WHEN Yuri Pines was a schoolboy in the Soviet Union, his
classmates used to ask him whether it was true that as a Jew he was
not meant to eat pork.
He rebuked them for believing anti-Semitic propaganda, he recalls
today with a smile. "I knew no more about being Jewish than they
To many Israelis, the most striking aspect of the current wave of
Soviet immigration is not so much its overwhelming size, as the
scale of the immigrants' ignorance of Jewish traditions.
With Soviet Jews likely to make up one-fifth of Israel's
population by 1995, the implications of this for society are
enormous. And as sociologists seek to divine future trends,
politicians are engaged in the more immediate task of winning new
On the face of it, the 1 million Soviet immigrants expected to
arrive here should enjoy decisive clout. At the next elections, due
by November 1992, Soviet Jews will command enough votes to elect
seven members of the 120-member Knesset. But for a variety of
reasons, analysts predict, the new immigrants will not fully exert
their potential political influence. They cite several hindrances: a
lack of social cohesion among the various groups of ethnic Jews in
the Soviet Union; almost total inexperience in the tactics of
political organizing; and an unfamiliarity with the traditions and
lore of Judaism.
For more than 70 years, since the Russian Revolution, the Soviet
Union's estimated 3.5 million Jews have been cut off from Jewish
traditions. "Except for a few phrases of Yiddish, the average Soviet
Jew knows nothing of Jewish life, nothing of Judaism, nothing of the
philosophy or history," says Ze'ev Freiman, himself an "average
Soviet Jew," until he started exploring his roots in the mid-1980s.
But few of his compatriots shared Mr. Freiman's curiosity. A
recent poll by the Institute for Secular-Humanistic Judaism found
that only 3 percent of the new Soviet immigrants describe themselves
as religious, 16 percent as "traditional," and 81 percent as
Not many of the newcomers are particularly strong believers in
the state of Israel either.
"The main reason they are leaving is that they are simply afraid
of living in the Soviet Union," where political and economic
dissolution loom, says Roza Finkelberg, who runs activities in the
Soviet Union for the Soviet Jewry Zionist Forum, an immigrant rights
group. "And the doors are closed to them everywhere else."
The restrictions on Jewish community life in the Soviet Union,
and the fact that few Jews there live together in distinct
neighborhoods that would forge a common bond, are also expected to
impede efforts to organize the new immigrants.
"They didn't know anything about each other except as Russians,"
points out Ze'ev Chafets, editor of the weekly Jerusalem Report. "So
it's hard to get a good fix on them as a group."
Indicative of this dispersion is the lack of any agreed leader,
as the idea of forming a political party for the Soviet Jews floats
A poll by the Tazpit Institute found former Soviet refusenik
Natan Scharansky to be the most widely recognized figure among the
immigrants. But even he was mentioned by only 9 percent of
"A Russian political party would have a temporary chance, but
there wouldn't be one, there would be five or six," says Mr. …