Christianity or Judaism? A choice of Jews in modern russia

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for many centuries “to be a Jew” meant “to adhere Judaism”. The situa¬tion began changing in the 19th and especially in the 20th century, when a secular Jewish identity emerged. In the former USSR, Jewishness has been almost fully separated from Judaism and a Soviet variant of Jewish secular identity was based mainly on the principle of ethnic origins as well as on anti-Semitism. In modern Russia, a crisis of the Jewish identi¬ty has its specifics and results in construction of different types of Jewish self-identification. The religious “renaissance” of the post-Soviet period, weakness of a communal Jewish life and ignorance of most ex-Soviet Jews in Jewish tradition allow Russian Jews to choose between Judaism and christianity.


Some scholars point out two processes that occur in the contemporary world. These are the decline of many traditional collective identities and at the same time the emergence of new ones (davidman 1991; Giddens 1992; Vermuelen & Govers 1994; Eriksen 1993; Anthisa 2001). The deep crisis of some “traditional” religions and nations is one side of the phenomenon (Gans 1994; Smith 1995; Horowitz 2001; calhoun 2004). The other side is the “ethnicity explosions” and “religious renaissances” in many areas of the world (Bentley 1987; Banks 1996; Brubaker 2004). However, a person identifies himself/herself more and more with his/her origins, religion or culture, even if some ethnicities and religions are in decline. Paradoxical­ly, we can see that personal self-identification – free from many former collective ties – is very widespread (Cavalcanti & Chalfant 1994). These tendencies are also typical of Jewish identities in many countries.

New systems of values are getting more and more popular in our post-modern era. The “civil religion” is one of such systems described in different countries (e.g. Bellah 1967, 1975; Liebman & Don Yehiva 1983). This is a certain “set” of religious and secular symbols and val­ues approved and esteemed by the greater part of a community. Thus a person need not follow many prescriptions and practices obligatory for the “historical” religions. Therefore, it is much easier to unite with a community because one can fulfill a minimum of practices, which he or she chooses freely.

However, modern Russia is a deeply divided society in the social and cultural aspects. So it is impossible to speak about a common set of norms and values and therefore there is no place for “civil religion”.

Russia’s Jewry, being a part of this “society in transition,” is also a very heterogeneous community (Kochan 1972; Gitelman 1988). There is no com­mon Russian-Jewish identity but several types of cultural identities self-iden­tifications (Nosenko 2004, pp. 52-53). Moreover, we cannot find here “civil Judaism” similar to its American variant (Woocher 1986; Sarna 1991).

More often we can speak of the so-called implicit religion — a “core” of beliefs and practices that support a post-modern personality and pro­vide its feeling of communion with the sacred but not of belonging to any group (Bailey 1983, 1990). For a person who practices any form of implicit religion, it is more important to observe rituals (to burn candles, visit a synagogue or a church), rather than to understand the meaning of rituals and read the sacred texts. An implicit religion incorporates some beliefs and rituals from other religious and secular systems, e.g., meditation, reading mantras, yoga gymnastics, diets and so on, as well as believing in paranormal things — supernatural forces, UFO, etc.

The main purpose of this article is to demonstrate the “religious choice” of modern Russian Jewry. I also try to trace factors which pro­mote their choice.

Sources and Methods

This article is based on the results of my research which I carried out during ten years in several cities and towns of Russia (Moscow, Petersburg, Smo­lensk, Penza, Veliky Novgorod, Krasnodar and some others). Most of these urban centers were located beyond the Pale of Jewish Settlement and their Jewish communities (except Moscow and Petersburg) are small.

thus texts of in-depth interviews are the main source for this arti­cle. I conducted a total of 232 in-depth interviews as well as 16 expert interviews with communal leaders, rabbis, Jewish activists etc.. there is no representative sample in qualitative research. However, I took into account the principle of “theoretical fulfillment” (Bertaux 1981; Hum- mersley 1989). In all interviews, informants told me about their religious views and their role in the formation of their self-identification. the interviews lasted from 30 minutes to 6 hours depending on the infor­mants’ free time and will. Of the informants, 127 were women; the infor­mants’ age was between 17 and 88. Regarding their level of education, 207 informants had a higher education or were students in universities and colleges at the moment of the interview. I found informants both with the help of activists of Jewish organizations and using the “snow­ball principle.”

In some cases I used the data of sociological polls conducted by Zvi Gitelman, Vladimir Shapiro, Rosalina Ryvkina and others in order to verify my hypotheses.

My additional and very important source was participant observa­tion. I also consider some fiction as a significant source for this article. These are novels and stories by modern Russian writers – Lyudmila Ulitskaya (2006), Yuri Maletsky (2004), and Yelena Chizhova (2005), in which characters encounter the problems of religion. I also used a num­ber of web resources dealing with similar questions.

