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Members of the Kyiv Jewish Messianic Community dance the Hora in Kyiv on June 5, 2015. Jews have lived in Ukraine since the eighth century, and before World War II comprised one of the country’s largest minorities. However, the concert organizers are double minorities: Messianic Jews, who believe Jesus Christ is the Messiah, yet also identify as Jews and observe Jewish holidays.
Credit: Matthew Kupfer.
Russian politicians and pro-Russia separatists in the Donbas have repeatedly accused Ukraine of promoting fascism and Nazism since the February 2014 overthrow of former President Viktor Yanukovych. But at a Shabbat concert in Kyiv on June 5, another side of Ukraine was on full display: religious diversity and pluralism.
As the sun set over the city, a group of musicians gathered in front of the monument to Ukrainian Cossack leader Petro Sahaidachniy near Kontraktova Square. From a distance it looked like an ordinary street concert—guitar, keyboard, bass, and drums. But on closer approach, something was clearly different: almost all the performers wore vyshyvanki, Ukrainian embroidered shirts, and kippot, Jewish religious skullcaps.
After a short announcement wishing the crowd "Shabbat sholom" ("Peaceful Sabbath" in Hebrew), the musicians launched into a raucous klezmer melody with humorous lyrics about Jewish life. They were joined by a youth dance troupe wearing traditional Middle Eastern Jewish folk costumes. The melodies meandered from klezmer to a form of Russian pop known as shanson and to a North Caucasus folk dance known as lezginka. Soon audience members mingled with the dancers, whirling round in a circle dance known as the Hora.
To the untrained eye, the performance might seem odd, even a bit out of place. But it isn't, according to 23-year-old Alyona Tukailo, one of the concert's organizers.
"This is Podil, a historically Jewish neighborhood of Kyiv," she said.
Jews have lived in Ukraine since the eighth century, and before World War II comprised one of the country's largest minorities. However, the concert organizers are double minorities: Messianic Jews, who believe Jesus Christ is the Messiah, yet also identify as Jews and observe Jewish holidays.
According to the organizers, Kyiv is home to 1,600 Messianic Jews. The Kyiv Jewish Messianic Community appeared fifteen years ago under the leadership of Rabbi Boris Grisenko, who had grown up in a secular Jewish family during the Soviet era and gotten involved in Protestant Christian churches and religious groups that appeared during perestroika. The first efforts to organize a Jewish Messianic community were met with resistance from Orthodox Jews, who view Messianic Judaism as blasphemy. Tensions linger, but members of the group say their relations with the largely secular non-Messianic Jewish community are generally cordial.
The weekly summer street concerts, organized by Mishpakha ("family" in Hebrew), the community's youth group, began four years ago to show that Ukraine is a safe place for Jews. They are secular celebrations of Jewish music and dance, and performers place little emphasis on the fact that they are Messianic.
After the Euromaidan protests, in which Jews took an active role, the community felt greater pride and its musicians, like many other citizens of Ukraine, began to don vyshyvanki for their performances.
"One of our goals is to show that the Jewish community is open and accepting of people of all nationalities. We don't divide people into Jews and non-Jews," said Alyona Tlemishok, 35, another concert organizer. "[W]e consider ourselves a Jewish community, and we celebrate Jewish holidays and say Jewish prayers. But at the same time, we want to show all other nations that we are open and we accept them just like we accept Jews."
The reaction to Mishpakha's concerts has been largely positive. According to Tlemishok, one man who had migrated to Kyiv from another region of Ukraine and had fallen upon hard times told the musicians that their songs had given him hope. Another time, a young Jewish man from Paris visiting Kyiv stumbled upon their concert.
"With tears in his eyes, he said we were lucky to live in such a free country," Tlemishok said, "because the Jewish community couldn't gather in the center of Paris to celebrate Shabbat with music, dancing, Jewish costumes, and kippot because there could be a very hostile reaction from the Arab community."
Mishpakha members are generally optimistic about the future of Jews in Ukraine. They emphasize that their concerts highlight the most accessible parts of Jewish culture. This was visible on Friday evening. Although Tlemishok estimated that half the concertgoers were Jewish ("Since we don't divide between Jews and non-Jews, we haven't conducted a sociological survey," she joked), the audience members ranged from men in track suits to elderly couples out for a stroll to parents with small children.
Aleksandr Baz, 30, director of the youth dance troupe L'Chaim ("to life" in Hebrew), admitted that Ukraine's history is pockmarked with anti-Jewish violence. But, despite Ukraine's historical reputation for anti-Semitism, he says relations between Jews and Christians are improving, especially as the country faces a serious security threat from Russia.
Jews and their non-Jewish brethren "should grow closer," he said. "The politics today are such that Ukraine would like to take an example [of national security] from Israel."
Matthew Kupfer is a graduate student at Harvard University.
He previously worked for the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace