Posts tagged Russian Jews.

Haggadah shel pesakh (Story of Passover), cover from the second edition. Drawing by Alexander Tyshler. Moscow, 1927.

Alternative Passover

In 1921 the Central Bureau of the Bolshevik Party’s Evsektsii sent instructions to all local branches to organize “Red Passovers.” Popular brochures that came to be known as “Red Haggadahs” were published, specifying how to conduct the alternative celebrations. Many were written by local activists following a series of centrally directed patterns. One of these was the Komsomolishe Haggadah (Komsomol Haggadah), published in Moscow in 1923 by Moyshe Altshuler. Traditionally the start of Passover (an eight-day holiday during which consumption of bread or leavened products and yeast is forbidden) is marked with the Bdikas khometz—a search for all remaining traces of leavened food, followed by its burning. In Altshuler’s Komsomolishe Haggadah, this ceremony was transformed as follows:

Ten years ago the working class of Russia with the help of peasants searched for khometz (leaven) in our land.[1] They cleaned away all the traces of landowners and bourgeois bosses in the country and took power in their own hands. They took the land from the landowners, plants and factories from the capitalists; they fought the enemies of the workers on all fronts. In the fire of the great socialist revolution, the workers and peasants burned Kochak, Yudenich, Vrangel, Denikin, Pilsudskii, Petlyura, Chernov, Khots, Dan, Martov, and Abramovich. They recited the blessing: “All landowners, bourgeois and their helpers—Mensheviks, Esers, Kadets,  Bundists, Zionists, Esesovtses, Eesovtses, Poaley Zionists, Tsaarey-tsienikes, and all other counterrevolutionaries should be burned in the flame of revolution.[2] Those who are burned should not ever survive, and the rest should be given to us and we shall transfer them to the hands of the GPU.[3]

The Komsomol Haggadah combines all enemies of the Soviet regime as khometz, and recommends burning them. Equating antagonists who were notoriously anti-Jewish, such as the commander of the White Army Alexei Denikin, to Jewish Soviet opponents, such as Bundists or Zionists, was a popular method of Soviet propaganda.

Every seder ritual was transformed in the Soviet Haggadah. The traditional hand-washing and blessing before the meal became a political statement:

Wash off all the bourgeois mud, wash off the mold of generations, and do not say a blessing, say a curse. Devastation must come upon all the old rabbinical laws and customs, yeshivas and khaydorim, that becloud and enslave the people.

Some Soviet Haggadah texts … simply replace “God” with the “October Revolution”:

We were slaves of capital until October came and led us out of the land of exploitation with a strong hand, and if it were not for October, we and our children would still be slaves.

The Komsomol Haggadah argues that Passover is not a celebration of real freedom but rather of spiritual slavery, because the holiday comes only from heaven. In contrast, genuine freedom is in the hands of the proletariat, and therefore one must celebrate May Day.

Instead of the story of how the sea was divided, we speak about the brave heroes of the Red Army near Perekop. Instead of the groaning of the Jews in Egypt and God’s miracles, we speak about the real sufferings of the proletariat and peasants in their resistance against their exploiters and their heroic struggle.

In 1927 Altshuler’s Haggadah was reprinted with minor changes. The second edition featured a new illustrator—Alexander Tyshler (1898-1980), who worked for the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre. Although it still mocked traditional Judaism, the pictures were milder and included more positive images of Jewish workers and soldiers. Instead of ridiculing religious traditions alone, the second edition incorporated other “hostile” elements, such as Zionists, bourgeois Jews, and even Soviet bureaucrats. Judaism was now seen not just as a religion but rather as a banner under which all Soviet enemies were united. In other words, from an anti-Judaic piece of propaganda, the Red Haggadah eventually became anti-Jewish in general.


[1] The phrase “ten years ago” refers to the October Revolution of 1917 and is taken from the second edition, which was published in 1927.

[2] The first edition Di komsomolishe adds that all other shlim-mazls (losers) and parasites should be burned in the flame of revolution.

[3] GPU is the acronym for Gosudarstvennoe politicheskoe upravlenie, or State Political Administration (secret police). The entire sentence refers to a customary saying that is pronounced when one burns khometz before Passover: “Any khometz, or leaven, that is in my possession that I have not seen, have not removed, and do not know about should be annulled and become ownerless, like dust of the earth.” The particular expression rephrases the saying by identifying khometz with the representatives of ideologically hostile political parties.

— Anna Shternshis, Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (2006), p. 27-34.

  March 25, 2013 at 03:25pm

My parents did not speak Yiddish to me or my sister. They wanted us to speak Russian. But they spoke Yiddish between themselves, so we understood and learned it. Also, I spoke Yiddish with my grandmother, who did not speak Russian. When I was seven I was supposed to go to school and was very excited about it. My mother wanted me to go to a Russian school. One day she took me to the director of the school. Then she told me to say that I did not speak Yiddish. I was very surprised, because this was the first time my mother asked me to lie. I said: “Mother, you used to say it is not good to lie!” She answered then: “This time, it is better for you not to say the truth. Do not reveal to them that you know Yiddish.”

