Conversation with Prof. Elissa Bemporad

Author and historian examines Jewish life in Russia between the World Wars 

By Cindy Mindell

Prof. Elissa Bemporad

Prof. Elissa Bemporad

Minsk, the present capital of Belarus, was a heavily Jewish city in the decades between the World Wars. In her new book, Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk, author Elissa Bemporad demonstrates that the often violent social changes enforced by the Communist project did not destroy continuities with prerevolutionary forms of Jewish life in that city.

Bemporad is an assistant professor of history and the Jerry and William Ungar Professor in Eastern European Jewish History and the Holocaust at Queens College. A native of Italy, she received her undergraduate degree in Slavic studies from Bologna University, a Masters degree in modern Jewish studies from the Jewish Theological Seminary Graduate School, and a PhD from the Stanford University Department of History. She has taught at Stanford University, Hunter College, and The New School.

Bemporad will discuss Becoming Soviet Jews on Tuesday, Dec. 10 at Temple Sholom in Greenwich.

Recently, she spoke with the Ledger about this previously unexplored chapter in modern Jewish history.


Q: How did you become interested in Soviet Jews between the World Wars?

A: At university, I met a professor teaching about Russian Jews and was fascinated by the topic, in a very personal way, because I am Jewish – an Italian Jew from a Sephardic background. But something drew me so strongly to the Russian component. It was an area where I could put together my identity with my intellectual passion.

I went to Stanford for my PhD and was going to write on Russian Jews before the Revolution of 1917, Russian intellectuals, the 19th-century historians like Simon Dubnow. Another professor, who teaches Soviet history, showed me how much more interesting the Soviet Jewish story was than the Russian Jewish story. The Russian Jewish story has been told in many ways – Zionism and the emergence of Zionism, Jewish socialism, Yiddish and Hebrew. This was a very religiously traditional community, the largest in Europe, demographically, with more than five million people. But I wanted to know what happened next, after 1917.

Q: What are the misconceptions about this period of Jewish history?

A: There are two main assumptions about this period, and these are among the most surprising findings of my research: that the Soviet Jewish story is one of religious suffering or complete assimilation; you were either Soviet or Jewish, but you couldn’t be both.

This binary black-and-white idea of Soviet Jews does not allow for a gray zone, and in truth, the largest majority of Soviet Jews belong to the gray zone. Some may come to appreciate aspects of Communism, especially if they came from lower socio-economic strata: their kids can go to school, they have jobs and health insurance and housing.

Pre-1917, the greatest misconception and symbol of Jewish life is the pogrom, and you did have pogroms in the 1880s, 1903, 1905, and during the civil war. But Soviet Jews are between pogroms, the Holocaust, and post-1945 antisemitism. It’s hard to go back and look at the interwar period without being influenced by those periods, but as historians, we must bring that period back to life.

The question, what is Jewish identity, intrigued me: this was a very traditional community with a very strong ethnic identity. Does Jewish life change suddenly, from one day to the next, after the revolution?

One problem of historiography is that historians superimposed on the interwar period the model of the post-war period: that Jews were being singled out. But Jewish life doesn’t change as quickly in the Pale of Settlement as it does elsewhere. For example, in Moscow and Leningrad, where thousands of Jews moved after the revolution, Jewish life does change more quickly: young Jews are coming without their families, and they will want to fit in right away, so they will embrace Communism and intermarry. In the cities of the former Pale of Settlement, Jewish life changes at a much slower pace. The Holocaust changed everything. These cities, this kind of cultural continuity, even under the context of such a dreadful system, was destroyed by the Germans – Jewish life and the Pale of Settlement are wiped off the face of the earth, because they destroyed the people.

In the Soviet period, “religious Judaism” is outlawed. Adults can go to church and synagogue, but religion cannot be taught to children younger than 18. So the social pressure not to go to religious institutions is very strong. Religious leaders, like anyone deemed “bourgeois,” are deprived of voting and political rights, and become second-class citizens, and their children are not accepted in the good schools. If you are the son or daughter of a rabbi, you will not get health insurance or a good education or good housing. After 1928, the Soviets see that that’s a little too harsh; until then, they collectivized the people. From the beginning, they established a category of second-class citizens. We have cases in Minsk where many youngsters whose parents have been classified as second-class flee to the bigger cities and blend in and hide so that they will not be deprived of their rights.

book coverQ: Why did you decide to focus on Minsk in your research?

A: I chose Minsk as a case study for two reasons. There always is a personal reason for a scholar to choose a particular topic, and my roommate was a Russian Jewish scholar from Minsk.

