Posts tagged Jewish Identity.

The Russian-Jewish club, I imagined, would provide an environment that would foster the complex, and sometimes contradictory, Judaism of Russian-Jewish students. I wanted to create a meeting place for students like myself to explore the Jewish side of our heritage, while still maintaining our ties to Russian traditions. My intention was that students might feel a closer connection to Judaism by realizing the unique space they occupy on the Jewish spectrum.

[…] Because of the varied geopolitical backgrounds of the students involved, the organization strives to provide a space in which we are all able to explore what it means to be Jewish as children of Soviet refugees, in all of its complexity. In doing so, we’ve discovered a shared question, raised consistently as we’ve considered our Jewish identities: does our neglect of many traditional Jewish practices make us “bad Jews”? This has been a question I, myself, have constantly entertained.

Jonathan Levin, “First Generation Soviet-Jewry Descendants: Bad Jews?" (The Nation)

(via Soviet Samovar)

The emotional high point of the trial was the testimony of Solomon Lozovsky, at 73 the oldest defendant. He spoke as a Kremlin insider, someone who had helped formulate Soviet policy from the top. In six days of testimony he demolished the prosecution’s case and Fefer’s credibility, calling the charges “poetic slander” and “rubbish.” “It’s like some kind of fairy tale,” he said at one point. “There was no Central Committee, no government, just Lozovsky and a couple of Jews who did everything. It’s astonishing.”

Perhaps the most dramatic moment, however, came at the opening of his testimony, when Lozovsky spoke not as a government official or a founder of the Communist Party, but as a Jew.

“As you know,” he told the judges, “my family name is Dridzo. This name cannot be translated into any language. When we asked our father what it meant, he told us that, according to a story passed down from father to son, a distant ancestor of ours was among the 800,000 Jews who fled from Spain in 1492, when the chief inquisitor, Tomas de Torquemada, issued a decree compelling Jews to convert to Catholicism or leave the country.” His father, he continued, was a Hebrew teacher and poet who had taught him Hebrew and Russian. “Anyone who denies his background is a bastard,” he said.

The implication was clear: You the judges are no better than Torquemada.

Two months later, he was dead.

Joshua Rubenstein, "Some Were Poets, All Were Martyrs" (Forward)
  August 13, 2012 at 02:37pm via

“In Russia,” Sirotin says sadly, “I was told I cannot be Russian because I have a Jewish face. Here, the Jews say, ‘Can these be Jews? They’re so Russian!’ What does it mean to be a Jew without feeling for the religion that is a whole national-spiritual-ethical way of living? I can’t explain it. But I feel Jewishness in my essence, under my thoughts. I feel it in my heart. So now we are trying to find a way to be. It was very difficult to be a Jew in Russia. But it is not easy to be a Russian Jew in America.”

More than a few of the new immigrants were outraged that those who had lived comfortably in the United States for much of this time would dare to tell them that they were not Jews. Indeed, surveys of Soviet immigrants in the United States show that a large majority strongly identify as Jews, far more strongly than do most American-born Jews.

Annelise Orleck, The Soviet Jewish Americans (via sovietjewry)

With such a lukewarm response from the Soviets [to observant Jews’ attempts to teach and outreach to them], tempers flared among older Brighton immigrants. […] Their resentment was openly expressed. You could hear it on the streets, on the boardwalk, in the synagogues, in the stores: “Why did we fight to bring them here? Why did they want to come here? They’re not even Jews. They don’t want to be Jews.” The Soviets irked Brighton residents for a host of reasons, but the oldtimers’ anger often took the form of a single rebuff: The newcomers were not really Jews.

Some strongly Jewish-identified members of the immigrant community tried to mediate. Alexander Sirotin formed the Jewish Union of Russian Immigrants to sponsor activities with a Jewish theme among the new arrivals. Through the 1980s he was host of “Gorizont” (Horizon), a Russian-language radio show on the Lyubavitch Hasidic radio network. The message of Sirotin and other Jewish-identified community leaders in Brighton was: Let the Soviet immigrants nourish their Jewish identities in their own ways, in their own time. As examples, he pointed to an emigre Yiddish theatre troupe and to gatherings of senior citizens at which Yiddish songs and poems were sung and recited by recent Soviet immigrants.

By contrast, many American Jewish attempts at outreach were perceived by newcomers as somehow threatening, no matter how well intentioned. Several days after he arrived from Moscow in 1974, Victor Rashkovsky awoke to find two young men whom he did not know, and who spoke no Russian, praying and nailing a mezuzah (decorated case containing a holy scoll) to his doorpost: “All I understood was that they wanted to proceed with some ritual they considered to be important.” He thought that he recognized them from a local synagogue and so he let them proceed but he had no idea what they were doing. “Only later did I learn this custom.”

Annelise Orleck, The Soviet Jewish Americans (via sovietjewry)

In America, Jewish communal leaders continue to wring their hands over high rates of interfaith marriage, low levels of Jewish observance among new Jewish immigrants, the lack of connection to Israel among large numbers of American Jews, the death of Yiddish, and the failure of the younger generation to “keep the faith.”

