From Soviet Jewry to Israelis and Americans

After a week off on Super Bowl Sunday, Passages will come back to the Ina Levine Jewish Community Campus on Sunday with a discussion on the U.S. economic meltdown that began in 2008. The speaker will be Gretchen Morgenson and you can read more about Sunday’s program here. Here are some thoughts from the previous lecture.

When Gal Beckerman, opinion editor at the Forward, spoke on how Soviet Jews fought for their identity and freedom of movement from the 1970s through the collapse of the Soviet Union, he hit upon an essential irony that should give us all hope when we wonder about the Jewish future here in the United States.

Speaking to 176 attendees at the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Passages series at the Ina Levine Jewish Community Campus on Jan. 27, Beckerman pointed out that the internal travel documentation issued by the Soviets under Josef Stalin’s rule (essentially passports for travel within the then-Soviet Union) listed people’s ethnicity, and thus Jews were identified as Jews in those documents.

But, meanwhile, the officially atheist state campaigned  mercilessly against Jewish religion and ritual, seeking to assimilate all into a happily communist utopia. After decades, the only connection to Jewish identity many Soviet Jews had was those internal passports that labeled them as Jews.

So the dictator’s desire to keep tabs on everyone’s travel and potential loyalties to other forces such as Judaism or Jewish tradition or Zionism kept the spark of Jewish identity alive ready to turn into a blaze when the refuseniks began to seek the freedom to emigrate from the Soviet Union.

It is no wonder that Natan  Sharansky (born Anatoly Borisovich Shcharansky) stresses the importance of identity and particularly noted in a Phoenix speech in 2008 that the Six-Day War changed everything for Soviet Jews. “Maybe (anti-Semites) hated you as much as they hated you before, but they started respecting you because power is something respectable in the Soviet Union, and Israel was powerful.”

This was the fuel that turned the spark of identity into a blaze and today, Jews who emigrated from the former Soviet Union, both in Israel and the United States, are strong players dedicated to the Jewish identity so long denied them.

That was perhaps the most important take-away from Beckerman’s talk, and it provides a hope that the spark can be kept alive through all assimilationist trends.