And, only if you look very closely at one place can you understand how it changed, so I wanted to see if there was continuity of Jewish life, in spite of the violence of 1917. Minsk was such a Jewish city – historically speaking, it is a Jewish city that goes back to the late 15th, early 16th century, very similar to Vilna. It was a litvish Jewish city, part of the Litvak tradition, a much more rational approach as opposed to the Chasidic approach that you have in Ukraine at the same time. In Minsk, you have the emergence of the Bund, the second-largest Jewish socialist party constituency, and a very traditional center with yeshivas, like in Vilna. It is also the center of Zionism: the first Russian Zionist Conference was held in Minsk in 1902. If you were to walk the streets, you would hear Yiddish, Polish, and some Russian. So Minsk is a perfect case study because it is not only culturally and historically Jewish, but demographically: half the population is Jewish.

It’s not an extraordinary example: in pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe, many towns and cities have a large Jewish population.

You have Jews in Belarus and Ukraine – the majority of Soviet Jews lived there – and the population they’re surrounded by are the Belarusians, who speak Russian and Polish. Ukrainians have a very strongly developed sense of themselves as a people, with a national identity and a sense of their past, with revered Ukrainian writers and poets and their own language. But Belorussians didn’t have the same concept of themselves: they spoke Russian, there were no Belorussian writers or poets, they had no national or ethnic consciousness, and it was the last place where a socialist-democratic party was established.

This gives the Jews a greater possibility to develop and maintain a strong ethnic and national identity because they’re not threatened by other groups, as they are in Ukraine. Ukraine wants the Jews to speak Ukrainian but the Belorussians don’t care. They want the Jews to speak Yiddish because if they speak Russian, that will weaken the emerging concept of the Belorussian language after the revolution.

I really wanted to do this kind of local case study of one city – essentially, a biography of Jewish Minsk – to try to understand not only the dynamic within the city but also outside, in the former Pale of Settlement, and how Jewish life was changing.

Q: What surprised you about your findings?

A: One of the most surprising discoveries was that most Jews still circumcised their children. Every institution and factory had a Communist party cell, and all the workers who were members of the party would come together to discuss party life and issues. I found discussions among Communist party members about behavior “unbecoming of Communists”: namely, circumcising their children. It’s fascinating, in terms of understanding everyday life: each cell established a committee of three people, and in a city where half the population is Jewish, in a factory, half the workers are Jewish. They know that a Jewish worker’s wife is expecting a baby, and they go to the home to make sure the child is not being circumcised. In some cases, the parents simply delay the circumcision until after that visit.

What is the implication of this? If members of the Communist party are having their children circumcised, what does this entail? The large majority of Soviet Jews are circumcising their children, and this doesn’t have to do with belief in God. Most of the Jewish party members believed in Communism but also in their Jewish identity and they can’t renounce circumcision because it has to do with ethnic identity. The larger implication is that yes, of course life changed for everybody under the Soviets.

Q: How did the attitude towards the Jews change during the period between the World Wars?

A: I didn’t find much on antisemitism in the interwar period. Things change radically during and after the war: with the start of the Cold War and the establishment of the State of Israel, the Soviet Union turns against the Jews, who become “the enemy par excellence,” because they have connections and relatives in the West. In the interwar period, you have antisemitism here and there but it is not as bad as elsewhere in Europe, where we see the rise of fascism.

Jewish life changes. No religious practice is allowed, the political parties and youth groups are dismantled by 1921, but still Minsk and other cities remain Jewish: the ethnic identity remains strong, you have Jewish neighborhoods in cities like Minsk, Odessa, Kiev, Gomel, and where the ethnic identity is preserved and maintained. Yiddish is heard on the streets, not only at the beginning of the 20th century but up until World War II, and this is probably unique. I found a photograph from 1937 – and this would have been impossible in Poland, the largest Jewish concentration in Europe, and impossible elsewhere in Europe – of a bakery delivery truck around Minsk with the word “bread” in Yiddish painted on the side. So you do have a public space for Jews to display their identity.

Under the specific conditions of a very violent system based on terror, Jewish life did continue. It’s not only about suffering and persecution; the Soviets didn’t single out the Jews. It’s also about being able to accommodate and adjust to the new system, and in some ways, resist the new system. Some Jews believed in Communism, others didn’t, and whether you believed in it or not, you had to make peace with the system. In some instances, you could display your Jewishness publicly – Yiddish and ethnic identity – and in other cases, you could only display your identity secretly, in underground yeshivas and cheders, or within the context of the family.

My contribution to our understanding of this period was to show that Jewish life changed, but at a slower pace than we had assumed.

“Becoming Soviet Jews:” Lunch ‘n’ Learn with author Elissa Bemporad: Tuesday, Dec. 10, 12 noon-1 p.m., Temple Sholom, 300 East Putnam Ave., Greenwich For information contact Alice Schoen at or (203) 542-7165.

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