Jewish Identity Inspired by a Russian Remnant
Rabbi Dena Feingold
It was Kol Nidre eve, 1965, in Moscow. Elie Wiesel had gone to the Soviet Union to investigate rumors about anti-Semitism. After marking Yom Kippur at the Great Choral Synagogue of Moscow, he wrote: “I thought I had come to pray in the company of Marranos.” The reference was to the secret Jews of medieval Spain, who were forced to hide their Jewish identity, pretending to be converted Christians, rather than risk expulsion or death. Wiesel went on to say that on that Kol Nidre eve he was among “Jews who once each year decided to leave their places of hiding and worship their Creator in public.” The Jews of Silence, p. 30)
On this Kol Nidre eve in America, we Jews have chosen to be with our people and worship as well. There is some ineffable call to be in the synagogue during these Days of Awe as we suddenly become aware that being Jewish gives us a feeling of belonging and rootedness that nothing else in our lives provides. We allow ourselves to acknowledge this truth on these holiest of days, indeed for some of us, only on these days.
Surely, on this Day of Atonement we have to admit: “Chatanu,” we have sinned… by taking our heritage and the ability to express it freely for granted. Most of the time, we choose to let our Jewish identity and Jewish observance languish. Many of us act like Marranos, confining our Jewish activities to tiny, hidden spaces of our lives. We leave it up to others who are more interested or more committed to sustain Judaism; we ourselves do little to contribute to its continuance.
Tonight, as I reflect upon a summer journey to Russia, I want to hold up the story of the Jews of Russia as inspiration for all of us to do more to sustain Judaism in our world. If a remnant of Russian Jews, a sh’eirit Yisrael, could do so after what they were forced to endure for generations, for us it should be much easier.
On my first night in Russia, I, like Eile Wiesel, found myself at the Great Choral Synagogue of Moscow. I was seated in the 3rd floor choir loft, with my sister, Nancy, and about 10 other Jews from the United States and Israel. We were the first to arrive for our Russian Jewish Journey, and we were served an elaborate dinner by kosher caterers, including the most delicious borscht I have ever tasted. (No insult intended to Brad’s grandmother’s recipe!)
At the Choral Synagogue, we had one Russian Jewish guest with us, and she was no “Marrano.” In fact, until recently, she headed up Hillel of Russia. Ominously, on our way to the synagogue, Genya made a point of turning off her phone as we stopped in front of the building that was formerly KGB headquarters. But, everything else that Genya told us described the life of an open and proud Jew; proud, she told us, even of what she called her “Jewish nose,” for which she had been ridiculed as a child. Her life as a Jew in Russia in 2018 could not be more different than what Wiesel encountered in 1965.
Never again on the trip was there the slightest insinuation that being a Jew in Russia today was something to fear or to hide. Yes, there is some uncertainty about the future. Many Jews go to Israel to obtain an Israeli passport as a kind of insurance policy, in case things change. But, overall, from that first taste of borscht, we discovered in Russia a rich and delicious Jewish life. We met Jews whose level of observance and knowledge varied greatly, but who were “out” and proud, unafraid, and happily identified. In fact, one of our speakers told us, “Today it’s cool to be Jewish in Russia.”
I don’t know if it is or ever was “cool” to be Jewish in America. But, open, proud, and unafraid certainly are words that describe most American Jews, including those who are only minimally involved in Jewish life. The story of today’s Jews in Russia is, above all, a lesson in cherishing and building Jewish identity.
One way to look at the flourishing and acceptance of Jewish life in Russia today is as a “stick in your eye” to centuries of anti-Semitism and the severe repression of religion in that land. We saw several examples of this type of Jewish identity; that is, pride in being a Jew primarily as a statement about overcoming hatred and oppression.
