A Different Kind of Kosher

By Rebecca Reich

Published September 01, 2006, issue of September 01, 2006.
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Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 By Anna Shternshis Indiana University Press, 248 pages, $24.95.

In the opening pages of her new book, “Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939,” Anna Shternshis introduces us to Sara F., an elderly Soviet Jewish émigré living in Brooklyn. Born in the Ukraine around 1917, Sara loves Yiddish songs and Yiddish theater, trembles at the thought that her 25-year-old American grandson might marry a gentile and judges all current events according to the question, “Is it good or bad for the Jews?” At the same time, she celebrates Soviet holidays rather than Jewish ones, considers a religious education “fanatical” and insists that, contrary to the religious taboo on pig, making pork “kosher” is actually quite simple: All it takes is a cook with a “Jewish soul.”

What is one to make of Sara’s brand of Judaism and, by extension, of Soviet Jews in general? Viewed as a separate nationality yet basically indistinguishable from Russians in lifestyle, enamored of Jewish songs and stories yet atheistic often to the point of scorn, this was an ethnic group that might be described as self-contradictory, to say the least. Shternshis, a Moscow-born assistant professor of Yiddish at the University of Toronto, takes a different point of departure in her illuminating if anecdotally driven study of Soviet Jewish popular culture during the 1920s and ’30s. For her, the apparent oxymorons of Soviet Judaism represent not a drifting away from Jewish roots but a coming together of two separate worlds — Jewish and Soviet — in a new culture with its own center of gravity and, yes, its own exacting brand of kashrut.

While the Bolshevik Revolution swept in an era of change for every national minority, Jews, in particular, stood to gain from the egalitarianism it preached. Jews had been second-class citizens until the fall of the tsars, confined for the most part to the empire’s western borderlands. The civil war sparked by the revolution led to a three-year bloodbath; Shternshis estimates that some 60,000-70,000 Jews fell victim to pogroms and attacks in Belarus alone. The Bolsheviks’ firm stance against antisemitism helped to rally the Jewish community. Yet rather than give traditional Judaism free rein, the Bolsheviks’ goal was to fit it into the constellation of Sovietized minorities — an Epcot Center of prepackaged cultures and languages all chiming in with the same proletarian message.

For Jews, who lacked a national territory of their own, much of this Sovietization program centered on their relocation to specifically designated Jewish areas. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were moved to farming colonies in the Crimea and Ukraine, and an autonomous Jewish territory was established on the Chinese border. But the Bolsheviks were out to accomplish more than a mere agricultural revolution: They sought to alter Jewish culture at its core by inundating Yiddish-speaking communities with anti-religious propaganda and a muscular new image of the ideal Jew.

Not surprisingly, ethnic identity (of all stripes) proved to be made of stronger stuff. But as Shternshis shows through a methodical survey of popular culture, the campaigns of the 1920s and ’30s nevertheless set the stage for the unusual ways in which Soviet Jews would express their Jewishness. So audacious was the social experiment Shternshis describes that it’s a shame her cautious tone and approach fail to capture a sense of what it was like to live at the time. The Bolsheviks were brazen when it came to agitating against religion. On Passover, Jews would gather to read “red Haggadahs” in which the traditional themes of slavery and freedom would be applied to the liberation from tsarist rule: “This year a revolution here; next year — a world revolution!”

Yet by manipulating Jewish rituals to erase religion, Shternshis argues, the Bolsheviks essentially set up a parallel shtetl that preserved Jewish identity while convincing Jews that religious belief was not essential to it. Rather than having Jewish children taught in Russian, the authorities insisted that they attend special Yiddish-language schools. Hundreds of synagogues were shut down, many of them transformed into clubhouses where former congregants were inoculated with a new set of beliefs. Local and visiting theatrical performances became the center of rural Jewish life; among the odder practices Shternshis describes were elaborate mock trials in which everything from literary heroes to Jewish holidays (the Sabbath, Yom Kippur) were put on the stand.

Regardless of the anti-religious message these performances sent, the fact that they were still geared toward a Jewish audience helped to keep a Jewish identity intact in traditionally religious areas. The hundreds of thousands of Jews flocking to the cities had to cobble together an identity by other means. As the younger generation rejected their parents’ lifestyle and insisted, almost defiantly, on speaking Russian, their sources of information about Jewish culture dwindled to the output of sympathetic propaganda about Jews — films, books, songs — that was aimed at reducing antisemitism. Paradoxically, as Shternshis demonstrates in one of her more provocative arguments, it was largely through this propaganda directed at gentiles that many urban Jews re-conceptualized their secular Soviet Jewish identity.

By 1939, the Sovietization of the Jews was considered complete and the cultural campaigns on the decline. The changes within the Jewish community were astonishing: Urban centers now accounted for 86.9% of the historically provincial community. From just 26% of Jews declaring Russian to be their mother tongue in 1926, the number had grown to 54%. But as Shternshis points out, not all the cultural programs worked as planned; indeed, much of the propaganda that the Bolsheviks produced was interpreted satirically, or else plundered for information about the religion it criticized. By combining careful readings of newspapers, leaflets, songs and scripts with interviews of 225 people born between 1906 and 1930, Shternshis shows quite clearly how the reception of Soviet propaganda differed from the intended purpose.

Interviewing people to study the ways in which they responded to official propaganda is a particularly useful and even essential research tool in Soviet studies, since censorship or the fear of retribution often prevented Soviet citizens from writing down their thoughts. But there are pitfalls in according testimonies and archival records equal weight, especially when the pool of interviewees is self-selected. As Shternshis acknowledges, most of her subjects volunteered their stories in response to invitations she circulated through newspapers or clubs in America, Germany and Russia, asking former residents of Jewish towns to share their experiences. It remains to be seen whether respondents less tapped into today’s Jewish communities might have described their religious identity in a different way.

What is indisputable 15 years after the Soviet Union’s collapse is that Jews were never truly able to escape their Jewishness, as nationality was marked on every Soviet passport beginning in 1932, and state-sponsored antisemitism blocked advancement for decades thereafter. Yet Shternshis makes a strong case against assimilation as the sole driving force of the Soviet Jewish experience by unearthing the roots of the vibrant secular culture that emerged from the clash between ideology and religion. The outcome — from Sara F. to the emerging generation of post-Soviet Jews — may not be strictly kosher, but it is proudly and defiantly kosher style.

Rebecca Reich is the books editor of The Moscow Times.

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