Ashkenazim - Religion and Expressive Culture



A consistent effort since the Revolution to dissociate religion from culture has in many ways been successful, as the vast majority of Jews feel themselves Jewish but in no way religious. It should be borne in mind that in the former USSR, expression of Jewishness and especially religiosity was felt to be an act requiring courage, and was thus less likely in conservative parts of society. Some people attended gatherings at the synagogue and other places without telling their families. Since World War II, the vast majority of Ashkenazim have not observed Jewish holidays, the result of assimilation, commitment to communism, fear of anti-Semitism, or lack of information about the significance of holidays and their proper observance. Others bitterly resent the past unavailability of religious materials and opportunities for religious education and practice. Reading material related to Jewish culture, religion, and the cycle of observances is rare and immensely valued; the traditional respect for books is augmented by the fact that only through books do Soviet Jews see a possibility of rediscovering and revitalizing their Jewish identity. Since the 1960s, Jews have attended readings, skits, musical programs, and synagogues without understanding the Yiddish or Hebrew in which the performance is presented; there has also been a movement to establish study groups and seminars for Jews to educate each other in and discuss Jewish culture, music, literature, and languages, although laws have proscribed many such activities, including the teaching of religion to children. Since the late 1970s there have been a few Jewish kindergartens formed in apartments.

Religious Practitioners and Practices. Since the Revolution, rabbis have required permission to celebrate holidays. For the ninety-one (Orthodox) synagogues the authorities claim, they claim fifty rabbis; in fact only about sixty synagogues function and thirty-five rabbis serve them; the fact that Judaism allows for worship with a quorum of ten adults ( minyan ) keeps worship possible in some places. Congregations have functioned separately, with no regular meetings of rabbis sanctioned. Of the sixty synagogues, fifteen are in Russia (one in Leningrad and one large and one small in Moscow) for a population of over 701,000 Jews, eight are in the Ukraine for a population of over 634,000 Jews, and three are in Belarus for over 135,000 Jews. Laws allow religious ceremonies to be held in apartments or open places such as forests only with special permission, but a number of services and celebrations are held in such places. A one-room yeshiva at the Moscow synagogue was inaugurated in 1957, then closed until 1974. To date not a single rabbi has graduated. A few students from the USSR study in Budapest. The Hasidic sect, which originated in the eighteenth century and stresses enthusiastic piety, claims as many as a few thousand adherents in the former USSR. These Hasidim conduct their own services alongside others in the synagogue; some men wear side curls, beards, prayer shawls, and head coverings.

Although education and high-ranking occupations have a negative correlation to religiosity, and the roles of the rabbi and synagogue with respect to legal, cultural, and religious life have been altered, synagogues remain rare visible symbols, gathering places even for antireligious Jews on holidays, seen as celebrations of Jewish history and identity. Another form of recent collective expression has been to gather at a site where large numbers of Jews were killed in World War II. A great number of Ashkenazim use what are usually considered religious forms to express not belief but rather nonreligious identification with Jewish culture. On some holidays streets around synagogues fill with Jews who stand together, sing, and talk—for many, a public gesture of defiance. It is estimated that in 1981 20,000 Jews gathered at the Moscow synagogue on Simhas Torah, 5,000 at Passover, and many on the Jewish New Year.


Ceremonies. Sabbath services throughout the 1980s were sparsely attended, mostly by older people. Religious marriages are not recognized by the state, and rabbis have rarely performed them. Recently, some religious weddings have been celebrated at home, with the traditional canopy, breaking of a glass, Jewish music, and a wedding bread. Some Jews take advantage of foreign rabbis traveling through for the celebration of marriages and bar mitzvahs.

In the 1920s and 1930s even antireligious Communists observed the custom of burying Jews only in Jewish cemeteries, but now Jewish cemeteries and Yiddish inscriptions on gravestones are rare; some cemeteries have Jewish sections. Many elders dying now were Communists, perhaps atheists. The kaddish is sometimes said.

A new awareness that the thirteenth birthday has significance is spreading, and some bar mitzvahs are marked by family celebration and perhaps a speech made by the 13-year-old when it is not known what else to do. The bat mitzvah for girls is an American innovation adopted by Russian Jews. When it is known that the ceremony involves study, reading in Hebrew, and explication of a passage of the Torah, and this is a possibility, it is done. The ceremony is easy to perform at home, as it does not require a rabbi.

Passover has been, for some Jews, a once-a-year "heroic act" since the 1970s: to go to the synagogue and buy matzo, unleavened bread that commemorates the Jews' exodus from Egypt, and to light candles, which started becoming the practice again in the mid-1980s. The making of matzo has long been suppressed. Baked secretly in the 1930s and 1940s, it was unavailable in the late 1950s and early 1960s; since 1964 limited production has been permitted at certain synagogues (in some places people bring their own flour).

