Identification. "Ashkenaz" refers to the first settlements of Jews in northwestern Europe, on the banks of the Rhine, and to the culture, conservative of sources and customs, as developed through study of Torah (which can refer to the first five books of the Old Testament, the entire Old Testament, or all of Jewish law) and Talmud (a collection of laws and traditions). Since at least the fourteenth century, "Ashkenazim" has referred to German Jews and their descendants anywhere in the world. Ashkenazim share with Jews worldwide an origin myth based on the cycle of stories about the Ten Lost Tribes, according to which Jews came to Germany after the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem (586 b.c.). Ashkenazi culture then spread from Germany and northern France to Poland and Lithuania and then to Russia, among other countries. Ashkenazi society was based on the monogamic Jewish family and governed itself on community and synod levels.
This article focuses on Ashkenazim residing in areas of the Russian, Belarussian, and Ukrainian republics (formerly centers of the Jewish Pale of Residence of the Russian Empire), which were Soviet territory from before World War II until 1990 (between 75 and 90 percent of Soviet Jews).
The actions of others and their images of Jews have strongly influenced Jewish culture. Limitations on Jews' ability to express ethnicity have almost eradicated knowledge about their religion and history and have accelerated their assimilation into the dominant society. Paradoxically, these limitations have also intensified the feeling of difference that Jews experience. Jewish identity is constructed as much in "opposition" to what is felt to be a hostile environment as in terms of common lineage and history. Vital to Ashkenazi culture are characterizations of Jews as seen through the eyes of others—for example, "Zionist" (especially since 1967), "conspiratorial" (Slavophile), "Western and materialist" (Revolutionary), "capitalist" (Stalin era), "rootless cosmopolitans," and exploitative and profiteering middlemen; also contributing to Ashkenazi culture has been the image of the Jew in literature: the sickly, cowardly, pushy, avaricious, curly-haired individual with a long hooked nose, grotesque and provincial, taking the best jobs in Russia, having secret allegiances elsewhere. The "Jewish accent," influenced by Yiddish expressions, phonetics, intonation, and syntax, is common in the Ukraine, less so in Russian cities and among the highly educated. Many jokes are made about the Jewish manner of speech, so it can be a matter of irritation, self-consciousness, or both.
Clothing styles that had hardly changed for centuries disappeared after 1917. Nevertheless, "differences" may exist between Jewish and Soviet styles, perhaps as slight nuances in tailor-or homemade clothes, and because some Jews save money and purchase goods from abroad. Despite being the most extremely assimilated Jews in the former USSR, the Ashkenazim maintain a distinct identity, involving a combination of desires to preserve their Jewishness and at the same time to be as invisible in it as possible.
Location and Demography. Census figures underestimate the Jewish population because younger Jews or those with greater social aspirations often want to hide their Jewish identity. At age 16, children of mixed-nationality marriages may choose to have either parent's nationality on their passports, and it is considered less advantageous to be known as a Jew. "How is he on the fifth point?," referring to the fifth point, nationality, on Soviet official documents, means "Is he a non-Jew?" or, in other words, "Can we hire him?" Thus, although the 1979 census showed a population of 701,000 Jews in Russia (38.7 percent of Soviet Jews, 0.5 percent of the Russian population), 634,000 in the Ukraine (35 percent of Soviet Jews, 1.3 percent of the Ukrainian population), and 135,000 in Byelorussia (7.5 percent of Soviet Jews, 1.4 percent of the Byelorussian population), a more accurate total is between 1.5 and 2 million.
Because of emigration, mixed marriage, and the relatively high percentage of older Jews (26.5 percent of Jews are over 60, but only 12 percent of ethnic Russians are), Ashkenazim are one of the very few groups with a declining population. Since as early as 1926, Jews have had the lowest birth rate of any major ethnic group in the USSR.
Nearly all Ashkenazim are now urban, a phenomenon that began at the end of the nineteenth century because of pogroms and poverty caused by village overpopulation. Small Jewish villages essentially ceased to exist after World War II. Emigration further diminished the population.
Anti-Semitism is felt to be strongest—and more constitutive of Jewish identity—in the Ukraine, Belarus, and Russian cities and towns than in the Baltic states, Caucasus, and Central Asia, but Moscow is widely considered to be the most attractive place in the former USSR (there were 8,473 Jews in Moscow in 1897; at present there are about 250,000); most Jews born there remain there or emigrate, and over one-half of Jews moving from other regions move to Moscow. Leningrad's Jewish population is about 160,000. On the opposite extreme is the Ukraine, where only about one-half of Jews born there stay.
Emigration. About 2 million Jews emigrated to the Americas and Palestine between 1881 and 1914. After the Six Day War in 1967 the attempt to emigrate accelerated; 30.9 percent of Jews in the Ukraine requested visas, 12.6 percent of Jews in the Russian Republic requested visas, and in Byelorussia 18.7 percent of Jews submitted requests (a total of 125,788 requests were granted for the three republics). From 1979 to 1985 about 12 percent of Soviet Jews emigrated, of which 60 percent settled in Israel. Interest in emigration continues to increase, motivated by desires to relate to Jewish tradition, rejoin family or friends, improve one's financial position, or (most common) to live free of discrimination. The state of Israel is valued as a symbol of historical and cultural unity and continuity.
