Fid­dler on the Wall

An 1899 paint­ing presents a grim pic­ture of life for Jews in the old coun­try.

Forward Magazine - - News - By Julie Ma­sis

No Jewish visi­tor to Ukraine’s Na­tional Art Mu­seum can pass this paint­ing with­out stop­ping to look:

A Jewish woman is be­ing as­saulted, not by anti-Semites but by a crowd of an­gry Jews. Pressed to the fence by the mob, her hair is un­done, her blouse is ripped, her eyes hor­ri­fied. The rabbi is shout­ing at her; bearded men are hold­ing sticks, ready to strike her; one of the as­sailants has a stone in his hand. A woman iden­ti­fied by art schol­ars as her mother is cry­ing, hid­ing her face in shame, and her fa­ther, ges­tur­ing next to his spouse, is pub­licly dis­own­ing his off­spring. What has she done? The paint­ing is ti­tled “A Vic­tim of Fa­nati­cism.” And the guide at the Na­tional Art Mu­seum ex­plained to me that the 1899 paint­ing, based on a real event, de­picts the fate that be­fell a young woman who dared to marry a non-Jew.

The artist, named Mykola Py­mo­nenko, the guide said, read about the in­ci­dent in a news­pa­per that al­legedly told the story of a Jewish woman from the town of Kremenets, in Western Ukraine. The woman was hos­pi­tal­ized af­ter Jews in the town as­saulted her for fall­ing in love with a non-Jewish man and try­ing to con­vert to Chris­tian­ity to marry him, ac­cord­ing to the guide. The woman was then kid­napped from the hospi­tal and was never seen again, she said.

This was not the fate that I re­mem­bered be­falling lit­tle Chavaleh in “Fid­dler on the Roof.” In my mind’s eye I could still con­jure the heartrend­ing scene of her fa­ther, Tevye, con­flicted, search­ing his soul, when she in­formed him that she wished to marry Fyedka, the young Ukrainian Chris­tian peas­ant who had pro­tected her when his friends be­gan ha­rass­ing her. In the end, Tevye de­cided this was be­yond the pale and warned her an­grily that she would be dead to her fam­ily if she in­sisted on mar­ry­ing Fyedka.

Still, noth­ing sug­gested that the mild milk­man, or any­one from his shtetl of Anatekva, would ac­tu­ally harm Chava phys­i­cally.

But when I saw the paint­ing, I in­stantly re­mem­bered an­other story — one I heard from a Ukrainian li­brar­ian about a month prior to my mu­seum visit. As she walked with me to the Jewish ceme­tery in the town of Hmel­nik, the li­brar­ian, who was not Jewish, told me that, a long time ago, Jews used to kid­nap Jewish women who wanted to marry non-Jewish men. They would bring them to the cat­a­combs, where they were left, with­out food or wa­ter, to die. No mat­ter how hard the Chris­tians tried to hide the Jewish woman, the Jews would kid­nap her, the li­brar­ian said.

When I heard this story, I thought that it must be an anti-Semitic myth. But still, into the cor­ner of my mind crawled a ques­tion about the ori­gins of the cus­tom of recit­ing the Kad­dish for a woman who mar­ried a non-Jew.

See­ing “A Vic­tim of Fa­nati­cism” at the mu­seum, I won­dered once again if as­saults by the Jewish com­mu­nity on Jewish women re­ally did take place. Or did Py­mo­nenko, a non-Jewish artist, ex­ag­ger­ate the truth?

At the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury, “A Vic­tim of Fa­nati­cism” be­came popu-

lar among both Jews and non-Jews, said Eugeny Kotl­yar, a pro­fes­sor at the Kharkiv State Academy of De­sign and Arts in Ukraine who wrote a pa­per about this work of art. It was printed on post­cards, and its re­pro­duc­tions were ad­ver­tised in sec­u­lar Zion­ist mag­a­zines tilt­ing against Or­tho­doxy, he said. It was so pop­u­lar that the artist re­painted it two more times. That’s why “A Vic­tim of Fa­nati­cism” is also on dis­play at mu­se­ums in Kharkiv and in Dnipropetro­vsk.

“The artist is Ukrainian. He was in­ter­ested in jus­tice. He was touched by the sub­ject,” Kotl­yar said. “No Jewish artist would paint some­thing like that, be­cause it was taboo.”

Ac­quired by the mu­seum al­most 100 years ago, the paint­ing has re­mained on dis­play un­der the Sovi­ets, and still to­day — be­cause it fits ev­ery po­lit­i­cal regime, Kotl­yar said.

