Jewish Identity in the post-Soviet countries
There are different approaches to assessing the size of the Jewish population in the CIS countries. The difference in approaches and the difficulty of accurately determining the population size are caused by various factors, such as: inaccuracies in population censuses, an ambiguity of the Jewish identity and self-identification models in the countries of the former USSR.
Meeting the criteria of the Israeli Law of Return is the broadest category in belonging to the Jewish population that includes the ethnic core, the “second generation” Jews, and non-Jewish family members.
Using the estimate of one of the leading experts in Jewish demography, Professor Sergio Della Pergola, we can assume that 850-930 thousand people in the countries of the former USSR fall under the Law of Return, 40-45% of whom are ethnic Jews (up to 30% of the overall number – persons of monogenic Jewish origin plus descendants of mixed marriages with a stable Jewish identity).
Most of the surveyed members of the “extended Jewish population” identify as Jewish always or in specific situations. Almost every issue shows a dependency of the stability of Jewish identity on one’s origin (the number of Jews among the respondents’ grandparents). Nevertheless, there are differences between various models of Jewishness.
The ethnic understanding of Jewishness remains the most important factor, i.e. the origin, identity, and pride in the Jewish history and culture. Religious understanding plays a significantly smaller albeit gradually increasing role. In the post-Soviet countries, the system of Jewish religious communities with synagogues, Jewish schools and kindergartens was recreated. In these institutions, Jewishness is defined solely on the basis of the Jewish religious law – the Halakha.
Today’s post-Soviet Jewish identity was formed as a result of interactions between three fundamentally different models: Soviet, “Sokhnut”, (a broad understanding of “Jewishness” or being related to it in accordance with the Israeli Law of Return) and the Orthodox (religious). Each of these models looks illogical from the point of view of other models and, without a well-thought-out policy, causes misunderstandings, resentments, and conflicts.
Do you consider yourself Jewish?
Not always, depends on circumstances
Never thought about it
Do you consider yourself...
A Russian/Ukrainian, etc. Jew
Russian, Ukrainian/etc. and Jewish at the same time
Only Russian/a member of another non-Jewish ethnic group
Just a person
81% of respondents feel Jewish always or in relevant situations. This number reaches 95% among respondents with 3-4 Jewish grandparents.
There is a tendency towards a local Jewish identity that prevails over the universal one.
The “Soviet Jewry” concept is losing its relevance. Meanwhile most people believe in the existence of a “transnational Russian-speaking Jewish community”.
The “post-modernist” model of non-assignment to a certain ethnic group is of a growing interest.
We can see correlation between the strength of one’s Jewish feelings, the clarity of self-identification (the universal Jewish identity), and the number of Jewish grandparents.
What does it mean to be Jewish/part of the Jewish nation?
TO FEEL BELONGING TO THE JEWISH NATION
TO BE PROUD OF THE JEWISH HISTORY AND CULTURE
TO ADHERE TO THE JEWISH CUSTOMS, TRADITIONS AND CULTURE
TO HAVE JEWISH PARENTS
TO PARTICIPATE IN THE JEWISH COMMUNITY LIFE
TO FIGHT ANTI-SEMITISM
TO KEEP RELIGIOUS COMMANDMENTS, ATTEND THE SYNAGOGUE
TO HELP OTHER JEWS
TO BE A PATRIOT OF THE JEWISH STATE
TO TRY TO GET AND GIVE YOUR CHILDREN A JEWISH EDUCATION
TO HAVE A JEWISH SPOUSE
TO KNOW AND SPEAK HEBREW
TO LIVE IN ISRAEL
TO KNOW AND SPEAK YIDDISH AND OTHER LANGUAGES OF THE JEWISH DIASPORA
Compared to a similar survey that was conducted in 2005, the top three issues remained unchanged. However, while 58% of respondents considered adhering to the Jewish customs and traditions an important component of self-awareness in 2005, only 38% of respondents thought so in 2019.
A similar picture can be observed with the keeping of religious commandments and attending the synagogue: 27.7% in 2005 and just 16% in 2019.
The share of those who believe that patriotism towards Israel is an important component has also significantly decreased (from 40% in 2005 to 13% in 2019). The same applies to “helping other Jews” (decreased from 41.3% to 15%).