We visited, for example, the new, high-tech Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow. The museum was dedicated 6 years ago with President Putin in attendance. Who would have guessed that one would find in Moscow a museum that tells forthrightly and honestly the story of anti-Semitism in Czarist Russia and of the Soviet era? We also said kaddish at Holocaust memorials in Moscow and near St. Petersburg. The existence of such memorials may not seem remarkable, but, until recently, any war memorials recalled all Russians who perished in what they call the Great Patriotic War. These new specifically Jewish Holocaust memorials are part of the building up of Jewish identity through a spirit of “never again:” They won’t defeat us. We’re still here, and we demand that our unique story be honored.
And what sweet irony it is today that Jewish academic Mikhail Chlenov, one of legions who were refused entry to PhD programs in the Soviet era because they were Jews, now heads up the Department of Jewish Studies at Moscow State University. We also met his colleague, Victoria Mochalova, who grew up thinking that the word “Yevrei” [Jew] was something bad and forbidden. Finding her way to her Jewish roots through the study of her Polish ancestry, Vica is now the Director of “Sefer” the academic Association of Jewish Studies. How satisfying to witness this reversal in the Russian academic scene.
State-sponsored anti-Semitism and the total repression of Jewish life, along with the erasing of the uniquely Jewish aspect of the Holocaust, are inconceivable to us as American Jews. And the academic blackballing that went on in Russia until the fall of the Soviet Union is something most of us have never known. We certainly have never had to carry around IDs that identify us as Jews; never had to give up our religion to gain position or power in government. We have the freedom to choose Judaism as our identity and not be penalized for it, and if we are, our laws protect us from it.
But, this “never again” approach to clinging to Jewish identity is not self-sustaining. Judaism will not survive if it is ONLY about having cleared the fence of hatred and vowing that it will not happen again. The most moving and exciting part of what we saw in Russia was meeting Jews who have chosen to live as Jews not out of revenge to the past but out of a love for what Judaism has to offer as a way of life now.
We heard story after story of Russian Jews who sought out Judaism even during those darkest years and who worked to build Jewish life from scratch after the fall of the Soviet Union.
For example, Mikha Chlenov himself, the academic Dean of Jewish Studies I mentioned, taught himself Hebrew in the 1960s and then taught it to a thousand others, during the refusenik years. His most famous student was the dissident Anatoly Sharansky. After the gates opened in the 1990s and a million Jews emigrated to Israel, Chlenov chose to remain and build Jewish education in Russia among the 150,000 or so who were left. (That is the official count, but some say that there are 1,000,000 Jews left in Russia. Probably 500,000 – 600,000 is closer to actual count, depending on how you define who is a Jew.)
We also met a number of Jewish community leaders at the Yesod Jewish Cultural Center in St. Petersburg. Yesod’s state of the art building houses programs and offices of most of the major Jewish institutions in St. Petersburg. The people who run the programs there are individuals who, while Jewish by ethnic designation, knew absolutely nothing about their heritage until the at least the 1980s, and for some, even into the 2000s.
We met Yesod’s director, Elena, whose father was a Soviet Army Major General, and who herself only learned about Judaism in recent years. There was, Lonya, director of the programs for elderly and needy Jews, who began learning about Judaism underground in the 1980s. He stepped up after most of the Jewish leaders emigrated because, he said, he had “some knowledge.” There was Genya who held secret, Jewish study sessions in her kitchen in the 1980s with others who wanted to know “what it is to be a Jew.” She now heads up a special needs agency that is part of Yesod. We met the CEO of Yesod, Masha, who only got involved in Judaism 8 years ago when her daughter was born. Before that, she said, her Jewish identity was a box of Matzah once a year. She was amazed by what the Jewish community had established at Yesod, so she started to learn there, and the rest is history.
These folks enthusiastically took on their roles because they were motivated by a passion to identify as Jews, after decades of being denied. If only we, who have so much backing institutionally and historically to support us, could find such passion as well. Inspired by the example of Jews who have built a vibrant Jewish community out of almost nothing, we too ought to make Judaism a home and a way of life, not out of revenge or guilt, but because it enhances our lives.
