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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Russian Jewish Identity-Building

By Olga Gershenson and David Shneer [1]

It has been nearly 20 years since the fall of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the exodus of Russian-speaking Jews to locations around the world. And now, paradigms that predicted Russian Jewry’s decline and disappearance are giving way to a more nuanced understanding of a global Russian Jewish diaspora. Rather than approaching the Russian Jewish experience with presumptions of what it means to be Jewish and how Russian Jews do (or more likely don’t) measure up, some are asking what being Jewish means to Russian-speaking Jews.

For most Russian Jews, the primary ways of understanding Jewishness are not through synagogues, Hebrew schools and bar mitzvahs. In the Soviet Union, Jews were identified by their passports, which clearly marked their ethnicity as Jewish. Today, Russian Jews continue to see themselves as ethnically different. They also see themselves as distinct from other Russians because they possess different peer networks and have different educational and cultural expectations. For them, Jewishness is less about religious practices and more about ethnic and social relations.

That doesn’t mean that Russian Jews are lacking in the realm of Jewish identity. Indeed, the most recent National Jewish Population Survey found that while Russian-speaking Jews in the United States may affiliate with synagogues at much lower rates than their American-born kin, they actually score significantly higher on many other measures of Jewish identity, particularly those related to peoplehood and attachment to Israel — not surprising given their community’s international ties.

In Germany, Russian Jews have fundamentally transformed the Jewish landscape. According to some estimates, Russian-speakers now represent up to 80% of Germany’s Jewish population, depending upon how one counts. These newcomers rarely register with the organized Jewish community, the Gemeinde, and even if they wanted to, many of them would not qualify as Jews according to the Gemeinde’s halachic definition. German Jews complain that the Russians don’t integrate and don’t participate. At the same time, the Russian Jewish writer Wladimir Kaminer’s German-language stories about Russian immigrants in Germany have made him a literary sensation — and one of the most popular Jewish authors in the country.

Given that Russian-speakers now make up a sixth of the Israeli population, it is not a surprise that they have transformed Israeli culture too. Russian has become a de facto language of the Jewish state, with Russian-language radio and television stations, newspapers, theaters and film. “The Russians,” as they are known, have their own political, social and economic agendas. Predictably, tensions developed between immigrants and native Israelis. These tensions reveal deep cultural gaps: The immigrants brought with them not only their food (non-kosher), their language (Russian) and their holidays (many celebrate the New Year with decorated fir trees), but also their own understanding of what it means to be Jewish and to be Israeli.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Foreskin's Lament

Foreskin's Lament by Shalom Auslander [1]
Youtube Video [2]

When I was a child, my parents and teachers told me about a man who was very strong. They told me he could destroy the whole world. They told me he could lift mountains. They told me he could part the sea. It was important to keep the man happy. When we obeyed what the man had commanded, the man liked us. He liked us so much that he killed anyone who didn’t like us. But when we didn’t obey what he had commanded, he didn’t like us. He hated us. Some days he hated us so much, he killed us; other days, he let other people kill us. We call these days “holidays.” On Purim, we remembered how the Persians tried to kill us. On Passover, we remembered how the Egyptians tried to kill us. On Chanukah, we remembered how the Greeks tried to kill us.

—Blessed is He, we prayed.

As bad as these punishments could be, they were nothing compared to the punishments meted out to us by the man himself. Then there would be famines. Then there would be floods. Then there would be furious vengeance. This was the song we sang about him in kindergarten:

God is here,
God is there,
God is truly

Then snacks, and a fitful nap.

I was raised like a veal in the Orthodox Jewish town of Monsey, New York, where it was forbidden to eat veal together with dairy. Having eaten veal, one was forbidden to eat dairy for six hours; having eaten dairy, one was forbidden to eat veal for three hours. One was forbidden to eat pig forever, or at least until the Messiah arrived; it was then, Rabbi Napier had taught us in the fourth grade, that the wicked would be punished, the dead would be resurrected, and pigs would become kosher.

The people of Monsey were terrified of God, and they taught me to be terrified of Him, too—they taught me about a woman named Sarah who would giggle, so He made her barren; about a man named Job who was sad and asked, —Why?, so God came down to the Earth, grabbed Job by the collar, and howled, —Who the fuck do you think you are?

And so, in early autumn, when the leaves choked, turned colors, and fell to their deaths, the people of Monsey gathered together in synagogues across the town and wondered, aloud and in unison, how God was going to kill them: —Who will live and who will die, they prayed, —who at his predestined time and who before his time, who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning.

Then lunch, and a fitful nap.

It is Monday morning, six weeks after my wife and I learned that she is pregnant with our first child, and I am stopped at a traffic light. The kid doesn’t have a chance. It’s a trick. I know this God; I know how He works. The baby will be miscarried, or die during childbirth, or my wife will die during childbirth, or they’ll both die during childbirth, or neither of them will die and I’ll think I’m in the clear, and then on the drive home from the hospital, we’ll collide head-on with a drunk driver and they’ll both die later.

That would be so God.

The teachers from my youth are gone, the parents old and mostly estranged. The man they told me about, though—he’s still around. I can’t shake him. I read Spinoza. I read Nietzsche. I read National Lampoon. Nothing helps. I live with Him every day, and behold, He is still angry, still vengeful, still—eternally—pissed off.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Religious beliefs in Europe

Eurobarometer [1]

Four in five EU citizens have religious or spiritual beliefs. In fact, over one in two EU citizens believe there is a God (52%) and over one in four (27%) believe there is some sort of spirit or life force. Only 18% declares that they don’t believe that is any sort of spirit, God or life force.

The graph above is representative of the diverse nature of Europe’s religious and spiritual composition. The average results mask considerable differences in the beliefs of the various nationalities.

Roman Catholicism is the official religion of Malta and 95% of Maltese respondents confirm that they believe in a God. The majority of the population of Cyprus is Greek Cypriot and Christian Orthodox and the results show that nine in ten declare that they believe in a God. Four in five respondents in Greece (81%), Portugal (81%) and Poland (80%) declare that they believe in a God and are followed by Italy and Ireland where respectively 74% and 73% confirm their religious beliefs. These are all countries where the Church as an institution has, historically, always been present and strong.