Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies

Russians, Jews, and Hebrew: The Makings of Ambivalence

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies

Russians, Jews, and Hebrew: The Makings of Ambivalence

Article excerpt

Zvi Gitelman entitled his popular and highly regarded text on Russian Jewish history from 1881 to post-Soviet times, A Century of Ambivalence. Why "ambivalence," which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as, "The coexistence in one person of contradictory emotions or attitudes (as love and hatred) towards a person or thing"? Gitelman (2001:xi, xiii) explained that Russians and Jews have been "locked into a tempestuous, intense relationship" producing "great enthusiasms and profound disappointments" as well as "enormous Jewish ambivalence toward their [Russian Empire] homeland." According to this perspective, even the excruciating suffering caused by virulent antisemitism could not eliminate the natural affection simultaneously felt by East European Jews for their Diaspora rodina (the land of one's birth) and for Russian high culture, in which they participated extensively. To this day the descendants of Russian Jewish emigres around the world continue to cultivate a strong nostalgia for the "world of the shtetl" and the "unique Russian-Jewish atmosphere" of the past--despite the overwhelming pain and deep loss that inevitably accompanied Yiddishkeit (Jewishness) during its "Russian" and Soviet phases.

The other side of the extraordinary, uncomfortable, and inextricable association between Russians and Jews was no less complex. Ambivalent Jewish sentiment about Russia in certain respects mirrored pre-existing ambivalent Russian sentiment about Jews. Long before significant numbers of Jews lived in Russia, the Russian state and church cultivated a deep-seated "love-hate" attitude toward the Jewish people. This article will be concerned specifically with one of the neglected aspects of that history: a form of Hebrew study by mediaeval and early modern Russian Orthodox Christian monks. The often strange ways in which these scribes dealt with the language of the Jews manifested traditional Christian ambivalence toward the "people of the book": outright hostility and rejection on the one hand, mixed with imitation and even occasional veneration on the other. At the same time, as with every facet of Christianity that reached their lands, the Russian literati introduced many unique twists and nuances into the tradition. Their treatment of Hebrew adds a further dimension to our understanding of the formation of Russian attitudes toward Jews in the era before the Partitions of Poland (1772-1795), and may shed some light on outstanding questions and controversies regarding Russian Jewry in the modern period.

Early Russian Attitudes toward Israel and the Jewish People

The word "Russia" (Rossiia) derives from the earlier form Rus', the mediaeval name (of debated origin) for the lands and peoples of East Slavdom (Ukraine, Belorussia, and Russia). Jews had settled along the southern fringes of these territories in ancient times; for example, in the Crimea. Jewish presence is also attested in the mediaeval states of Khazaria (sixth to tenth century) and Kyivan Rus' (ninth to thirteenth century). Due partly to the fragmentary nature of extant documentation, virtually nothing can be asserted about Khazaria without provoking immediate and vigorous contention. However, it seems likely that this khaganate or steppe empire adopted Judaism as its official religion at some point in history, while still encompassing a multi-ethnic and multi-religious population. Subsequently, the East Slavic polity with its capital at Kyiv (Kiev) chose Eastern Orthodox Christianity over Khazarian Judaism and other religious options available at the time. Yet its "grand prince" similarly employed the title khagan or kagan, presided over a diverse citizenry, and may have seen himself as the successor to the Khazar rulers. Some researchers even propose that Kyiv had originally been founded by the Khazars. (1)

Real-life attitudes toward Jews in Kyivan Rus' must have derived from multiple sources, including interaction with Khazaria and with domestic Jewish communities in the capital and other towns. …

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