- Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923 - 1939
The question of who is a Jew continues to be passionately debated well into the twenty-first century. In Soviet and Kosher, Anna Shternshis engages this issue by exploring the Bolshevik regime's controversial attempt to separate Judaism from Jewish ethnicity. Her goal is 'to present the cultural world of average Jews during the Stalinist period and to show how this identity was influenced by Soviet popular culture.' By focusing on ordinary consumers of culture and their personal testimony, Shternshis also addresses what she views as a gap in existing scholarship about Soviet Jews, which has drawn largely on written sources to tell the story of political and cultural elites. The author's turn towards oral history allows readers to understand former Soviet Jews on their own cultural terms and poses important questions about ostensibly normative models of Jewish identity.
Shternshis readily acknowledges that the young Soviet state did not invent the concept of a secularized Jewish identity: there were, she notes, numerous cases in modern history when Jews voluntarily embraced irreligious modes of Jewish self-expression. She convincingly demonstrates, however, that the Bolshevik regime was unique in attempting to use the tools of popular culture to fashion a new form of Jewishness [End Page 259] that would be, according to the slogan of the time, 'national in form, socialist in content.' This effort to socially engineer national identity was directed not only at Jews, but was part of a much larger project to neutralize politically charged ethnic loyalties among all Soviet citizens. In the case of Soviet Jews, however, the tsarist regime's legacy of Judeophobia posed special challenges to Bolshevik authorities, who had to discredit traditional Judaism among Jewish citizens while simultaneously humanizing and demythologizing it for non-Jewish citizens in a parallel campaign to eradicate anti-Semitism. As we learn from the oral testimonies, the mixed messages at the centre of this project strongly influenced how Soviet Jewish identity evolved in the interwar years.
Shternshis's data are based on 225 interviews that she analyzes within the framework of five major spheres of popular cultural production and consumption during the 1920s and 1930s: anti-religious propaganda and the secularization of traditional Jewish institutions; the 'worker-correspondent' movement and the promotion of literacy; amateur local Yiddish theatre; official and unofficial Soviet Yiddish songs; and Russian-language publications intended to dispel anti-Semitic stereotypes among non-Jews. The oral histories suggest that ordinary citizens participated in official Jewish culture for any number of reasons - pleasure, a quest for community, self-promotion, genuine belief - and that the lessons they derived from these cultural activities often diverged radically from official expectations. The reader is offered fascinating insights into how Shternshis's respondents interpreted propaganda materials in order to make sense of their new, evolving identity - a complex synthesis of Soviet secularist values, Yiddish language, Jewish ritual, and historical memory, which Shternshis encapsulates in the evocative metaphor of 'kosher pork'.
Shternshis's use of oral testimony constitutes an important departure from the exclusively text-based study of elite Jewish culture, and she very effectively unpacks the mechanisms by which the popular reception of state propaganda confounded the regime's expectations. She does so by juxtaposing the 'official' narratives of written records - in both Yiddish and Russian - with the 'unofficial' memories of her interviewees. Without denying that human recollections can also be unreliable, she argues persuasively that personal testimony, weighed critically against the textual record, can provide revealing insights into the unanticipated contradictions between official ideology and its popular reception.
By providing an alternative model of historical research, Shternshis offers us much-needed insight into the mental universe of ordinary Soviet Jewish citizens. Yet even though 'elites' are not the focus of Shternshis's investigation, the book's rather starkly drawn dichotomy between cultural producers and consumers is to a degree in tension with the data. As one of Shternshis's respondents notably recalls, there [End Page 260] were Jewish activists who...