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True, both the Soviet state and the dominant American ethos encouraged ethnic assimilation: Soviet “fusion of nationalities” was paralleled by the American “melting pot.” But paradoxically, the Soviets insisted on identifying people by their ethnicity, making Jews an officially recognized ethnic group, unlike in the United States, and thus they inadvertently preserved Jewish identity.
Among American Jews, religious forms remain the dominant modes of ethnic and cultural expression and affiliation — secular Jewishness long ago weakened with the demise of the Yiddish and Hebrew cultural movements. To the extent that religion weakens, so does institutional American Jewishness. In the FSU, where Soviet state-sponsored and supervised Yiddish-based Jewishness had failed by the 1940s, Jewish identity depended far more on boundaries than on religion or culture. To some extent, boundaries have lasted longer in the FSU than the religious and cultural content of American Jews.
On both sides of the ocean, those committed to Jewish continuity as identity and as a culture are seriously challenged by a secular trend away from institutionalized religion, the absence of a national language and the increasingly “thin” nature of what passes for Jewish culture. The Pew study shows that American Jews, who had all the cultural and religious facilities during the seventy years that their Soviet brethren had very few, are “catching up and overtaking,” as Nikita Khrushchev liked to say. It’s a race that committed Jews would not like to see anyone win.
Zvi Gitelman is a political science professor at the University of Michigan and the author of “Jewish Identities in Postcommunist Russia and Ukraine: an Uncertain Ethnicity” (Cambridge University Press, 2012).