How Do They Identify Themselves? Some Hypotheses

When we speak about Judaism and Jewish identity, we have to take no­tice of the absence of a single Jewish identity in modern Russia as well as in many other countries (Webber 1994; Nosenko 2004).

Based on the analysis of the texts of interviews, I have already sug­gested a typology of cultural identities for persons of Jewish origin in Russia (Nosenko 2004, pp. 52-53; Nosenko-Stein 2009, pp. 20-35).

1. “Traditionalist” Jewish self-identification. Persons with this type are mostly elderly people (over 70 years). Their early childhood often took place in the traditional Jewish (Eastern Ashkenazic) cultural mi­lieu. Many of them speak or understand Yiddish; some of them finished Yiddish schools in the Soviet Union (until the mid-1930s). I call them

“Guardians,” as they save some relics of the traditional Jewish culture — but with one exception — Judaism. This separation from Judaism — the foundation of the Jewish traditional culture for many centuries — took place in the first decades of the Soviet era. It was partly a result of the anti-religious Soviet politics. However, this easy separation from Juda­ism is also rooted in a deep social and cultural crisis of the Russian Empire, accompanied by social changes and the emergence of different social theories and movements. This general crisis also embraced the Jewish population of the Empire (Klier 1995; Zippersyein 1999; Nathans 2002). Some scholars also stress the readiness of many Jews to accept the Soviet anti-religious propaganda (Shneer 1994; Krupnik 1995; Shternshis 2006). As a result of all these tendencies, a Soviet variant of Jewish sec­ular culture emerged in both Yiddish and Russian variants (Altshuler 1988; Shternshis 2006). After World War II and the destruction of the Jewish traditional culture in the Holocaust, this Soviet variant prevailed.

As usual the informants of this type are non-believers and do not observe any rituals but some of them attend a synagogue. Such visits are rather a part of a traditional way of life or a support of their Jewish identity rather than performing commandments of Judaism.

2. “Russian” (or non-Jewish) self-identification. Informants with this type of self-identification are usually of partly Jewish origins and de­clare that they are Russians and have never considered themselves Jews. They prefer Russian values and often declare that they are christians (Russian Orthodox).

3. The negative type. The informants are strongly assimilated and do not differ much from the informants of the “Russian” group. How­ever, they do not deny their Jewishness, albeit perceive it as part of a quite negative personal experience and have a negative form of Jewish self-identification that very often has been formed depending on an­ti-Semitism.

Masha-Maria, the main personage of Yelena chizhova’s novel ‘Prestupnitsa’ is a purely negative type: it is anti-Semitism only that connects her with the Jews, as her Jewish experience is negative par excellence.

Informants from this group — both “full Jews” and “half Jews” – often declare they are non-believers.

4. “Ambivalent” self-identification. Persons of this group often say that in some situations they are Russians and, in others, Jews. They were brought up in a Russian cultural milieu but during recent years often became interested in Jewish culture and tradition. This unstable self-identification is much influenced by their involvement in Jewish organizations’ activities and by anti-Semitism. In spite of their involve­ment in “Jewish life”, most informants declare they are Christians or non-believers.

5. “New Jewish” self-identification. I call it “new” because it differs from the Jewish identity which had existed in Russia until the first two decades of the 20 th century. These informants also had no traditional Jewish education. Nevertheless, they knew something of Jewish tradition and values owing to elder relatives. During recent years they have often tried to “find their Jewish roots” by studying Jewish culture and taking part in Jewish life. They perform some ceremonial laws of Judaism.

The constructing of each type depends on many factors, the religious one among them.

Russian Jews and Russian Orthodoxy

Some scholars have already pointed out that Russian Orthodoxy and Christianity as a whole is more popular among Jews in today’s Russia than Judaism (Nosenko 2009). Some of Russia’s Jews choose Christianity but at the same time they retain the Jewish identity. In other words, I do not consider Jews who reject their Jewishness after baptism — so-called vykresty (an old-fashioned term for baptized Jews). Although it sounds a bit paradoxical but what I mean is a Jewish Christian identity which exists in today’s Russia.

In the past, according to the legislation of the Russian Empire, bap­tized Jews were free from all legal restrictions for Judaists (Klier 1995; Zipperstein 1999; Nathans 2002). However, there were no mass con­versions to Christianity among Russian Jews in the 19th century. More­over, those who baptized mostly did so in order to escape all legislative restrictions. In the Soviet era, in accordance with anti-religious policies of the regime, there was no difference between Jews who were Judaists and Christians (Gitelman 1988; Altshuler 1997, 1998; Roi 1995; Shtern- shis 2006). After perestroika some scholars performed very interesting research on the attitudes to baptized Jews in Russia (Stanislawski 1987; Tabak 1999; Belova 2003; Smorgunova 2003; Deutsch Kornblatt 2003; Shternshis 2007).

