Ukrainian Jewish Heritage: Part 2—Currencies of Israel and Ukraine



The State of Israel was created and built by Jewish settlers who came mainly from Eastern Europe. Among them were quite a few natives of Ukraine, then ruled by the Russian & Austro-Hungarian Empires.

Today’s episode of Ukrainian Jewish Heritage, Part 2 of our series on the currencies of Ukraine and Israel, features Jews from Ukrainian territories who were awarded one of Israel’s highest honors: their portraits depicted on banknotes and coins.

As we learned in Part 1 of our series, Israel’s currency underwent several changes. From the Palestine Pound in 1948 to the Israeli pound— or the Israeli lira—in 1952, to the shekel in 1980. And finally, in 1986 the Israeli New Shekel, which remains Israel’s official monetary unit to today.

Eight natives of Ukraine have figured prominently on Israel’s currencies over the years.

The poet Hayim Nahman Bialik was born in 1873 in the village of Ivnytsia, in what is today the Zhytomyr oblast, or province. Bialik is considered one of the pioneers of modern Hebrew poetry. His life coincided with the restoration of this ancient language, long considered a bookish, “dead” language. He also wrote prolifically in Yiddish.

Bialik spent his childhood and youth in Zhytomyr. He received a traditional Jewish education, but also explored European literature. At age 18, he left for Odessa where he studied literature as well as the Russian & German languages. He made his living teaching Hebrew until he secured a permanent teaching position. Eventually, he made his way into Jewish literary circles and became a member of the Zionist movement.

Bialik began his prolific literary career writing about the plight of Jews facing anti-semitic violence in Imperial Russia. He went to become a highly acclaimed poet as well as a literary editor, translator and publisher.

In 1921, as a result of mounting paranoia in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution, the Soviet government closed the publishing house he helped establish in Odessa. That year he and other Hebrew writers left the soviet union and settled in Palestine.

Although he died in 1934, before Israel became a state, Bialik ultimately came to be recognized as Israel’s national poet.

Bialik has influenced entire generations of Zionists, including tens of thousands who were exposed to his poetry as part of the Israeli school curriculum. He wrote Hebrew poetry at a time when it was far from clear that Hebrew would become the spoken language of the Jewish community in Israel.

Hayim Nahman Bialik’s portrait was featured on the 1968 10-pound banknote.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Volodymyr Ze’ev Jabotinsky gained renown as a talented journalist and writer. He was born in Odessa in 1880.

In 1903 a new wave of anti-Jewish pogroms erupted in the southern part of the Russian Empire, and Jabotinsky joined the Jewish self-defense and Zionist movements. Around this time, he began learning modern Hebrew and took the name Ze’ev (which means wolf).

At an early age he began to devote his outstanding skills as a writer, orator, translator, and polemicist for the Zionist cause. Jabotinsky was a contemporary of Bialik, whose poems he translated from Hebrew into Russian. Jabotinsky also published the first Hebrew translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s poems The Raven and Annabel Lee, among other literary works.

In Ukraine Jabotinsky is remembered for his friendly attitude towards the Ukrainian political movement of his day—and in particular, the Ukrainian language. As well, Jabotinsky expressed support for Symon Petliura, who he did not believe was an anti-Semite or perpetrator of pogroms. Petliura was Ukraine’s revolutionary president during the country’s short-lived sovereignty from 1918–1921.

The revival of modern Hebrew, social justice and democracy are all values that Jabotinsky fought for. His lasting legacy can also be found in Israeli politics. Structures that were created under the influence of Jabotinsky’s ideas, like the Betar youth movement and the Likud Party, still exist in Israel to this day.

Jabotinsky did not live to see the founding of the independent Jewish state. While visiting a Betar defense camp in New York in August 1940, he suffered a fatal heart attack. In 1964 Prime Minister Levi Eshkol had Jabotinsky’s remains transferred to Israel’s national cemetery on Mount Herzl, where a state memorial service is held every year at the Ze’ev Jabotinsky Tomb.

