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Religion and Jewish Identity in the Soviet Union, 1941-1964

Mordechai Altshuler

Publication Year: 2012

This illuminating study explores the role of religious institutions in the makeup of Jewish identity in the former Soviet Union, against the backdrop of the government's antireligion policies from the 1940s to the 1960s. Foregrounding instances of Jewish public and private activities centered on synagogues and prayer groups--paradoxically the only Jewish institutions sanctioned by the government--Altshuler dispels the commonly held perception of Soviet Jewry as "The Jews of Silence" and reveals the earliest stirrings of Jewish national sentiment that anticipated the liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Published by: Brandeis University Press


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pp. c-iv

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

This book explores the role of religion in Jewish ethnic identity in the former Soviet Union between the years 1941 and 1964. The study is based on documentary material from USSR archives, which became accessible only after the collapse of the Soviet regime. It examines and analyzes records not only from the central state archives but also from archives in towns on the periphery, which, as we shall see, are crucial, because a large gap existed...

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pp. 1-6

The Soviet Union was the first country in the twentieth century to be committed to an antireligion policy from its very inception. Ideologically and practically, the regime and the Communist Party looked upon religion as a phenomenon whose time had passed and that needed to be combated. To that end, the state set in motion a vast apparatus of education, propaganda, and repression. It likewise considered most religious organizations to be social and...

Part One | From Religious Leniency to a Campaign of Oppression

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1 | Soviet Religious Policy in the Wake of the Nazi Invasion, 1941 – 1948

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pp. 9-22

With the Nazi-German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the Soviet regime had a new reality to confront in all fields, including that of religion. The regime’s policy on, and corresponding attitude toward, religion was shaped primarily by its policy and attitude toward the Russian Orthodox Church. In this new reality, four main factors compelled the authorities to make a practical change (not an ideological one) in its attitude toward religion....

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2 | The Legalization of Congregations and Synagogues

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pp. 23-40

One of the tasks of the SRA was to register and legalize the religious associations that had formed spontaneously across the Soviet Union during the war years. The legalization of these congregations thus became a major focus of Jewish activity in the years 1944 – 1948.
By a law of April 8, 1929, permission to organize a religious association was granted to citizens ages eighteen and older who lived in a single settlement...

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3 | The Formation of Prayer Groups (Minyanim)

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pp. 41-50

Unlike the unregistered congregations that functioned in the open, usually in a structure meant for prayer and with the partial recognition of the authorities, minyans were gatherings for prayer held in private apartments. Any gatherings in private homes for the purposes of religious ritual, except those at the home of the dying or deceased, were deemed illegal if the participants lacked an explicit permit from authorities, including the locales and the dates of the gatherings....

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4 | Jewish Spiritual Needs in the Aftermath of the Holocaust

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pp. 51-58

Between 1944 and 1948, broad sectors of the Jewish public participated directly or indirectly in the formation of congregations and the opening of synagogues. This prompts an obvious question: are we to regard this phenomenon as a case of a true religious revival among the Jews of the USSR, or should it be explained in terms of the special conditions of the time and new roles taken on by the religious congregations?...

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5 | Stalin’s Final Years, 1949 – 1953: Persecution and the Threat of Liquidation

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pp. 59-80

In late 1948, signs pointed to a change away from the government’s stance of relative tolerance toward religion,1 stemming almost certainly from a combination of domestic and foreign policy shifts in the USSR. In the late 1940s, the battle against “nationalistic aberrations” had intensified and the security services gained in power. The number of prisoners in the Corrective...

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6 | Public Displays of Jewish Identity: Demonstrations in the Synagogue Square

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pp. 81-89

During the “black years” of 1949 – 1953 the synagogue served as an important center for the public display of Jewish identity. On the Jewish New Year and especially on Yom Kippur, genuine demonstrations were held around many synagogues, a practice virtually unheard of previously in the USSR. One of the government’s goals was to “atomize” the Jewish public — that is, to isolate its component members — and yet in those dark days thousands and sometimes...

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7 | Khrushchev’s “Thaw,” 1954 – 1959

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pp. 90-101

The announcement of the release of the doctors on April 4, 1953, restored some courage to many Jews, who now dared to demand that synagogues be opened.1 But in the regime’s attitude toward religion in general, and the Jewish religion in particular, there was little immediate change.
In the Kremlin, a fight began over the spoils of the dictator, a fight that spread to the lower echelons of power and led to the replacement of many...

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8 | The Public Campaign against Religion

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pp. 102-116

In January 1959, the Twenty-first Congress of the Communist Party of the USSR convened, and First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev announced that the country was entering a new stage in its passage from Socialism to Communism, and to that end must intensify the battle against “manifestations of bourgeois values and ethics.” Resolutions passed at the congress stressed the need to increase the atheist-scientific and antireligion propaganda aimed...

