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Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk

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Minsk, the present capital of Belarus, was a heavily Jewish city in the decades between the world wars. Recasting our understanding of Soviet Jewish history, Becoming Soviet Jews demonstrates that the often violent social changes enforced by the communist project did not destroy continuities with prerevolutionary forms of Jewish life in Minsk. Using Minsk as a case study of the Sovietization of Jews in the former Pale of Settlement, Elissa Bemporad reveals the ways in which many Jews acculturated to Soviet society in the 1920s and 1930s while remaining committed to older patterns of Jewish identity, such as Yiddish culture and education, attachment to the traditions of the Jewish workers' Bund, circumcision, and kosher slaughter. This pioneering study also illuminates the reshaping of gender relations on the Jewish street and explores Jewish everyday life and identity during the years of the Great Terror.

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1 - Historical Profile of an Eastern European Jewish City

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In Eudoxia, which spreads both upward and down, with winding alleys, steps, dead ends, hovels, a carpet is preserved in which you can observe the city's true form. At first sight nothing seems to resemble Eudoxia less than the design of that carpet, laid out in symmetrical motives whose patterns are repeated along straight and circular lines…. But if you pause and examine it carefully, you become convinced that each place in the carpet corresponds to a place in the city and all the things contained in the city are included in the design, arranged according to their true relationship, which escapes your eye distracted by the bustle, the throngs, the shoving…. An oracle was questioned about the mysterious bond between two objects so dissimilar as the carpet and the city. One of the two objects–the oracle replied–has the form the gods gave the starry sky and the orbits in which the worlds resolve; the other is an approximate reflection, like every human creation…. But you could…come to the opposite conclusion: that the true map of the universe is the city of Eudoxia, just as it is, a stain that spreads out shapelessly, with crooked streets, houses that crumble one upon the other amid clouds of dust, fires, screams in the darkness.1

 

2 - Red Star on the Jewish Street

ePub

When the Bolsheviks began to municipalize private businesses across the city, the owners of the eighteen bookstores in Minsk (including one Judaica bookstore), petitioned the local authorities. They promised to follow Soviet instructions and apply “Soviet tenets” to the book business if the Bolsheviks returned the bookstores to the management of their owners.1 Yudl Shapiro, who owned a bookstore on Alexandrovskii Street, pleaded to the Executive Committee of the Belorussian Soviet of Workers, Soldiers, and Peasants not to take over his store. This would deprive his family of their only source of income. He even begged to be employed as a clerk in “his own bookstore.”2 But the Bolsheviks brushed aside similar petitions. In their sweeping move to sovietize the city and remold it in the spirit of Communism, they disrupted the lives of many Minsk residents, Jews and non-Jews alike.

The sovietization of Minsk involved an onslaught against Jewish life. Shortly after taking over the city in July 1920, the Bolsheviks dismantled most existing Jewish institutions. Many religious and educational institutions such as synagogues and hadorim (Jewish religious schools) as well as the Minsk kehillah, all of which had formed the core of Jewish life before the Bolshevik rise to power, were closed down and their buildings municipalized. The Jewish cemetery on University Street was requisitioned from the Jewish community by the Land Commission of the City Executive Committee and turned into a grazing field for goats. “All Minsk residents who live in the center of town and own goats must obtain the permission from the city and pay a ruble and 50 kopecks a year per goat to have access to the field,” read an announcement in the local press.3 Zionist publications were shut down. With the exception of Poale-Zion and He-Haluts (The Pioneer), all Zionist organizations discontinued their legal activity; some went underground. The Bund, which functioned as an independent party until March 1921, was forced to merge with the Communist Party. The words of a worker employed in the Minsk tobacco factory on how to punish counterrevolutionaries echoed the growing intolerance toward non-Communist Parties and organizations during the Red Terror campaigns of mass arrests and executions: “Their place is the gallows!”4

 

3 - Entangled Loyalties: The Bund, the Evsektsiia, and the Creation of a “New” Jewish Political Culture

ePub

The Bund, the Evsektsiia, and the Creation of a “New” Jewish Political Culture

Let it be said clearly and precisely at this, the last moment, that whatever happens to the name of the Bund, to the form of the Bund, whatever the conference should decide—Bundism will live as long as the Jewish proletariat lives, Bundism will live—and will be triumphant.1

We face the dilemma of independent existence or sections [Evsektsiia], with the hope that we will be able to remake the sections and suit them to the needs of the Jewish proletariat…. We remain loyal to this outlook. This is our Bundism, this is the Bund. Not a single one of us has ceased to be a Bundist, nor will any of us cease to be. Therefore I can close my speech with the cry “Long live Bundism, long live the Bund!”2

Jewish workers! The Bund is not leaving you. It remains with you. It leads you under the banners of the All-Russian Communist Party. Jewish workers! Carry your love, your trust, your fidelity to the Jewish Labour Bund into that great alliance [bund] in which the organization of the Jewish proletariat will in time emerge.3

 

4 - Soviet Minsk: The Capital of Yiddish

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The Capital of Yiddish

 

 

 

 

Many comrades don't even know where to begin [to replace Russian with Yiddish]. We have no typewriters and have to rewrite the bookkeeping in Yiddish; it's a little “strange.” We are used to carrying out secretarial work in Russian,…[now we must] change into Yiddish the membership cards, the registration tags and receipts.1