“In czarist times, it showed the dif­fi­cult char­ac­ter of the Jews. In Soviet times, it was a great il­lus­tra­tion of re­li­gious dog­ma­tism,” Kotl­yar said. “It was also well liked in cul­tural Jewish cir­cles be­cause it showed the dif­fi­cul­ties of Jewish life. It ex­em­pli­fied the con­flict be­tween the tra­di­tional and the more mod­ern spheres.” But did the event re­ally take place? Be­fore he painted “A Vic­tim of Fa­nati­cism,” Py­mo­nenko trav­eled to Kremenets, where he in­ter­viewed res­i­dents and made sketches, Kotl­yar said. But all we know about the event it­self comes from his mem­oir of his wife, Alexan­dra Py­mo­nenko, who wrote:

“Py­mo­nenko read in a news­pa­per that in Kremenets the Jews per­se­cuted a Jewish girl who con­verted to Chris­tian­ity, and even wanted to stone her. This Jewish fa­nati­cism shocked him and he de­cided to make a paint­ing on this sub­ject. He trav­eled to Kremenets to clar­ify the story.”

The Na­tional Art Mu­seum of Ukraine does not have the news­pa­per that in­spired the artist, said Olga Jbankova, a se­nior re­searcher at the mu­seum.

She said that some de­tails vis­i­tors hear from the mu­seum guide are ac­tu­ally not con­firmed.

“It’s pos­si­ble that these are leg­ends. It may have been the artist’s fan­tasy,” she said.

Yet though dis­tinct from beat­ings or killings, kid­nap­pings of Jewish women who wanted to marry nonJews did hap­pen.

Na­dia Lipes, who runs a Jewish ge­neal­ogy busi­ness in the Ukrainian cap­i­tal, said she has come across at least three crim­i­nal cases in the Kiev re­gional ar­chive filed by women who had been kid­napped. One such case, from the 19th cen­tury, in­volved a Jewish woman who wanted to con­vert to Chris­tian­ity. She com­plained about “be­ing held against her will at her fa­ther’s home,” Lipes said. She didn’t know the woman’s age.

In the Rus­sian Em­pire there were no civil mar­riages, and con­vert­ing to Ju­daism was a crim­i­nal of­fense, Lipes said. So if a Jewish woman fell in love with a non-Jewish man and wanted to marry him, the only way was for her to re­nounce her faith so that a priest could marry the cou­ple.

Natan Meir, direc­tor of Port­land State Univer­sity’s Harold Sch­nitzer Fam­ily Pro­gram in Ju­daic Stud­ies, also re­called com­ing across cases in Kiev state archives that de­scribed a Jewish teenager who was kid­napped by her fam­ily af­ter she ran away from home to con­vert.

“The Jewish com­mu­nity was ac­cused of kid­nap­ping her and bring­ing her back to her home­town. The gov­ern­ment was in­ves­ti­gat­ing the sit­u­a­tion,” he said.

Sim­i­lar kid­nap­pings are also men­tioned in Jewish sources.

There is even a Baal Shem Tov story about it, said Boleslav Ka­pulkin, spokesman for Chabad in Odessa, Ukraine, re­fer­ring to the founder of the Ha­sidic move­ment. In the story, when the Baal Shem Tov heard about a Jewish girl who wanted to be bap­tized, he “went there im­me­di­ately and took her away from those priests,” Ka­pulkin said.

“Prob­a­bly she’d be sent away to an­other rel­a­tive, so she’d come to her senses,” Ka­pulkin said. “Kid­nap­ping with the goal of killing or beat­ing, that kind of thing didn’t hap­pen. But to kid­nap in order to save a Jewish soul — it hap­pened.”

He said that men were gen­er­ally not kid­napped, but “ru­n­away daugh­ters” may have been taken back by their rel­a­tives.

“But it wasn’t a reg­u­lar prac­tice,” Ka­pulkin has­tened to add. “I can prob­a­bly count these sto­ries on the fin­gers of one hand.”

Cases of vi­o­lence — and mur­der — against Jewish con­verts to Chris­tian­ity also show up in press ac­counts of the time.

Emory Col­lege his­tory pro­fes­sor El­lie Schainker, who re­searched the topic for her forth­com­ing book about con­verts from Ju­daism in im­pe­rial Rus­sia, said she found about a dozen Rus­sian news­pa­per ar­ti­cles and tran­scripts of court cases from the late 19th cen­tury de­scrib­ing vi­o­lence, kid­nap­ping and even mur­der that the Jews al­legedly per­pe­trated against con­verts — most of whom were women.

