- Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939
The law of unintended consequences defines Anna Shternshis' fascinating new book, Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the new Soviet government enacted policies to eliminate perceived injustices from the tsarist regime and to turn its multiethnic empire into a Soviet nation. Soviet Jews were some of the biggest beneficiaries of these new policies. Old pre-revolutionary laws that restricted Jews' mobility and access to education were eliminated; this change caused a social revolution, with Jews migrating, both physically and metaphorically, to the centers of power. At the same time, the government engaged in a cultural revolution to create a new kind of Soviet Jew. Several scholars have examined this cultural revolution, which took place primarily in Soviet Jews' designated native language, Yiddish, and have looked at the who, what, where, when and why's of Soviet Jewish culture. But Shternshis asks a different question—what the results of this social and cultural revolution were.
How did Soviet Jews understand Jewish culture? What did being Jewish mean to those targeted by this cultural revolution? Historians are notoriously bad at answering questions like these. In general it is much harder to find out what consumers of culture thought, and much easier to look at what and how culture was produced. Most everyday theater goers, newspaper readers, and music listeners don't leave materials in archives explaining their motives. So Shternshis went directly to the source and conducted more than 100 in-depth interviews on three continents over four years to find out just what it meant to those who grew up in interwar Soviet Union to be a Soviet Jew.
She focuses on the interwar period when there was a concerted state effort to transform, in her words, "Jews into Soviets," to eliminate old forms of Jewish culture and identity and create new forms of positive identification with the state. Shternshis complicates the standard narrative of Soviet Jewish history that says that Jews identified as Jews only through identities ascribed to them—by the state, in their passports (which had a line for nationality), and through state and social antisemitism. Shternshis finds that this generation of [End Page 176] Soviet Jews identified as Jews because of Soviet Yiddish culture, by listening to certain musicians, seeing certain movies and being together as Jews, even if, according to Shternshis, this was not what the government intended.
An example from Soviet Yiddish culture—the Yiddish secular schools established by the government were, according to Shternshis, established to propagandize to Jewish children, teaching them the evils of Judaism, the class problems of major Jewish holidays, and the way the rabbinic elite oppressed Jews. In fact, most of her respondents do not positively identify with Judaism, suggesting that the schools were a success. But her students also remember feeling very Jewish about attending the schools, in which nearly all the students were Jewish, where different schools' sports teams played one another, pitting Jews against Ukrainians, and in which they learned about Yiddish literature and developed an appreciation for writers like Sholem Aleichem. Shternshis sees this as Jews "on the ground" complicating the intentions of those in Moscow.
An example from Russian-language Jewish culture—an overwhelming number of her respondents talked about the 1936 Russian-language film Seekers of Happiness as the most important Jewish film they remember seeing. The film depicts a Jewish family coming to the Soviet Union to develop a communal farm in Birobidzhan, the far eastern territory designated the "Jewish autonomous region" in 1934. What struck Shternshis in her interviews was that her respondents identified with the film's negative character, a stereotype of the "old" Jew in the film named Pinya, and not with the "new" Soviet Jews, who were building the commune. Pinya is nervous, talks about money, can't work collectively, and spends the whole movie searching for gold rather than laboring. And yet, most of her respondents remember some...