Jew­ish Iden­ti­ties in Post­com­mu­nist Rus­sia and Ukraine: An Uncer­tain Ethnicity

Zvi Gitel­man

  • Review
By – August 5, 2014

Zvi Gitel­man has authored a remark­able exam­i­na­tion of the nature of Jew­ish iden­ti­ties in post­com­mu­nist Rus­sia and Ukraine. Gitel­man is the fore­most schol­ar on the sub­ject of Jews in the for­mer Sovi­et Union and its suc­ces­sor states. Dur­ing the 1990s, togeth­er with fel­low schol­ars in Rus­sia and Ukraine, two mas­sive series of inter­views were con­duct­ed with more than 6,000 Jews in sev­er­al major cities in Rus­sia and Ukraine. The respons­es pro­vide a rich data base for ana­lyz­ing and eval­u­at­ing what con­sti­tutes Jew­ish iden­ti­ty for the remain­ing Jews in the two largest heirs to the for­mer Sovi­et Union.

Gitel­man writes with acu­ity, bril­liance, thor­ough­ness, and wry good humor, as he explores the fun­da­men­tal ques­tions that must be asked in deter­min­ing what is Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and what the Jew­ish iden­ti­ty or iden­ti­ties of for­mer Sovi­et Jews are. Seri­ous schol­ar­ly dis­course is pre­sent­ed with clar­i­ty and open­ness to a vari­ety of per­spec­tives that make this book both valu­able and read­able for the spe­cial­ist and for the gen­er­al read­er as well.

Based on an exten­sive body of pub­lished research on Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and his­to­ry, as well as the respons­es to two major sur­veys of Jews’ respons­es to detailed opin­ion and iden­ti­ty sur­veys, Gitel­man describes the cor­rosive effects of Sovi­et pol­i­cy against reli­gion and Jew­ish reli­gious iden­ti­ty and prac­tice. For most Jews in Rus­sia and Ukraine, being Jew­ish involves an amor­phous set of atti­tudes of Jew­ish­ness, as opposed to spe­cif­ic rit­u­al prac­tices of Judaism. Nev­er­the­less, many Jews in Rus­sia and Ukraine are cre­at­ing their own new forms of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty that do not nec­es­sar­i­ly include exten­sive reli­gious prac­tices and do not pre­clude a major­i­ty of inter­mar­riages with non-Jews. The implica­tions for long term Jew­ish con­ti­nu­ity in Rus­sia and Ukraine are sig­nif­i­cant and prob­lem­at­ic, yet Gitel­man care­ful­ly notes that intermar­riage and declin­ing rit­u­al prac­tice are also major phe­nom­e­na among Amer­i­can Jews as well. Israel, as an avowed­ly Jew­ish state that is home to over a mil­lion Jews from the for­mer Sovi­et Union, pro­vides anoth­er focus of Jew­ish iden­ti­fi­ca­tion that is not essen­tial­ly reli­gious for most Russ­ian and Ukrain­ian Jews.

This fas­ci­nat­ing and engag­ing work of schol­ar­ship casts light not only on the Jews of the for­mer Sovi­et Union in Rus­sia and Ukraine today, but also on trends among the broad­er Jew­ish Dias­po­ra com­mu­ni­ties in Amer­i­ca and beyond. By pro­vid­ing an ana­lyt­ic guide to the uncer­tain eth­nic­i­ty” of for­mer Sovi­et Jews, togeth­er with expla­na­tions of how their Jew­ish iden­ti­ties were mold­ed, Zvi Gitel­man also pro­vides a basis for eval­u­at­ing appar­ent trends among Amer­i­can Jew­ry into the imme­di­ate future. This book is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed for any­one inter­est­ed in under­stand­ing what being a Jew or Jew­ish means for many Jews in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. Appen­dices, charts, graphs, index, notes, tables.

Robert Moses Shapiro teach­es mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry, Holo­caust stud­ies, and Yid­dish lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture at Brook­lyn Col­lege of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. His most recent book is The War­saw Ghet­to Oyneg Shabes-Ringel­blum Archive: Cat­a­log and Guide (Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press in asso­ci­a­tion with the U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Library and the Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Insti­tute in War­saw, 2009). He is cur­rent­ly engaged in trans­lat­ing Pol­ish and Yid­dish diaries from the Łódź ghet­to and the Yid­dish Son­derkom­man­do doc­u­ments found buried in the ash pits at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Discussion Questions