Still warm but getting colder: changing ethnic identity of post-Soviet Jewry // Journal of multilingual and multicultural development, volume 35, issue 1, february 2014

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For many centuries, ‘being a Jew’ was equivalent to ‘performing the ceremonial laws of Judaism’. Thus, ethnic and confessional principles coincided and reinforced the cultural identity of Jewry as an entity. Strong self-identification and in-group solidarity supported the high ‘ethnic temperature’ of this group. The processes of secularisation, which first took place in modern Europe and then spread to other regions, led, therefore, to the ‘cooling’ of the Jewish ethnic temperature. This process has its roots in different periods of Russian history and resulted in deep changes in Jewish identity.

Keywords: ethnicity; Jewish self-identification; Soviet Jews; Judaism; post-Soviet Jewry


Determining modes of ethnolinguistic vitality, Ehala (2011) contends that: ‘Based on the strength of emotional attachment of members to their group, ethnic group can be categorised into two prototypes: “hot” and “cold”’ (192). The ‘ethnic temperature’ of a group depends on the level of emotional ties of its members to this group. The temperature of the same group can also change depending upon the concrete situation.

For many centuries, Jews existed in the diaspora as an ethnic and confessional entity based mainly on religious principles – among them the Torah, fulfilment of Jewish ceremonial laws, the feeling of chosenness, collective responsibility for both collective and individual sins, etc. Their confessional rather than ethnic self-identification was strongly reinforced by the hostility of the cultural environment. This negative attitude, especially in the Christian world, was (and is) another ‘pillar’ of Jewishness (Ruderman 2010). As a result, Jews had very strong in-group solidarity and inner ties which helped them to survive as a dispersed entity in many countries. Moreover, their extremely tight affiliation to Judaism – an ‘ethnic religion’ par excellence – prevented this numerically small group from assimilating with various ethnicities. According to the theory of social identity (Taifel and Turner 1979), a social identity is ‘that part of individual’s self-concept which derives from his knowledge of his membership in a social group (or groups), together with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership’ (Taifel 1978, 63). So, ‘the more a person is emotionally attached to his/her ethnic group, the more likely that person is to participate in group actions’ (Ehala 2011, 191). Thus, Jews could be defined as a group with a very hot ethnic temperature which persisted for 2000 years. Although the social and cultural situation and milieu in Russia is quite different now, in some aspects Russian Jews resemble ex-Soviet Russian speakers in many NIS who ‘on the behavioral level, an individual might be less (more) inclined, voluntarily or pressed by social circumstances, to participate in any type of collective action on an ethnic basis’ (Kosmarskaya forthcoming).

The acquisition of civil rights for Jews in Western Europe was accompanied by the secularisation of the Jewish population and the growth of political and racial anti¬Semitism. The separation from Judaism – the main basis of Jewish culture, identity and in-group solidarity – led to the weakening of Jewish identity and a change in ethnic temperature. European Jews as an entity became much colder. In the Russian Empire, Jews were a confessional minority much discriminated against, suffering from many legal and economic restrictions (residence, education, employment, etc.). A profound social and cultural crisis in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries in the Russian Empire was accompanied by the secularisation of some sectors of Russian society including Jews (Frankel 1981; Zipperstein 1999; Gitelman 2001; Nathans 2002). Thus, the temperature of the Russian Jewry – the most substantial Jewish group at the time – also tended to be cooler at the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth centuries. This weak tendency was also strengthened by the rise of anti-Semitism in Russia. At a time when Jews were considered evil because of their ‘race’ (blood), this supported very emotional inner ties for most Jews as a group.

Here I illustrate the main trends in the formation or, more properly, the construction of cultural self-identifications among people of Jewish origin in modern Russia.

It is very important to take into account that when referring to Russian Jews, I mean people of Jewish origin, including the offspring of intermarriages – those who have one Jewish parent or even grandparent – i.e. the wider Jewish population which includes both Halakhic and non-Halakhic Jews,1 some of whom consider themselves Jewish in concrete situations (situational identity).

Sources and methods

In conducting my research, I focused on using qualitative methods, such as oral and life histories, since they are more useful in anthropological studies. This article is mainly based on the results of my field research which I carried out in 1999-2009 in several urban centres of the European part of Russia (Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Penza, Krasnodar, Smolensk, Veliky Novgorod and several others). I undertook a total of 250 in-depth interviews. These interviews were informal and indirect, but I had a specially designed interview guide that included several ‘blocks’ of topics. The interviews lasted from 30 minutes to six hours, depending on the time offered freely by the informants. There is no single representative sampling in qualitative research. Nevertheless, I took into account the principle of ‘theoretical fulfillment’ (Bertaux 1981; Hammersley 1989). Of the 250 informants, 137 were women; the informants were aged between 17 and 88. Of all the informants, 221 had received a higher education or were university students at the time of the interview. I found the informants mostly through the use of the ‘snowball principle’ ; my contacts with Jewish organisations also helped me in my search.

