Первая молодежная конференции СНГ по иудаике. Сборник материалов.

© Ассоциация студентов иудаики
Москва, 1997 г.

Rebecca Leah Golbert



The purpose of this paper is to lay out the problem of my study in its many dimensions. The ultimate goal of my research is to write an ethnography of Jews in Ukraine. This is an enormously complicated task for several reasons. Methodologically, procedurally, conceptually, and terminologically, finding a coherent approach to the study of Jewish identity in post-Soviet Ukraine is daunting. Firstly, the existing (non-historical) literature on Jews in the former Soviet Union (to be called FSU from now on) is sparse; research on Jews in the non-Russian republics is nearly non- existent. Very little of the literature that does exist uses empirical data to support its conclusions. Secondly, several transitions have occurred at the same time — the collapse of the Soviet Union, the formation of new states and new political identities, the reorganization of post-communist societies, the reorganization and redefinition of ethnic minority communities. It is impossible to focus on one element of these sweeping political and social changes without taking into account the others. Moreover, much of the existing literature on Soviet/post-Soviet Jewry is not relevant to the reorganization and re-conceptualization of Jewish communities across the region. It fails to evaluate the multiple levels of influence on the new faces of these communities, and it continues to rely on traditional methods of political and sociological analysis. In short, the literature on Soviet Jewry is deeply problematic, and empirical and ethnographic research into the impact on Jewish identities of multi-layered processes of social change is clearly lacking.

A third and fundamental problem concerns the actual study of post-Soviet Jews. What to call them (Markowitz 1995: 403), how to define them, how to trace their ever fluid and changing boundaries — these are the dilemmas of studying a community that cannot be encompassed within traditional definitions of Jewishness; that now spans several continents after decades of emigration and "repatriation" (to Israel); that has experienced severe dislocations brought on by the Holocaust, the oppressive regime of the Soviet Union, the post-Soviet transitions (some of which have been more tumultuous than others); and forced and voluntary mass migrations during each historical period. Such dislocations imply enormous physical loss and displacement but also conceptual displacement. Thus, the questions — What does it mean to be a Jew? What does it mean to be part of the Jewish community? — which Jonathan Webber describes as part of the modern crisis of identity in the Jewish world (Webber 1994: 77) are questions faced perhaps even more urgently by the Jews of the FSU. The study of post-Holocaust, post-Soviet, and post-emigration (though it has not completely abated) reconstruction then, is a search for new ways — using new methods and new theoretical approaches — of describing, defining, tracing the contours (boundaries), and locating the internal meanings of Jewish identities and Jewish communities in the post-Soviet states, and, in my case, particularly Ukraine.

In this paper, I reveal the problematics of the study of post-Soviet Jews by a critique of the existing literature. I also propose that anthropology can provide a more relevant approach to studying post-Soviet Jewish identities, which challenge traditional notions of Jewishness and are undergoing profound social change and thus, must be evaluated on their own terms.

Defining the problem

The assumptions of many scholars working on Soviet Jewry have included three basic premises: Soviet Jews are in fact "Russians" and not Jews; they have no distinct sense of Jewish consciousness and possess a minimal Jewish identity; there was and is no real Jewish community in the former Soviet Union (an official juridical category yes, but not a community). For example, the anthropologist Fran Markowitz has challenged these premises regarding Russian Jewish immigrants in the United States and Israel. However, by juxtaposing the emigres at the focus of her research to Jews remaining in the Soviet Union (she was writing shortly before its dissolution), she reinforces these same premises regarding the latter. According to Markowitz, a true Russian Jewish community is formed only upon immigration to the West; for only upon emigration can both aspects of identity — Russian and Jewish — be expressed. She states further that the only choices left for Jews in the Soviet Union are the two poles of assimilation and national identification; assimilation implying no future transmittance of Jewish identity and national identification tantamount to emigration. Thus, she logically concludes that no present or future exists for a distinctive Jewish community in the Soviet Union: "However, while they constitute a juridico-historical category in the Soviet Union, Jews there do not form a community" (Markowitz 1993, 9).

Though Markowitz herself moves on to explore emigre identity in symbolic and qualitative terms, her conclusions about the future of Jewish communal life in the FSU are reflective of the tradition of Soviet Jewish studies. According to many scholars in the field, Jewish identity was a negative identity imposed by state and society; it had no positive content in and of itself (Gitelman 1994, 40; Krupnik 1994, 140; Schweid 1994, 48-9). Jews recognized one another as Jews; however, they did not participate in a shared community because community was defined by communal structures and cultural markers all of which had been destroyed long before (Markowitz 1993, 8-9; Brym 1994, 13). Hence, Krupnik's description of Soviet Jewish identity as "an ethnicity without an ethnic language (the knowledge of Yiddish and other Jewish languages substantially dwindled); without Judaism as a religion or way of life; without major cultural markers such as rituals, education, and public performances; without community organizations; and even without deep historical roots and memory" (Krupnik 1994, 141).