Circumcision, affirming the biblical covenant with the God of Israel, should be performed, according to Jewish law, on the eighth day following birth. Although some circumcisions were secretly performed even during the Stalin era, they have been rare since World War II, owing to a lack of trained individuals, ( mohalim ) , legal proscription of religion-related surgical procedures ("which may damage citizens' health"), and fear that if a boy were discovered to be circumcised in school or during a medical exam, there would be problems. There has been some interest lately in circumcision: a very few men at the time of their bar mitzvah or in their twenties have chosen to be circumcised as a gesture affirming their commitment to Judaism.

When possible, outdoor shelters have been built for the autumn festival of Sukkes, the last day of which, Simhas Torah, "Rejoicing in the Law," marks the completion of a year's cycle of weekly Torah readings and the beginning of a new one. The celebration involves dancing, singing, and processions dancing with and honoring the Torah. Since the 1960s it is the holiday most celebrated (even by atheists), an expression of national solidarity, and a favorite festival of youth with huge emotional gatherings in the streets around synagogues. In the late 1970s the tradition of purimspiels —plays related to the story of Esther and Mordechai, who avoided a massacre of Jews under a Persian king—was revived in Moscow and Leningrad.


Arts. Since the mid-1800s there have been dramatic changes in Jewish artistic culture (e.g., there have been important visual artists, though visual representation was interpreted as tantamount to idolatry according to the Old Testament). Bakst and Chagall (before his 1923 emigration, when he joined other Russian Jewish painters such as Soutine in the Ecole de Paris) were among artists prominent in stage design; Marc Antokolsky was an important sculptor; Isaak Levitan was considered a great Russian landscape painter. Eisenstein was a world-famous film director.

The first influence of Jewish culture on Russian (then East Slavic) literature was in the eleventh century with both an account of the Old Testament story of the tower of Babel in the Primary Chronicle and a translation of Josephus's The Jewish War. Odessa was home to a flourishing writing culture from the 1860s until well past the Revolution, when Moscow also became a center of Jewish creativity. In 1934, at the first conference of Soviet writers, Jews accounted for 20 percent of participants. Yiddish writers wrote poetry, novels, and literary and historical criticism; these and popular classics were published and translated. Prominent in Russian literature were Babel', Mandelshtam, Bagritsky, P. Antokolsky, Ilf, and Ehrenburg; popular Yiddish writers and playwrights were Itzik Fefer, Peretz Markish, "Der Nitzer," Max Erik, Shmuel Persov, David Bergelson, Zelik Axelrod, and others. Most of these were executed or died in prison or in exile during the Stalin era. Unofficial samizdat publications dealing with Jewish issues were passed from hand to hand at great personal risk by individuals. At the end of the Soviet era the only Yiddish magazine was the monthly literary and artistic review Sovietish Heimland (Soviet Homeland), first published in 1961. It is accessible only to those who read Yiddish (although each issue contains a Yiddish lesson) and is considered one of the best such journals in the world but is also government-controlled and not representative of Jewish interests. The Birobidjaner Shtern is a Yiddish translation of the Russian-language Birobijan newspaper. Some Yiddish books are published. In the 1980s a Yiddish primer and a Russian-Yiddish dictionary (with all words pertaining to Zionism and religion omitted) were published.

In the nineteenth century, the Rubenstein brothers influenced musical performance and education, and Leopold Auer founded a school that produced violin virtuosi Yascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman, Nathan Milstein, and Efrem Zimbalist. Serge Koussevitsky was an important conductor and music publisher. Pre-World War II Jewish playwrights were Yitzhak Peretz, Moiher Sforim Mendele, Sholem Asch, Haim Bialik, and Avraham Goldfaden and Sholem Aleikhem, whose "Tevye the Milkman" has been watched by all nationalities for decades in Russian theaters with Russian actors; a new musical based on it was popular in Moscow in 1989-1990. Pre-Revolutionary Yiddish plays are popular and often performed for audiences who do not understand Yiddish; even some performers of Yiddish songs do not speak the language. In 1982 the Soviet company Melodiya began recording Jewish music. A Hebrew and Yiddish chorus was organized in 1980; Jewish music festivals have become more common since the mid-1970s. The "Habimah" Hebrew theater began in Moscow after the Revolution and left in 1926 to become the national theater of Israel. Yiddish theaters remained in Kiev, Minsk, Odessa, and Moscow. Since 1970 theatrical and music-theatrical groups have been forming; all are amateur except the Musical-Dramatic People's Theater (Jewish Chamber Theater) and the Moscow Jewish Dramatic Ensemble (Birobijan); they perform music and dances and show rituals such as traditional weddings.




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