In addition, I carried out a survey in order to verify the results of the qualitative research. The general sample includes 300 respondents whom I found mainly in the Jewish organisations. Most informants were aged between 16 and 30 years old, or were over 60 years old. These age cohorts represent the age structure of visitors and clients of Jewish organisations. Therefore, the data in this survey are an additional and important source. At first, my respondents were predominantly visitors to Jewish philanthropic, youth, cultural and other Jewish organisations and centres. Later, I carried out an additional poll among people who never visit such organisations or do that rarely. The age of respondents was between 16 and 96 (27.5% were over 70; 26.1% were aged between 55 and 69; 18.9% were aged between 35 and 54; 13% – between 25 and 34; 8.7% – between 20 and 24; 5.8% – between 16 and 19). Of the respondents, 65% were women. Sixty-nine per cent of respondents had a higher education or were students of universities and in addition 11.7% had academic degrees. A total of 37.7% of respondents have a regular job and 8.7% have a temporary job; 33% are pensioners and 3% are jobless. A total of 44.9% believe that their income is middle, 30.4% declare that their income is ‘less than middle’; 14.5% and 1.5% think that their income is low and very low, respectively; 8.7% say that their income is ‘more than middle’.

Thus, the qualitative and qualitative aspects of the research complement each other. In both cases there are two cohorts of respondents: those who regularly visit Jewish centres and programmes and those who are not their regular clients. The cultural self¬identification, behaviour and values of these cohorts differ greatly (see, for example, Nosenko 2004; Nosenko-Stein 2010).

In some cases, I used the data from sociological polls conducted by other scholars (Gitelman, Chervyakov, and Shapiro 2000; Chervyakov, Gitelman, and Shapiro 2003; Ryvkina 2005; Shapiro et al. 2006a; Osovtsov and Yakovenko 2011).

An additional and very important source was participant observation. It was especially helpful in the Russian periphery as my field trips were not very long.

Also, in some cases, I used fiction by modern Russian-Jewish writers who touch upon problems of Jewish identity and other related issues.

A Soviet Jewish experience: further cooling

From the beginning of the Soviet era, the process of separating Jews from Judaism was very intensive; the notion of ‘a Soviet Jew’ was created based on new secular symbols and values (Altshuler 1998; Shneer 1994; Shternshis 2006).

The detachment of Jewishness from Judaism has often been considered in the context of Soviet anti-religious politics. However, this successful construction of the Soviet Jewish identity – at least partly – derived from the above-mentioned crisis of Russian imperial society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and of traditional Jewish culture based on Judaism. Moreover, Shternshis (2006), following Krupnik (1995), reminds us that Jews ‘were probably the only group within the Soviet population that actually benefited from the October revolution as all tsarist restrictions (education, employment and places of residence) were no longer valid’ (3). Thus, I can agree with scholars who believe that some Jews considered the rejection of Judaism as a ‘price’ of sorts for the acquisition of civil rights. And in this aspect, the situation very much differs, e.g. from the situation in Ukraine where Ukrainian nation-building was (and is) closely connected with problems of language, traditional culture and identity (see Polese forthcoming).

In the post-Second World War period, the anti-religious rhetoric in the USSR became less strident. However, the politics of Russification in many spheres of life and the anti- Semitic campaigns of the late Stalinist period led to some religious and cultural preferences (Altshuler 1987; Kostyrchenko 2005). The post-war politics of Russification led – like in some other cases – ‘to the marginalisation of ethnic culture and language in public life’ (Bekus forthcoming), i.e. to the marginalisation of Yiddish and Yiddish culture (which along with Yiddish-speakers – have been almost entirely exterminated in many areas of traditional Jewish settlement) as well as Judaism, As a result, there were sources of information about Christianity (popular books and some scholarly research); in contrast there was an information vacuum regarding Judaism and Jewish tradition (Deutsch Kornblatt 2003; Nosenko-Stein 2009a). My research demonstrates that at present some people of Jewish origin in Russia, mostly the elderly (75 and over), still retain an East European Jewish (East Ashkenazi) self-identification. In early childhood they lived in a shtetl (a small town with a prevailing Jewish population) or in a traditional Jewish cultural environment. Many of them speak or understand Yiddish (48% of respondents in this group). The events of Second World War and the Holocaust are, however, crucial for forming their self-identification (Nosenko-Stein 2010). I call them ‘ Guardians’ as they safeguard some elements of traditional Jewish culture (Yiddishkeit), but with one exception – Judaism. Only 4% of the respondents in this group say that they observe Jewish ceremonial laws; 18% state that they fulfil some of them. Some of them lost their faith as a result of tragic experiences during the Holocaust.