The Six Day War was a turning point in many Jews' self-images and the beginning of a renewal of interest in Jewish culture, although much emigration is not to Israel: from 1973 to 1976, only 25 percent of those emigrating from Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev and 6 percent of those emigrating from Odessa on Israeli visas went to Israel, though this tendency changes in different emigration waves.
Linguistic Affiliation. In czarist Russia, Jews spoke Yiddish in everyday life and knew Hebrew, the language of Jewish religion. Now children speak Russian as a first language, and in the Ukraine and Belarus they study Yiddish and Hebrew also and often speak them fluently. Before and after the 1917 Revolution the Jewish community debated whether Yiddish or Hebrew had primacy in Jewish life. In 1918 Yiddish was officially recognized as the "proletarian" Jewish language, and the instruction of Hebrew was forbidden in secondary schools. In 1909, 96.9 percent of all Jews of the Russian Empire considered either Hebrew or Yiddish their native tongue. By 1979 this had dropped to 14.2 percent (almost all older people), with Yiddish considered a second language by 5.4 percent. In Russia, the Ukraine, and Belarus the decline is much more dramatic. After the Revolution, Hebrew was taught only to a limited extent in universities. Currently, it has begun to be taught again by some 100 teachers across the former republics, with about 500 students (one-half the USSR total) in Moscow and about 200 in Leningrad. Among educated city Jewry, Hebrew is preferred over Yiddish, perhaps because it carries associations with ancient history and biblical tradition rather than with a more recent, "degrading" past.
Yiddish formed during the tenth to twelfth centuries in Germany, is based on German dialects, and contains much Hebrew (taken from the Bible and the Talmud), Russian, Polish, and Ukrainian. In a 1932 attempt to "dehebraize" the culture, Yiddish orthography was changed by transcribing Hebrew loanwords phonetically and eliminating the five final letters of the alphabet. Until after World War II Yiddish was spoken openly on the street. Everyday use of Yiddish has largely disappeared, with knowledge of Yiddish being greater with each higher age group; some older people spoke it as a first language and use it at home; later generations were hardly exposed to it.
History and Cultural Relations
Ashkenazi travelers and traders were in Russia before the twelfth century, but significant movement east from Germany and Bohemia occurred slowly over the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, first to Poland-Lithuania (where at the end of the fifteenth century the Jewish population was only 10,000 and 15,000) and then to the Ukraine, Belarussia, and Russia, where the first legislation mentioning Jews was in the sixteenth century.
Small Jewish communities, shtetls rarely had large-scale industry, surviving on trade with peasants. The central communal organization of the shtetl surveyed weights and measures, interacted with professional groups (such as midwives and town musicians) and with scribes, teachers, and other professionals to regulate fees, wages, and so forth, and also governed artisan guilds, which often combined social, administrative, religious, and economic institutions. Rabbis regulated aspects of everyday life governed by Jewish law: butchers and food preparation; ritual baths; tiny scrolls for door posts; observation of the Sabbath, of weddings, and other ceremonies; and the administration of justice. Myriad charities and philanthropic groups were supported by donations even from poor Jews. Shtetls had no public places of amusement; life centered on the beis hamidrash ("house of study") and the synagogue, where morning, afternoon, and evening prayers were attended by male community members.
In the eighteenth century Jews were first banished from Russia and from Ukrainian and Belarussian territories; then, on the basis of mercantilist theories, there was some readmission. Settlements increased after 1772, augmented by partitions of Poland, which added thousands of Jews to the empire. Catherine II established a Jewish "Pale of Residence." Jews were allowed to do business only in certain regions. The "Black Hundreds" anti-Semitic movement encouraged pogroms and massacres in the Ukraine.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, pauperization of villagers caused men to travel for work, move to cities, and emigrate. Of those who moved to the cities, a small number advanced in banking, industry, and the professions, but poverty and crowding in the ghettos increased. Jewish communities had always had internal class conflicts, but they grew in severity as economic conditions worsened. Jews were active in the two large anticzarist and other revolutionary movements. Theodore Herzl's writings and the formation of the World Zionist Organization fueled a nationalist movement among all groups of Jews. The Marxist-Socialist Bund, General Alliance of Jewish Workers, was an important component of Russian Social Democracy and the Revolutionary movement. In 1903 and 1905 pogroms, about 1,000 Jews were killed and thousands wounded, despite a new self-defense movement. The 1917 revolutions abolished anti-Semitism along with all national and religious discrimination. Economic changes undermined the role of the shtetl, increasing migration to cities. Even in the traditional Pale, youth and intellectuals were attracted to Bolshevik internationalist, socialist ideals; there were Jews at the top of the Communist party (e.g., Sverdlov, Zinoviev, Yoffe, Litvinov, Radek, Trotsky) and in the party ranks: in 1927 Jewish party members numbered 44,155 in the three republics; Jews comprised the largest group of party members after ethnic Russians and Ukrainians. In 1926, 4.4 percent of the Red Army officers were Jewish. The Revolution and communism were and are now again perceived by many as non-Russian phenomena, occurring under the influence of "foreigners," especially Jews. From 1917 to 1921 over 50,000 Jews were killed in Ukrainian pogroms. Many shopkeepers and independent craftsmen adapted well to the opportunities for private economic initiative allowed in the "New Economic Policy" (1920s) but were later held up as symbols of bourgeois exploitation. The percentage of Jews in agriculture dropped from its 2.33 percent level in 1897, but when NEP failed to help economic distress and thousands of families were surviving on help from Western Jewry, Jewish agricultural settlements were established in the Ukraine, Byelorussia, and the Crimea. By 1930, 11 percent of Jews made their living on these settlements, but these tens of thousands of families had moved back by 1939. For example, in 1928 Birobijan, a 36,000-square-kilometer territory in southeast Siberia, was established as an "Autonomous Jewish Region" giving Jews the territory required by the definition of a nationality and as an "alternative" to Zionism, but by 1933, 11,450 of the 19,635 Jews who had moved to Birobijan had returned; the population has declined since.