When we arrived there were three men in the room. I entered with my mother. They asked me in Russian my name, my age, and then they asked if I knew any Yiddish. I said I did not know Yiddish. Then one of the men told me [in Yiddish]: “Meydele, gey farmakh di dir!" [Girl, go close the door!] I went to close the door. That was how they enlisted me in a Jewish school.

Ida V. (b. 1923), on how she ended up in a Jewish school in Odessa in 1930. Oral testimony in Anna Shternshis’ Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (2006), p. 16-7.

"A great number of Soviet Jewish schools were established in the mid-1920s. In theory, these schools were designed for children who spoke Yiddish as their native language. Jewish parents often preferred Russian schools because they felt that such an education would give their children more opportunities in the future. But government officials insisted that Jewish children attend Soviet-run Yiddish-language schools, as many ideologues believed that children would learn Soviet values better if they were taught in their mother tongue. […] The specifically Jewish element in the curriculum was used simply as a tool to convert the Yiddish-speaking population into a Soviet-thinking one."

  March 22, 2013 at 01:30pm

1: Jewish colonists, residents of a collective farm in Stalindorf, a Jewish autonomous subdistrict of the Kherson region (now in Ukraine) reading Der emes, 1937. (YIVO)

2: Der apikoyres, special fall edition, Kiev, 1923. The text reads: “The Torah is the best merchandise.” (via joanerges)

"[A]nti-Judaist diatribes were found throughout all types of Soviet Yiddish publications, from newspapers to scholarly discourses. At least seventy-four titles of specifically antireligious Yiddish literature were issued between 1917 and 1941. The Yiddish Communist newspaper, Der emes (The truth), became a leading forum for antireligous writing. The most intensive period of publishing antireligious literature was from 1927 to 1935. A special Yiddish-language periodical, Der apikoyres (The godless) was published from 1931 to 1935 by the League of the Militant Godless.”

— Anna Shternshis, Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (2006), p. 4.

  March 22, 2013 at 11:15am


American Fund for the Relief of Those So Bitterly Oppressed in Russia Will Be Used to Bring Thousands Here.

New York City is just beginning to feel the crest of another great wave of Jewish immigration. The Russian massacres have caused more Hebrews to look hither for a refuge than have ever before turned their faces toward this land of freedom and wealth. The “plagues of the sword and torch” that have smitten their race in Russia in the last few weeks exceed any catastrophe known to their history since their dispersal. As was said the other day in the appeal by the National Hebrew Relief Fund Committee of the United States to the Jews of this country:

"Apparently no calamity of such magnitude has befallen Israel since the fall of Jerusalem. All the horrors of the Inquisition, all the persecutions of the Middle Ages, seem incomparable with this stupendous and unspeakable crime, both in its malignity and in the number of people affected and endangered."

And yet in spite of all these horrors it is said by Jews as prominent as Oscar S. Straus that the worst is still likely to come.

Headline in the New York Tribune, dated December 17, 1905

See the newspaper page here & more of the article transcription here.

It’s winter in Russia and the people are hungry. The town council announces that meat will be arriving so everyone gets in line to wait for the meat. After an hour of waiting in the snow and freezing cold, the town council announces that there will be less meat coming than expected, all Jews go home. So all the Jews leave the line. Another hour goes by and, again, the town council announces there will be less than expected food arriving, all non-communists go home. All the non-communists leave the line. Another hour, and the town council announces there will be no food arriving, everybody go home. As one man trudges home through the snow, he turns to his friend and says, “you see, the Jews always get to go home first!”

(via JRCC)

Speak Memory... ›

Thursday, February 28, 2013 // 6pm
Columbia/Barnard Kraft Center
606 West 115 Street, New York, NY 

Speak Memory is an exhibition of four recipients of the COJECO Blueprint Fellowship: Katya Meykson, Irina Sheynfeld, Tanya Levina and Yuliya Levit. This show explores Russian-Jewish immigrant identity, artists ties to the historic past, and the connection to our roots that we feel in everyday lives.

(via Soviet Samovar)

  February 22, 2013 at 03:00pm

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)

Limmud FSU Princeton 2013:
3-day Festival of Russian-Jewish Culture, Learning and Entertainment!

A truly unique event, organized and run entirely by volunteers, Limmud FSU has revolutionized pluralistic Jewish engagement of Russian-speaking Jews by involving them in an array of interactive workshops, intellectually-stimulating discussions, a festive Shabbat celebration, controversial debates, film screenings, artistic performances, music, dancing and much more.

Join us on March 15 – 17th, 2013 and experience the magic of Limmud FSU!

REGISTER // Questions? Contact

Olga Gershenson & Psoy Korolenko will be there, among many others!

(via Soviet Samovar)

Kadya Molodowsky recites one of her poems for Chekow in her Grand street spartment during the winter of 1970.

Photo by Arnold Chekow

(via Yiddish Book Center)

more Kadya Molodowsky

On the eve of the Sabbath I am always tormented by the dense sorrow of memory.

Isaac Babel, “Gedali” (via broletariat)

From Cavalry Army (Конармия), a collection of short stories first published in the 1920s.

more Isaac Babel