Maria G., a single survivor from a large religious Jewish family destroyed by the Nazis in the ghetto of Mir (East Poland), then a participant in the partisan movement, told me:

I thought a lot about all that [tragedy of Holocaust and God – E. N.-S.]. If God exists – and He could permit all this horror – this means that He does not exist … No, I don’t go to a synagogue, but when I was a girl all of us did that – sure. (Maria G., 84 years old, Veliky Novgorod, 2007)

More than 50% of informants in this group do not speak Yiddish; they have a Soviet secular variant of Jewish self-identification. The mass human losses and destruction of East European Jewish (East Ashkenazic) traditional culture in the Holocaust and Second World War resulted in a prevailing Russian-speaking secular variant of Jewish identity in the Former Soviet Union (Altshuler 1987; Ro’I and Beker 1991; Gitelman 2001; Gitelman and Ro’I 2007).

Thus, in the late Soviet period ‘to be a Jew’ no longer meant ‘to perform the ceremonial laws of Judaism’ and Jews became an ethnic group. Therefore, Jewishness was mainly perceived through the prism of ethnic origin. In addition, many Jews abandoned their traditional religion in favour of a so-called ‘new life’ which seemed to liberate them from the legal and economic restrictions they had suffered in the Russian Empire. For example, Rachel B. talked about her Jewish experience as follows:

I was a single child in a big Jewish family and had a lot of relatives. … Our family was well- to-do and we observed all Jewish ceremonial laws. I can tell you everything – how my father conducted the seder [a Passover meal], what we ate and how we fasted during Yom Kippur [the Day of Atonement], and how they made a kappores [a popular Jewish redemption ritual] before that day. I remember everything. But when I grew older and went to the Russian school I quickly abandoned all these rules. I was even ashamed that my parents were so religious. … No, I don’t go to a synagogue, I am non-believer, I was a secretary of our Youth Communist organisation, besides, there is no synagogue here. (Rachel B., 88 years old, Roslavl, the Smolensk region, 2007)

So, some Soviet Jews did not even want the Jewish status and tried to forget their traditional culture defining it as ‘difficult’, ‘backward’ and ‘ridiculous’. Raisa B. is a typical example of this ‘abdication’ :

When I was born, my parents called me Rachel. I was raised in a very large and religious family, we observed all rules. This was very difficult – you see, I went to school where ordinary Russian children studied. But I could not do this or eat that. And I began to protest against all that – I don’t want all these things! … I don’t want this name – everybody has a normal name and I have a strange one – Rachel. I don’t want to be Rachel – I said. And I became Raisa. (Raisa B., 89 years old, Penza, 2007)

This phenomenon was vividly described in the drama ‘Berdichev’ by Friedrich Gorenstein (1992) who ironically presented them as ‘ordinary Soviet Jews’. They are no longer Jews but at the same time are not Russians, being an ugly phenomenon of the Soviet era. The grotesque Jewish family described by Gorenstein, especially its elder generation which took part in the October Revolution, spoke a broken Russian-Jewish dialect, supported the so-called ‘anti-Zionist’, i.e. anti-Israeli, campaigns of the Soviet authorities and did not explicitly protest about anti-Semitic statements made by their neighbours. The writer presents them as a kind of ‘homo Sovieticus’: they do not remember – and do not want to remember – Jewish cultural experience.

Therefore, Jewish self-identification was first of all based on the ethnic principle – belief in a common origin.

Another ‘pillar’ of Soviet Jewishness was state anti-Semitism which was of great importance for the mobilisation of Jewish identity. In many cases, this factor only preserved the very emotional attitudes of Jews towards their Jewishness. Many respondents, especially at those aged 40 and over, mainly ‘feel Jewish’ in situations of anti-Semitic manifestations. This is so-called ‘negative’ Jewish self-identification was very typical of many Soviet Jews. This variant was reflected in the novel ‘Criminal’ (Prestupnitsa) by the modern Russian writer, Yelena Chizhova (2005a, 2005b). Masha- Maria, the main character of this novel, is a young girl who has a Jewish father. She does not know anything about Jewish culture and does not want to know – whether history or tradition, or the Hebrew language. She dislikes her brother’s plans to emigrate from the USSR and despises her Jewish relatives as ‘weak’ and ‘cowardly’, i.e. she shares some negative stereotypes regarding Jews widespread in the Russian mass consciousness. Just one thing connects her with Jews – anti-Semitism, both state and that experienced in daily life. So, Masha-Maria is a purely ‘negative’ type, i.e. she is Jewish because of anti¬Semitism. Her Jewish experience is negative par excellence.

