soviet and kosherTheir plan was to create a new Jewish culture – a transformation that disassociated Jewishness from Judaism. They published magazines like The Apikoyros that were dismissive and critical of traditional Judaism, they printed and distributed a parody of the Passover Haggadah, they chanted “We don’t need priests and rabbis!” and “Down with the rabbi and his whip” and had torch lit protests and celebratory dinners on Yom Kippur. They also often had fist fights with Zionists. These guys were hard core!

Super radical Jewish Lower East Side Hipsters? Nope. Those guys are just a pale imitation of Soviet Jews between the years 1923 and 1939. Anna Shternshis in her newly published book Soviet And Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 discusses an era that has many parallels with our own.

Anna Shternshis’s fascinating study traces the creation of a Soviet Jewish identity that disassociated Jewishness from Judaism. The cultural transformation of Soviet Jews between 1917 and 1941 was one of the most ambitious experiments in social engineering of the past century. During this period, Russian Jews went from relative isolation to being highly integrated into the new Soviet culture and society, while retaining a strong ethnic and cultural identity.

Shternshis does us all a great service in bringing this era to light given that between the Nazis, Stalin and assimilation, very little of what these old school soviet yid hipsters did, remains. Hmmm….

And y’all thought you were soooo modern.

About the author

ck

Founder and Publisher of Jewlicious, David Abitbol lives in Jerusalem with his wife, newborn daughter and toddler son. Blogging as "ck" he's been blocked on twitter by the right and the left, so he's doing something right.

22 Comments

  • Silly me, I would have credited Communism for some of that. Is hipsterism also responsibile for the decline of Jewish culture in Poland?

  • You guys should make a new posting category, “Straw Man.” But if you’re seriously interested in talking about the Jewish cultural journey in Europe and Russia, how about giving some space to the reasons they were leaving Judaism in droves? It wasn’t all assimilation.

  • You can’t have the play Hamlet without the main character, Hamlet.

    You can’t have Judaism without the main character.

    G-d free Judaism lasts maybe 3 or 4 generations. And only if they keep marrying in, in spite of lack of involvement.

    How many people do you know who can say “My grandfather was a Reform Jew, and I, like him, am an involved, practicing Reform Jew”. Not many. It just does not last three generations.

    A car that is out of gas will run on momentum and fumes for a good long while. It LOOKS as if it is going fine. But it slows and stops, eventually. Has to.

    No G-d, no gasoline in the tank. Even if people are seriously annoyed at G-d, if they do the mitzvot, they are keeping something going.

  • I have met plenty of non-Jews from the former Soviet Union who have some Jewish ancestry. I just don’t see it as the end of the world.

    There, I said it.

  • You are right! It IS the end, for their Jewish ancestors, of SOMETHING – but not necessarily the WORLD. Depends what you value!

    CK was picking on the muddleheaded errors in people’s THINKING, if I understand him. He wasn’t saying “It is terrible if Judaism disappears”, he was saying “It is terrible if people KID themselves they can preseve Judaism by sanitizing, modernizing, hipster-izing, and de-deism-izing Judaism.” He is RIGHT!

    (My personal schtick, if anybody cares, is Jews who pray perfectly, know Gemara, BUT don’t have CHILDREN, are not pulling their fair share of national freight. But nobody asked me, and this isn’t my thread.)

  • But they DID do well:
    “During this period, Russian Jews went from relative isolation to being highly integrated into the new Soviet culture and society, while retaining a strong ethnic and cultural identity.”

    For a while.

  • … And that the Leninist-Stalinist regime created its own form of Jewish hipsterdom as part of its efforts to acculturate its Jewish population. It actually has nothing to do with organic Jewish cultural movements. But it’s a great straw man!

