positions on the Jewish question shifted with time and according to circumstances and his audiences. In contrast, Jabotinsky’s position on the Ukrainian-Jewish relations and his support of the Ukrainian national struggle remained permanent through his life. His writings show only a positive attitude towards Ukrainians… But more than anyone else, these two men attempted to cross the Ukrainian-Jewish divide in their respective societies. They helped to sow seeds of cooperation on distinctly infertile soil. Yet their efforts embody both the successes and failures of Ukrainian-Jewish relations.”
The legacy of the Ukrainian-Jewish dialogue is profound and finding a new place in the literature of contemporary writers, both within Ukraine and abroad. As we move into the second decade of the twenty-first century, and as Ukraine and Israel shape their identities as independent states, we are seeing a new understanding of the past.
As the new year begins, it is my fervent hope the Encounter Prize will encourage us all to have a greater appreciation of the complex and fascinating story of Ukrainians and Jews.
Guidelines for the prize are available on the Ukrainian-language version of UJE’s website.
By Natalia A. Feduschak.
Natalia A. Feduschak is a journalist and director of communications of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, a Canadian nonprofit dedicated to promoting understanding between the two peoples.