However, informants from this group – both ‘full Jews’ and ‘half Jews’ (i.e. those whose parents are either both Jewish or only one is) – often declare they are non¬believers. Thus, Vladimir K., a pensioner, said:

Of course, I am a Jew. Who else? My parents were Jews and I have been registered as a Jew in my passport. But there wasn’t anything specifically Jewish in our family. Everything was common, like in all Soviet families. However, sometimes in different periods of my life I experienced the negative attitudes to Jews. And I never was silent and didn’ t keep my Jewishness in secret, although some people did so. (Vladimir K., 66 years old, Penza, 2007)

Both factors allowed Soviet Jewry to become a ‘very warm’ ethnicity. As to Judaism, it did not support Jewish ethnic temperature: according to a later survey, just 1% of post¬Soviet Jews considered basic knowledge of Judaism an important aspect of being Jewish (Chervyakov, Gitelman, and Shapiro 2003, 52). Moreover, in the late Soviet era a new phenomenon emerged in that many Jewish intellectuals converted to Christianity considering baptism to be non-conformist, constituting inner emigration, and even a dissident act (Deutsch Kornblatt 2003; Nosenko-Stein 2010). However, baptism did not mean their detachment from Jewishness as earlier, but rather resulted in an emerging paradoxical Jewish Christian identity (Nosenko-Stein 2010, 35-37).

New expectations of the post-Soviet Era

In post-Soviet Russia, we could expect the further ‘cooling’ of the Jewish ethnic temperature as a result of disappearing state anti-Semitism and the elimination of the obligatory registration of ethnicity in official documents (‘natsionalnost’), as well as growing numbers of mixed marriages and deepening assimilation. Cooling might be even more expected given that some Soviet Jews – as already mentioned – have tried to distance themselves from their Jewishness. Zalman L., a historian, is a typical example:

I never felt Jewish – never. I knew that my parents were Jews – so, what? I don’t know Yiddish, or Jewish customs, their songs, or anything else. My parents were Communists, me too. … Sometimes people ask me ‘How can you be a non-Jew with such a face, such a name, father’s name (Isaak) and surname?’ And I always answer ‘I know that my parents were Jewish but it doesn’t matter’. Nobody offended me – never. Just once, when I worked at the KGB, I couldn’t get a better position there because I was a Jew – they explained everything and it was unpleasant. But this was just once in my life. (Zalman L., 89 years old, Moscow, 2009)

The data from my survey confirm the detachment of post-Soviet Jewry from its traditions and culture. Most of them do not even guess that Judaism is the main basis of Jewish tradition, so we can see different figures regarding the knowledge of both of them (see Tables 1 and 2).

Although more than 70% of respondents state that knowledge of Jewish tradition is necessary or desirable, only 17.4% think that it is necessary to have knowledge of Judaism. These results suggest that many people of Jewish origin in Russia do not understand the crucial significance of Judaism for Jewish tradition.

The ethnic principle – the belief in common origin – and self-identification are therefore main ‘pillars’ of Jewishness for the Russian Jewry today: 84.1% of respondents say that being a part of Jewish people is most important for being Jewish; almost 45% believe that it is necessary to be a son/daughter of Jewish parents, 36.2% – to be a son/daughter of one

Table 1. Is it necessary to have a basic knowledge of Jewish tradition in order to be Jewish? (N =300).
 Necessary 31.9
Desirable 39.1
No importance 11.6
I don’t know 8.7
No answer 8.7
Total 100.0


Table 2. Is it necessary to have a basic knowledge of Judaism in order to be Jewish? (N = 300).
Necessary 17.4
Desirable 36.2
No importance 33.3
I don’t know 8.7
No answer .3
Total 100.0


Jewish parent (7.2% think that it is necessary to have a Jewish mother) (Table 3). The role of Jewish history knowledge is also important (50.7%) while the fulfilment of Jewish ceremonial laws is less significant (15.9%).

But when respondents chose one option among 23 questions, the role of performing Jewish traditions decreases to 5.8% (Table 4). Nobody declares the knowledge of Jewish history as a most important thing for being Jewish, At the same time, Jewish self-identification (52.2%) and ‘Jewish blood’ (36.1% – both or one parent) are of great importance for most people of Jewish origin.

These results are similar to the data of V. Chervyakov and his colleagues who conducted a survey in Russia and Ukraine in late 1990s-early 2000s (Chervyakov, Gitelman, and Shapiro 2003, 71).

Moreover, there is a difference between declarations and real behaviour. Few respondents really perform Jewish ceremonial laws, albeit they say that it is necessary or at least desirable. Thus, 9% of respondents state that circumcision is a necessary part of being Jewish, but less than 3% practice it; 5.8% believe that it is necessary to observe kashrut (the dietary laws of Judaism) and 23.2% think it is desirable, but a mere 4.3% constantly observe it and 15.9% do so from time-to-time. In addition, the interviews demonstrate a profound ignorance on the part of many post-Soviet Jews regarding Jewish traditions (Table 5).