What is the problem with this picture of the Soviet Jewish predicament? First, over seventy years have passed, the Soviet Union has collapsed, and post-Soviet Jews still define themselves as Jews. They did not just start once again to call themselves by this label with the fall of communism. In other words, Jewish identity must have maintained some positive meaning for individuals throughout the Soviet years for it to have survived up to the present day. Second, those who emigrated have formed distinctive communities in the United States, Germany, and Israel. A Russian party has also recently been established in Israel (it won a considerable number of seats in the recent elections). It is true that many of the symbols and expressions of community have changed in the new contexts of resettlement (Markowitz 1993, 9); however, a certain recognition of shared experience and shared memories and cultural values most likely preceded such communal formations based on Soviet Jewish ethnic affiliation.

Much of the existing scholarship cannot explain these historical continuities. Too busy writing about identities imposed from above, they have taken the ideological underpinnings of the Soviet nationalities policy to heart and so too have predicted the fading of ethnic consciousness. Even those, such as Gitelman and Brym, who acknowledge that Jewish identity survived the Soviet regime, continue to predict the fading and fragmenting of Jewish identities under post-Soviet conditions, as if the predictions of the Soviet nationalities policy live on after its death. Gitelman points to a lack of consensus on what it means to be a Jew now that it is no longer an imposed juridical identity as the possible downfall of post-Soviet Jewry (Gitelman 1994, 54). Brym predicts that only one-third of the Jewish population will actively participate in the community in the near future and that the elderly and those with emigration plans make up a large percentage of this ratio (Brym 1994, 34). Schweid speaks of the majority of post-Soviet Jews as only potential Jews; they may regain a positive Jewish identity but will most likely conform to the pressures to assimilate in the post-Soviet states (Schweid 1994, 48-50). Such grim predictions are rooted in a traditional approach to Soviet Jewish studies. All theory and little empiricism, such an approach has been dominated by historians, political scientists, scholars of Jewish studies, and especially sociologists; they have based their theoretical analyses on Soviet policies such as the nationalities policy, monitored emigration policies and patterns, historical documents, and sociological surveys of emigres from the region. Recently, they have also begun to incorporate mass surveys conducted in the FSU into their analyses. However, very little fieldwork or qualitative research has been done.

My research challenges the grim predictions of the future rooted in traditional methods and theories. Looking from an anthropological perspective, post-Soviet Jewish identities reflect multiple possibilities for Jewish expression and belonging. It does not necessarily follow that a lack of consensus on what it means to be Jewish leads to a fading of Jewish identity. Lack of consensus is in fact the normal state of Jewish affairs. For Gitelman to assert that post-Soviet Jewish identity, faced with new conditions, will change is one thing; to propose that it will fade and fragment is another. Moreover, even if only one-third of the Jewish population actively participates in the community (a statistic which Brym can in no way predict), their activities will create a locus of new possibilities. Moreover, active participation and affiliation are not necessarily primary indicators of Jewish identity; Jews may choose to identify in other more personal ways. Finally, Schweid's characterization of post-Soviet Jews as potential Jews disregards the validity of any form of Jewish expression in the FSU. His use of the term 'assimilation' as an almost inevitable process is far too crude to account for the range of Jewish identification in the region; many who appear assimilated may feel strongly Jewish. I intend to investigate further these specific issues during my fieldwork.

Continuities and transitions

However, before further exploring the possibilities for post-Soviet Jewish expression, I must first point to continuities in the past and transitions into the present which have been overlooked. In other words, to write about post-Soviet Jewish identities (which is my primary aim), it is first necessary to address critically the existing scholarship on Soviet Jewry and to propose a more qualitative, anthropological approach to understanding expressions of Jewish identity under socialism. The existing models for understanding Soviet identities are inadequate. They are want to explain the sudden flourishing of ethnicity and nationalism in the last years of the Soviet Union and in post-Soviet conditions. Looking top down, they cast Jewish revival in terms of Gorbachev and perestroika and other nationalist movements, overlooking its source within the Jewish community. Only when we have a better grasp of the kinds of identities which formed in response to conditions in the Soviet system and responded more actively in the last years of perestroika can we begin to write about the transition to new identities. A study of transition must always ask 'a transition from what?' And the problem of studying post-Soviet Jewish identity is a transition issue predicated on a thorough understanding of the shifting focus of membership and belonging from the Soviet Jewish community, Soviet society, and the Soviet regime to national Jewish communities, national societies, and nation- states.

