Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939

Article excerpt

Anna Shternshis. Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006. 252 pp. $24.95, cloth.

The expression "Kosher pork" appears at first as an oxymoron. How can pork be kosher if its consumption is prohibited by Jewish religious laws? But Sara F., an eighty-two-year-old resident of Brooklyn who grew up in a small town in Ukraine argues that "it is really quite easy. . . to cook kosher pork": the restrictions of Judaism do not matter much because "only a Jewish soul can make food kosher" (p. xiii). Not only does Sara F. have almost no knowledge of Jewish prayers and Jewish holidays, but she is also militantly opposed to Jewish religious traditions. At the same time, however, she speaks fluent Yiddish, enjoys reading short stories by the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem and is extremely attached to Yiddish folk songs and Yiddish theatre. Where did this seemingly contradictory ethnocultural identity, completely removed from Judaism and Jewish religious practices, originate from?

Sara F. is one of the many respondents in the oral history project conducted by Anna Shternshis and set at the heart of her study of Jewish popular culture in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. Through the respondents' memories, which often supplement the written information found in the archives and official press, Shternshis provides new and compelling insights into the Sovietization process of the Jewish population during the interwar period. She examines crucial aspects of the radical transformation of Russian Jewish identity from one mostly based on the observance of Judaism to a new secular and positive ethnic identity, largely shaped by the Soviet cultural program directed at Jews in the Stalinist years.

As Shternshis shows in the book's first chapter, state anti-religious propaganda in Yiddish succeeded in convincing many Jews that religion was not an essential part of their culture and identity. If the official anti-religious program directed at Jews forged new citizens committed to the Soviet regime, its ideology and ideals, it also - unintentionally fostered Jewish national identity and pride. Thus, Soviet Yiddish schools played a constructive role in building Soviet Yiddish culture and became a new centre of public expressions of Jewish identity and culture. In the same way, the new Soviet Jewish popular religion that emerged in the 1920s combined together elements from old Jewish traditions (especially Passover) with others reflecting official Soviet culture (May 1) to produce a synthetic Soviet Jewish identity. As Shternshis points out, "despite the antireligious content of the Red Seders, they were distinctly Jewish events, organized for Jews, by Jews and, equally important, they were conducted in Yiddish" (p. …