During World War II many of the most traditional Ashkenazim were killed (estimates vary between 1.2 and 2.5 million), including 33,771 killed within thirty-six hours and up to 90,000 in the following months at Babi Yar, a ravine outside Kiev in 1941. Yevtushenko's poem "Babi Yar," a rare affirmation by a non-Jew, was important for the Soviet Jewish self-image. Two hundred thousand Jews died in the Red Army. What remained of Jewish collective farms in the Ukraine was almost totally destroyed by Nazis and Ukrainian collaborators.
After World War II, under the auspices of Stalin's campaign against "cosmopolitanism," remaining synagogues, schools (in 1949, the last Yiddish school, in Birobijan, was closed), and publications were closed; literature and religious objects were confiscated and destroyed; rabbis, writers, and Jews of all professions were harrassed, attacked in the press, imprisoned, deported to Siberia, and killed. Twenty-four Jewish writers were executed on 12 August 1952. In 1953 a group of doctors was tried for terrorism, followed by an anti-Semitic campaign. After Stalin's death this campaign was cut back and some of the accused and executed were "rehabilitated." The charge of "economic crimes," however, has often (particularly during the 1960s Krushchev regime) been brought against Jews.
Assimilation of Ashkenazim into Russian culture has at various points in history been imposed from the outside and desired by some within the community: Czar Nicholas I undertook to Russify the Jews by a combination of methods: Christianization, deportation, assigning prolonged army service, granting some the right to study in Russian schools, and establishing state schools for Jews. Alexander II liberalized the right of Jewish merchants of the first guild, graduates of Russian schools, and skilled artisans to exit the Pale and facilitated the promotion of Jews in professions formerly closed to them. After Alexander II's assassination, this Russianization was replaced by renewed distinctions made between Jews and others. In the mid-nineteenth century the "Haskalah" Jewish enlightenment movement supported assimilation, opposing as "separatist" aspects of Judaism such as the education system and traditional dress.
Because the culture underwent specific changes during successive political and cultural eras in the twentieth century, contemporary Ashkenazim can be seen in terms of "generations"; most born at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth were raised with traditional Jewish educations, speaking Yiddish and observing religious and dietary laws. Forty-six percent of employed Jews were artisans, home workers, and factory workers; 39.4 percent were merchants, shopkeepers, and commercial agents; 2.33 percent were farmers; and 4.38 percent professionals and civil servants. Unemployment was high. Jews represented 72.8 percent of all tradesmen, 31.4 percent of artisans (primarily tailors, cobblers, and other clothing workers, stereotypical Jewish professions, but also many metalworkers, gold-and silversmiths, and barbers), and 20.9 percent of those engaged in transportation. This profile is radically different from that of other nationalities: 38.6 percent of Jews were in trade and only 3.7 percent of Russians.
In the generation between 1917 and World War II, the employed Ashkenazi population was entirely redistributed from commerce and craftsmanship to industry and "nonphysical labor." In 1918 the Yevsektsii (Jewish sections of the Communist party) were designed (under Stalin, commissar for Nationality Affairs) to help find a proletarian answer to the "Jewish question." Yevsektsii, in cooperation with Jewish local officials, were responsible both for an initial upsurge in theater, newspapers, and schools and for closing synagogues and other traditional institutions and staging trials to dramatize failings of the religion. Russian language and culture became the principal modes of life, Jewish sociopolitical and cultural activity disappeared or went underground, Jewish cultural activity in Russian declined, and the officially supported use of Yiddish was limited. The generation of the 1920s and those following were raised as Russian Communists; there was danger and little interest in consciously passing down to the next generation information about Judaism. Jews born in the 1940s and 1950s who were interested in rediscovering Jewish culture resorted to books, but the extreme difficulty of obtaining such materials made this rare. Since the mid-1960s there has been some renewed interest in Judaism, and since the mid-1980s materials, classes, and study groups have become more available.
Responding to what was called "the excessive number of Jews in establishments of secondary education," quotas were established for matriculation in 1885, but the 1917 Revolution initially suppressed them (the number of Jewish students tripled between 1917 and 1926, reaching 26 percent of university students and 46 percent of medical students in the Ukraine). This resulted in more Jews getting Russian educations, accompanied by a break with tradition. Education has in a sense absorbed the value of the rest of tradition as well as of a homeland, making the experience of encountering institutional quotas in the Soviet and post-Soviet eras particularly painful for them.
Absence of ritual slaughterers, food shortages, and lack of interest have eliminated the practice of keeping kosher at most homes, although a few individuals have recently learned kosher slaughter; others have become vegetarian so as to avoid nonkosher meat. Kosher observances have basically been transformed into a generalized desire for cleanliness in food preparation. Jewish-style fish, chicken, and other dishes have remained and influenced local cuisine. Many families mark holidays only with a meal of traditional foods, including ethnic Russian or Ukrainian dishes.
