National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene

Jewish Ukrainian artist on war, refugees, and her craft

For Women’s History Month, and in advance of the U.S. premiere of pleytem tsuzamen (Refugees Together), we sat down with Zhenya Lopatnik, whose sand art will be featured throughout Sunday’s two performances. 

Zhenya is a singer, composer, visual artist, and Jewish educator fluent in five languages: English, Yiddish, Ukrainian, Hebrew, and Russian. She lived in Ukraine for most of her life and feels particularly connected to the conflict there and the experiences of those who have fled, as well as those who remain.

Would you please share your most recent connections with the situation in Ukraine? 

I lived in Kharkiv, Ukraine until 2015, when I moved to New York City to start a family. My relatives remained in Kharkiv, and I visited them every other year—most recently in 2021. I remember during that visit looking around enjoying the beauty and friendliness of Ukraine; and thinking: maybe I will not see it again for a long time. 

I think back to 2014, when the Russo-Ukrainian war first started. I had contacted a lot of the Jewish community in Luhansk and Donetsk and worked with the refugees from the region; so I knew the horror they experienced during this initial Russian invasion. I believed at the time that Russia would not stop until it captured all of Ukraine.

I remember well when I was watching the news at home on the evening of February 23, 2022, and I wrote to my relatives and friends as the war had started. At the time, I knew it was close but didn’t want to believe it. My father passed away 20 days before the war began. He had been battling cancer and living with my sister in Kharkiv. My nightmare was that the war would start, and my father and sister would not be able to leave the apartment due to his condition. Not long after the war began, there was an awful video of the bombing of a government building in the center of Kharkiv— everyone watched it on the news. It was located only a few blocks from where my father had lived.

My sister and her whole family (her daughters lived in Kyiv) have been residing in a hotel for refugees in Amsterdam since early March of last year. 

How are you feeling about the current state of Ukraine and the world? 

I could not sleep, eat, or work for the first few months of the war. Seeing my friends, colleagues, and family in danger was unbearable. I was reading the news, and I could not understand how it was possible that the world was not intervening enough. I learned that the world didn’t intervene during the Holocaust because allegedly people didn’t know about the atrocities of the Nazis. But everyone knew about Mariupol in 2021. People watched it as a reality show. It is unacceptable that strong and mighty countries, with all their weapons, left thousands of people to suffer and die. 

Given your background, what does it mean for you to be part of this project?  

I am humbled and honored to be part of pleytem tsuzamen (Refugees Together) because it combines many themes that are dear to me: the Yiddish language, aiding refugees, and the Klezmer music community. I have loved collaborating with Josh Waletzky because we have been able to combine our creativity to find the best visual representation for the poetry and the songs throughout the performance. 

Would you please tell us about your art form?

Sand Art is creating a story with light and shadows. This unique and intuitive method brings another dimension where one picture turns into another. You never know exactly what the picture will look like in the end. You trust in your feelings and hands to create images with shadows and light. 

I learned sand art in Ukraine, where this medium was prevalent. I continued developing my skills by taking classes from outstanding Ukrainian artists. In the summer of 2021, I participated in workshops of a Cirque du Soleil artist, Vira Syvorotkina, in Irpen, Ukraine. Later, it was so painful to see what happened to the place where I had just shared the happiness of art with the incredibly talented Vira.

To learn more about Zhenya, please visit her website at

We hope you’ll join us on Sunday to experience Zhenya’s art as it heightens the music of hope and resistance in pleytem tsuzamen (Refugees Together). Be a part of this call for solidarity with those who are most threatened. 

pleytem tsuzamen (Refugees Together)
March 26 at 1PM and 6PM

Stay tuned!

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