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.