Some time ago I drafted a list of books I was hoping to review soon (it has grown since, by the way). Here comes the first one: Doubly Chosen: Jewish Identity, the Soviet Intelligentsia, and the Russian Orthodox Church, by Judith Kornblatt (2004).
Kornblatt, professor of Slavic literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and practicing Jew, became fascinated by Russian Jews converting to Orthodoxy during the Soviet period, both in Russia and in America and Israel. Laying aside what she calls “squeamishness” about the topic of conversion, common among academics and particularly among Jews, she conducted dozens of interviews with Jewish converts both in and outside the former USSR. The resulting book is erudite, novel, insightful and respectful about the views and choices of its subjects (which is impressive given how little the author agrees with them), and brilliantly written. Since there’s a lot in there, I’ll review it in pieces over a few posts this week.
Kornblatt lays out the background of her study by describing the problematization of Jewish identity in nineteenth-century imperial Russia by everyone from bureaucrats conflicted about the best way to classify the Jewish population inherited from several partitions of Poland, to nationalists exploring a new, ethnically based anti-semitism to replace the old narrative of Jews as deicides, to Jewish intellectuals seeking to open up social opportunities for Jews by making them more Russian without discrediting their religion.
As a result of the intense debate, the unprecedented idea that Jewish ethnicity and Jewish religion were distinct became current. Many thinkers believed that, in this new ideological climate, Jews could become “Russian citizens of the Mosaic persuasion.”
The communist revolution exploded this hope by removing religion from all civil discourse and defining Jews formally as a nationality. (Kornblatt points out that Jews were not labeled a “people,” unlike for instance some native Siberian nations, and argues that this reflects the Soviet government’s desire to treat them as dispersed individual members of a foreign ethnic group, rather than as a corporate body.) With Judaism no longer a relevant or allowable attribute, Soviet Jews became not Russian citizens who practiced Judaism, but foreign nationals who were Russian by culture and lack of religion. Kornblatt quotes Zvi Gitelman: “Ironically, the two strongest forces for the preservation of Jewish national identity were the official classification of Jews as a nationality and social antisemitism. This left many Soviet Jews in an anomalous position: they were Jews officially and socially, but Russians culturally.”
This stands in marked contrast with perception of Jewish identity in America and Israel. Kornblatt cites several recent surveys that consistently reveal that, in these countries, Jewish identity was associated primarily with religion. Americans and Israelis agreed that the only way to cease being a Jew was to convert to another faith. Russian and Ukrainian Jews, however, barely mentioned the practice of Judaism and instead associated Jewishness with things such as affirming one’s Jewish identity in the face of persecution (for instance, keeping one’s Jewish last name) and honoring Holocaust victims. Most of these respondents did not think that baptism negated one’s Jewishness, even if they did not condone it.
I find this interesting because, as a Soviet-born American Jew, I’ve experienced both sides showing an utter lack of comprehension of the other side’s definition of what it means to be Jewish. Americans don’t understand why I call myself a Jew given that I’m a Christian, or why secular Jews call themselves Jews. Russian Jewish family members find it ridiculous and perverse when Soviet-born friends in America and Israel develop an interest in keeping Shabbat and learning about Judaism. Yet the two ways of understanding Judaism complement each other, and serve to remind each side that God has created a relationship with a human family, and that neither the family relationship nor the family’s relationship with God can be ignored.
The Soviet way of understanding Jewish identity, on one hand, facilitated Jewish paths to baptism. On the other hand, we must keep in mind that if in nineteenth century imperial Russia baptism was to some degree, a path to social advancement (though see earlier post on Dr. Schainker’s work), in Soviet Russia it did nothing to reduce anti-semitism and everything to put one at risk of increased government surveillance and persecution. As the mother of one of Kornblatt’s interviewees said upon learning of her daughter’s baptism, “This won’t save you from the pogroms” (or, to translate to Sovietese, from the Doctors’ Plot, or the university quotas, or the job denials, or the street harassment.)
With baptism in Soviet Russia being on one hand less destabilizing to one’s sense of identity than it would be in a tightly knit religious Jewish community, and on the other hand socially useless and even dangerous, why did Kornblatt’s subjects choose to convert – and what does this teach us about Jewish conversion more broadly? More on that in the next post.