Negative attitudes to baptized Jews are rather widespread among the Jews of Russia and other countries. Here is an example. The main character in the story by Yuri Maletsky (2004) is a Jew who converted to Russian Orthodoxy. In the 1990s, when the economic and social situation in Russia was very difficult, he decided to emigrate. He and his friends — baptized Jews — accept some help from the American missionary who is also a Christian Jew and came to Russia in order to help his “spiritual brothers and sisters.” During their meeting he shows a package of doc­uments that might help Russian Jews to get entry visas.

“There was a pile of invitations – to the Holy Land, to the State of Israel. What could we say? … Well, I said with the help of the transla­tor. We would be glad to leave for Israel. But that’s impossible. Not to speak of the fact that a baptized Jew — vykrest — feels moral discrimi­nation, he can’t find a good job there, but the main obstacle is that we just can’t arrive there. They told me in the Israeli consulate that a Jew who betrayed his ancestors’ faith is not a Jew anymore. Therefore he cannot immigrate there according to the Law of Return…. Moreover, I was told that all Jewish people have to mourn persons like me” (Maletsky 2004).

This fragment demonstrates this negative attitude in the Jewish mi­lieu, which considers conversion to Christianity as a “betrayal.” The Law of Return, which provides for the right to immigration to Israel for all Jews, clearly reflects these traditional perceptions, even if the State of Israel was founded as a secular state.

J. Deutsch Kornblatt noticed that many ex-Soviet Jews in Israel who became Christians prefer some Protestant denominations, including Messianic Jews and others. “The Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, a fervently Zionist, fundamentalist Protestant group, devotes half of its activities to Soviet, and now post-Soviet Jewry, providing logisti­cal and financial assistance for Jews who wish to emigrate to Israel” (Deutsch Kornblatt 2003, p. 12).

We can also remember the situation with Oswald Rufeisen (Brother Daniel) who was a prototype for the main character of the novel Daniel Stein, Translator by Lyudmila Ulitskaya (2006). During World War II, this Polish Jew was a translator in the local police keeping his Jewish origins secret and saved many Jews from the ghetto of the town of Mir (Poland). Then he escaped to the Catholic convent, was baptized and af­ter the war became a Catholic monk — Brother Daniel (Tec 1990). When he came to Israel in the 1960s, he could not receive the citizenship of that state because he was a Christian. The trial of Brother Daniel prompted many discussions in Israeli society and the mass media.

However, on the whole, the attitude to baptized Jews continues to be negative in today’s Israel. Thus, the presentation of some Russian Jewish writers at the bookfair in Jerusalem (2006) who call themselves

christians provoked a very harsh reaction among Israeli Russian-speak­ing intellectuals (Shoikhet 2007). Ye Rimon analysing this situation concludes that it is a consequence of different complexes including the feeling of shame for one’s Jewish origins. She also believes that identi­fication with christianity is a result of fear — to find oneself among the persecuted (Rimon 2006).

I believe the situation is more complicated. For example, Lyudmila Ulitskaya in her recent stories described rabbis and students of yeshibot (Jewish theological academies) with great sympathy. Nevertheless, the main character of her novel (2006) is a baptized Jew meanwhile, a rude and hysterical Zionist-Judaist who lives in the occupied territories is the other pole of the opposition.

While conducting my research, I took note of the negative attitudes to baptized Jews many times. Some people suspect they want to distance themselves from Jews — ‘their people’ who were or are persecuted in reality or in imagination. They also suspect that baptized Jews want to unite with persecutors — in reality or imagination — and thus to become Others. At the same time, I met christian Jews everywhere in Russia’s Jewish communities; some of them were even local leaders, although they did not want to speak openly about their religious views.

Maria N., 59, a teacher of arts, who was baptized 10 years ago (Veliky Novgorod, 2007), complained:

“Sometimes I feel they (members of the local community) dislike me, just hate me because I am Russian Orthodox. I don’t know why. I don’t understand. Jews and Christians must not be enemies.”

A. Shternshis also met her christian informants in the Jewish com­munal or philanthropic centers etc.. At the same time, many of my infor­mants, especially young persons, do not think it is incompatible — to be Jewish and to be christian. They believe that this is a matter of personal choice. However, the elderly people more often follow the “traditional Jewish” point of view.

It is typical that in the above-mentioned novel by Ulitskaya the main character dies because of the Kabalistic curse — a revenge of Orthodox Jews for his betrayal of the ‘true faith’.

“The Kabbalists believed that curse was like a strike of a spear of fire encircled with flame” (Ulitskaya, 2006, p. 495).