Jews traditionally help each other in matters such as obtaining goods and maintaining contacts. Most Jews still count many or a majority of Jews among their friends, a tendency strongest in people over 40, Ukrainian-and Belarus-area Jews, lower social classes, and certain groups of higher social classes. Preference for Jewish associates is strengthened by an awareness of shared weakness, of being a persecuted people, strangers wherever they are; the ever-present possibility of "things getting worse for the Jews" is a frequent topic of conversation.
Religion was traditionally the center of the community, and men were at the center of this ritual life. Girls' educations were usually rudimentary, and they learned religious and practical aspects of keeping a home and raising children by helping their mothers. Marriages were often arranged between parents by a marriage broker. If necessary, a woman might be a contributing or even principal wage earner; now as in the past, a strong element of matricentrism runs through this formally male- and father-centered culture. Currently a couple and their children often share the small apartment of whichever set of grandparents has room for them, though if it is feasible, they may live separately. Jews traditionally had many children, but now one or two is the norm, a slightly lower average than that of surrounding nationalities. Russians help grown children and grandchildren monetarily and otherwise for an indefinite time; this tendency is even stronger in the Jewish family. The family preserves some of its value as the highly autonomous and self-contained unit it was traditionally; social activity is often with other relatives. Women cook and clean but husbands may help, which is uncommon in Russian families. The home may contain inherited objects and books that are valued, even if they are not specifically Jewish in content, as connected to the past, understood as a time when Jews had a more substantive identity; "Jewish objects" from abroad are cherished as a form of "remembering who we are." A Hebrew-Russian dictionary published in the 1960s has long been considered necessary in many homes where no one speaks a word of Hebrew. As in the humblest Jewish home before the Revolution, there are many books, seen as investments both in one's family's education and as difficult-to-obtain treasures whose value increases.
Economy. Education is fundamental to Jewish religion; the unavailability of religious education, books, and objects has resulted in a transformation of that center of identity. Primary responsibility for children's education traditionally rested with parents, who were also responsible for their own continuing studies. Judaism's basis in Torah, the sense that Jews are the people of the book, has been transformed into a sense that books "gave birth to the people." Prevalent among Jews is an emphasis on education, on the relation of people to books, and on a tradition of analytical thought (a common joke is that a Jew answers a question with another question). This tradition has survived among Jews, who, it is assumed by both Jews and non-Jews, will pursue higher education if possible. Both Jews and Russians would find the idea of a Jewish janitor incongruous; indeed, very small percentages of Jews work in service and housekeeping; in agriculture, less than 1 percent. Jews get more education than other groups, with 47 percent of employed Jews in the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR), 28 percent in the Ukraine, and 25 percent in Belarus having higher education; the number of Jews entering higher and secondary technical education is falling as a result of demographic decline, an aging population, and quotas in university admissions.
Currently, Jewish men and women are approximately equally educated and employed. Men are slightly more likely to receive higher education, and their income levels are higher, even in similar occupations. Women tend to enter less prestigious occupations. Choices of professions have evolved in interaction with a changing political situation, which often determines which schools Jews enter; in addition, the humanities and social sciences have been quite ideologized and reserved to a large extent for Communist party members and Russian ethnics. Jews make up 0.9 percent of the population but 6.1 percent of its scientific workers and 13.8 percent of holders of the degree of "candidat." Jews are often acting factory heads with a Russian or Ukrainian holding the title above them. Jews favor careers in the exact sciences, biology, education, culture, health care, industry, transport, and construction. Technical-cultural-scientific occupations were, in Soviet terminology, upper socioeconomic levels; Jews have tried to use professional success to make a place for themselves.
Kinship, Marriage, and Family
Marriage. At this time it is estimated that, at least among Moscow Ashkenazim, as many as 50 percent (and possibly more) of marriages involving one Jewish partner are to a member of another nationality; men tend to "marry out" more than women, and Jewish women marry slightly later than those of other nationalities. Divorce is common. Intermarriage is more common among the educated and professionals. Endogamy is preferred, not only by Jews with a positive attitude to religion; the reason for this is not connected with religion but rather formulated (as is the preference for Jewish friends and business associates) in terms of the relative safety of marrying one's own kind, often in reference to possible future "hard times" when, under pressure, a non-Jew might "call you a Zhid" (the archaic term for Jew, now highly derogatory). Marriage to ethnic Russians is preferred over that to other non-Jews because of the notion that Russians are less nationalistic than, for example, Ukrainians or Belarussians. Jews between 25 and 30 years of age with higher educations and higher-status jobs and RSFSR residents have less objection to intermarriage. As early as the 1930s it was said that non-Jewish girls preferred Jewish husbands, who supposedly "drank less, took good care of and did not beat their wives."
Kinship Terminology. Russian has different kin terms for husband's and wife's sides of the family, but these distinctions are disappearing from Russian speech and even more rapidly from Jewish usage. A woman may take her husband's surname at marriage, as is traditional, but many keep their father's names (a common choice in the Soviet era). A strong survival of tradition is that a child inherits the given name of a deceased relative of the family's choice. Even antireligious Jews do not tend to name a child after a living relative. If the relative's name was a Jewish one not acceptable to Russians, a more acceptable or Russian name with the same first initial is given. After the Revolution, distinctively Jewish names became less desirable; many began to choose Russian names, using Jewish nicknames at home. Everyday usage of patronymics preserves names for a generation: "Davidovich" or "Abramovich" clearly indicate Jewish nationality.
