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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.

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