Combing the past in search of overlooked continuities and transitions in the Soviet Jewish experience entails two aspects — tracing commonalities of identity and differences of identity. Both pertain to the problem of identity and meaningful terminology. To what extent was the supra-national label of 'Soviet Jewry' an accurate category demarcating a shared historical experience? Of what did this shared historical experience consist? What kinds of distinctive identities were conflated within 'Soviet Jewry' and thus hidden from view? An understanding of the continuing significance of the term 'post-Soviet Jewry' as an intra-ex-Soviet category indicative of transition from a shared past is predicated on an exploration of such historical continuities and shared histories. A shared Soviet past influencing identity in the present continues to link Jews together across the national boundaries of differing political systems and diverging futures. However, at the same time that 'post-Soviet' Jews continue to share a common historical bond across state lines, they are becoming nationalized. An understanding of the ways in which Jews are negotiating new national and cultural identities, struggling with citizenship and other legal rights, and setting up local communal infrastructures is also predicated on an investigation of the cultural, regional, and historical differences between different Jewish communities in the FSU, differences previously masked under the over-arching term 'Soviet Jew'. Jewish membership in the Soviet era was not monolithic as most traditional scholarship would have it seem. What, for example, were the relevant differences between Ukrainian Jews and Russian Jews and between other groups of Jews now clearly demarcated by national borders? What is the relationship between past and present loyalties in the national republics turned successor states?

These then are the problems raised in my study. I suggest that anthropology offers a more insightful and comprehensive approach than does traditional Soviet Jewish scholarship to exploring the underlying questions of Jewish identity in the Soviet Union and its successor states. In the rest of my text, I hope to demonstrate this.

Defining anthropology

What do I mean when I say that my approach is anthropological? What is lacking in traditional Soviet Jewish scholarship for which an anthropological approach can compensate? In the following discussion, I draw on a recent book by Robert Brym, with the assistance of Rozalina Ryvkina, entitled The Jews of Moscow, Kiev and Minsk: Identity, Antisemitism, Emigration (Brym 1994). In particular, I want to point out the limitations of the quantitative method in addressing certain questions relating to Jewish identity, and I want to show how anthropology may be better equipped to explore these same questions.

Anthropology is distinctive in its methodology and its theoretical underpinnings. It depends on long-term ethnographic fieldwork consisting of daily interaction and participation within a defined community. The community is of interest in and of itself; it does not necessarily have to be representative of other communities or the larger society in general. Fieldwork methodology — including informal discussions, formal interviews, participation in family and community activities, and continuous observation over a significant period of time — allows anthropologists to learn not only about how people think and what they say but what they do. This is a primary methodological difference between anthropology and the quantitative survey method prevalent in sociology. For example, Brym and Ryvkina, base their analysis on a sociological survey of Jews in three cities. In the survey, they posed certain questions about belief and practice to try to measure levels of Jewishness among their respondents. However, the discrepancy between belief and practice cannot be measured on the basis of a yes/no questionnaire. Answers thus reflected only respondents' self- perceptions, not their actual behavior.

A more important distinction between anthropology and quantitative sociology comes down to the underlying theoretical concerns of research and is reflected in both the methods of research and the final theoretical analysis. We normally ask different questions and look for different kinds of answers. Whereas Brym, in his recent book, is mainly concerned with 'how many Jews there are in the FSU', 'how many will emigrate', and 'how many will actively participate in the post-Soviet Jewish community', I am concerned with 'how Jewishness is defined through daily practice' and 'how community membership and expressions of identity are changing'. I am also interested in 'why?' and 'in relation to what?'. I want qualitative responses; I am not interested in numbers unless they provide a necessary foundation for answering a qualitative question. Open-ended discussions and interviews, unlike quantitative surveys, allow for such qualitative responses. Issues about identity and belonging can be explored and redirected within an open-ended conversation; they are not bound by a limited number of choices to be ranked in terms of preference on a questionnaire. On the other hand, by using a quantitative, close-ended survey, Brym is able to come up with his own population estimate and make certain conclusions about levels of anti-Semitism, potential patterns of emigration, and future levels of active community participation. Because Brym has based his analysis on what people say they feel and what people say they do or will do (at one moment in time) — and not what they actually feel and do — his conclusions and predictions may be misleading. However, in this context, his questions, his methods, and his conclusions are consistently quantitative.