  • It’s just a little bit of history that’s all. You can read into it whatever you like. What’s interesting is how the Jews involved did not need to be prodded into aaction by government decree. The writers of The Apikoyros were amongst the most virulently anti-religious elements of society, not just criticizing religious judaism but also actively ratting out Jews who continued to follow the outmoded religious aspect of their Jewish identity. That many of these great Yiddish writers ended up in a gulag or in front of a firing squad is kind of ironic. But yeah, really, I’m not preaching. It’s just history. Please forgive my occasional snarky asides. Read the book! I am sure the author’s perspective differs from mine. I mean I didn’t read the book so what do I know?

    I guess I just see red whenever mention is made of the Red Haggadah … Happy Passover y’all.

  • “That many of these great Yiddish writers ended up in a gulag or in front of a firing squad is kind of ironic.”

    Yeah, kind of like how many of the Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Russia who refused to leave for the “treife medina” because of their Rebbe’s concern for their children’s Judaism got to see it destroyed almost in its entirety by the Communist regime which replaced the Czar. The hipsters had no lock on Jewish irony in the Soviet Union, CK.

  • anna shternshis gave a presentation at rejewvenation with amichai lau lavie and aryeh cohen. we had a great q&a afterwards.

    i’m the last guy to ignore jewish radical heritage, particularly that of the soviet union. hence mazal tov cocktail.

    but if you think shternishis’ book is somethin, check out “the new jews”. i’m finishing up an essay on it for an upcoming edition of zeek. it will be called “there is nothing new under the sun.”

  • actually i’d like to qualify that just a little more: judaism has always been radical, from avraham avienu to anarchists against the wall, and it is precisely because we have a tradition to draw on that we’re emboldened in our actions.

  • any thoughts on Yossi Klien Halevi’s criticism of radicals, saying that to be one, you have to selectively tune out the legitimacy of voices that don’t agree with yours?

    Is “radical” just a sexier word for extremist?

    Thoughts?

  • There used to be people with left-leaning, radical ideas who understood words like “marriage” “baby” “dinnertime” and “Mr.”. Believe me, these people knew their Marx. They were further to the left than anybody alive today. Seriously.

    But then, dinosaurs used to roam the earth.

  • So, “radical” once did not mean “extremist”. The radicals of yesteryear were better than their opinions.

    I don’t care.

    1) tell me what you believe in, I have enough doubts of my own and I don’t need to hear yours.

    2) got kids? then what do you know? Maybe you know. But for how long? Are you immortal? Then have a kid. They’re cute. Really.

  • Legitimate, please. We don’t do bastards. Life long anguish. But you knew that.

  • The Reform Movement isn’t the downfall of the Jewish people.

    My reform shul consists of
    1. People who would have been lost to Judaism after they left Orthodoxy, but have found meaning and a way to live Jewishly in the Reform Movement.

    2. Secular Jews who were probably brought in by a non-Jewish partner who then learned, “there is something to this jewish thing.”

    3. 2nd and 3rd generation Reform Jews.

    Reform places the responsibility on the individual instead of on an authoritative Rabbi. I’m too tired to properly rant, but we aren’t destroying the Jewish world.

  • I studied Yiddish with Anna Shternshis for two years and sat in on her “Soviet and Kosher” course in Toronto. I can’t reconcile the notion of Jewish hipster radicalism with the flourishing of Yiddish literature, newspapers, song, and theatre during that time period. This is essentially what EV said up above, except that he/she seems to look at it from a more pessimistic angle whereas my take is rather optimistic. The religious aspect of Judaism suffered, this is true, but a uniquely Jewish secular culture developed in its place.

    The Soviet leadership believed the best way to spread the communist gospel was to use the language of the masses, i.e. Yiddish for the Jews, Ukranian for the Ukranians, etc. So they encouraged and funded the development of Yiddish periodicals and theatre. It worked spectacularly well, until, er, Stalin started with the mass killings 🙁

    The Red Haggadah is actually pretty funny … praise for Moses is replaced by praise for Stalin … stuff like that.

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