Religion and Expressive Culture
A consistent effort since the Revolution to dissociate religion from culture has in many ways been successful, as the vast majority of Jews feel themselves Jewish but in no way religious. It should be borne in mind that in the former USSR, expression of Jewishness and especially religiosity was felt to be an act requiring courage, and was thus less likely in conservative parts of society. Some people attended gatherings at the synagogue and other places without telling their families. Since World War II, the vast majority of Ashkenazim have not observed Jewish holidays, the result of assimilation, commitment to communism, fear of anti-Semitism, or lack of information about the significance of holidays and their proper observance. Others bitterly resent the past unavailability of religious materials and opportunities for religious education and practice. Reading material related to Jewish culture, religion, and the cycle of observances is rare and immensely valued; the traditional respect for books is augmented by the fact that only through books do Soviet Jews see a possibility of rediscovering and revitalizing their Jewish identity. Since the 1960s, Jews have attended readings, skits, musical programs, and synagogues without understanding the Yiddish or Hebrew in which the performance is presented; there has also been a movement to establish study groups and seminars for Jews to educate each other in and discuss Jewish culture, music, literature, and languages, although laws have proscribed many such activities, including the teaching of religion to children. Since the late 1970s there have been a few Jewish kindergartens formed in apartments.
Religious Practitioners and Practices. Since the Revolution, rabbis have required permission to celebrate holidays. For the ninety-one (Orthodox) synagogues the authorities claim, they claim fifty rabbis; in fact only about sixty synagogues function and thirty-five rabbis serve them; the fact that Judaism allows for worship with a quorum of ten adults (minyan ) keeps worship possible in some places. Congregations have functioned separately, with no regular meetings of rabbis sanctioned. Of the sixty synagogues, fifteen are in Russia (one in Leningrad and one large and one small in Moscow) for a population of over 701,000 Jews, eight are in the Ukraine for a population of over 634,000 Jews, and three are in Belarus for over 135,000 Jews. Laws allow religious ceremonies to be held in apartments or open places such as forests only with special permission, but a number of services and celebrations are held in such places. A one-room yeshiva at the Moscow synagogue was inaugurated in 1957, then closed until 1974. To date not a single rabbi has graduated. A few students from the USSR study in Budapest. The Hasidic sect, which originated in the eighteenth century and stresses enthusiastic piety, claims as many as a few thousand adherents in the former USSR. These Hasidim conduct their own services alongside others in the synagogue; some men wear side curls, beards, prayer shawls, and head coverings.
Although education and high-ranking occupations have a negative correlation to religiosity, and the roles of the rabbi and synagogue with respect to legal, cultural, and religious life have been altered, synagogues remain rare visible symbols, gathering places even for antireligious Jews on holidays, seen as celebrations of Jewish history and identity. Another form of recent collective expression has been to gather at a site where large numbers of Jews were killed in World War II. A great number of Ashkenazim use what are usually considered religious forms to express not belief but rather nonreligious identification with Jewish culture. On some holidays streets around synagogues fill with Jews who stand together, sing, and talk—for many, a public gesture of defiance. It is estimated that in 1981 20,000 Jews gathered at the Moscow synagogue on Simhas Torah, 5,000 at Passover, and many on the Jewish New Year.
Ceremonies. Sabbath services throughout the 1980s were sparsely attended, mostly by older people. Religious marriages are not recognized by the state, and rabbis have rarely performed them. Recently, some religious weddings have been celebrated at home, with the traditional canopy, breaking of a glass, Jewish music, and a wedding bread. Some Jews take advantage of foreign rabbis traveling through for the celebration of marriages and bar mitzvahs.
In the 1920s and 1930s even antireligious Communists observed the custom of burying Jews only in Jewish cemeteries, but now Jewish cemeteries and Yiddish inscriptions on gravestones are rare; some cemeteries have Jewish sections. Many elders dying now were Communists, perhaps atheists. The kaddish is sometimes said.
A new awareness that the thirteenth birthday has significance is spreading, and some bar mitzvahs are marked by family celebration and perhaps a speech made by the 13-year-old when it is not known what else to do. The bat mitzvah for girls is an American innovation adopted by Russian Jews. When it is known that the ceremony involves study, reading in Hebrew, and explication of a passage of the Torah, and this is a possibility, it is done. The ceremony is easy to perform at home, as it does not require a rabbi.
Passover has been, for some Jews, a once-a-year "heroic act" since the 1970s: to go to the synagogue and buy matzo, unleavened bread that commemorates the Jews' exodus from Egypt, and to light candles, which started becoming the practice again in the mid-1980s. The making of matzo has long been suppressed. Baked secretly in the 1930s and 1940s, it was unavailable in the late 1950s and early 1960s; since 1964 limited production has been permitted at certain synagogues (in some places people bring their own flour).
Circumcision, affirming the biblical covenant with the God of Israel, should be performed, according to Jewish law, on the eighth day following birth. Although some circumcisions were secretly performed even during the Stalin era, they have been rare since World War II, owing to a lack of trained individuals, (mohalim ), legal proscription of religion-related surgical procedures ("which may damage citizens' health"), and fear that if a boy were discovered to be circumcised in school or during a medical exam, there would be problems. There has been some interest lately in circumcision: a very few men at the time of their bar mitzvah or in their twenties have chosen to be circumcised as a gesture affirming their commitment to Judaism.