What can we do to build the Jewishness of our lives and in our communities? Here are some ideas: Like the Jews of Russia, we can take what little knowledge we have and share it with others. Or we can participate in Torah Lishma, learning for its own sake, utilizing the many offerings we have here at Beth Hillel and beyond. We can add Jewish observance in our homes, even in incremental, small steps. And like the Jews who stayed behind after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we can step up to leadership, allowing those who have led for years and years to sit back and just enjoy.
On the last day of the trip, one of our travelers made the observation that we have a lot to learn from Russia’s rebirth of Jewish life. An Orthodox Jew from Jerusalem, this man was touched by the idea that people of limited or no Jewish background seeking to identify, even in small ways, and being invited in and made to feel at home in the Jewish world.
We had the example of the Chabad Mariyna Roscha Jewish Community Center that has positioned itself as the “one stop” place to be Jewish in Moscow, whether it’s to play basketball, watch a movie, sit and drink a cappuccino in the café, play games in the youth lounge, or study Talmud or pray. What ever Jews want to come in to do, there is something for them—a “no expectations” way into to Jewish identity and Jewish life.
We met Violetta, a 24 year old who somehow randomly decided to study Hebrew online as a 15 year old. Violetta is not a Jew, but Hillel in Russia invited her in, and now she is in conversion studies with a Progressive movement rabbi and plans to live in Israel. (Amazingly, she did find out that she had a Jewish grandmother after she started down this path!)
We heard Ilya’s story, a Jew from Western Siberia of all places, who set out to find out what Judaism was all about, ended up creating a Jewish group for young people, and eventually founded the wildly popular “Chanukah in Siberia” out of what had previously been a secular winter festival.
At Sha’arei Shalom, the Progressive congregation in St. Petersburg, I met a rabbi who now works in the Boston area, but grew up in St. Petersburg. Rabbi Oksana Chapman told me that as a child she never heard of Shabbat or Shalom. She did, however, get an “A” in Atheism class, a required subject in school. Oksana found her way to the Jewish community, was invited in, and now she serves the Jewish people as a rabbi.
It was a revelation to the traveler in our tour group that the Russian Jewish community had the ability to draw folks like these into Jewish life. Apparently, he was unfamiliar with Reform Judaism because if he had been, he would know that there are other places in the world where this happens routinely, even in his own country of Israel. Reform Judaism has a long standing commitment to inclusion of interfaith families, patrilineal descent children, gay and lesbian Jews, spiritual seekers, and more. This type of radical welcome and inclusion, which we witnessed in Russia, is what our URJ president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, calls “audacious hospitality.” At Beth Hillel, we are proud that “audacious hospitality” is a core principle of who we are as a congregation.
After all, it is not a particular type of Jewish life that is the key to Jewish survival. It is, as we witnessed in Russia, the ability to invite people in to experience Judaism as a spiritual and cultural home in a multitude of ways. Judaism is what you carry with you that makes you feel at home no matter where you are or what kind of life you live. It is incumbent upon Jewish communities everywhere to place as a top priority helping people who are seeking it to find a sense of “being at home” in Judaism, whoever they are and whatever their background.
Elie Wiesel wrote that he “felt like a stranger, a gentile, among” the Jews of Russia. I wondered before I left for Russia, would I feel like a stranger too? The truth is that I felt at home among Russia’s Jews, because they understand implicitly and exhibit each day the attitude of “audacious hospitality.”
This Yom Kippur, we can find inspiration in the story of the Jews of Russia, the remnant, the Sh’eirit Yisrael, who remained after mass aliyah in the 1990s. They started from nothing and have built a spirited and dynamic Jewish life. So, let us dedicate ourselves to building our Jewish identities, our level of Jewish involvement, and our Jewish community in the coming year. And let us welcome with open arms and actively seek out those who also wish to make the Jewish community their home. As in Russia, so with us: It is our future.