What are the key values of being Jewish in modern society? What makes us Jewish now compared with what made our ancestors Jewish generations ago? What choices are important in our lives and how do we choose to live Jewishly?
Immigration’s Effect: Soviet Jewry’s Example
In yesterday’s Jerusalem Post, Haviv Rettig writes about the effects of immigration on the Soviet Jewish community.
The Jews of the Russian-speaking world, with their culture, literature and religion, were for centuries the largest single mass of Jews in the world. And they were held together in large part by external bigotry, confined in their millions to specific sections of the Russian Empire and segregated from non-Jewish society. This only ended with the Soviet dictatorship, under which a culture of anti-Semitism flourished that memorably affected every Russian Jew you can find.
Then, suddenly, Soviet Jewry was freed in 1989. But unlike Jews in the free nations of the West, Soviet Jews didn’t have the communal institutions or awareness for maintaining Jewish identity in a free society. Now free for almost a generation, Russian-speaking Jewry is scattered around the world and is quickly fading away from the Jewish people.
The Two Synagogue Paradigm
Historically, Soviet Jewry has been the largest Diaspora Jewish community. What does the health and strength of the Soviet Jewish community mean for global Jewry? What are its implications for other Jewish communities?
Before you discount the notion that this doesn’t apply to you or your life as a Jew, I have a question for you. If you live in a community with a significant Jewish population, how many synagogues do you have?
Every place I have lived or visited with a heterogeneous Jewish population had at least two synagogues: Ashkenazi and Sephardic.
(Ashkenazi Jews source from Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union; Sephardic Jews hail from Southern Europe and North Africa.)
As the joke goes, “Two Jews, three synagogues.” Is there anything wrong with this in practice? No– this is not a case of separate being unequal– but it is something that we should think about.
If it is external pressures and environments that keep people together, what can we expect when those pressures are removed? How does it affect Jewish practices and principles? Which synagogue do you choose?
The Diaspora Skill Set
Our history as a people of the Diaspora has kept us alive and strong. We have honed our ability to adapt and acculturate, we have grown flexible and cunning, we have learned to value education and how to pass along Jewish values and Jewish traditions against all odds. Like the pressure of the earth against rock, our adversity shaped us and made us precious carriers of Jewish knowledge.
But what happens when adversity dissipates and the pressure against us eases? Our Diaspora skill sets begin to work against us. Without the pressure to differentiate ourselves, we begin to take the shape of our surroundings. Our desires and desperation to persevere become weakened. We soften and we assimilate.
What Are We Without Differences?
If what unites us are our differences, what happens when the difference between our Jewish community and the mainstream are removed? What happens when there are no longer obstacles to assimilation? How do we stop our slide toward assimilation and instead grasp for acculturation? How do we maintain and develop our Jewishness as individuals and communities with pride?
If what made my ancestors strong was their adherence and observance as a community to Jewish traditions, where do we in the Diaspora stand today?
If our ancestors in Russia (or Yemen, or Ethiopia, or Spain) were Jewish because of the traditions they kept and the rituals they observed, what do we have to show for ourselves in the modern world that makes us Jews? What is it about myself that enables me to say definitively, “Yes, I am a Jew”?
Reasserting our Jewishness at Chanukkah
In this holiday of distinguishing ourselves from the other, I suggest that we all take a breath– maybe as we are lighting the candles, watching them flicker in the darkness, or when the match flares in recognition as it ignites the wick– and ask ourselves: what makes us Jewish and why does it matter?
I am interested in hearing your thoughts.
Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms (I encourage you to see the image in its original context as part of an exhibit by the City of Hamburg, Germany).
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