Identification. "Ashkenaz" refers to the first settlements of Jews in northwestern Europe, on the banks of the Rhine, and to the culture, conservative of sources and customs, as developed through study of Torah (which can refer to the first five books of the Old Testament, the entire Old Testament, or all of Jewish law) and Talmud (a collection of laws and traditions). Since at least the fourteenth century, "Ashkenazim" has referred to German Jews and their descendants anywhere in the world. Ashkenazim share with Jews worldwide an origin myth based on the cycle of stories about the Ten Lost Tribes, according to which Jews came to Germany after the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem (586 B.C. ). Ashkenazi culture then spread from Germany and northern France to Poland and Lithuania and then to Russia, among other countries. Ashkenazi society was based on the monogamic Jewish family and governed itself on community and synod levels.
This article focuses on Ashkenazim residing in areas of the Russian, Belarussian, and Ukrainian republics (formerly centers of the Jewish Pale of Residence of the Russian Empire), which were Soviet territory from before World War II until 1990 (between 75 and 90 percent of Soviet Jews).
The actions of others and their images of Jews have strongly influenced Jewish culture. Limitations on Jews' ability to express ethnicity have almost eradicated knowledge about their religion and history and have accelerated their assimilation into the dominant society. Paradoxically, these limitations have also intensified the feeling of difference that Jews experience. Jewish identity is constructed as much in "opposition" to what is felt to be a hostile environment as in terms of common lineage and history. Vital to Ashkenazi culture are characterizations of Jews as seen through the eyes of others—for example, "Zionist" (especially since 1967), "conspiratorial" (Slavophile), "Western and materialist" (Revolutionary), "capitalist" (Stalin era), "rootless cosmopolitans," and exploitative and profiteering middlemen; also contributing to Ashkenazi culture has been the image of the Jew in literature: the sickly, cowardly, pushy, avaricious, curly-haired individual with a long hooked nose, grotesque and provincial, taking the best jobs in Russia, having secret allegiances elsewhere. The "Jewish accent," influenced by Yiddish expressions, phonetics, intonation, and syntax, is common in the Ukraine, less so in Russian cities and among the highly educated. Many jokes are made about the Jewish manner of speech, so it can be a matter of irritation, self-consciousness, or both.
Clothing styles that had hardly changed for centuries disappeared after 1917. Nevertheless, "differences" may exist between Jewish and Soviet styles, perhaps as slight nuances in tailor-or homemade clothes, and because some Jews save money and purchase goods from abroad. Despite being the most extremely assimilated Jews in the former USSR, the Ashkenazim maintain a distinct identity, involving a combination of desires to preserve their Jewishness and at the same time to be as invisible in it as possible.
Location and Demography. Census figures underestimate the Jewish population because younger Jews or those with greater social aspirations often want to hide their Jewish identity. At age 16, children of mixed-nationality marriages may choose to have either parent's nationality on their passports, and it is considered less advantageous to be known as a Jew. "How is he on the fifth point?," referring to the fifth point, nationality, on Soviet official documents, means "Is he a non-Jew?" or, in other words, "Can we hire him?" Thus, although the 1979 census showed a population of 701,000 Jews in Russia (38.7 percent of Soviet Jews, 0.5 percent of the Russian population), 634,000 in the Ukraine (35 percent of Soviet Jews, 1.3 percent of the Ukrainian population), and 135,000 in Byelorussia (7.5 percent of Soviet Jews, 1.4 percent of the Byelorussian population), a more accurate total is between 1.5 and 2 million.
Because of emigration, mixed marriage, and the relatively high percentage of older Jews (26.5 percent of Jews are over 60, but only 12 percent of ethnic Russians are), Ashkenazim are one of the very few groups with a declining population. Since as early as 1926, Jews have had the lowest birth rate of any major ethnic group in the USSR.
Nearly all Ashkenazim are now urban, a phenomenon that began at the end of the nineteenth century because of pogroms and poverty caused by village overpopulation. Small Jewish villages essentially ceased to exist after World War II. Emigration further diminished the population.
Anti-Semitism is felt to be strongest—and more constitutive of Jewish identity—in the Ukraine, Belarus, and Russian cities and towns than in the Baltic states, Caucasus, and Central Asia, but Moscow is widely considered to be the most attractive place in the former USSR (there were 8,473 Jews in Moscow in 1897; at present there are about 250,000); most Jews born there remain there or emigrate, and over one-half of Jews moving from other regions move to Moscow. Leningrad's Jewish population is about 160,000. On the opposite extreme is the Ukraine, where only about one-half of Jews born there stay.
Emigration. About 2 million Jews emigrated to the Americas and Palestine between 1881 and 1914. After the Six Day War in 1967 the attempt to emigrate accelerated; 30.9 percent of Jews in the Ukraine requested visas, 12.6 percent of Jews in the Russian Republic requested visas, and in Byelorussia 18.7 percent of Jews submitted requests (a total of 125,788 requests were granted for the three republics). From 1979 to 1985 about 12 percent of Soviet Jews emigrated, of which 60 percent settled in Israel. Interest in emigration continues to increase, motivated by desires to relate to Jewish tradition, rejoin family or friends, improve one's financial position, or (most common) to live free of discrimination. The state of Israel is valued as a symbol of historical and cultural unity and continuity.
The Six Day War was a turning point in many Jews' self-images and the beginning of a renewal of interest in Jewish culture, although much emigration is not to Israel: from 1973 to 1976, only 25 percent of those emigrating from Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev and 6 percent of those emigrating from Odessa on Israeli visas went to Israel, though this tendency changes in different emigration waves.
Linguistic Affiliation. In czarist Russia, Jews spoke Yiddish in everyday life and knew Hebrew, the language of Jewish religion. Now children speak Russian as a first language, and in the Ukraine and Belarus they study Yiddish and Hebrew also and often speak them fluently. Before and after the 1917 Revolution the Jewish community debated whether Yiddish or Hebrew had primacy in Jewish life. In 1918 Yiddish was officially recognized as the "proletarian" Jewish language, and the instruction of Hebrew was forbidden in secondary schools. In 1909, 96.9 percent of all Jews of the Russian Empire considered either Hebrew or Yiddish their native tongue. By 1979 this had dropped to 14.2 percent (almost all older people), with Yiddish considered a second language by 5.4 percent. In Russia, the Ukraine, and Belarus the decline is much more dramatic. After the Revolution, Hebrew was taught only to a limited extent in universities. Currently, it has begun to be taught again by some 100 teachers across the former republics, with about 500 students (one-half the USSR total) in Moscow and about 200 in Leningrad. Among educated city Jewry, Hebrew is preferred over Yiddish, perhaps because it carries associations with ancient history and biblical tradition rather than with a more recent, "degrading" past.
Yiddish formed during the tenth to twelfth centuries in Germany, is based on German dialects, and contains much Hebrew (taken from the Bible and the Talmud), Russian, Polish, and Ukrainian. In a 1932 attempt to "dehebraize" the culture, Yiddish orthography was changed by transcribing Hebrew loanwords phonetically and eliminating the five final letters of the alphabet. Until after World War II Yiddish was spoken openly on the street. Everyday use of Yiddish has largely disappeared, with knowledge of Yiddish being greater with each higher age group; some older people spoke it as a first language and use it at home; later generations were hardly exposed to it.