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  • Soviet Jews in Belorussia and Ukraine
  • Arkadi Zeltser
    Translated by Yisrael Eliot Cohen
Elissa Bemporad, Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk. xi + 276 pp. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013. ISBN-13 978-0253008220. $28.00.
Jeffrey Veidlinger, In the Shadow of the Shtetl: Small-Town Jewish Life in Soviet Ukraine. xxxiv + 385 pp. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013. ISBN-13 978-0253011510. $35.00.

The books by Jeffrey Veidlinger and Elissa Bemporad focus on Soviet Jews whose self-identification was connected with the Yiddish language and Yiddish culture. Veidlinger discusses the life of the traditional Jews of shtetls in Vinnitsa Province in Ukraine throughout the Soviet period, and Bemporad focuses on the Jews of Minsk, the capital of Soviet Belorussia, in the interwar years.

These two books are part of a new trend in the study of Soviet Jewish daily life and ethnic identification. The first attempts to study the daily life of Soviet Jews in shtetls were undertaken in the 1980s by a group of young Jews from Leningrad who tried to adapt the interest in local history that existed in the Russian environment to the history of Jews. What began as an echo of Sh. An-sky’s ethnological expeditions of 1912–14 over time became an independent field of study.1 In recent decades, the renewed interest in aspects [End Page 211] of daily life have also led to the reevaluation of Soviet Jewish history in the works of Western and Israeli historians.2

The new wave of research questioned the assumption that prevailed in the earlier historiography that on the eve of World War II and during the first postwar years the majority of Soviet Jews were assimilated or “atomized” (as Solomon Schwartz referred to this phenomenon in the early 1950s).3 Many Western and Israeli scholars of the Cold War period claimed that Jewish life underwent a total transformation under difficult Soviet conditions, to the extent that the Jewish national content was, supposedly, almost fully replaced by Soviet “internationalism.”

To a considerable degree, Western scholars derived this view of Soviet Jews as an assimilated group from the texts of Soviet Jewish dissidents and refuseniks that were published in the West. As a rule, those Jews came from families of the more assimilated Soviet elite of Moscow and Leningrad. By the eve of World War II, they largely felt little connection to their families’ recent past. Their views were then generalized to refer to all Soviet Jews. As Veidlinger observes, this “trend culminated with Yuri Slezkine’s The Jewish Century, an influential and provocative text that frames the 20th-century Jewish experience as one of movement from peripheral shtetls to the very center of cultural, economic, and political life. Historians have privileged upwardly mobile Jews who reached the pinnacles of power; those who remained in their ancestral lands, often languishing in poverty, have been left out of the historical record” (xiv).4

Bemporad’s and Veidlinger’s books provide a valuable corrective to this still influential historiographical view and focus on the groups of Jews who constituted a statistically significant sector within the Soviet Jewish population and who tended to preserve their Jewish identity. [End Page 212]

Veidlinger discusses the history of the Jews in Ukrainian shtetls. He notes that the Jews who remained in shtetls were a more traditional and conservative segment of the Jewish population. As he puts it, “many of those with ambitious dreams had either left the shtetl or abandoned those dreams in the face of stark reality” (58). Veidlinger’s book deals with almost all aspects of the life of Jews in the shtetl—their daily behavior, patterns of marriage, ethnic identification, types of employment, the maintenance of religious norms, the choice of type of education for children, the language spoken at home, relations with non-Jewish neighbors, views of the role of Jews in the life of the town, and so on.

His account is largely based on interviews taken in the 2000s (although he also used some archival materials from earlier periods). A unique feature of Veidlinger’s work is that a large proportion of the interviewees were “some of the last Jewish residents of Eastern European...