Part Two | Between the Private and the Public Spheres

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9 | Rabbis and the Congregational Establishment

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pp. 119-132

Soviet regulations on religious service providers (sluzhiteli kul'ta) were geared mainly toward the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church, in which a priest was appointed by the senior religious authority and as such had considerable influence in the Church. In 1929 when the regime sought to restrict the role of religion in the state, it passed laws saying that religious service providers could not be appointed to boards of religious associations. When the regime wished to ease its strictures, one of the arrangements it made with...

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10 | Cantors for Hire

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pp. 133-139

In most synagogues, an individual from the congregation or the rabbi led prayer services on weekdays and Sabbaths; only a few of the large congregations employed a cantor year-round. Certain synagogues had choirs, which usually performed only on holidays. Thus, for example, the authorities learned in 1958 that the choir members of the Kiev synagogue were receiving a monthly wage of 250 rubles, sparking worry as to whether these were employees of the...

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11 | Financing Religious Activities

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pp. 140-151

The broad literature published in the West on religion in the USSR, and even publications on the subject in the former USSR, scarcely addresses the sources of funding for religious activities. This seems to be due to the paucity of direct documentation on the subject: even the SRA representatives had little trust in the records of income and expenditure that, by the 1929 regulations on religious affairs, all religious associations were required to maintain, including...

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12 | Religious Studies and the Moscow Yeshiva, 1957

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pp. 152-160

Torah study is considered one of the most important values of Judaism. From a very young age, Jewish boys across Eastern Europe were sent to what the Ashkenazim call a heder, a private institution of sorts where the boys received their initial education in basic religious obligations, prayer, and reading. Since not all parents could afford to send their sons to private heders, over the years Talmud Torahs (traditional schools) were established primarily to serve the...

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13 | Kosher Slaughter (Shechita) and Matzah Baking

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pp. 161-182

Keeping kosher is an important commandment in the Jewish faith, and quite a few Jews who don’t observe other commandments try in some fashion to keep kosher in their homes. Of course, adherence to this mitzvah is a private affair by its very nature, and in the USSR no special surveys were conducted on the matter, so assessing its scope is impossible. Yet even if keeping kosher...

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14 | Holiday Observance in the Private Sphere

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pp. 183-191

The Jewish holidays were times when a special religious atmosphere was felt: the synagogue was painted and repaired, extra seats were added, and so on. Accordingly, in the 1920s and 1930s, the Soviet media tended to ramp up its antireligion propaganda during the holidays. Where for Christians the propaganda intensified on the eves of Christmas and Easter, for Jews this happened on the eves of the High Holidays and Sukkot (which officials called...

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15 | Charity and the Jewish Needy

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pp. 192-197

The practice of giving aid to the poor, indigent, ill, and needy of various sorts is well rooted in Jewish tradition, and before the Revolution thousands of charitable organizations operated across Russia. Quite a few were connected with a synagogue, directly or indirectly. Yet after the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power, the Commissary for Justice of Russia ruled as follows on August 24, 1918:...

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16 | Ritual Baths and Circumcision

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pp. 198-204

Until the Revolution, almost every town with a Jewish population had at least one ritual purification bath. But during the religious persecutions of the 1920s and 1930s, most of the mikvas were shut down on various pretexts, the most common of which was the claim, not entirely untrue, that they did not meet sanitation standards. Yet even in cases in which congregations were ready to remodel the baths so as to meet sanitary requirements, the authorities,...

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17 | Cemeteries, Holocaust Memorials, & Burial Societies

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pp. 205-228

In the Soviet Union, as elsewhere, graveyards were an important part of the life of a congregation, and upon forming, every Jewish community allocated space for one. For the authorities’ part, they allocated parcels of land for graveyards to Jews, and the community usually covered the cost; sometimes the Jewish graveyards were adjacent to the Christian ones, but the two were always kept separate. The Jewish cemetery was usually fenced off and contained...

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18 | The Attitude of World Jewry and Israel to Judaism in the USSR

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pp. 229-251

The attitudes held by world Jewry and the Jewish community in the Land of Israel (and later the state of Israel) toward Jewish religious life in the Soviet Union can be thought of as deriving from an overall interest in Soviet Jewry but also as having special characteristics. The congregations (synagogues), unlike other Soviet Jewish institutions (such as the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee), were not formed by the authorities, and given their historicalethnic...

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pp. 252-258

From its inception, the Soviet Union was run by an explicitly antireligious regime, which considered religion in all its forms as a harmful relic of the past that needed to disappear. The regime had established a sort of new religion of Communism, whose proponents viewed traditional religion as an undesirable and rival element; the new human being to be fashioned by Communism was to be a sworn atheist who fights off every manifestation of religion...


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pp. 259-300


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pp. 301-314


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pp. 315-324

E-ISBN-13: 9781611682731
E-ISBN-10: 1611682738
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611682717

Page Count: 328
Publication Year: 2012