The state of Jewry in Russia
A scene from filmmaker Reuven Brodsky’s documentary Home Movie. (photo by Yevgeny Spivak)
In 1989, the USSR’s emigration gates opened. Responsible for prying them open was a small group of tremendously courageous and patient Soviet Jews (called refusenikim for their denied exit permits) who had fought long and hard for their religious and cultural freedom, with thousands of Western Jews and non-Jewish people of conscience. The Soviet Jewry movement, which began in the United States in the 1960s and spread from there to other countries, including Canada, eventually witnessed 1.6 million Jews and their non-Jewish relations leave for Israel and the West. A thrilling climax, but then what happened?
While it is hard to say how many Jews live in Russia today, estimates are between 400,000-700,000, approximately 0.27%-0.48% of the total Russian population. Since the early 1990s, efforts to revitalize Jewish life in Russia and other former Soviet Union (FSU) countries have been ongoing.
After the dissolution of the USSR, different denominations within world Jewry started operating openly in Russia. Of all the different Jewish religious groups on the scene today, Chabad has probably worked the hardest to bring Jewish awareness to the unaffiliated. It sends its emissaries (usually a couple consisting of a male rabbi and his teacher wife) to Russia and numerous other FSU centres.
After so many years of not being able to publicly run Jewish institutions, Russian Jewish communities now have 17 day schools, 11 preschools and 81 supplementary schools with about 7,000 students. There are also four Jewish universities. The major towns have a Jewish presence, with synagogues and rabbis. In the past few years, a state-of-the-art Jewish museum even opened in Moscow and a deluxe Jewish community centre containing a small movie theatre, synagogue, mikvah, kosher gourmet restaurant and guest rooms for Sabbath observers was inaugurated in December 2015 in Zhukovka, near Moscow.
Yet the picture is far from rosy. In an introductory essay to An Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature: Two Centuries of Dual Identity in Prose and Poetry (2007), book editor Maxim Shrayer critically views Jewish cultural life in post-Soviet Russia: “… my preliminary conclusion is that Jewish-Russian writers whose careers were formed during the Soviet years continue to address Jewish topics in their work, some due to a renewed personal interest as well as the freedom to write about it, others out of cultural inertia. At the same time, younger authors of Jewish origin in today’s Russia have tended to be assimilated and Russianized, resulting in a dearth of Jewish consciousness in their writing.
“Jewish-Russian literature in the former USSR might have found a temporary domain in the pages of such periodicals as the Moscow-based magazine Lekhaim … [one of the] attempts to consolidate, perhaps artificially, a critical mass of writers and readers even as Jewish-Russian culture itself spirals toward disappearance.”
In Jewish Life After the USSR (Indiana University Press, 2003), Prof. Zvi Gitelman claims that, following the breakup, Russian Jews have become increasingly less concerned about intermarriage. Ethnic identity as such seems to be based on antisemitism – even if it is unofficial, popular antisemitism rather than state-sanctioned antisemitism.
Looking to the future, the offspring of these intermarriages are likely to feel less tied to Judaism. Speculatively, they are likely to remain so unless Russian-based Jewish institutions are willing to “reach out” to people who, according to the strict reading of Jewish law, are not considered members of the “tribe,” he argues.
Since 2000, immigration to Israel and/or to the West has slowed down. But, based on past experience, immigration – provided the doors to Israel and/or the West remain open – will likely pick up if antisemitism flares up, if the Russian economy takes a real and prolonged nose-dive or if political-military strife developed in Russia as it has in the Ukraine. As Lee Yaron recently reported in Haaretz, the situation is already changing: in 2015, “15,000 immigrants … came from the former Soviet Union … an increase of over 20% from last year’s figure.”
In the post-USSR age, Jewish culture in Israel and Russia mix in unexpected ways. Gone is my grandparents’ generation who, once out of Russia, never again saw “left behind” family members. Today, many former Russian Jews living in Israel (and vice versa) frequently fly four hours to visit relatives who did not leave. According to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, there were 60 weekly flights from Russia to Israel, as of the end of December 2015.
But the exchange is beyond familial ties. Here are four examples – two from the arts and two from the sciences.
Israeli filmmakers who left the USSR as children have begun making at least part of their films in Russia. Seven Days in St. Petersburg, written, directed and produced by Reuven Brodsky, is one case in point. Significantly, the protagonists speak both Hebrew and Russian. A few years earlier, Brodsky made the documentary Home Movie, described as, “The final chapter in the breakdown of the director’s family – one of many who did not survive the trials of immigration.”
Also in the film world, just a few months ago, Vladi Antonevicz released Credit for Murder, a documentary dealing with the topic of Russia’s neo-Nazis. As if the subject in and of itself is not dangerous enough to undertake, Antonevicz’s film apparently exposes a connection between the Russian administration and these hate groups. Antonevicz claims that certain Russian politicians are manipulating neo-Nazi activity to further their own political needs. To make this film, Antonevicz infiltrated Russian neo-Nazi groups, secretly investigating an unsolved double murder. He succeeded, but some say his small film crew has had to lay low after completing the film.
Former Russian Jews in Israel (and in the West) have likewise forged profitable positions in the start-up world. Moscow-born Prof. Eugene Kandel, outgoing head of Israel’s National Economic Council, analyzes this phenomenon. In a July 29, 2015, Forbes blog by Scott Tobin, the professor is quoted as saying, “Many Russian-born techies now working in Israel are especially innovative because the Soviet state traditionally under-invested in computer hardware and other technology, even as the state was scrambling to develop weapons and related technology to win the Cold War. That left engineers to fend for themselves and develop creative workarounds in many businesses.”
Finally, medical tourism from Russia has blossomed. Many well-to-do Russians come to Israel to be treated by Russian- and Hebrew-speaking doctors, nurses, technicians and medical secretaries (see imta.co.il).
A cause for hope and promise? Stay tuned.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.