As can be seen, almost 45% of respondents declare that it is necessary to know and remember Jewish history and traditions and less than 16% think that Judaism is of great


Table 3. What does it mean ‘to be a Jew’? (N = 300).
 To identify yourself as a part of the Jewish people 84.1
To know and remember a history of the Jewish people 50.7
To be perceived as a Jew by other people 44.9
To perform Jewish traditions and customs 44.9
To be a son/daughter of Jewish parents 44.9
To be proud of being Jewish 36.2
To be a son/daughter of one Jewish parent 36.2
To feel different from other people 20.3
To fulfill the ceremonial laws of Judaism 15.9
To be a son/daughter of Jewish mother 7.2
To feel hostility from other people, i.e. anti-Semitism 2.9


Note: (respondents could answer several questions)


Table 4. Please choose the main option from the following list (N = 300).
 To be a son/daughter of Jewish parents 24.6
To be a son/daughter of one Jewish parent 10.1
To be a son/daughter of a Jewish mother 1.4
To perform Jewish traditions and customs 5.8
To identify yourself as a part of the Jewish people 52.2
To be perceived as a Jew by other people 1.4
To be proud of being Jewish 2.9
I do not know 1.4
Total 100.0


Table 5. Is it important to know Jewish traditions? (N = 300).
 Necessary 31.9
Desirable 39.1
Does not matter 11.6
I do not know 8.7
No answer 8.7
Total 100.0


importance for being Jewish. However, less than 6% of respondents believe that performing Jewish traditions and customs is the main aspect for being Jewish and only 1% consider that Judaism is of great importance. Moreover, although 31.9% of respondents state that it is necessary to know Jewish traditions and customs (and 39.1% believe that it is desirable), we have already seen that few respondents actually perform the main Jewish rituals.

Nevertheless, a series of ‘religious renaissances’ and ‘ethnic revivals’ – real or imagined – which started in (post-)Soviet space after the collapse of the USSR, involved Russia’s Jews, like other ethnic groups (see, for example, Kozlov 1999; Tabak 1999; Nosenko 2004). In any case, this resulted not only in the revival of interest in Judaism and Jewish culture, but also in a sudden transformation of Jewish self-identification, at least among some people of Jewish origin.

However, the results of my research and some sociological surveys show that most of Russia’s Jews still believe in so-called ‘Jewish blood’, i.e. ethnicity as the main basis for ‘being Jewish’. Abram P., a journalist, explained:

I always felt that I was Jewish. But I was an atheist and I am an atheist now. I think that one has to adopt a religion with a mother’s milk. Then it will be a natural religiosity, not demonstrative like we can often see now. What is important for being Jewish? Genes, genes, genes! Mother’s and father’s genes. (Abram P., 82 years old, Penza, 2007)

Yeva L., a pensioner, was very emotional:

Of course, Jewishness is in the blood, in Jewish genes. Genes, genes, genes – do you understand me? Jewish mind, Jewish talents – all these are in Jewish genes and blood! (Yeva L., 56 years old, Penza, 2007)

Younger informants stress that only Jewish origin attaches them to Jews. They fear anti-Semitism less than elder people because of their age and short social experience. Thus, most young informants (68%) do not fear anti-Semitic manifestations as opposed to the attitude of elder informants for whom this factor is often the single impulse awakening their ‘sleeping’ Jewishness. According to Shapiro and colleagues, only one-sixth of respondents aged between 16 and 19 said that the fear of anti-Semitism had an impact on forming their Jewish consciousness (Shapiro et al. 2006b, 175).

The Jewish ‘renaissance’ in post-Soviet Russia also reinforced the Jewish component of hybrid self-identification that is very widespread among people of Jewish origin in Russia (29% of the general sample). This uncertain type – where people in some situations identified themselves with Russians and in others with Jews – existed in the USSR. These people were brought up in a Russian environment, but in recent years they sometimes became interested in Jewish culture and tradition. Informants often call themselves ‘Russian Jews’.

Many informants of this type are non-believers or agnostics, though some of them declare they are Russian Orthodox. In fact, they mostly believe in something – a higher being, fate, karma, etc. Sometimes they are interested in Judaism and its history, but they never convert. Alexander S., an artist who also attended some courses at the Jewish University, said of his family:

My grandparents in both Russian and Jewish lines prayed and observed religious rites. But we were not brought up in any religion because our childhood coincided with the militant antireligious period in our state. (Alexander S., 37 years old, St Petersburg, 1999)

Then he asked me to switch the tape recorder off and said that he was Russian Orthodox but not observant.