When possible, outdoor shelters have been built for the autumn festival of Sukkes, the last day of which, Simhas Torah, "Rejoicing in the Law," marks the completion of a year's cycle of weekly Torah readings and the beginning of a new one. The celebration involves dancing, singing, and processions dancing with and honoring the Torah. Since the 1960s it is the holiday most celebrated (even by atheists), an expression of national solidarity, and a favorite festival of youth with huge emotional gatherings in the streets around synagogues. In the late 1970s the tradition of purimspiels —plays related to the story of Esther and Mordechai, who avoided a massacre of Jews under a Persian king—was revived in Moscow and Leningrad.
Arts. Since the mid-1800s there have been dramatic changes in Jewish artistic culture (e.g., there have been important visual artists, though visual representation was interpreted as tantamount to idolatry according to the Old Testament). Bakst and Chagall (before his 1923 emigration, when he joined other Russian Jewish painters such as Soutine in the Ecole de Paris) were among artists prominent in stage design; Marc Antokolsky was an important sculptor; Isaak Levitan was considered a great Russian landscape painter. Eisenstein was a world-famous film director.
The first influence of Jewish culture on Russian (then East Slavic) literature was in the eleventh century with both an account of the Old Testament story of the tower of Babel in the Primary Chronicle and a translation of Josephus's The Jewish War. Odessa was home to a flourishing writing culture from the 1860s until well past the Revolution, when Moscow also became a center of Jewish creativity. In 1934, at the first conference of Soviet writers, Jews accounted for 20 percent of participants. Yiddish writers wrote poetry, novels, and literary and historical criticism; these and popular classics were published and translated. Prominent in Russian literature were Babel', Mandelshtam, Bagritsky, P. Antokolsky, Ilf, and Ehrenburg; popular Yiddish writers and playwrights were Itzik Fefer, Peretz Markish, "Der Nitzer," Max Erik, Shmuel Persov, David Bergelson, Zelik Axelrod, and others. Most of these were executed or died in prison or in exile during the Stalin era. Unofficial samizdat publications dealing with Jewish issues were passed from hand to hand at great personal risk by individuals. At the end of the Soviet era the only Yiddish magazine was the monthly literary and artistic review Sovietish Heimland (Soviet Homeland), first published in 1961. It is accessible only to those who read Yiddish (although each issue contains a Yiddish lesson) and is considered one of the best such journals in the world but is also government-controlled and not representative of Jewish interests. The Birobidjaner Shtern is a Yiddish translation of the Russian-language Birobijan newspaper. Some Yiddish books are published. In the 1980s a Yiddish primer and a Russian-Yiddish dictionary (with all words pertaining to Zionism and religion omitted) were published.
In the nineteenth century, the Rubenstein brothers influenced musical performance and education, and Leopold Auer founded a school that produced violin virtuosi Yascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman, Nathan Milstein, and Efrem Zimbalist. Serge Koussevitsky was an important conductor and music publisher. Pre-World War II Jewish playwrights were Yitzhak Peretz, Moiher Sforim Mendele, Sholem Asch, Haim Bialik, and Avraham Goldfaden and Sholem Aleikhem, whose "Tevye the Milkman" has been watched by all nationalities for decades in Russian theaters with Russian actors; a new musical based on it was popular in Moscow in 1989-1990. Pre-Revolutionary Yiddish plays are popular and often performed for audiences who do not understand Yiddish; even some performers of Yiddish songs do not speak the language. In 1982 the Soviet company Melodiya began recording Jewish music. A Hebrew and Yiddish chorus was organized in 1980; Jewish music festivals have become more common since the mid-1970s. The "Habimah" Hebrew theater began in Moscow after the Revolution and left in 1926 to become the national theater of Israel. Yiddish theaters remained in Kiev, Minsk, Odessa, and Moscow. Since 1970 theatrical and music-theatrical groups have been forming; all are amateur except the Musical-Dramatic People's Theater (Jewish Chamber Theater) and the Moscow Jewish Dramatic Ensemble (Birobijan); they perform music and dances and show rituals such as traditional weddings.
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The term "Ashkenaz" is derived from a geographic designation in the Hebrew Bible. It is an ethnonym that at one time was applied rather precisely to the German-speaking areas, especially the Rhineland. Ashkenazic Jews have lived across most of northern, central, and eastern Europe, and they have been culturally distinctive roughly since the time of the Holy Roman Empire. However, no group of Jewish communities fits neatly into the standard concept of a "cultural region." With the exception of contemporary Israel, it has been many centuries since Jews constituted a cultural majority within a given territorial region. In fact, it would be more appropriate to speak of Ashkenazim using Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of the chronotope—a field of human interaction defined synthetically along the dimensions of time and space—which would allow us to see these Jews in their interaction with cultural and historical developments among the surrounding populations.
This becomes clear when we try to define the boundaries of Ashkenazic Jewry, which are coterminous with the boundaries of the Yiddish language area. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Amsterdam and Venice were major Yiddish publishing centers. Dialects of Yiddish were spoken as far north as northern Germany. After the first partition of Poland at the end of the eighteenth century, masses of Jews were incorporated into the westernmost portions of the Russian Empire. The "center of gravity" of Ashkenazic Jewry shifted steadily eastward during the latter parts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for two reasons. First, the western European Ashkenazic communities lost cultural vigor and distinctiveness with the rise of the western European Enlightenment and the possibility of legal emancipation. Second, the Jews of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires experienced a massive growth in population. We might employ geological imagery, therefore, and think of Ashkenazic Jewry as a continent that became largely submerged in the modern period, leaving islands in western Europe—particularly Alsace, where Yiddish was spoken until World War II—and that experienced a gradual buildup and then sudden eruption of a mountain range on its eastern borders.