Fears. All of them. Fears that Jewish life is dying around the world. Fears that Israel will be driven into the sea if Jews don’t push back in defense. Fears that if American Jews don’t stop marrying non-Jews, there won’t be any Jews left in fifty years. Fears that if American Jewish leaders do not send Jewish teenagers to Israel and do not build another Holocaust museum, the next generation will not identify as Jews and the memory of the Jewish past will be lost.

In our many years working in Jewish education and in Jewish communities, across the United States, in Russia, and Israel, we rarely hear people exclaim, “Wow! Jews in America are doing a wonderful job of building Jewish culture, education people, and fostering dynamic visions of a Jewish future.” We rarely hear positive comments about the changing relationships to Judaism or the new Jewish ways of raising children being developed by interfaith families across the country. Although many lament the “lack of Jewishness” among recent Russian Jewish immigrants to both the United States and Israel, we seldom hear or read about the new forms of Jewishness these immigrants bring with them. Too few Jews celebrate the renaissance in American Jewish immigrant literature, the like of which has not been seen since the first half of the twentieth century. We rarely hear anyone describe Moscow as a vibrant centre of contemporary Jewish life or recognize that Russian is growing in importance as a language of Jewish life, literature, and culture. And hardly ever do we hear people say, “Maybe we’re putting too much emphasis on Israel and not enough on our own Jewish communities.”

Caryn Aviv & David Shneer, New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora (2005)

(via sovietjewry)

(via sovietjewry)

Soviet Jews tend to be as aggressively skeptical of Judaism as they are guilelessly sentimental about Jewishness.

Boris Fishman, “Under the Chuppah” in Tablet Magazine (via sovietjewry)

(via sovietjewry)

Anonymous asked: Why is it bad that Jewish is listed as a nationality?

I never wrote that it was bad, I just pointed out that it was identified as a nationality by the Soviet state. 

I don’t think that whether or not Judaism is a nationality is important here. What interests me are the ways in which the Soviet state identified Jews.

In 1932, the state began identifying all citizens by their “nationality” (the “fifth point” or “fifth record”/пятая графа) within internal passports. While non-Jews were listed as “Ukrainian” or “Byelorussian,” for example, Jews were denied those identifications (and “nationalities”); they were always categorized as “Jewish.”

There are lots of things you could talk about here, and I’ll bring up a few.

  • Self-identifying as a Jew was denied to folks. The state had the power to categorize and identify (for) you.
  • Since anti-Semitism was state-sanctioned, being identified as a Jew in your passport was obviously dangerous, restrictive, and facilitated discrimination.
  • This “fifth point” played a large role in shaping and maintaining a Soviet Jewish identity. Anna Shternshis, author of Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939, wrote that the “‘fifth point’ (nationality) in the Soviet passport probably played the most important role (comparable only to popular antisemitism) in maintaining a conscious ethnic identity among Jews during the entire Soviet period.”
Posts I’ve made that are about or make mention of Soviet passports can be found herehere, and here. My mom talks a bit about her passport and how she was identified as a Jew in the second half of my short documentary, which you can watch here (and part one is here!).

I’m open to talking more about this and hearing from others. I’m no expert and what I have to say is based on the (not incredibly extensive) research I’ve done.

  August 03, 2012 at 10:24am

Who is a Jew? ›


“The revival of Jewish life among some of the Russian Jews in Germany has been an important corrective for thinking Israelis. In the 1980s and 1990s, when Jews streamed out of the Soviet Union, their exit visas all citing Israel as their destination, Israel fought foreign governments and diaspora Jewish organisations to stop them dropping off on the way. They were not refugees, the Israeli government and the World Zionist Organisation contended. They had a homeland: Israel. Outside Israel their Jewish identity would die.

This has not happened in Germany, nor in America, where the mixture of assimilation, religiosity and ethnic identity among the hundreds of thousands of ex-Soviet Jews who live there is similar to that of the broader Jewish community. All this suggests that diasporas are more resilient than dogmas of Zionist primacy admit.


“Most German Jewish communities restrict their membership to halachic Jews only; that is, those born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism in accordance with the halacha. Many of the Russian immigrants do not qualify for membership. Some of them undergo conversion; most do not, leaving them in a sort of Jewish limbo.”

Although only parts of the population adopted the state’s negative attitude toward religion in the 1920s and 1930s, the effects of these antireligious campaigns eventually led to the popular opinion that observing religious traditions was not the primary way to express Jewish identity.

Anna Shternshis, Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939
  April 11, 2012 at 04:00am

Zvi Gitelman asserts that post-Soviet Jews maintain a “thin” culture, and thus their Jewishness is based on feelings, memories, and shared experiences without the “thick culture” of language, religion, customs, food, dress, music, and ethnic neighbourhoods. The transformation of the Russian Jewish identity of the 1920s from a “thick” to a “thin” culture took only one generation… . Post-Soviet Jews … completely disassociate Jewishness from Judaism. A recent sociological survey conducted in the late 1990s revealed that less than 1 percent of post-Soviet Jews think that knowledge of Judaism, observance of the Sabbath and kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), and circumcision are relevant to being “a good Jew.”

Anna Shternshis, Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939
  April 07, 2012 at 06:58am