However, the perception of baptized Jews in the Russian Orthodox

milieu is complicated. In the past, this attitude was often unfriendly and even hostile. It was reflected in many Russian folk sayings, e.g. “Zhid krescheny, chto vor proscheny” (A baptized Jew is like a forgiven crim­inal), or “Boisia zhida kreschenogo, nedruga primirennogo, da volka kormlenogo” (Do not believe a baptized Jew, a pacified enemy and a tamed wolf), etc.. (Dahl 1880, p. 557). Many variants of such sayings are still widespread in Slavic languages (Belova 2005; Smorgunova 2003, pp. 180-181). They are rather popular today in the Russian anti-Semitic Internet (e.g.; http://forum.csdm. ru/showthread.php?t=785; etc.). This attitude was the focus of some research and different theological discus­sions (Borovoy c. 2000; Nazarov 2005; Tabak 1999, pp. 141-150).

Such an attitude cannot be explained by folk “anti-Judaism” only. Rather it is the result of the ambivalence of a baptized Jew. He was perceived as the Other, moreover as a masked Other. He changed his ap­pearance but retained his essence and was therefore especially danger­ous. A baptized Jew became the Other among ‘true believers.’ Besides — and the folkloric texts often show that — Russians often suspected that baptized Jews converted in order to achieve some specific purposes and thus were not ‘good Christians.’ By the way, Jews also suspected the same and baptized Jews often became Others among Others.

J. Deutsch Kornblatt explains this phenomenon by the specific po­sition of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Roman Catholic Church in the person of the Pope apologized for the many centuries of persecu­tions of the Jews. Many Protestant denominations eliminated anti-Semit­ic features from their liturgies. Unlike Catholicism and Protestantism, the Russian Orthodox Church did not do the same (Deutsch Kornblatt 2003, p. 209).

One of my informants, Boris B., 50, non-believer, working at a pub­lishing house (Moscow, 2000), had this to say about Others among Others:

“A friend of mine is Jewish; he is a normal modern person. His wife and daughter are Russian Orthodox (his wife is Russian — Ye. N.). Once he came to see us. My cousin also came, she is half-Jewish, however she is crazy about her Jewishness, she feels Jewish and all that. At the same time, she is very religious, ardent Russian Orthodox. All that sounds fantastic! I say: ‘When Jews meet together they only speak about Jewish question.’ She answers: ‘When Orthodox Russians meet together they do the same.”

After baptizing, some of my informants felt these negative percep-

tions and anti-Semitic manifestations among some part of Russian Ortho­dox clergy and preferred to become Catholics or Protestants.

Most assimilated Jews who had grown up in the Soviet era and were often non-believers or atheists also perceive Christian Jews in a very nega­tive perspective. In the above-mentioned story by Yuri Maletsky, a trans­lator who helps the main character with his American missionary says:

“My job is to translate. I will translate everything, my time has been paid for …. But I wonder — did I understand correctly that you speak about some Christian Jews?” “That’s right.” “I am sorry but… there cannot be any Christian Jews, there are only vykresty!” “Hm, are you a Judaist?” “Well, when I was in Israel. I went to a synagogue. I felt something; it was more that just a feeling. I understood that a Jew must be a Jew.” “Do you mean that a Jew must be a Judaist?” “This is the same” (Maletsky 2004, p. 370).

Does the Jewish Russian Orthodox Identity Exist?

Even now when Jews do not convert to Christianity in order to make “a personal profit,” a Jewish Christian identity sounds like a paradox. Nevertheless, many informants who declare themselves Christians si­multaneously believe they are Jewish.

Many informants from the “Russian” group declare they are Russian Orthodox or believe in some Higher Essence.

Natalia A., 19 years, a student, her father is Jewish (Moscow, 2000):

“I am Russian because I am Christian Orthodox. All of us are Chris­tian Orthodox, all my family. We only observe Christian Orthodox festivals, not Jewish ones. … My father often goes with my mother and me to church.”

Informants from the “negative” and “ambivalent” groups (both “full” and “half” Jews), as a rule, say that they are non-believers, agnostics or atheists. Some of them declare they are Russian Orthodox but in fact this is an implicit religion.

Tatyana P., 68, a pensioner, her mother was Jewish (Petersburg, 2000):

“Now I would like to believe in something. I believe in destiny, in fate. But I didn’t believe in all that before. In the last years I wanted to observe rituals — both Russian, Christian and Jewish. But I realized that it is impossible to serve two Gods. You just cannot do that. For example, I wanted to observe Sabbath but I have to do something; I cannot be completely idle. Therefore I can’t observe Jewish customs. Besides, many people work on Saturdays so I have to go somewhere or do something. Thus I didn’t observe Sabbath. … Sometimes I go to church. My husband’s relatives (Russians — Ye. N.) are Russian Orthodox, they are very religious and I have to come along with them. … Sometimes I’d like to buy and burn candles, order a memorial service. Both my daughters are Christians and they baptized their children. … I have never visited a synagogue, I am afraid to go there. Besides, I know that women are not allowed to go there.”

