Soviet Jews Bring Few Ties to Jewish Traditions New Arrivals Seen as Altering Political, Cultural Climate of Israel Series: THE NEW ISRAELIS: Soviet Jewish Immigrants. Part 4 of a 5-Part Series. Part 1, 2, and 3 Appeared July 25, 26, and 29; Part 5 Will Appear Aug. 1

By Peter Ford, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 3, 1991 | Go to article overview

Soviet Jews Bring Few Ties to Jewish Traditions New Arrivals Seen as Altering Political, Cultural Climate of Israel Series: THE NEW ISRAELIS: Soviet Jewish Immigrants. Part 4 of a 5-Part Series. Part 1, 2, and 3 Appeared July 25, 26, and 29; Part 5 Will Appear Aug. 1


Peter Ford, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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 did."

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 votes.

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 "nonreligious."

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 around Jerusalem.

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 respondents.

"A Russian political party would have a temporary chance, but there wouldn't be one, there would be five or six," says Mr. …

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Soviet Jews Bring Few Ties to Jewish Traditions New Arrivals Seen as Altering Political, Cultural Climate of Israel Series: THE NEW ISRAELIS: Soviet Jewish Immigrants. Part 4 of a 5-Part Series. Part 1, 2, and 3 Appeared July 25, 26, and 29; Part 5 Will Appear Aug. 1
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