Ukrainian Jewish Heritage: Part 3—Currencies of Israel and Ukraine

In the last two episodes of Ukrainian Jewish Heritage, we learned that several Jews from Ukrainian territories were awarded one of Israel’s highest honors: their portraits depicted on the state’s banknotes and coins. And that Ukraine has returned the favour.

In Episode 1, the focus was on the respective histories of the currencies of Israel and Ukraine. In Episode 2, we introduced four prominent Jews on Israel’s currency who were born in Ukraine. The poet Hayim Nahman Bialik, who is considered Israel’s national poet; Volodymyr Ze’ev Jabotinsky, whose legacy includes the Betar youth movement and the Likud party; Levi Eshkol, who built the foundation of Israel’s modern infrastructure day Israel as well as the army that won the six-day war; and Golda Meir, the most famous female politician in Israel.

Today, four more natives of Ukraine on Israel’s currency.

Moshe Sharett, Israel’s second prime minister, was born 1894 in Kherson. His family immigrated to Ottoman Palestine in 1906, then to Jaffa in 1910. The family became one of the founding families of Tel Aviv. After Israel’s proclamation of independence Moshe Sharett changed his surname to Shertok.

Like the majority of the founding fathers of Israel, Moshe Shertok devoted his life to helping the Jews gain statehood. During the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, he was Foreign Minister for the Provisional Government of Israel. For two years, 1954 and 1955, he served as prime minister of the state of Israel.

Shertok is not considered one of the country’s most successful prime ministers. Nevertheless, due to his fluency in eight languages, formidable negotiating skills, and personal charisma, this native of Kherson is regarded as the founder of Israeli diplomacy.

In 1999, the Bank of Israel started issuing 20 Israeli New Shekel banknotes featuring Moshe Sharett, or Shertok. They are currently still in circulation.
The renowned Israeli writer and Nobel Prize laureate Shmuel Yosef Agnon was born in 1888 in the town of Buchach in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in what is today the Ternopil oblast of Ukraine.

Growing up, Yiddish was the language of the house in his family home, and Hebrew the language of the religious books he studied. He was also fluent in Ukrainian. Several of his short stories have Ukrainian themes.

Agnon began writing Yiddish and Hebrew poems in childhood and was already being published by the time he was a teenager. He then turned to short stories and novels, written initially in Yiddish. They documented the shtetl world of his youth and a traditional way of life that would not last.

In 1907 Agnon emigrated to Palestine. There he embraced Zionism and a more secular lifestyle, and wrote in Hebrew. Buchach, however, had a place in his literary work for the rest of his life. The feeling was mutual; in recent years, the Agnon Literary Center was established in Buchach.

In 1966, Agnon was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He was the first Hebrew-language writer to win the award. His novel A Guest for the Night, is based on a visit Agnon made in 1930 to Buchach. It was released in September 1939, the month Nazi Germany invaded Poland. An eerie and tragically prophetic irony of timing.

Shmuel Yosef Agnon appears on the 50 Israeli New Shekel banknote, which the Bank of Israel started issuing in 1999. They are currently still in circulation.

The second President of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, was born Isaak Shismshelevich in Poltava in 1884. He studied at the Poltava Gymnasium and Kyiv University.
In the Poltava of the early 1900s Ben-Zvi engaged in the same kind of activities as his contemporary, Jabotinsky, in Odesa. He built up the Jewish political movement and organized anti-pogrom defense forces.

He immigrated to Palestine in 1907, settling in Jaffa. In 1908 he helped found ha-Shomer, a self-defense organization for Jewish agricultural settlements. In 1909 in Jerusalem, he founded Palestine’s first Hebrew high school.

In 1915 Ben-Zvi was exiled from Palestine by the Turks. He traveled to the United States, where with David Ben-Gurion, he helped found a Zionist pioneer youth organization and the Jewish Legion which fought alongside the allies during WWI. He and Ben-Gurion later also founded the Mapai Party, which became a leading political force in Israel. After his return to Palestine, Ben-Zvi helped create the Jewish National Council, which represented 90 percent of the Jewish community in the British mandate in Palestine from 1920–48. Ben-Zvi became chairman of the council in 1931 and president in 1944.

Ben-Zvi was one of the signatories to Israel’s Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948. The following year, he was elected to the Knesset. He became president of Israel in 1952, a position he held until his death in 1963. He was also a noted scholar of Middle Eastern history and archaeology.

Ben-Zvi is depicted on the 100 Israeli New Sheqalim banknote (Itzhak Ben-Zvi), which the Bank of Israel began issuing in 1999. They are currently still in circulation.
The renowned Hebrew poet Saul Tchernichovsky was born in 1875 in the village of Mykhailivka, now in Zaporizhia Oblast, Ukraine. He grew up in a religious home and attended a modern Hebrew school.

At age 14, he was sent to Odessa to further his education. He studied medicine in Heidelberg, and completed his medical studies in Lausanne in 1905. He also studied and became fluent in several European languages.

Tchernichovsky began writing poems in his childhood, and later translated into Hebrew classics ranging from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Byron. He published his first poems in Odessa where he studied from 1890 to 1892 and became active in Zionist circles.

Living in Odesa in the early twentieth century and writing poetry in Hebrew, Tchernichowsky inevitably became acquainted with Hayim Nahman Bialik. Like Bialik, Tchernichowsky moved from Soviet Odesa to Berlin, and then to Palestine, with a brief time spent in the United States.

The 50 Israeli New Shekel banknotes depict Saul Tchernichovsky. The Bank of Israel started issuing these banknotes in 2014. They are currently still in circulation.
Several religious figures have criticized this decision of the Bank of Israel. A top Sephardi rabbi ruled recently that religious people should not look at the 50-shekel banknote which carries the image of Saul Tchernichovsky, because the poet was married to a devout and pious Christian woman.

Nonetheless, he is considered one of modern Hebrew’s greatest poets, and his image remains on the banknotes.

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 Ukrainian and in English translation.

In the next edition of Ukrainian Jewish Heritage, prominent Jewish figures depicted on Ukraine’s currency.

I’m Pawlina, producer & host of NHURR. I hope you enjoyed this episode of UJH. Until next time, Shalom!

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One thought on “Ukrainian Jewish Heritage: Part 3—Currencies of Israel and Ukraine

  • Great job with Part 3 and the entire Currencies of Israel and Ukraine series!

    Part 3 is an especially excellent learning opportunity for me, as I had practically no familiarity with the 4 Jews originally from Ukraine featured in this segment. The four Jews. originally from Ukraine, featured in Part 2 , are much more well known.

    Because of the information you provided in Part 3, I’m planning on ordering the Shmuel Yosef Agnon book, ‘A Guest for the Night’.

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