There is an old joke told of a Rabbi leaving synagogue after Kol Nidre services. On his way home he was astonished to see Goldstein, one of his congregants, sitting in a non-kosher restaurant eating a sumptuous meal.
As Goldstein exited the restaurant, the rabbi accosted him: “What are you doing, I just saw you eating treif, and paying for it on Yom Kippur. Explain yourself!” Goldstein replied: “Oy, I am sorry rabbi, but I just forgot.”
“Did you forget that today was Yom Kippur?” “No.”
“Did you forget that it is forbidden to eat and drink on Yom Kippur?” “No.”
“Did you forget that it is forbidden to eat non-kosher food?” “No.”
“Did you forget that it is forbidden to use money on Yom Kippur?” “No.”
“Goldstein, what is it that you forget?” “Rabbi, for a moment, I forgot I was a Jew.”
The underlying message of this bittersweet joke emerged time and again this past summer as 16 New York rabbinic colleagues traveled through the former Soviet Union under the leadership of John Ruskay and UJA-Federation of New York. Invited to see the condition of post-communist Russian Jewish life, we engaged with a community whose members had every reason to have forgotten they were Jews.
Indeed, after 70 years of Soviet spiritual deprivation, the exodus of millions to Israel and North America following the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the systematic assimilation of so many, it would have been altogether logical to anticipate few, if any, signs of Jewish renewal.
And yet, in what is nothing short of a miracle, Jewish life in the FSU has been reborn. Like the dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision, sinews have been laid upon it, breath has entered into it, and it is beginning to live again. It has much to teach us. From Chabad to the Reform movement, from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to the Jewish Agency, JCC’s to summer camps, we saw Jewish renewal taking place in the most dynamic forms.
Beyond the thrill of seeing such an array of initiatives, it was inspiring to see the active collaboration between North American federation funding and also the grassroots Russian start-ups. The educational, cultural and religious programs we saw emerged from the communities “on the ground” — all with an aim towards sustainability and self-sufficiency.
The miracle of post-Soviet Jewish renewal raises fascinating issues about the formation of Jewish identity in what has been dubbed a “post-assimilationist” context. Decades of Soviet repression inflicted a searing rupture on prior notions of Jewish continuity. The Jewish renaissance we witnessed is being built on recently laid and therefore shallow foundations. Impelled neither by tradition nor a sense of intergenerational obligation, the decision to be Jewish (or not) is understood as a freely made choice by every Russian Jew.
Russian Jewish identity will rise or fall in the marketplace of ideas, as dynamic and successful as it is proven to be compelling to the curious and seeking Russian Jew. The passionate efforts we witnessed, and our own commitments towards supporting those efforts, left us entirely hopeful regarding continued Jewish renewal in the FSU.
Flying back to New York, it occurred to many of us that our observations regarding Russian Jewry could also serve as windows into our own communities and world Jewry… Whether it is the decades following a totalitarian regime or the unrivaled blessings of 20th century American Jewish life, Jewish identity is being constructed on a tabula rasa that can no longer presuppose generational attachments and loyalties.
Memory has been replaced by identity. Even in the State of Israel itself, the Tallit has been replaced by the Israeli flag. Whether it is New York, St. Petersburg or Tel Aviv; Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, the mimetic modes of transmitting identity from one generation to the next are simply no longer in play. All Jews have become, in a sense, Jews who have forgotten that they were Jews.
Rather than bemoaning or assigning blame for our present state of affairs, it strikes me as far more productive to consider the prescriptive steps forward given this shifted playing field. The most promising programmatic initiatives of the past decade appear to be those that are not contingent on past affiliations and entrenched loyalties. Chabad, Birthright, Friday Night musical experiences and PJ library share little, save for the fact that they have successfully created a low bar of entry for would-be participants and make no demands beyond the experience itself.
Such observations are not made lightly by those who, like myself, consider themselves to be proud products of, and stakeholders in, the institutions that have constituted American Jewry for the past 100 years. Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon forward-looking Jewish leaders to recognize that ours is an age when Jewish identity must be continually discovered, cultivated and justified for every single Jew every single day.
It is nothing short of mind-boggling to consider the varied paths of world Jewry over the past century. The repression under the Soviets, the freedom of America, the establishment of the State of Israel, and, of course, the world of European Jewry that forever remains an insufferable “what if” on the Jewish psyche.
Regardless of our path, here we are entering the second decade of the 21st century — all of us post-assimilationist Jews. The successful initiatives will not be those working on past assumptions and affiliations aimed at retrieving a yesteryear that is neither accessible nor relevant to the contemporary Jew. Rather it will be those Jewish leaders and educators who recognize the changed playing field of Jewish life around the world, as in the FSU, and respond with compelling models of Jewish engagement, who will be the ones that capture the minds, hearts and souls of a world Jewry thirsting for a future.
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove is senior rabbi of Park Avenue synagogue and a member of the UJA-Federation of New York board of directors.