After perestroika, those who come under this category became more interested in Judaism; although they very seldom convert, their unstable self-identification is much influenced by their involvement in Jewish life and by anti-Semitism. Andrey R., a student who came back to Russia from Israel, explained it thus:

It is difficult to explain what a Jew is. To be a Jew – it does not mean to live in a concrete country but to affiliate to a culture. This is not a nationality. There are different opinions about Jews. One of them says that a Jew has to perform the ceremonial laws of Judaism. In the second opinion, a Jew has a specific Jewish mentality, i.e. a person knows that he or she is a Jew, that he or she has Jewish origins, that he or she feels Jewish. So, I am Russian citizen, but I have something Jewish in my mind. This ‘something’ is in my appearance, in my blood and so on. I consider myself a Jew but I am not an observant Jew. (Andrey R., 22 years old, Moscow, 1999)

However, my research demonstrates that most informants know very little about East Ashkenazi culture – traditional in Russia – including cuisine, music, literature, festivals, etc. Most respondents do not speak Yiddish (66.7%), and only 13% want their children to learn Yiddish. About 68% of respondents only remember the gefilte fish and matza; nobody younger than 50 knows what tsimes is (a traditional East Ashkenazi dish of stewed carrots with different components).

Nevertheless, the revival of Jewish communal life in contemporary Russia has resulted in the awakening of Jewish self-identification among young people of Jewish origin in a specific manner. We can even observe a tendency towards religious revival among these respondents whom I call ‘new Jews’. Some of them even become observant Jews, i.e. they perform Jewish ceremonial laws. Denis O., a businessman, said:

I always felt I was Jewish. It would be stupid to feel non-Jewish with such a face. But there were no observant Jews in our family, although I always thought that there was Something or Someone superior. … Several years ago I met an excellent rabbi and he helped me a lot with my problems. And I became an observant Jew – fulfill everything. However this was a shock for my family, my brother can’t accept this even now. (Denis O., 33 years old, Krasnodar, 2007)

These informants have had no traditional Jewish education, but they know something of Jewish tradition and values from their older relatives. In recent years they have often tried to find their Jewish roots by studying Jewish history, Hebrew and taking part in Jewish life. Nevertheless, the percentage of observant ‘new Jews’ is only between 2% and 4%.

At the same time, we can observe a very specific phenomenon, the construction of a Russian-Jewish variant of ‘civil religion’ or, speaking more properly, ‘civil Judaism’ which has become popular among some parts of young people of Jewish origin.

Civil religion is described for many countries as a set of symbols and values both religious and secular, highly esteemed by community members and of great importance to the individual (Bellah 1967; Liebman and Don Yehiya 1983; Bellah 1991). This is, in a sense, a secular viewpoint and a substitute for traditional religion. Sometimes scholars also speak of the civil Judaism which is widespread in some countries as a form of quasi¬religion and includes different symbols and practices (Woocher 1986). In Russia, the respondents in this study perform some ceremonial laws of Judaism which they consider important, as Matvey R., a student, explained in the following exchange:

M: My religious principles largely coincide with Judaism but I am not observant. Partly observant.

Res: What do you observe?

M: Mostly the Sabbath, sometimes festivals and kashrut – in a specific manner – I try not to eat pork and mix milk and meat. (Matvey R., 20 years old, St Petersburg, 1999)

This selective fulfilment of Jewish ceremonial laws and rituals (the Sabbath, kashrut, some festivals) alongside the respect for some secular Jewish values (the State of Israel, readiness to marry a Jew, Jewish names) comprise a form of civil religion or civil Judaism amongst Russian Jews.

However, according to the estimation of some communal leaders, ‘civil’ Jews comprise between 5% and 10% of the Jewish population. Thus, a great majority of Russian Jews today are still secular or semi-secular (believing in some supernatural powers, such as a higher being, karma, UFO, etc.), or even Christian. The belief in common origin is still the main factor which supports their Jewishness.

Variable identities

As I have shown above, in modern Russia Jews do not have a common ethnic, national or confessional identity. Many scholars emphasise ‘Jewish variability’, saying that Jews are not an entity in any respect – linguistic, racial, cultural, or otherwise (Patai and Patai 1975) – and that there are different Jewish identities within the same country (Webber, 1994, 83-85). This variability was a cultural shock for ex-Soviet Jews in Israel who, for the first time, met ‘non-Jewish Jews’ who did not look like Jews, did not behave like Jews, etc. These impressions have been described by some scholars who had the experience of immigrating to Israel (Fialkova and Yelenevskaya 2007; Remennick 2007).

Thus, we can speak about various Jews who have different features in terms of appearance, language, behaviour, etc. This variability has also been reflected on by several novelists, for example, those who have tried to comprehend the ‘Khazar issue’ in the context of Jewish and anti-Jewish discourse. Analysing the Khazar myth and its connection with the Jewish identity in some oeuvres by ex-Soviet writers, Fialkova (2010, 338-339) speaks about various features of Jewish identity:

Any criteria – both well-known for readers and absurdist ones – appearance, names and surnames, registration in passports, circumcision or no circumcision, poor Russian language, any religion, … Israeli citizenship and many others – all these are either reliable or not.