“There are def­i­nitely sto­ries about Jewish con­verts who were mur­dered,” she said. “There were cases where con­verts said there were at­tempts at their life.”

But Schainker cau­tioned that al­le­ga­tions blam­ing Jews for the mur­der of con­verts were not al­ways sup­ported by clear ev­i­dence.

In one news­pa­per ar­ti­cle from 1877, for ex­am­ple, a preg­nant woman who had con­verted to Chris­tian­ity was found dead in a burned-down inn, with signs of stran­gu­la­tion, Schainker said. The news­pa­per con­cluded that Jews must have killed her.

“I don’t dis­count that there were cases of vi­o­lence,” Schainker said. “But I try to sep­a­rate out in­di­vid­ual acts ver­sus a nar­ra­tive of Jewish be­hav­ior.”

She urged that old news ac­counts be read with cau­tion, even if they seem neu­tral, par­tic­u­larly be­cause they evoke age-old blood li­bels. “A lot of what sto­ries [do] is form a nar­ra­tive about Jews – they say – ‘Jews kill con­verts, Jews rit­u­ally mur­der con­verts.’”

As for the “Vic­tim of Fa­nati­cism,” Schainker was un­able to find the orig­i­nal news­pa­per ar­ti­cle that spurred the artist’s in­ter­est.

De­spite this, Kotl­yar said the story about Jews want­ing to stone the woman in the fa­mous paint­ing may have been true.

“Where did this cus­tom of ston­ing women come from?” he asked rhetor­i­cally. “As much as we want to look at Jewish his­tory sep­a­rately from Arab his­tory, we share a com­mon his­tory, a com­mon cul­tural base. In very Or­tho­dox ar­eas, I don’t ex­clude the pos­si­bil­ity that women may have been stoned.” When a Jewish woman mar­ried a non-Jew, Kotl­yar stressed, “it was con­sid­ered to bring shame on the fam­ily.”

Ac­cord­ing to Meir, the Port­land State Univer­sity Jewish stud­ies pro­fes­sor, even the story about women be­ing taken into the cat­a­combs might not have been a myth.

“We have sto­ries of the Jewish com­mu­nity ar­rang­ing for peo­ple to be killed,” he said. “It wouldn’t be be­yond the bounds of pos­si­bil­ity for that to have hap­pened.”

Meir ob­served that ha­lacha, or tra­di­tional Jewish re­li­gious law per­mit­ted putting to death an in­former or some­one “in ca­hoots with the Chris­tian au­thor­i­ties.”

In so­ci­eties rife with anti-Semitism, “the sin of in­form­ing was con­sid­ered a great dam­age to the ex­is­tence of the Jewish com­mu­nity it­self [be­cause] the in­former would bring the in­ter­nal se­crets of the com­mu­nity to the au­thor­i­ties,” he said. “The Jewish com­mu­nity might do any­thing – be­cause it was so im­por­tant to keep that kind of per­son in check. Com­mu­nity lead­ers per­mit­ted non-ju­di­cial ex­e­cu­tions.”

At Ukraine’s Na­tional Art Mu­seum, Jbankova said no one ever com­plained about the work of art. Quite the op­po­site: “When it was not on dis­play, peo­ple asked, ‘Where is that paint­ing?’” Jbankova said.

But Meir said he wouldn’t be happy to know that it is one of the only de­pic­tions of Jewish life at the mu­seum.

“I’d want to speak to the direc­tor of the mu­seum. I’d say you need to do a bet­ter job of rep­re­sent­ing the his­tory of Jews in Ukraine,” he said. “At the very least, there should be a plaque next to it, so that peo­ple don’t think it was stan­dard prac­tice for the Jewish com­mu­nity to abuse their mem­bers.”


Did Art Im­i­tate Life? ‘A Vic­tim of Fa­nati­cism’ by Mykola Py­mo­nenko de­picts the fate of a woman who con­verted to marry a non-Jew, and is sup­pos­edly based on a news­pa­per ac­count of an ac­tual event.


Art His­tory Ex­pert: Eugeny Kotl­yar wrote a schol­arly pa­per on the paint­ing.


Last Re­sort: ‘Kid­nap­ping to save a Jewish soul? It hap­pened,’ says Rabbi Boleslav Ka­pulkin. ‘But it wasn’t a reg­u­lar prac­tice.’

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