The Decision to Emigrate

The decision to leave one’s country is rarely an easy choice. Yet many Jews in the Soviet Union in the late 1900s came to believe it was their only viable option. Although the Soviet Union’s communist regime claimed that all citizens are equal, Jews almost everywhere in the country experienced persistent antisemitism. How did officials and ordinary citizens know who was a Jew? Some relied on ancient stereotypes to accuse strangers of being Jewish. Others made their accusations based on a so-called “Jewish name.”

Most, however, relied on a single letter found on the internal passport carried by every Soviet citizen. An internal passport was a document that everyone in the country had to show when enrolling in a school, securing an apartment, moving to a new community, marrying, or even applying for a job. Many Jews were unaware of their Jewish identity until they received their first passport. Even those who were aware of their Jewish identity knew little or nothing about Judaism as a religion or a culture.

In the years after the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Communists banned all religious observances. Jews were not permitted to learn about their customs and traditions, celebrate their holidays, or attend the few synagogues that still existed in the Soviet Union. As a result, writes Bernard Mehlman, the senior rabbi at Temple Israel in Boston and an activist in the Movement for Soviet Jewry, most Soviet Jews “came of an experience in which identity as a Jew was trouble.” In other words, most Soviets became aware of their Jewish identity through one or more antisemitic incidents.

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There is a Way to Emigrate

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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "The Decision to Emigrate." (Viewed on August 24, 2019) <https://jwa.org/communitystories/sovietjewry/themes/decision-to-emigrate>.

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