Persons with “ambivalent” self-identification, in some cases, are in­terested in Jewish tradition and Judaism. When they are involved in Jewish life, they keep their christianity secret.

Andrei R-y., 22, a student at the university, attends some courses in Jewish studies, His mother is Russian and his father half-Jewish (Mos­cow, 2000):

“My mother was baptized but my father didn’t want to do that. My mother is Russian Orthodox but she doesn’t observe everything, she just wears a cross. I can’t say I am a Russian Orthodox, but some­times I go to church. … I can say I believe in Jesus Christ. … I try to observe festivals — Easter, sometimes I am fasting. … Yes, I am partly Russian Orthodox, but I think my faith is not very strictly Christian. — Have you ever been to a synagogue? — Yes, but not for rituals or prayers. There is a large Jewish cultural center there. … I think that if they in the synagogue knew that I am a Christian they wouldn’t like that. But I put on the kipa and go there without a problem. I am quite sure that Christianity and Judaism are very similar religions. Of course I don’t speak about the non-acceptance of Jesus Christ. But they have the same main values, moral rules, identical norms of behavior. . I am Russian (rossiiski) but a certain part of mine is Jewish. Yes, I feel partly Jewish but I don’t worship Judaism.”

It should be emphasized that the majority of Russian Orthodox Jews are persons of partly Jewish origins (‘half-Jews’, ‘quadroons’ etc.). Ac­cording to the census of 2002, there were 230,000 Jews in Russia (Os- novniye itogi 2003, p. 13). These numbers only include persons who called themselves Jews during the census procedure. However, those who had one Jewish parent usually called themselves non-Jews and thus have not been included among these numbers. But these results seem to reflect a real situation — most people of Jewish origins who identify themselves with Jews have been included among these 230,000. We do not know the exact numbers of ‘half-Jews’ but according to the esti­mates of some leading Russian demographers they are much more than the number of people who had both Jewish parents (about 700,000 and 550,000 respectively in 1989) and that the number of Russia’s ‘half- Jews’ is constantly increasing (Sinelnikov 1994, p. 85; Kupovetsky 2002, p. 132; Gitelman, Cherviakov & Shapiro 2000, pp. 60-61).

An identification with Others, their culture, ethnicity and/or reli­gion is much easier for the offspring of intermarriage. It is interesting to compare reactions to conversion to Christianity of a ‘full-Jew’ and a ‘half-Jew.’ Andrei R., 55, a businessman, agnostic, his father was Jewish, his mother Russian, and his children are Russian Orthodox, told me:

“My father had a friend; he was also Jewish … Before his death he converted to Russian Orthodoxy. My father cannot forgive him even now. He believed that his former friend betrayed his own parents who worshipped another faith.” “Do you consider that is correct?” “No, I don’t. … This is a problem of personal choice. If he or she chose Jesus Christ, Russian Orthodoxy, it might be his or her own choice. But my father rejected such a choice.”

“Half-Jews” do not feel that they “betray” something or someone. We can see this difference, for example in the novel Chizhova. One of the main characters of this novel — a Jew — dies; after his burial his daughter, who is “half-Jewish” and was born in the second marriage, says that her father ‘was with Jesus Christ now.’ Her brother — who was born during their father’s first marriage to a Jewish woman, did not want to argue with a little girl. Nevertheless he thinks that he wouldn’t allow an ‘alien God’ to be with his father.

The majority of my informants, who were born in mixed couples, were baptized in their babyhood. This ritual had been performed by their Russian relatives. Some of theme converted to Christianity in the late years of the USSR. This was perceived as a kind of non-conformism and even as a dissident act. J. Deutsch Kornblatt also points out that this was an attempt to fill a spiritual vacuum, which many Soviet intellec­tuals felt. When a scholar asked some of her informants why he or she chose Christianity, they answered that their freedom of choice was re­stricted; moreover, they considered baptizing as a step to inner freedom. (Deutsch Kornblatt 2003, p. 215). Thus, J. Deutsch Kornblatt considers conversion to Christianity as a Soviet phenomenon — neither Christian nor Jewish.

However, many informants became Russian Orthodox in post-Soviet Russia. At least during the last 10 years they had choice and could fill the “spiritual vacuum” with Judaism, but preferred to baptize.

Baptism is getting easier for both ‘half-Jews’ and ‘full-Jews’ now, be­cause Judaism is not a symbol of Jewish identity for most Russian Jews. Most informants consider Jewish origins, or so-called ‘Jewish blood’ a much more important factor in ‘being Jewish.’ The ethnic principle is significant for many people in Russia who had to be registered in their passports according to ethnic origins.