Owing to assimilation, emigration, and genocide, memoir literature generally constitutes the best source of ethnographic information on Ashkenazic Jews. The only extant communities that should properly be called "Ashkenazic" are those in which Yiddish is still spoken. These fall into two categories. The first consists of groups of elderly, usually secularist eastern European Jewish émigrés, centered in Israel, France, the United States, Canada, and a few other countries. The second includes a number of flourishing Hasidic communities, especially in Israel and New York City. The Hasidic communities utilize Yiddish in newspapers and in schools and adult religious study, and many Hasidic families continue to speak Yiddish at home.
Like Middle Eastern Jews, Ashkenazim display four of the major criteria of a distinctive cultural entity: religion, region, language, and political-economic position.
The cultural-religious system of Ashkenazic Jewry represents a fundamental continuity of the Rabbinic Judaism encapsulated in the Mishnah and the Babylonian Talmud. These compendiums concentrate to a large degree on the problem of adapting Biblical law, intended for a free Israelite polity centered on the temple rituals, to a situation in which Jewish communities were dispersed in other lands and lacked a ritual center. Therefore, they serve Diaspora Jews as a model for cultural adaptation and reconstitution in changing circumstances, and they help explain the persistence of Jewish collective identity through the centuries. The Talmud in particular also contains a great deal of narrative, biographical, and legendary material. The great focus in traditional Ashkenazic culture on Talmud and Bible study fostered an imaginative identification with the past generations whose lives were described therein. Furthermore, the Talmudic model of textual interrogation and dialogue contributed to a close link between textual and oral culture. While in principle Talmudic learning was open to all Jewish males, social stratification and economic pressures generally kept it the province of an elite. In certain periods and places, women were encouraged especially to study the Prophets and Chronicles.
The Ashkenazic sense of time and space was conditioned to a large extent by reiterations of the belief that the Messiah might come at any time to gather all the dispersed Jews in the land of Israel. The ritual cycle remained fixed to the lunar calendar, maintaining powerful associations with the agricultural cycle of Palestine. This system ensured both a rough correspondence between the celebration of festivals and the seasons of the year and also a certain disjuncture between the Jewish calendar on the one hand and the secular and Christian solar calendars on the other. Jewish interaction with the coterritorial populations was also shaped by the significant place of Jews in the folklore and religion of Christianity.
During periods of relative peace and prosperity, it was possible for marriage patterns to conform somewhat to ideals that stressed both the means of engaging in commerce and the leisure and competence to engage in Talmudic scholarship. The ideal marriage, therefore, was one between a young scholar who had studied full-time into his teens and the daughter of a successful merchant capitalist. The bride's family was expected to provide a dowry, often including support of the couple for a few years so the husband could continue his study, after which he would either go into business or find a rabbinic position. This pattern, to the degree it ever held as a norm, failed in largely the modern period under the combined pressures of increased pauperization, communal dislocation, and the ideology of personal choice.
Between the late eighteenth and the early twentieth century, religious Ashkenazic Jews were profoundly divided between Hasidim—enthusiastic, often mystical, and in a sense "populist" followers of the eighteenth-century charismatic leader known as Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name) —and Misnagdim (literally, "opponents"), who fiercely defended traditional standards of social hierarchy, learning, worship, and observance.
Beginning in the nineteenth century, various movements arose as problematic syntheses of Ashkenazic culture—especially the Yiddish language—and the Enlightened or sometimes Social Democratic ideologies of modern Europe. A particularly powerful modern Yiddish culture briefly flourished, grounded in generations of Jews who experienced traditional religious childhood and education and then sought to frame new ideals within the older idioms of Ashkenazic Judaism. Zionism, the only such movement that proved to be an effective historical experiment, synthesized the traditional motif of the messianic return to the land of Israel with modern European ideologies of nationalism and colonialism.
Religious roles in Ashkenazic society were highly segregated according to gender. Separate seating was maintained at synagogue services. To varying degrees, rules governing women's modesty (shaving the head after marriage, not singing in public) were strictly maintained. Since domestic life was governed by religious law, women nevertheless had major "religious" responsibilities, and they often possessed informal authority in various matters.
Ashkenazic Jews generally inhabited all of Europe, except for Iberia and the Mediterranean lands. Yiddish folklore displays a high consciousness of the regional variations among Ashkenazic Jews. Some of the most prominent markers of variation are dialect and culinary style. In recent times, these regional variations have become hypostatized into a contrast between "Litvaks"—Jews from the northeastern portion of the Russian Pale of Settlement (those eastern portions of the Russian Empire to which Jewish residents were legally confined), comprising historic Lithuania—and "Galicianers"—Jews in the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia. Other ethnically significant regional designations include White Russia, the Ukraine, Bukovina, Hungary, and central ("Congress") Poland.
Ashkenazic Jewry since the late nineteenth century has been overwhelmingly associated with eastern Europe. In the decades before World War II, Poland, with 3.3 million Jews, had a larger Jewish population than any other country in the world. Other nations with large pre-World War II Jewish populations were Hungary (825,000), Romania (609,000), Germany (566,000), and France (350,000). In 1986, Poland had only 6,000 Jews, Hungary 80,000, Romania 45,000, and Germany 38,000. The largest population remaining in pregenocide "Ashkenazic" lands is located in the nations that were previously republics of the Soviet Union, especially Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine; though the Jews there are currently emigrating in large numbers. Major populations of descendants of Ashkenazic immigrants are located in Israel, the United States, France, Canada, South Africa, Australia, and Latin America. Except in Israel and to a much lesser degree France, the ethnic designation "Ashkenazic" (insofar as it ever had significant currency) has lost ground to the more general designation "Jewish."
