Ukrainian Jewish Heritage: Interview with Alti Rodal, Co-Director of UJE. Part 1 of 2

-An interview with Pawlina

In this episode of Ukrainian Jewish Heritage, UJE Co-Director Alti Rodal discusses a new exhibit catalogue, their upcoming ROM exhibit and museum developments in Ukraine. (Part 1 of a 2-part interview.)

If you’re a regular listener to Nash Holos, you will be very familiar with the name Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. This Toronto-based, privately organized, multinational initiative sponsors the long running series on the show, Ukrainian Jewish Heritage. This series of vignettes, cultural capsules and interviews has opened a window on this hitherto little known aspect of the Ukrainian experience.

Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, or UJE, engages scholars, civic leaders, artists, governments and the broader public throughout Ukraine, Israel and the diasporas. It organizes many conferences that facilitate broader dialogue and understanding, as well as public education projects.

Alti Rodal, Co-Director, Ukrainian Jewish Encounter

One such project is an exhibition entitled “A Journey Through the Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter: From Antiquity to 1914.” This exhibit was created by UJE and co-funded by Citizenship and Immigration Canada. It premiered in Toronto in 2015 and also travelled to Winnipeg and Edmonton.

This project is far from finished, however.

Alti Rodal is Co-Director of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter Initiative. She is a historian, writer, former professor of Jewish history, and official and advisor to the Government of Canada. She was educated at McGill, Oxford, and Hebrew Universities in history and literature. Her research and writing has focused on aspects of identity, Jewish history and culture, and inter-communal relations.

Alti joins us now on skype to tell us what has developed since with this exhibit as well as some other exciting collaborative developments on the horizon.

Pawlina: Welcome back to Nash Holos, Alti!

Alti: Thank you!

Pawlina: Well it’s just great to have you, and I know it’s been a while since we’ve spoken and you’ve been very busy on this project (A Journey Through the Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter: From Antiquity to 1914). So I take it that went well?

Alti: Yes, it went very well. I just want to point out … you’re introduction was beautiful; I would add, though, that the exhibit also came to Montreal, in both English and French. It was held in two locations. The core exhibit was in a building—a heritage building which used to be a prominent synagogue in downtown Montreal and, interestingly, is now the home of the Ukrainian National Federation of Canada.

Pawlina: Isn’t that an interesting coincidence!

Alti: Yes. And Ukrainian Canadians who have lived in Montreal will remember it as the place — especially when they were teenagers— as the place where they would go for dances and so on. And the other part of the 2015 exhibit was held at the Jewish Public Library. What’s interesting about that is that the library has a very impressive collection of rare books printed in Ukraine from the 18th century on. And they brought these out in display cases in conjunction with our exhibit. We prepared a few exhibit panels on Hebrew Yiddish printing in Ukraine, and they added the actual books that were printed in Ukraine. So that as interesting addition in Montreal.

Pawlina: Very interesting! And I think a new topic for me for this series, Ukrainian Jewish Heritage. Who knew about Ukrainian and Yiddish printing.

Alti: There’s a lot to be said there!

Pawlina: Yeah. But for another time! For now though, you’ve had quite a bit of success with that exhibit. I was sad that it didn’t come out here, to the west coast.

Alti: I should mention that we had expressions of interest from a number of cities that we bring that travelling exhibit to their communities. It was always intended for community centres or venues that are not museums as such. The exhibit in Canadian venues was really well received and word got around … and there was interest in New York, both from the Ukrainian Museum there and the Jewish Museum, to do something jointly. There was interest in Chicago and in California. We put those requests on hold because at the same time there was also interest from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. And we put together a proposal which they accepted, and we’ve been working with the ROM now on such an exhibit planned for the early part of 2020. It’s quite exciting to see how the potential that a museum can bring to an exhibit is being applied to the themes and stories that we had in our community exhibit.

Pawlina: What do you mean?

Alti: Talking about artifacts in particular. But also in animating the story of the encounter in ways which are very concrete, vivid and engaging for people of all ages. For example, recreating a marketplace or a tavern. Or having a road with signs to the different points of interest and life in a shtetl (which means a small village). This is quite interesting for someone who is more used to text and even images. Our exhibit in 2015 was really limited to a series of exhibit panels, which we tried to also enliven with a number of videos which brought sound and music, and more moving images to the exhibit. And I think that worked very well. But there is so much more potential that experts in museum displays can bring … reaching out to a larger public.

Pawlina: Oh for sure. Museums have certainly come a long way since you and I were very young, definitely.

Alti: Yes, for sure.

Pawlina: So, it was very popular and you got a lot of good feedback on the exhibit…

Alti: Part of the feedback which was a kind of refrain that we heard from visitors, both during their visit to the exhibits and also the notes that they left for us, and emails, and the visitors book: Will there be a catalogue? Is there a catalogue? They really wanted to have a catalogue. And my colleague, Raya Shadursky, from the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, kept this interest in mind. And just in recent months brought the idea forward that we should still produce such a catalogue book. The ROM is doing its own exhibit and it will have its own catalogue. It would be a shame not to have some continuity from what we had done two years ago.