We do not know how many Russian Orthodox Jews live in Russia now. According to R. Ryvkina, 24 percent of 250 Jewish respondents were Christians; this number decreased 10 percent when compared to 1995 (Ryvkina 2005, p. 120). Z. Gitelman, V. Chervyakov and V. Shapiro affirm that the number of Russian Jews for whom Christianity is more attractive than Judaism did not change (about 13.7 percent) (Gitelman, Cherviakov & Shapiro 2000, p. 72). A. Shternshis shows that elderly Jews who lived in Moscow in 2001 went to church more often than to a synagogue (Shternshis 2007, p. 275). At the same time, she underlines that many more informants attend neither the church nor the synagogue (ibid., pp. 280-282).

I think it is impossible to check any of these numbers and we can only speak about a tendency — the number of Russian Orthodox Jews is significant — about 25 percent or even more. That correlates with my research as well as, partly, with an ironical fragment from the story by Yuri Maletsky:

“I was very astonished. Even I — and for many years I live rather lonely — have about ten Russian Orthodox Jewish friends. How many of them lived in the whole of Russia? I think, not less than Orthodox Jews in Israel” (Maletsky 2004, p. 368).

According to my research, the “peak” of interest in the Russian Or­thodoxy among Russian Jews is over. There are some reasons for this. The first is that religion in general and Russian Orthodoxy in particular are no longer unusual for Russian society and Russian Jews. The second is that many Russian Jews have much more information about Jewish life and Judaism now than 10-15 years ago. Some informants told me that if they had known more about Judaism in the Soviet era, they would have preferred that religion.

Yevgeni Kh., 43, musician, “half-Jew” (Moscow, 2007), said:

“I became Russian Orthodox because my mother was Rus­sian Orthodox and very religious. So it was natural for me.” “And what about your father?” “You see, he didn’t believe in God. No, he didn’t deny Him absolutely but he was not religious, for sure. So it was quite natural for me. But Christianity and Judaism have similar values, they have much in common. Perhaps, in other circumstances I could be a Judaist, I don’t know.”

Another Choice: Judaism?

What are Judaists in today’s Russia? According to R. Ryvkina, among her 250 respondents 35 percent were Judaists, and this number has grown — from 24 percent in 2004 (Ryvkina 2005, p. 120). According to the results of another poll in 1997-1998, 26.7 percent out of 1,300 Jewish respondents said that Judaism was the most attractive religion for them. And this number has decreased by more than 6 percent since 1992-1993 (Gitelman, cherviakov & Shapiro 2000, p. 72). Three years later Z. Gitel- man wrote:

“When in the beginning of the 2000s, statistics confirmed that less than 1 percent of Russian and Ukrainian Jews think that knowing the basics of Judaism is important to being Jewish, most scholars agreed that religion is largely irrelevant to their ethnic identity” (Gitelman et al. 2003, p.52).

It is impossible to check all these numbers. And although I partly agree with an ironic “account” made by Yuri Maletsky above, I suppose that only a small percent (5-7) of Russian Jews are Judaists, although some more are interested in this religion and “try to observe” some of its commandments.

Informants who are Judaists or at least are deeply interested in Ju­daism have the ‘new Jewish’ and in some cases, ‘ambivalent’ types of self-identification.

Andrei Yu., 25, works at the local department of Hillel, his mother is Jewish (Petersburg, 2000):

“I believe in principle. I believe that God exists …” “Can you define your faith?” “It is closer to Judaism. This is connected with the tradition, with the Torah. Once I understood that Judaism is closer to me than other religions.” “Do you believe that a Jew has to be Judaist?” “Yes, I do. Because according to the Torah. … Jew and Judaism are not separable.”

People from the ‘traditionalist’ group as usual consider Christianity as an alien religion, like Rachel B. mentioned above. Many of them visit the synagogue but such visits are rather part of their life-style than a real affiliation to Judaism. For example, Yakov B., 88, a pensioner (Ve- liky Novgorod, 2007) said:

“Of course I am non-believer, All of us are Soviet Jews, you know. If anybody tells you that he believes in God, don’t believe him. … I was a communist and I didn’t abandon my party, … However, I come here (to the synagogue). I do this in memory of my parents — and they were religious. I come here because I want to feel Jewish. I just like to listen to the rabbi, to these prayers.”

Besides it is necessary to remember that many old people get finan­cial support in synagogues.

The informants from the ‘new Jewish’ sometimes say they prefer Judaism or have even converted to Judaism.

Olga F., 45, a businessperson, her mother is Jewish (Smolensk, 2007):

“I can’t say I didn’t believe in God. I just didn’t think about it. I had no need for faith. But over the recent years I thought about these things a lot. I went to church, then to the synagogue. I spoke to the rabbi and liked him very much. He is very clever, he helped me a lot. I began reading — the TaNaKh, then some Midrashim. Now I observe everything. My son is studying at a Jewish school in Moscow and he likes that very much. My daughter is in Israel now, she converted to Judaism and married a Sephardic rabbi. I went to see her marriage. And I liked to be in the Jewish Orthodox milieu. I liked to wear a long skirt and a hat. I think if you want to be Jewish you have to be a Judaist.”