The Yiddish language, which is the single most distinctive marker of Ashkenazim, was the most widely used of numerous Diaspora Jewish languages, each of which synthesized Hebrew and Aramaic elements with lexical and syntactic bases of the coterritorial languages or dialects. It should not be supposed that the Hebrew and Aramaic elements were mere remnants of a time when those languages were Jewish vernaculars. Rather, the fact that Bible and Talmud study were at the heart of Ashkenazic culture meant that words, phrases, and loan translations from the religious texts were constantly interacting with the vernacular and shaping the evolution of the Jewish language.
Nor is Yiddish a variant of any single Germanic dialect belonging to a single time or place. Yiddish served to unify Jews within particular communities, and it also provided a means of communication between Jews living across a huge territory, among populations speaking a wide range of different languages. The distinctiveness of Yiddish became more obvious when Jews from Germanic-speaking lands moved into Slavic territories. Yet the language was as porous as the people were separatist, and it thus contains within itself traces of the entire cultural history of the Ashkenazim. The distinctiveness of the Hebrew alphabet also helped identify distinctive Jewish language use, even (or especially) in "secular" texts whose lexical corpus is almost indistinguishable from non-Jewish German usages.
Women and "uneducated" men were the earliest intended audience of Yiddish texts. Religious books in Yiddish, such as formalized supplications to God and an interpretive translation of the Bible, were popular long before the nineteenth century, as were Yiddish versions of the postmedieval adventure-story collections. These texts served as the basis for the growth of a secularist Yiddish literature in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
In the "classic" period of Ashkenazic Jewry—before the massive shocks of industrialization, Enlightenment, nationalism, and world wars—Ashkenazim fulfilled the role of a middleman minority. In western Europe, they were variously bankers, peddlers, artisans, and the like. In eastern Europe, they fulfilled all these roles as well, but they were also utilized by the nobility as agents in the development and extraction of capital from new agricultural territories. Thus, Jews had a large percentage of state liquor monopolies in the nineteenth-century Russian Empire, and they often managed the estates of absentee nobility. Jews also served as cultural intermediaries, bringing news of the world especially to isolated peasants.
During the "classic" period, the Jewish communities were marked by a high degree of self-definition and communal autonomy. Their right to settle in a given location and to engage in business was granted by various local authorities, whether bishop, noble, or king. They were sometimes protected by these authorities and sometimes harassed or expelled at the instigation of coterritorial commercial classes or religiously inspired mobs. The rights of particular Jewish families to settle or go into business in a certain spot were frequently controlled by the community itself, which was able to deploy sanctions of Jewish law such as the khazoke (proprietary rights to a given "concession") and the herem hayishuv (ban on free settlement).
The loss of the middleman-minority sociocultural "slot," the increased threats to Jewish well-being over the course of perhaps three centuries, and the erosion of Ashkenazic Jewish cultural distinctiveness are closely and causally linked. The authority of the traditional texts and the rabbinic elite were undermined by the progressivist philosophy of the Enlightenment. The corporatist status of the premodern Jewish communities was rendered obsolete by the evolution of the inclusive Western nation-state. The masses of Jews in eastern Europe lost the artisanal and petty-commercial bases of their livelihoods, and they found little alternative opportunity in the new industrialism. Today, those descendants of the Ashkenazim who value their distinctive cultural heritage are struggling to find new ways to integrate past and present.
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European Jews whose daily language was Yiddish (often in addition to the languages of the countries and regions in which they lived during the Diaspora).
Ashkenazim is the plural of Ashkenazi, a term derived from the Hebrew name Ashkenaz, a great-grandson of the biblical Noah. The Ashkenazim are Jews whose Middle East ancestors migrated to Germany (called Ashkenaz by medieval Jews) and the surrounding areas, where they spoke Middle High German during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and that evolved into Jüdisch Diutsch, or Yiddish. Their liturgical Hebrew differs markedly in both rhythm and pronunciation from that of today's Middle Eastern Jews or of the Sephardic Jews of Southern Europe and North Africa.
In modern Israel, the Ashkenazim were, until recently, a minority, outnumbered by Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jews; as large numbers of refugees from the former Soviet Union arrive, however, the Ashkenazim may become the majority of the Jewish population.
Although the Hebrew language taught in Israel's public schools uses the Sephardic pronunciation, Ashkenazic Hebrew can be heard during services in East and Central European congregations. Small but strongly cohesive communities of Ashkenazic pietists—particularly in the United States, Jerusalem, and B'nei B'rak—speak Yiddish, regarding Hebrew as too sacred for secular matters and daily conversation. In the modern Middle East, outside Israel, only Turkey has a small but viable Ashkenazic community.
Avruch, Kevin, and Zenner, Walter P., eds. Critical Essays on Israeli Society, Religion and Government. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.
Baron, Salo Wittmayer. A Social and Religious History of the Jews, 2d edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1952–.
Shafir, Gershon, and Peled, Yoav. Being Israeli: The Dynamics of Multiple Citizenship. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.