The first Passover Haggadah in Ukrainian marks a community’s break with Russia
JTA — For Michal Stamova, the challenge of translating the original Passover text into Ukrainian began with the title.
The Haggadah — the book that contains the Passover story — begins with an “h” sound in Hebrew, its original language, and in English. In Russian, the main language of organized Jewish life in Ukraine until recently, there is no such sound, so the book has long been known as “agada.”
Ukraine has an “h” sound. But the character representing that sound makes a different sound in Russian: “G.” So for many Ukrainian Jews, “Gagada” is the cover of Stamova’s translation.
The journey of that single sound reflects the complexity of the task Stamova took on to help Ukrainian Jews celebrate Passover a year into their country’s war with Russia. A musicologist from western Ukraine who fled to Israel shortly after the Russian invasion, Stamova was recruited to create a Ukrainian Haggadah, a powerful sign of the community’s rupture with its Russophone history.
Stamova knew that she wanted to base her translation not on the existing Russian translation, but on the original Hebrew and Aramaic. That was challenging because much of the text of the Haggadah is taken from other sources in the Jewish canon, but a Jewish translation of those texts into Ukrainian is only now underway for the first time.
“At first, it was very difficult to start, because we don’t have the sources in Ukraine,” said Stamova. “We don’t have a Torah in Ukraine. We don’t have Tanakh in Ukraine. It was very difficult to know what words to find.”
Stamova’s text, titled “For Our Freedom,” was released online earlier this month ahead of the Passover holiday that begins on April 5. It is one of a growing number of efforts to translate Jewish texts into Ukrainian. Translators associated with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement have compiled a psalm book and are working on a daily prayer book, with their sights set on a complete translation of the Torah. There is also an effort now underway to translate a chapter of a newer text related to Yom Hashoah, the memorial day of the Holocaust, before its commemoration this year on April 18.
The absence of such texts to date, despite the significant Jewish population of Ukraine, reflects the distinct linguistic history of Ukrainian Jewry. Under the Russian Empire, Jews living in what is now Ukraine in the 19th century tended to adopt Russian rather than Ukrainian, usually along with Yiddish, because Ukrainian was considered the language of the peasants and that she benefited little from it. That tilt became more pronounced after World War II and the Holocaust, when Yiddish declined as a Jewish vernacular and Russian became the main language of the Soviet Union. History helps explain why, even as the number of Russian-speaking Ukrainians at home has declined dramatically over the past decade, Russian-speaking Jews have remained the majority. (Russian and Ukrainian are linguistically related, although their speakers do not understand each other.)
Over the past 30 years, groups such as Chabad, which is the main Jewish presence in both countries, created the vast majority of printed material used by Ukrainian Jewish communities, including Haggadahs for Passover, in Russian. But after the Russian invasion, those subjects became liable at a time when it could be dangerous to be seen as having ties to the enemy.
Indeed, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year prompted many Russian-speaking Ukrainians to switch languages as a sign of national solidarity — and fueled pressure to move Ukrainian Jewish life to Ukraine.
“Ukrainian Jews have always spoken Russian. That was really the norm. With the advent of the war, that has changed, and Ukrainian Jews who are in the country are moving as fast as they can to Ukraine,” said Karyn Gershon, executive director of Project Kesher, the global feminist non-profit. who commissioned the new Haggadah.
Gershon said the Haggadah offers an opportunity to elevate Ukrainian Jewish identity in other ways, such as by including stories about famous Jewish writers from the area comprising modern Ukraine who may have been “only Russian at the time” passed by”.
“In most of the Jewish world, what makes a Haggadah unique are the special readings,” Gershon said. Ukraine’s new Haggadah includes alongside the traditional text, she said, “prayers for the defenders of Ukraine, prayers for peace in Ukraine, but also [passages] recalling writers who were always in the Russian category, but because they came from places like Kyiv, Odesa and Berdichev, they are more accurately Ukrainian.”
For example, the Haggadah includes excerpts from the 1925 book “Passover Nights,” by Hava Shapiro, a Jew and journalist who was born in Kiev and authored one of the first Hebrew diaries known to have been written by a woman.
The additions are a source of pride for some of the Ukrainian Jews who plan to use the new Haggadah.
“It’s taking you to the roots of those Jews who lived here before the Holocaust,” said Lena Pysina, who lives in Cherkasy, southeast of Kyiv. “It is about rebuilding the Jewish communities in Ukraine as ‘Jews of Ukraine.'”
Pysina said the shift to Ukraine and the inclusion of Ukrainian Jewish history connected in some ways to the themes of the Passover story, which describes the Israelites fleeing slavery in Egypt.
“It’s like an exodus for us. It is not comfortable, because we get used to what we are used to. But we have to be proactive, we have to find our identity,” she said. “It took us 70 years from Soviet times… to celebrate Jewish holidays and Jewish traditions. And it took us 30 years to understand that we also have to build the Ukrainian Jewish communities.”
Those communities are deeply affected a year into the war, with millions of Ukrainians internally displaced or resettled abroad. Stamova undertook the Haggadah project from Israel, where she is one of the estimated 15,000 Ukrainians who have arrived since February 2022.
Stamova grew up in western Ukraine, where the use of Ukrainian is more common than in the east. Like most other Ukrainian Jews, she grew up still speaking Russian at home, but her school, university and most of her life outside the home was conducted in Ukrainian. That made her a natural fit for the translation project, along with her background in Jewish liturgy, which she studied at a Conservative yeshiva in Jerusalem.
The challenges went beyond phonetics. One frequent question was whether to use Russians that are widely known in Ukrainian and would be more comprehensible to a Jewish audience, or to use unique Ukrainian words.
The most difficult part of the text, she said, was Hallel, the penultimate step of the Passover seder. Hallel is a long hymn of divine praise heavy with poetry and allegorical language — making translation into any language a challenging task.
Stamova said she sought to adhere to the traditional understanding of the text while making some adjustments for contemporary seder attendees. For example, the part of the Haggadah about the “four sons” who have different relationships to Judaism is gender neutral and is changed to the “four children” in Stamova’s translation — an adjustment that has also been made in other languages.
Overall, Stamova said, she hopes the Haggadah will bring some comfort to Ukrainian Jews whose entire lives have been turned upside down.
“The Jewish tradition of Pesach is that we must remember every year that we escaped from Egypt, from slavery. It’s very therapeutic,” Stamova said, using the Hebrew word for Passover. “How is it like therapy? Yes, we remember every year this difficult story, but then we have a plan for the future, we say ‘next year in Jerusalem.’ So we have to have a plan. We have to see the future.”