The Anti-Imperial Choice
The Making of the Ukrainian Jew
Yale University Press 2009
New Books in Eastern European StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Jewish StudiesNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in ReligionNew Books in Religion & FaithNew Books in Russian and Eurasian StudiesNew Books Network March 26, 2010 Marshall Poe
I’ve got a name for you: Robert Zimmerman (aka Shabtai Zisel ben Avraham). You’ve heard of him. He was a Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota. But he didn’t (as the stereotype would suggest) become a doctor, lawyer, professor or businessman. Nope, the professions were not for him. He loved the American folk legend Woody Guthrie (of “This Land is Your Land” fame). In fact, he wanted to become the next Woodie Guthrie. So he more or less left his Jewish roots, changed his name to Bob Dylan, and immersed himself in American folk music.
Most Americans know this story and others like it. In fact, it seems like a peculiarly American story. But, as you will read in Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern‘s fascinating The Anti-Imperial Choice: The Making of the Ukrainian Jew (Yale, 2009), it’s not. It can be found in–of all places–Ukraine. The story of the Jews in Ukraine is not exactly a happy one (cf. “pogroms”). The relationship between Jews and Ukrainians has always, it seems, been one of mutual mistrust. Therefore it is all the more surprising to find a tradition of Jewish literati who devoted themselves body and soul to the cause of Ukrainian culture and the foundation of a Ukrainian state. But that is in fact what Yohanan has uncovered. The Anti-Imperial Choice discusses five Jewish-born authors who “adopted” (so to say) the Ukrainian movement in favor of the dominant imperial culture (Russian, German, etc.). They were a minority (Jews) and they elected to affiliate with a minority (Ukrainians). Yohanan does a masterful job of describing the ways in which these authors fused Jewishness and Ukrainianess into a significant literary canon in the Ukrainian language. Remarkable and food for thought indeed.
Let me also add that the book is wonderfully written. It is always amazing to me to see someone write with this level of mastery in a second language. Actually, I think English is Yohanan’s fourth or fifth language (which makes it that much more amazing…).
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