Pawlina: Indeed!

Alti: So this is now an illustrated book—I call it a booklet because it’s not that many pages. There is not that much text, but there are many images. It’s beautifully produced…the designers were very impressive in how they put this together. It’s going to be published in English and in Ukrainian, hopefully by this summer.

Pawlina: Yes. I think it can be called a book because it is really a beautiful piece of work. I want to thank you for sending me the most recent draft—which certainly looks like it’s ready to go to print right now! The images are stunning. The text is perfect; it’s not too long, it’s not too short, and it does tend to evoke interest in finding out more…to go and read a book with more detail.

Alti: The aim we had in putting it together is to include the different perspectives on issues. It’s not only chronological; it also treats themes. On these themes there are different narratives and we bring them together in one text for people to appreciate the perspectives that they are not familiar with. This is what, I think, piques curiosity. We have in the back Further Readings, and also our website will be carrying additional information on these themes and particular presentations on these themes. So the aim is for this to be an entry point into appreciating the very rich Ukrainian and Jewish heritages and the encounter between the two.

Pawlina: What is really good …and I’d like to compliment you on whoever was writing the text… is that it’s thought-provoking, and it is very fair. It’s very balanced, and very compassionate to both parties. I came away with a sense that reconciliation between the two is very possible. It’s a very exciting journey that is being embarked upon, and it invites the public to join on this exciting journey. So I’m looking forward to when that book will be available.

Alti: I should mention also that though I actually am the person who wrote the text, it did go through nine or ten scholars—Ukrainian, Jewish, and other experts on the different periods. Their input was very interesting and valuable. So in a sense it’s a product of the different perspectives.

Pawlina: Well that just underscores and confirms what I just said about this exciting opportunity ….and the foundation is built now for this great dialogue. I think perhaps we can even set an example, and I hope it is not too conceited to say this, but to set an example for other communities that have been in conflict in the past. Because I’ve got a sense that is in the past, and we are now on a new path to learn about the past—but also to forge new relationships, new alliances and learn new things going forward together…and building a new society, perhaps, or just a better world, together. So it’s very exciting.

Alti: There is certainly a segment of the Ukrainian population now, in particular the younger generation, who are hungry for such a bringing-together of these two histories … and addressing issues that have been difficult, and painful, and controversial. I should mention that the exhibit in 2015 and the booklet is from ancient times to 1914. So it doesn’t treat the issues that are the most difficult issues of the 20th century. It is our intent to follow up with that portion of the history as well. But in the meantime, we felt it was so important for gaining an appreciation of the very long history up to 1914, because the events of the 20th century overwhelmed that history, and people forget about it and just focus on the pogroms of 1919, and the WWII horrific events. Those are not to be erased and whitewashed, and forgotten… but at the same time nor should the long history of co-existence.

Pawlina: No, and certainly it helps to put the events of the 20th century in perspective. It kind of builds a foundation of understanding to know that history.

Alti: Yes. The other attempt that I think we succeeded in was to convey the broader context: the other people that were part of the story, the forces that were beyond whatever Jews and Ukrainians did … the world forces, the eastern European history, the different empires and wars. All these are context that shaped the relationship between Jews and Ukrainians.

Pawlina: Now, the book is coming out in the summer… where is the exhibit?

Alti: The exhibit panels sit in a storage place, and we are deciding what to do with them. With the booklet, we’ve found additional beautiful images and also modified the text somewhat … added and improved it. Every time I read the text I find things that could be said even better. So the panels are there, and they are pretty good as they are. We’re prepared to show them as they are. Some got damaged of course in the course of their travels. So they’re there. At the same time, there is a new development which has to do with a project that UJE has launched very recently. It’s at an early stage, and it is to bring content on Jewish history and Jewish heritage in Ukraine to Ukrainian museums in Ukraine. The museums that have been approached, and have seen the 2015 exhibit panels, loved them as they are, and are asking for them to come. We have plans to bring an adaptation of the 2015 exhibit in Ukrainian and in English… a bilingual version to the Lviv Historical Museum in the spring of 2019. Other museum directors have approached us as well. Because it’s so early I won’t talk about it yet. But the interest is there, and it goes very well together with other goals and the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter’s mission, which has to do with education and commemoration.

Pawlina. Excellent!

I’m speaking with Alti Rodal, a historian and expert on Jewish history and culture, and co-director of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, which sponsors Ukrainian Jewish Heritage here on Nash Holos Ukrainian Roots Radio.

Join us next week for Part 2 of this interview, to find out about some of the exciting museum projects UJE is coordinating in Ukraine.

Until then, shalom!

Part 2 of this interview can be found here.

Ukrainian Jewish Heritage is brought to you by The Ukrainian Jewish Encounter based in Toronto, Ontario. To find out more visit their website (here) and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

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