Most of them grew up in a non-religious milieu although sometimes they knew about some Jewish traditions thanks to their elder relatives. Denis O., 32, a businessperson, his parents are Jews (Krasnodar, 2007):

“I was brought up as a non-believer. But I always felt there was something; maybe I knew there was God. But all my family was atheistic. Nevertheless, several years ago I met a very good rabbi. He explained many things to me. And I understood that a Jew must be a Judaist. By the way my elder brother didn’t accept my choice. He considered me crazy. … He didn’t even want to speak to me for two years. Now he speaks to me – more or less – we are business partners. But he still doesn’t understand me.”

Sometimes their interest in Judaism has been preceded by the inter­est in or even conversion to Christianity.

It is quite natural that people with the ‘negative’ and ‘Russian’ types of self-identification have nothing to do with Judaism, although sometimes they emphasize the similarity between Judaism and Christi­anity and even consider their opposition as a tragic mistake.

Thus, Lyubov Ye., 65, a musician, baptized several years ago, her father is Jewish (Moscow, 2005):

‘I don’t understand what had happened. Why didn’t they (Jews) ac­cept Christ? This is a tragedy, a terrible mistake that they don’t rec­ognize Christ. . Why don’t they want to do that? . When I was baptized two nuns were so glad, they sang with such joy because a Jewish woman was baptized.’

As a result, Judaism is not a symbol of Jewish identity for most Rus­sian Jews now (Nosenko 2004, pp. 164-185; Nosenko-Stein 2009b). More­over, in the Soviet era Jews left Judaism with relative ease. There are a lot of works on this subject but here I want to return to Rimon’s article mentioned above. Analyzing the play by Friedrich Gorenstein ‘Berdi- chev’, Ye. Rimon draws our attention to the grotesque images of Soviet Jews speaking an ugly Russian-Yiddish jargon. They are described as ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ (a term of the Stalinist anti-Semitic campaign) or representatives of ‘homo sovieticus.’” They even do not know any­thing about Jewish culture (and any human culture). Judaism (and any religion) as well as any spirituality are quite alien to them. Their speech, their interests and their relations are extremely primitive.

“To complete this description, one has to say that in the past there was quite another culture in the city of Berdichev. Gorenstein does not mention that, but Berdichev used to be called the “Jerusalem of Volhynia.” A famous Hassidic righteous man and teacher, rabbi Levy Izkhak ben-Meir mi-Berdichev, called in Yiddish Derbarem- diker (Merciful), lived and was buried there. He was a personage of numerous Hassidic tales and legends. … Besides, in the 19th century there was one of several Jewish printshops licensed by the tsarist administration in Berdichev. They issued books in Hebrew, including books on the Kabbalah. Do the characters of Gorenstein know that they live in such a sacred place? No. Does the author know that? No” (Rimon 2006).

However, Rimon believes that the Jews of Berdichev are not to be blamed for that — the ‘historical press’ twice ruined them during 25 years. At first these were the Bolsheviks, then the Nazis.

Unlike Rimon, I am not sure that Gorenstein was so ignorant, even more so since he was raised in the orphan house in Berdichev. This ‘collective portrait’ could be a cruel caricature of assimilated Soviet Jews who lost their traditional culture based on Judaism and who forgot about Judaism itself.

A year ago, I observed a similar situation in Smolensk and Roslavl (a small town in the Smolensk region). Local Jews in many cases do not know that famous Lyubavichi — one of the most important centers of Hassidism — is very close to them. Many of them hardly know what chabad Lyubavich (one of the most influential denominations in Juda­ism) is, although they often receive financial support from it. The crisis of Judaism and Jewish culture based on it had begun before the Soviet era. I have emphasized that this was the result of modernity accompa­nied by secularism, deep social crises, the spread of various social theo­ries and ideological trends.

Thus a choice in favor of Judaism in modern Russia is rarely a result of upbringing even if we speak about ‘Guardians’. Speaking more properly, this was not their choice but part of their daily life and family experience transmitted from generation to generation. More often, this is a result of free choice or a kind of experiment made by young people searching for “pillars” of their new Jewish identity. This search usually takes place within various Jewish communal, cultural or religious organizations – during all kinds of lectures on Jewish tradition, preparations for festivals, etc.. Many people for the first time in their life see burning Sabbath candles or ‘seder Pesah’ (Passover meal) and so on. Young people are especially impressed by this relatively new experience. Olesia K., 21 (Penza, 2007), told me:

“I come here because I like that. This is so interesting, this is a real club. Before that I went to another club but I like this club more. I have never seen all these Sabbaths and festivals, this is so interesting! And people are so friendly.”

