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A Jew and a Zhyd

Ian Shulman

December 23, 2012 | 9:24 am

A Ukrainian-born American actress Mila Kunis could have become a real pride of the country and join a beautiful company of other Hollywood beauties of Ukrainian heritages (listing her namesake Mila Jovovich, Bond girl Olga Kurylenko and many more). Instead, she unwittingly became a part of a nationalistic provocation.

It’s not that Ms Kunis is not talented enough to be an example of a Ukrainian success story in Hollywood. It’s just that some people strongly believe that a person can only be either Ukrainian or Jewish. Mila belongs to the second group; hence, it’s Jewish people who can be proud of her if they wish, but not Ukrainians.

It all began when Ukrainian far-right Igor Miroshnychenko posted a Facebook status stating that there is no reason to be proud of Mila Kunis or to attribute her to Ukraine since she is not an ethnic Ukrainian, but a Jew. He added that Kunis is proud of being Jewish, while all her remarks regarding her childhood in Ukraine are plainly negative.

The story would not cause a scandal of such scope if not for a tiny detail. While referring to the Jewishness of Kunis, Miroshnychenko used the word ‘zhydivka’ (жидівка), which is offensive in modern Ukrainian.

Being accused of antisemitism, Miroshnychenko answered that by labeling Kunis ‘a Jew’ he was only referring to her ethnic background; moreover, he doesn’t consider the word ‘zhydivka’ offensive. Politician’s supporters claim that the word has been present in Ukrainian language for ages and used by many important Ukrainian authors. Later, the Ministry of Justice has confirmed that using the word ‘zhyd’ (male) or ‘zhydivka’ (female) is appropriate and can be used on any occasion except for official documents.

To explain the essence of the situation, one should deal with some basic linguistic. The word ‘Zhyd’ (or ‘Żid/Žid’) is a perfectly normal and the only possible word for ‘a Jew’ in most of the Slavic languages. It used to be so in Ukrainian too. However, in the 1920s and 1930s the word was declared inappropriate (just as it is in Russian) and substituted with a neutral word ‘yevrey’ (‘єврей’), meaning ‘a Hebrew’. ‘Zhyd’ in modern Ukrainian is perceived rather like ‘kike’ in modern English; the difference is that the word ‘zhyd’ used to be appropriate before. Even though the word is still in use in some remote Western parts of the country (which was annexed to the Soviet Union only after WWII and where Polish cultural and linguistic influences are strong), it’s not a surprise anymore that one can feel offended by this word. Even though the secretary of Kyiv’s Chief Rabbi has recently stated that he likes the word ‘zhyd’ and doesn’t mind being called like this (though he admitted that some people don’t like this word so much), the word ‘zhyd’ for a greedy and tricky person is in use in vulgar Ukrainian.

The word ‘zhyd’ is the one you can see written on a fence, while the word ‘Jew’ written there would sound slightly awkward. Many antisemites would be happy to explain you the difference between a Jew and a zhyd (the first category is less dangerous and you can be friends with one or two of them).

In other words, Miroshnychenko’s surprise of finding out that someone can be offended by a word ‘zhyd’ is doubtful. I am not quite sure if Mila’s got to know about this nationalistic remark, but to all others, the incident became a sad and unfortunate proof of Kunis’ negative memories on her Ukrainian childhood.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Jews visiting Central & Eastern Europe frequently come with stereotypes and prejudices about the region.  In particular, group heritage and education tours for young Jews...

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