In 1917 the majority of Russia’s Jews lived in the cities and shtetlach (small Jewish towns or villages) of the former Pale of Settlement, and over 90 percent spoke Yiddish on a daily basis. In 1918, soon after the Bolsheviks came to power, organizations designed to “Sovietize” the Jews economically and culturally were established. These were the Jewish sections (Evsektsii) of the Communist Party, which functioned until 1930, and the more short-lived Jewish Commissariat (Evkom), which operated until 1924. Their leaders saw the Yiddish language as the only medium with which to reach out to the Jewish masses and encouraged Jewish intellectuals to compose popular works in Yiddish. The Yiddish language itself was reformed several times during the Soviet period, initially with the goal of systematizing the spelling, including phonetic spelling of words of Hebrew origin, and later of purging the language of Hebraic elements that were seen as “bourgeois and clerical.” Yiddish popular culture was used as a tool to manipulate Jewish public opinion. The values of Soviet ideology filled short stories, theatrical performances, Yiddish songs, and even new holidays. These cultural products were designed to speed up the modernization and Sovietization of the Jewish population.
Anna Shternshis, Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939
Footnote: Recent scholarship, namely, works by Jeffrey Veidlinger, Gennady Estraikh, Katerina Clark, and David Shneer, argues that these Jewish activists, including some members of the Evsektsii, took advantage of Soviet opportunities and intended to build a secular Yiddish culture with a distinct, albeit non-religious Jewish content. For example, Veidlinger argues that producers, actors, and directors of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater were able to incorporate hidden Zionist and religious messages into their plays.