The problem arises when sociologists use quantitative methods to explore qualitative concepts such as identity. For example, after addressing issues about 'how many?', Brym continues to use the survey method to answer such questions as: "How Jewish are they [Jews living in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus]? Which factors determine variations in the degree of Jewishness typically found in different categories of the population?" (Brym 1994, 16). The study of identity is concerned with people's primary forms of identification. Cultural or ethnic identity, unlike personal identity in the psychological sense, focuses on the relationship between individuals and their ethnic community or cultural group. Identity in this sense is not a concept which can easily be measured. The factors involved are too complicated and often themselves unmeasurable. Cultural identity in particular must be explored through feelings and self-perceptions of identity, membership, and belonging and through symbolic interactions between members and between members and non-members which reinforce or reinvent a sense of identity, belonging, and community boundaries.

Nevertheless, Brym has chosen to measure levels of Jewishness in the FSU by certain indexes of Jewishness such as city of residence, age, fear of anti-Semitism, Jewish upbringing, and plans for emigration. He attempts to equate certain indexes, such as increased fears of anti-Semitism or plans for emigration, with heightened Jewish identity. However, many of these indexes are themselves difficult to measure. For example, how do you measure fear of anti-Semitism or Jewish upbringing? Moreover, they can in no way be called indexes of Jewishness without making certain assumptions about their relationship to Jewish identity. Brym never makes clear the correlation between city of residence, emigration plans, or any other index and identity. He just assumes that older Jews, Jews who claim a Jewish upbringing, those with greater fears of anti-Semitism, those with plans for emigration, and those from certain cities are more Jewish than others. Such assumptions are unwarranted without further explanation and clarification. In general, quantitative methods are insufficient to explore the complex relationships between identity and the factors which influence it. Much in the qualitative nature of identity may be missed by imposing a framework for measurement rather than exploring the local criteria for self-definition. I propose that Jewish identity in the post- Soviet states must also be examined using ethnographic methods of observation, participation, and discussion among Jews in a given city or community and in light of qualitative anthropological theories. Such a study would be more sensitive to the ways in which Jewishness is defined and ascribed meaning in a particular ethnographic context.

An anthropological approach to the study of post-Soviet Jewry

By working with anthropological theories of identity, ethnicity, community, socialism, nationalism, and diaspora and within the methodological framework of my own ethnographic study, I will be able to define explicitly what I mean when I write about Jewish identity, community, and diaspora and the impacts of socialism and nationalism on their expressions and contours. Moreover, I will be able to reveal the extent to which Judaism, Jewish culture, and Jewishness are not bound frameworks within which Jews express themselves in given ways but are concepts shaped by individuals, families, communities, and the larger society, economy, and state. I am not interested in counting the Jews of the diaspora — though suffice it to note that I do not believe the diaspora is vanishing. I am also not concerned with applying a normative definition of Jewishness; I need to understand the existing normative frameworks for Jewish self-ascription but I do not want to apply my own. Instead, I am concerned with Jewish identity in the places where it intersects other struggles for meaning and membership — at the crossroads of personal, cultural, national, and transnational identity processes. The Soviet successor states provide a dramatic setting in which to explore the intersections between these multiple identities in transition, including the conflicts and concessions that occur during the transition process.

Precisely because it is neither quantitative nor normative nor structurally imposing, I propose that anthropology can offer a more insightful approach to understanding the shift from Soviet to post-Soviet Jewish identities than can sociology, Jewish studies, or political science. Concerned with relationships and not structures, anthropology allows me to situate Jewish identity in a more dynamic and realistic setting, where its negotiative relationship to the Jewish community, to Judaism and Jewish culture, to the economy and society, to the legal system and nationality laws, and to the political ideology and structures of the state can be observed and explored in depth. Moreover, unlike many other disciplines, anthropological theories allow for and even concentrate on processes of social change. It is clear that concepts and applications of identity, community, culture, economy, society, law, and politics have all gone through their own dramatic transformations in the post-Soviet context; locating Jewish identity within the intersecting field of these multiple processes helps us to see that Jewish identity does not change in a vacuum. It also helps us to better observe and understand the multiple factors involved in producing social and cultural change, specifically in the domain of interpretive meanings and expressions of identity. In particular, anthropology's focus on internal meanings and explanations allows me to trace shifting identities from the perspective of post- Soviet Jews. Local Jewish perceptions will allow me to grasp the more subtle, internal factors involved in producing identity change and to explore the extent to which Jews themselves are conscious of the shifting (historical) criteria by which they define themselves.


This paper is in itself only an introduction to my research study. I have attempted to show that traditional Soviet Jewish scholarship, with its grim predictions and heavy reliance on quantitative methods, is ill equipped to research the many possibilities for Jewish expression in the post-Soviet states. The study of post-Soviet Jewish identity is a study of change and transition, not of disappearing communities and vanishing diasporas. By revealing the problems of the existing literature and proposing an alternative approach to the study of Jewish identity, I hope I have created space for new ways of researching a highly complex subject matter in need of qualitative, empirical analysis.

Selected Bibliography