I’ll start this second part of the review of Judith Kornblatt’s Doubly Chosen with some interviewee quotes I found particularly striking:
I was driven by neither philosophy nor spirituality… Living in the Soviet Union, and always being bothered by the constant lie, you had the sensation that there must be a great deal that they are simply hiding. I was led to a sense of readiness, readiness to believe in something else. I didn’t know what that something was, but the readiness was there.
It was an issue of how to maintain your difference. How not to be absorbed. To have the inner power to stay yourself. To stay a spiritual personality. Not to be completely engulfed. In this sense, the Church helped to support the human personality, the personality of the intelligentsia, for whom personhood is extremely important.
Jews were disproportionately represented among the Soviet intelligentsia, a highly educated but sociall underprivileged group that read hungrily from forbidden literature, wrote poetry, and gathered semi-legally in one another’s kitchens to drink heavily and discuss the joyless and unsafe reality of life in the 1960s Soviet Union. One interviewee described it thus:
[After Stalin’s death] All dreams of radical changes in society vanished. Life seemd meaningless and joyless… One’s own soul seemed a cellar which had not been washed or cleaned for ages and was full of cobwebs. The everyday need to lie, both in public and to one’s self, drained life’s resources and it seemed that the very air of the society had been woven into a lie.
The people living in this dark cellar desired freedom – spiritual freedom, and political freedom if such a thing could be imagined to exist. Some of them found it in poetry and long camping trips to the north; others sought it through dissidence, sometimes combined with Zionism. Still others, however, saw it glimmer in the books of 19th and 20th century Russian theologians, in particular Vladimir Solovyov and Pavel Florensky.
Fascinatingly, these baptized Jews found themselves sharing friendship (books, kitchen spaces) and suffering (threats, job firings, labor camps) with Zionist Jews, Jews discovering Judaism, atheist Jews. Kornblatt’s book is almost overwhelming for a Russian-Jewish convert to Orthodoxy for the sheer number of converts she mentions whose names are familiar from completely different realms – music, literature, even Israeli politics. Some felt rejected or disapproved of by their Jewish families; nevertheless, to an extent hardly seen in history, baptism did not divide converts socially from their Jewish brethren. Perhaps this was because under the anti-religious Soviet regime faith, whether Christian or Jewish, was necessarily a personal quest, born of a spiritual thirst and fraught with danger, rather than a comfortable, habitual community endeavor. Thus it nourished friendships on the front lines among the warriors of the spirit (or personhood, as one of the quotes above puts it), rather than feeding into the separation of established communities.
It seems to me that the explosion of conversions among Soviet Jews reflected a search for freedom and truth not only for the individual converts. It also formed part of the process by which the Russian Orthodox Church in the twentieth century was finally able to free itself from its image of the church of the superstitious peasant – through a number of erudite and prophetic theologians in recent times; through its exiled emissaries in Paris, America, and elsewhere, who worked diligently to explain and glorify Orthodoxy in categories comprehensible to Western culture; through the martyrdom of millions of its priests and faithful under the Soviet regime. I believe also that, especially as former Soviet Jewish converts establish themselves in Israel and in the United States and continue to maintain close relationships with non-baptized Jews, the example of their conversions – numerous among the educated, who tend to leave a “paper trail” of writing, sincere and marked by a lack of social benefit – will play a role in setting the Jewish people spiritually free to pursue its true identity in Christ.