Ze’ev Jabotinsky was depicted on the 1980 100-shekel banknote.

Levi Eshkol, the third Prime Minister of Israel, was born Levi Yitzhak Shkolnik, in 1895 in the shtetl of Oratov, in what is now the Vinnytsia Oblast in Ukraine.

After completing his education in Vilnius, at age 18 Eshkol immigrated to Palestine. During the First World War he fought in the ranks of the Jewish Legion of the British army, which Jabotinsky had helped form.

In the State of Israel Levi Eshkol was elected to the Second Knesset in 1951, and soon thereafter was appointed to key government roles. A founder of the Israeli Labor Party, he served in numerous senior roles, including Minister of Defense and Minister of Finance.

In 1963, he replaced the legendary David Ben-Gurion as prime minister.

Under Eshkol’s leadership Israel built from scratch 22 cities, more than 200 farming communities, hundreds of factories and thousands of schools as well as hospitals, universities, roads, seaports, power stations and a national water carrier, all while feeding, housing, employing and schooling more than a million new immigrants. Eshkol ended the monopoly of Ben Gurion’s state broadcaster Israel Radio, and created an independent broadcast authority modeled on the BBC.

He was also the man who built the army that won the Six Day War, one of military history’s most stunning victories. He was the first Israeli leader to be formally invited to the White House. He was also the first Israeli Prime Minister to die in office. He died in 1969 of a heart attack.

In 1984 Eshkol’s image was chosen for the 5000 shekel bill. It was replaced in 1985 by the 5 New Israeli sHekel bill. Since 1990, his image is found on a limited, yetcirculated, minting of the five new Israeli shekel coin that replaced the bill.

Golda Meir, the most famous female politician in Israel, was born Golda Mabovitch, in Kyiv in 1898. The future prime minister’s early memories were not pleasant. Her first memory was of a pogrom which thankfully did not take place. But the panic in her family home and the sounds and sight of anti-Semitic hostility in the streets left a lasting and bitter memory. Hunger and poverty also left their mark. In 1906, the family emigrated to the United States. Golda Meir never stepped foot in Kyiv again.

Unlike Jabotinsky, Meir considered Symon Petliura the main culprit behind the anti-Jewish pogroms in 1918–1920 in Ukraine, which she mentions in her autobiography, My Life.

She was educated in the United States, became a teacher and married an American, Morris Meyerson. The couple emigrated to Palestine in 1921, and joined a kibbutz.

In 1956, she became Foreign Minister under Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Upon her appointment, she shortened “Meyerson” to “Meir”, which means “illuminate” in Hebrew. In 1969, Golda Meir was elected prime minister of Israel. She was one of 24 signatories, of which only two were women, of the Israeli Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948.

The 10-shekel note issued in 1985, featured a portrait of Golda Meir. It was removed from circulation in the 1990s. Meir was also featured on the 10,000-pound (“old shekel”) note, prior to their replacement by the “new shekel” in 1980.

Four other natives of Ukraine who have appeared on Israeli currency are Israel’s second prime minister, Israel’s second president, the first Hebrew-language writer to receive the Nobel prize in literature, and another contemporary of Bialik and literary powerhouse, whose recognition on Israel’s currency caused considerable controversy.

Join us to hear their stories in the next episode of Ukrainian Jewish Heritage, part 3 of this series on the currencies of Israel and Ukraine. In Part 4, prominent Jewish figures on the currencies of Ukraine.

More information about natives of Ukraine depicted on Israeli currency, as well as photos and illustrations, can be found at the website of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, in an article by Eduard Andriushchenko in Ukrainian and in English translation.

I’m Pawlina, producer & host of Nash Holos Ukrainian Roots Radio. I hope you enjoyed this episode of Ukrainian Jewish Heritage. Until next time, Shalom!


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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