The future of Jewish identity is not obvious due to rather mild and even positive attitude towards mixed marriages.
In addition, comparison between the 2005 and 2019 studies shows that parents and grandparents are much less concerned whether their children and grandchildren preserve their Jewish identity.
At the same time, only a small percentage of respondents doubt the importance of Jewish education.
Attitude towards mixed marriages
Jewish marriage is preferred, but not essential
Hard to tell
Is it important that children/grandchildren feel Jewish?
Hard to tell
Hard to tell
Importance of Jewish education
Such education is important for every Jewish person
A general understanding of history and culture is enough
There is no particular need for such education
Hard to tell
Presence and sources of Jewish education
NO SUCH EDUCATION
ATTENDED CLASSES ON JUDAISM/JEWISH HISTORY IN COMMUNITY CENTERS
WERE ENGAGED IN SELF-EDUCATION
ATTENDED/ATTENDING JEWISH DAY SCHOOL
LIVED AND STUDIED IN ISRAEL
ATTENDED/ATTENDING A JEWISH STUDIES PROGRAM AT UNIVERSITY/COLLEGE
Questions of religion
The Soviet legacy continues to allocate religion a moderate role in the Jewish identity and determines the uniqueness of the post-Soviet Jewish identity model, in which ethno-national components prevail over religious ones, thus making the connection between following Judaism and Jewish self-identification not so straightforward.
Nevertheless, the growth of interest in Judaism and religion in the post-Soviet years has indicated stable “adherence” to Judaism in the broadest sense of the word. It does not always envisage the keeping of commandments, but is of a more traditional, ethno-national, and collective nature. Among those who do not consider themselves religious, 32% called Judaism their religion above all.
The share of those who consider Judaism their religion fell from 60% in 2005 to 43% in 2020 mainly due to an increase in the share of consistent atheists (which raised from 14.5% to 22%). The share of those who profess different religions, Christianity in particular, remains practically unchanged. As in other issues researched, the number of Jewish parents influences the stability of Jewish identity in the choice of adherence to Judaism, too.
Do you consider yourself religious?
Hard to tell
Which religion do you consider yours?
Another (Islam, Buddhism, etc.)
Keeping Jewish traditions
Public observance of the norms of Judaism, including attending the synagogue, is more of a community socialization factor than a religiosity criterion. Respondents are more active in public or family ceremonies (holidays, Passover, Hanukkah) than in keeping Jewish traditions that are related to personal space (Shabbat, Yom Kippur, kashrut). We can find at least three partially competing and partially interacting models of attitudes to religion in the Jewish environment in the post-Soviet space today. The first model is the “classical” (neo-traditionalist) view of the Jewry as an ethno-confessional or communal-confessional community. In it, Judaism as religion becomes the core of Jewish identity and religious institutions are the basis for this community.
The second model is based on the secular vision of Jewry as a “national” (ethnic status) group formed in the Soviet times. The Jewish religion here plays the role of a positive ethnic symbol that has been de-actualized in everyday life. The third, a “postmodern” model, on the contrary, considers multiculturalism, mixed ethnicity, and diversified religiosity as an acceptable and, in a sense, desirable element of Jewish life.
All these models and trends can contribute to the processes of ethnic consolidation and assimilation of the post-Soviet Jewry.
Connection to Israel
Israel was and remains the most important factor in the personal, cultural, and ethno-national identification of Jews of the former USSR. 55% of respondents (excluding Kazakhstan) visited Israel at least once. Another 5% have spent part of their lives in Israel.
The most attractive aspects of Israel for those polled in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova included its Jewish character (46%) and the fact that this “economically developed state provides good opportunities for life” (56%). Only 4% of respondents thought “there is nothing attractive in that country” or found it difficult to answer the question. Identification with Israel is also linked to respondents’ patriotism for the country of residence. It is interesting that 20% of respondents named Israel or Israel and the country of their residence as “their country to the greatest extent”. On the other hand, more than 70% of respondents believe that Jews should be patriots of both their country of residence and of Israel.
So, the “poly-loyal” model of the democratic countries of the West has also been accepted in FSU countries.