On the whole, we can speak not of the revival of Judaism in Russia but of the deepened interest in it among a small part of Jews. Several years ago I wrote that it was not clear whether Judaism would really revive or remain a result of temporary interest. Even now, it is not clear yet but we can speak of a very slow tendency — towards revival. At the same time, most young people enthusiastically “play Jews,” simply by being interested in this way of life, which is new and very attractive for them.

Personal Religion?

Most of modern Russian Jews are non-believers, at least they say so. Nevertheless, they often follow an ‘implicit religion,’ even when they declare that they are Russian Orthodox or Judaists. As I mentioned above, an implicit religion is a kind of personal religion and it is more “convenient” for a person who does not want to be restricted by any prescriptions of a traditional religion.

As far as I can see, the rational explanation for many phenomena including sacred texts is also typical of the implicit religion. For exam­ple, in April 2007, I took part in an expedition to the town of Smolensk. During Passover, I was invited to the ‘seder’ (Passover meal) at one of its numerous Jewish organizations. A woman was reading the Hagga- dah — the story of Exodus with the list of miracles — or, speaking more properly, was retelling this text freely for the elder people sitting at the table. She tried to explain each miracle from the “scientific perspective.” This woman was a librarian in the communal library and a non-believer (as she said to me).

An appeal to the inner world of a personality is also a typical feature of an implicit religion. Thus, those who follow an implicit religion often say: “God is in the person’s souls” or “God is one for everyone and it does not matter how people call Him.”

However, this vague and uncertain character of implicit religion re­sults in a situation where a person seeks more stable support. Thus many people try to invent a ‘civil religion’, or even embrace a traditional religion — a kind of “asylum.”

Russian Jews do have neither a ‘civil Judaism’ constructed by com­munal leaders nor a ‘civil religion’ common to all Russian society. So they try to convert the ‘implicit religion’ into an explicit form, embrac­ing Judaism or — more often — Christianity. Their choice depends on their origins as the offspring of mixed marriages prefer Christianity more often. This choice is also easier for non-Halakhic Jews who do not want to undergo the complicated procedure of the Orthodox giyur (the procedure of conversion to Judaism). Jews in Russia, now more than ever, have much more information about Christianity since the Russian Orthodox Church is strongly supported by the state.

In all cases, they try to seek the collective sacred. Sometimes they find it in an explicit religion. But more often — after some disappoint­ment — they come back to the ‘implicit religion’. One of my informants, Natalia F., 42, a teacher of history, her mother was Jewish (Moscow, 2004), said:

“I went to church and tried to be a Christian. Then I went to the syna­gogue — I had never been there before and wanted to see. But I didn’t find God either in a church or in a synagogue.”

Sometimes this is an emotional choice. For example, some informants prefer Christianity because of the beauty of the Russian Orthodox litur­gy or, on the contrary, they like the simplicity of the liturgy in Judaism. Some of them choose the explicit religion after a strong stress (“I feel very good in the church”). Some people prefer the mysticism — in the Russian Orthodox theology or in Judaism — in the Kabbalah.

Most informants who choose both implicit and explicit religion are women; they often only try to observe rituals. Such a choice also depends on age and education. As usual, these informants try to convert the im­plicit religion into an explicit form just in search for a collective identity and group solidarity. Even choosing an explicit religion, they observe some other practices or beliefs, e.g. elements of yoga or healthy nutrition.

Intellectuals more often choose an explicit religion. They read special historical or theological literature and try to observe rituals and some­times go to church or to the synagogue regularly. In many cases, they find a spiritual leader — a rabbi or priest.

Sometimes there are conversions to Judaism in order to marry a Jew. This phenomenon is more or less widespread in small or middle-sized towns in which young women (non-Halakhic Jews or ethnically Russian) highly appraise “a Jewish husband.”


After all, the tendency is more or less clear: Russian Jews prefer Chris­tianity more often than Judaism. There are many reasons, historical and

cultural, for that. However, in general, the implicit religion is more wide­spread among Russia’s Jews than either Judaism or christianity. This very vague “core” of beliefs and practices is based on Judeo-christian values. Nevertheless, implicit religion is much more convenient for a person than christianity and even more so than Judaism in particular as both religions expect the knowledge of minimal rules, texts and rituals.

At the same time, a person who follows an implicit religion has more freedom than one who follows a civil religion. civil religion also means that a person fulfills some norms and embraces a certain range of values. Implicit religion does not demand anything because it is based on per­sonal experience and choice, so it almost does not help in uniting with the collective sacred and supporting a collective identity.

In many cases, attempts to choose explicit religion result from the search for a vague Jewish identity. An implicit religion is not strong enough for that.

So, most Jews in today’s Russia follow various forms of implicit re­ligion, and in the absence of civil religion sometimes try to bolster their Jewish identity and find the Jewish sacred, preferring Russian Ortho­doxy rather than Judaism.

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