Therefore, it is possible to speak about several cultural self-identifications, which can be considered within a framework of multiple Russian Jewish identities:

1. (1) ‘East Ashkenazi’ self-identification in its Yiddish and Russian-speaking variants – typical mostly of elderly people who remember Jewish traditional culture. Yakov B., 73, a pensioner, explained his Jewish sentiments:

Of course I am a Jew! All my relatives were Jews, my mother and father were Jews, they lived in Belarus’. … They spoke Yiddish, me too, I learned in the Jewish school and would like that young people speak Yiddish now. . I don’t believe in God and don’t visit a synagogue because there is no synagogue here. If there were a synagogue I wouldn’t go there, besides I don’t like our rabbi. … But sometimes I think that it is worth going to a synagogue in order to remember my parents and grandparents. They believed in God and observed everything. (Yakov B., 73 years old, Veliky Novgorod, 2007)

2.Russian (or non-Jewish) self-identification is typical of informants who declare that they are Russians, although they do not deny their Jewish origin. Natalia A., who is a student and has a Jewish father, told me:

I am Russian because I am Russian Orthodox. All my family is Russian Orthodox, we celebrate Russian Orthodox holidays. We never observed any Jewish holidays. (Natalia A., 19 years old, Moscow, 2000)

3. ‘Negative’ Jewish self-identification that has very often been formed mainly in the context of anti-Semitism. For example, Tatiana K., a doctor, said:

My father is a Jew. Who am I? I have been registered as a Jew in my passport. But I don’t feel Jewish. You see, there wasn’t anything specific Jewish in our family.

We never paid attention to someone’s ethnic origin. It didn’t matter to us. … However, when I hear bad words about Jews or observe negative attitudes to Jews.

I start to protest – loudly. And I am never silent in these cases and don’t keep my Jewishness secret. (Tatiana K., 24 years old, Moscow, 2010)

4. ‘Dual’ (‘hybrid’) self-identification is most widespread: persons of Jewish origin identify themselves as Russians or Jews depending on the situation. Igor B., a journalist, ironically observed:

I know that I am a Jew. Why, it would be silly to deny that with such a face. But I am not crazy about my Jewishness. . I am not religious although it is fashionable now – to be Russian Orthodox. But I don’t go either to a church or synagogue. That is not for me. … I love Russian literature. Russian poetry and am a person of Russian culture but with Jewish blood in my veins. I am convinced that I have some typical Jewish features but I am culturally Russian. (Igor B., 43 years old, Veliky Novgorod, 2007)

5. ‘New Jewish’ self-identification is typical of young people who have in recent years become interested in Jewish culture and involved in Jewish life. Inna G., a psychologist, explained her interest in Jewish life thus:

I came here [Jewish communal center] in a difficult period in my life. I was quite frustrated after the divorce and didn’t know what to do. A friend of mine invited me here. … At first I didn’t want to come as I never thought about my Jewishness.

… Now this is a part of my life. It is so unusual and interesting – to take part in all these rites, holy days, Sabbaths. I feel that we both – my daughter and I – are members of a new family. (Inna G., 28 years old, Oryol, 2009)

It is important to remember, however, that a person, especially of mixed origin, can change his or her self-identification and often does so several times during their lifetime (for details, see Nosenko-Stein, 2011).

Is there anything common in these different groups? My research demonstrates that different types of Jewish identity in Russia are based mainly on the ethnic principle, i.e. belief in common origin – ‘Jewish blood’, ‘Jewish genes’, etc. We can see (Table 3) that almost 45% of respondents believe that it is necessary to have Jewish parents in order to be a Jew; 36.3% think that it is necessary to have at least one Jewish parent to be Jewish. These numbers correlate with the Jewish origins of the respondents (Table 6).

Many informants, as mentioned above, believe that Jewishness is in Jewish blood or the genes. Victoria I., a student, expanded on this:

Many people now think that to be a Jew means to be talented, rich, and successful. . Some
our acquaintances even look for any Jewish roots – they believe it will help. (Victoria I.,
19 years old, Moscow, 2010)

We can observe this belief in the well-known story of Daniel Oswald Rufeysen (known as Brother Daniel), a Polish Jew who kept his Jewishness secret during the Second World War, served as a translator for the local police and then saved many Jews in the ghetto of Mir (Eastern Poland); afterwards he converted to Christianity and tried to gain Israeli citizenship. However, he was rejected as an apostate although he proved that he was ‘Jewish born’ and always ‘felt Jewish’ .2

This ‘folk primordialism’ is typical of mass consciousness, whether Jewish (in which case it sometimes becomes a feeling of ‘Jewish superiority’ or chosenness), or non- Jewish (racial anti-Semitism).