Following the June 1919 decree, when the Bolsheviks selected Yiddish as opposed to the “clerical” Hebrew and the “bourgeois” Russian, as the official language of instruction for all Soviet Jewish schools,2 Yiddish became the preferred instrument of propaganda to reach the adult Jewish masses as well, and the ideal language of political, cultural, and scholarly Soviet Jewish enterprises. This preference had two main components. On the one hand, the sovietization of society and the politicization of everyday life led to the functional use of Yiddish, which became crucial in spreading Marxist ideology among the Jewish masses with little or no knowledge of Russian. On the other hand, as the native language of most Jews living in the Soviet Union, Yiddish represented one of the officially accepted categories for establishing the existence of a Jewish nationality in the USSR. The Soviet nation-building process involved reshaping the former Russian empire into a Socialist federation of nationalities and transforming the peoples of tsarist Russia into modern citizens of the newborn Socialist society. If the category of religion had been delegitimized as a determinant of nationality for all peoples in the USSR, the category of territory, or residence in a specific republic, was hardly applicable to the Jews because of their lack of a major territorial concentration. The linguistic category became therefore an important element of national identification for Jews more than it did for Ukrainians or Belorussians, who could ground their national identity on territory as well. The shift toward the twofold function of Yiddish as an instrument of propaganda to reach the masses and as a defining trait of Jewish national identity resulted in Yiddish assuming a new status in the political, scholarly, and everyday life of Soviet Jews.

 

5 - Behavior Unbecoming a Communist: Jewish Religious Practice in a Soviet Capital

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Jewish Religious Practice in a Soviet Capital

The study of the everyday man leads naturally to the study of mentalities, understood as “what changes less” in the historical evolution.1

 

 

SITUATED BETWEEN THE Low Market and Cathedral Square, and home to numerous pre-revolutionary Jewish religious and communal institutions, the Jewish quarter of Minsk, also known as Nemiga, was the arena of a violent clash in the spring of 1922. The conflict broke out between two factions of the local Jewish population. On one side were the students and faculty of the Jewish Pedagogical Training College, or Evpedtekhnikum, the Soviet institution intended to create a cadre of Communist teachers for the Yiddish schools of Belorussia. The founders of the Evpedtekhnikum set up the new Soviet Jewish institution in a two-story brick building located at the intersection between Rakovskaia and Zamkovaia Streets, or, as the Jews used to call it in Yiddish, Shlos gas. This had been the building of the city's Talmud-Torah, the traditional Jewish school built by the local Jewish community for the education of the poorest children in Minsk.2 Because of its location in a densely populated Jewish area, the former Talmud-Torah was the ideal venue for spreading Communism on the Jewish street.

 

6 - Housewives, Mothers, and Workers: Roles and Representations of Jewish Women in Times of Revolution

ePub

Roles and Representations of Jewish Women in Times of Revolution

Where else in the world is it then possible for a neglected Jewish woman to receive an advanced education?1

 

 

THE STUDY OF the roles and representations of Jewish women in the cultural, social, and political settings of modern Eastern Europe has been confined to tsarist Russia and interwar poland. This chapter recreates the composite picture of the lives of Soviet Jewish women, explaining their choices and beliefs under Bolshevik rule and balancing them against the experiences and voices of their gender counterpart.

The analysis of the “gender revolution” on the Jewish street reveals the endurance (and perhaps even intensification) of gender tensions, exposing the limits of the government's state-sponsored policy of equality of the sexes. While the revolution challenged patriarchal structures in fundamental ways and claimed to liberate women from the yoke of traditional society, it also enabled the perpetuation of certain conservative patterns of male behavior. It would seem, in fact, that despite the widely heralded political emancipation of women—the granting of legal equality on paper—their social emancipation largely failed. That is, in reality, Jewish women had limited influence on the principal and most powerful institutions in the Soviet public arena. This tension between political and social emancipation, between female activism and male conservatism, and between the different visions that men and women held of Jewish woman's path to sovietization, marked the gender discourse on the Jewish street and shaped the shifting roles that Jewish women came to play in the capital of the Belorussian Republic.

 

7 - Jewish Ordinary Life in the Midst of Extraordinary Purges: 1934–1939

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1934–1939

[A people] that was not a people before and that never would have become a people without the Lenin-Stalin nationality policy. This is the voice of the Jewish people.1

I didn't know where my notion of Jewishness came from, but I know it seeped through at home.2

 

BETWEEN 600,000 AND 2,000,000 Soviet citizens lost their lives in Stalin's terror campaign and witch hunt for “enemies, saboteurs, spies, and bourgeois-nationalists.”3 The political repression targeted first of all Communist Party members, government officials, and Red Army leaders who, accused of conspiring with capitalist countries against the Soviet Union, were executed by shooting or sent to labor camps. From 1936 to 1939, terror mushroomed across the capitals, towns, villages, and collective farms of the Soviet Union, in a system of institutionalized denounciations, in a climate of suspicion and spy mania. Those labeled “enemies of the people” by the NKVD were forced to write confessions naming their conspiratorial associates. They became “‘plague-bearers,’…who…infected all around.”4 Whether fired, arrested, or killed, most members of the party leadership and the trade and industry management experienced the Terror, from the chairman of the Committee on Physical Education of the BSSR, accused of owning a luxurious apartment in Minsk and frequently getting drunk, to the supervisor for bread production in Belorussia, personally held accountable for the drop off in bread making and the swelling lines to buy bread across the city. In June 1937, the chairman of the Belorussian Supreme Soviet, A. N. Cherviakov, arrested on charges of “Right Opportunism,” threw himself from the window of the fifth floor of the Minsk NKVD building during his interrogation.5 Like several other Soviet leaders he chose suicide in a desperate attempt to protect perhaps his family or friends who could become enemies-by-association and be accused of counterrevolutionary actions against the motherland. The attack on the Belorussian political leadership, launched from Moscow, opened up a Pandora's box in Minsk, as terror encroached upon all walks of life. In 1937–38, Minsk's cultural, professional, and party elite was largely swept away.

 

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