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Two Versions of One Female Rabbi

April 27, 2011

(Credit: Matthias Süßen)

Alina Treiger recently became only the second female rabbi ever ordained in Germany and the first since end of World War II. She was born in Poltava, Ukraine, but emigrated to Germany after the fall of the Soviet Union and studied there through the World Union for Progressive Judaism program. She is now the rabbi for the Oldenburg and Delmenhors Jewish communities. While her tale is certainly a pleasant one, I’d rather focus on two different portrayals of her story in the Kyiv Post and BBC.

I first read the story in the Kyiv Post, the English-language mouthpiece/propaganda organ for the western business community in Ukraine. The title of the article says a lot: “Ukrainian woman makes history as only second female rabbi in Germany.” The Ukrainian Kyiv Post writer, Natalia A. Feduschak wrote that this Jewish woman is, in fact, “Ukrainian” and the article beams with pride over this “Ukrainian” accomplishment. This title struck me as odd, since of the Jews whom I know that emigrated from Ukraine after the fall, I don’t know a single one that self-identifies as Ukrainian. There a host of reasons for this. During the Soviet Union, these Jews were labelled as such by the Soviet ethnic codification system and many felt this label was reenforced by the Ukrainian and/or Slavic neighbors. After the war, most of the Jewish community was located in the central, east, Black Sea regions, where they did not speak Ukrainian and by the time of their emigration to the West and Israel, the “Ukrainian” state was still a new construct.

Somewhat tangential here, but I’d like to note Feduschak managed to also include this priceless quote from David Milman, a rabbi’s aide in the Kyiv Choral Synagagogue, about the gender issue: “Let’s say you have a diamond ring. You wouldn’t use it to crack nuts, would you? It is too precious,” explained Milman. “The main career for a woman is her family. We are against women building careers. Not because we look down on them but because we value them very much.” Wow. Similar arguments have been made for slavery too.

Compare this article with the story about her in BBC News: “Germany’s new female rabbi sign of growing Jewish community“. In this version, she is not “Ukrainian” at all – she was only born there. And read the following:

…Alina Treiger echoes that. She says she feels less anti-Semitism in Germany than she did in Ukraine. She said that when anti-Jewish attacks take place in Germany the authorities take it seriously, unlike in Ukraine. She was born there in 1979. Her father found himself shut out of good jobs because of his Jewishness so Alina became very aware of her own Jewish roots.

Quite a different view on being “Jewish” in Ukraine, than the Kyiv Post version. Interestingly enough, part of her “Jewish” identity was predicated upon her family being discriminated against in Soviet Ukraine. This is a far cry from the “nice Ukrainian girl from Poltava who visits home regularly and made it big in Germany” tone from the Kyiv Post. Did the Kyiv Post ignore this information or did it not even cross their radar? Hard to know.

I don’t pretend to know how Treiger self-identifies (I’d love to ask her), I simply think it’s worth pointing how one story of achievement and can be painted in two very different lights depending upon the ethnic, religious or national agenda.

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