The belief in common origin seems to be partly confirmed by the genetic studies which prove an existence of specific ‘Jewish genes’. At the same time, this research just confirms the common origin of different Jewish groups which diversified in about the first century AD.

Nevertheless, the mythology of Jewish blood is deeply rooted in the mass conscious-ness – both in Jewish and non-Jewish (Patai and Patai 1975). The notions of ‘Jewish race’ and ‘Jewish blood’ remain issues for discussion in scholarly and pseudo-scholarly


Table 6. What can you say about your Jewish origins? (N = 300).
I am fully Jewish (all my grandparents are Jews) 44.9
I am 3/4 Jewish (three of my grandparents are Jewish) 2.9
I am half Jewish (my mother is a Jew) 17.4
I am half Jewish (my father if a Jew) 18.8
I am 1/4 Jewish (both my parents are half Jewish) 2.9
I am 1/4 Jewish (one of my parents is half Jewish) 8.8
I have more remote Jewish kinship 4.3
Total 100.0


(including anti-Semitic and racist) discourse (see, for example, Patai and Patai 1995; Shnirelnanan 2005; Fialkova 2010).

The Khazar issue is typical in this respect. Fialkova stresses that ‘the interest in Khazars is connected with the crisis of Jewishness and its perception. This crisis is a result of the collapse of widespread schemes and many different factors – the collapse of the USSR, emigration, religious views, the political split in Israel, etc. – or a result of their combination. In this context ‘Khazar roots’ is not only to do with the emphasis of differences between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, an emphasis which has been observed before (Shnirelnanan 2005, 288-289). These roots are also an alternative in terms of perceiving Russian Jewry as free nomads of the steppes who are deeply rooted in Russia – their genuine historical homeland’ (Fialkova, 2010; also see Sobolev, 2008). Some novelists ironically describe the ‘racial characteristics’ of Khazars – the Mongoloid coccyx and the Altaic type of pilosis (Yuriev 2004, 41) – as similar to the ‘racial features of Jews’ in anti-Semitic literature.

At the same time more than 80% of Russia’s Jews think that it is necessary to ‘feel Jewish’ – i.e. to identify oneself with Jews in order to be a Jew. Thus, Jewish self-identification unites most people of Jewish origin in Russia. The main pillars of this variable Jewishness are belief in common origin as well as collective memory (Nosenko- Stein 2009b). Some scholars also contend that the collective memory – the memory of the common fate – is the significant factor in the identity of Soviet Jews (Remennick 2007, 28).


After perestroika and the collapse of the USSR, a religious renaissance – real or imagined – started in Russia and Russia’s Jews, like non-Jews, were involved in this process. It resulted not only in the revival of interest in Judaism and Jewish culture, but also in a sudden transformation of Jewish self-identification among at least some people of Jewish origin.

I have already mentioned the variability of Jewish identities in modern Russia. However, in spite of all the differences, a belief in common origin unites most Russian Jews: 73-88% of respondents in various groups believe that in order to be Jewish it is necessary to have Jewish parents (or one of them). These results correlate with the data of another sociological poll in which 81% of respondents aged 70 and over who lived in St Petersburg also gave a positive answer to a similar question (Shapiro et al. 2006a, 116).

This factor, as well as fear of anti-Semitism, maintains the ‘warm ethnic temperature’ of Jews in post-Soviet Russia. So-called ‘religious revival’ involves a small segment of the Jewish population in Russia – not more than 10% of Jewish youth and 2-4% of older people. I can also predict the further ‘cooling’ of most parts of Russian Jewry, in spite of their temporary interest in Judaism. This cooling is likely to be reinforced by the low birth rates of modern Russian Jewry, its high death rate, the emigration of over a million Jews from the Former Soviet Union and a high percentage of intermarriage. Expanding globalisation and cosmopolitanism also promote further assimilation and a decrease in the ethnic temperature of Russian Jews.

However, it should be noted that ethnic temperature differs (and changes over time), not only at the group level but also individually. There are always those who are more involved in their ethnic group and those who have a weak ethnic identity and involvement. So to speak, there are more-Jewish and less-Jewish Jews in every Jewish population. The general tendency to cooling is evident in Russia, but at the same time ‘new Jews’, who are attempting to rebuild Jewish life, support the Jewish ethnic
temperature at the warm level.

1. According to Halachah – the normative law in Judaism – a person born to a Jewish mother or a mother affiliated to Judaism can be considered Jewish. Thus, people who have a Jewish father or grandfather are sometimes defined as non-Halachic, or patrilineal Jews.
2. His life story is told by Amir Gera in four parts ( = AZtHQ8gDIxY; = pvd2Blhze4g; watch?v = 4xw8bPxwk54; = 0YPoo9BgyeQ).
3. See, for example: html;; 2012/05/30/n_2366461.shtml.


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