Jewish History: Soviet Jewry
Women in general and Jewish women in particular have been participating in the artistic life of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union for over a hundred years.
Raissa Berg is an outstanding biologist and geneticist of international repute, a defender of human rights in the Soviet Union, an abstract painter and a writer.
The positive aspect of the Canadian mosaic has been a strong Jewish community (and other communities) which nurtured traditional ethnic and religious values and benefited from the talent and energy of women and men restrained from participation in the broader society. The negative aspect has included considerable antisemitism and, especially for women, the sometimes stifling narrowness and conservatism of the community which inhibited creative and exceptional people from charting their own individual paths.
In the forty years following the Russian Revolution of October 1917, communism was the most dynamic force in American left-wing politics and a primary mobilizer of radical Jewish women. At the center of this movement lay the American Communist Party, which grew out of various radical factions inspired by the October Revolution. In December 1921, most of these groups came together as the Workers Party, renamed the Communist Party USA (CP) in 1930.
In the largest Jewish immigrant wave since the 1920s, nearly three hundred thousand Soviet Jews settled in the United States after 1970. More than two-thirds of all Jewish immigrants to the United States since 1980 have been from the (former) Soviet Union. Women, who comprised fifty-three percent of those who arrived during the wave’s peak, between 1970 and the 1990s, came to the United States with an unusually high degree of professional and technical skills. In contrast to the 16.5 percent of American women who worked as engineers, technicians, or other professionals, over two-thirds of Soviet Jewish émigré women had worked in these occupations prior to their arrival. As is consistent with their occupational status, these Soviet Jewish women immigrants were also highly educated. Their average number of years of schooling was 14.2. Despite their high degree of educational and occupational attainment, women’s salaries in the USSR were only fifty-seven percent of those of men.
The statistics on Jewish marriage, divorce, fertility, emigration, and aging within the Soviet Union reveal new pockets of history and can shed light on the effects of historical events on Jewish lives.
The International Council of Jewish Women (ICJW) is an umbrella organization for forty-nine affiliates representing some two million women in forty-six countries. The head office rotates according to the place of residence of its current chairwoman, who is elected for a period of three years. Plans for future actions are decided on by a team of directors at international triennial conventions which take place in various countries. Each affiliate organization of the ICJW retains its own name and has its own projects. The ICJW is an entirely voluntary organization based on the good will of women motivated by their belief in the humanitarian duty rooted in in Judaism, in the vocation of the Jewish woman or mother, or simply in a sense of Jewish solidarity. Established in the early twentieth century and reconstituted immediately after World War II, ICJW never ceased its development throughout the vicissitudes of the past century.
Irina Jacobson, a Soviet-Russian dancer, teacher and international authority on the staging of the major nineteenth- and twentieth-century Romantic and Classical ballets, is also the former director of Choreographic Miniatures, the St. Petersburg ballet company of her late husband, Leonid Jacobson, the leading iconoclastic Soviet ballet choreographer. A former soloist with the Kirov Ballet, Irina Jacobson was the last protégée of Agrippina Vaganova, the influential teacher at the State Academic Theatre for Opera and Ballet (GATOB, later the Kirov), the woman who systematized the teaching of ballet for the new era of Soviet ballet, and who recognized and inspired Irina Jacobson’s gifts as an exacting and inspired ballet pedagogue.
Elena Kabischer, a graphic artist, painter and sculptor was born on March 23, 1903 in Vitebsk into the family of a craftsman. In 1916 she started studying in the private School of Drawing and Painting managed by Yehuda Pen (1854–1937), the oldest of Vitebsk painters, among whose pupils were also Marc Chagall (1887–1985) and Eliezer Lisitsky (1890–1941).
In the first pages of her autobiography My Life, My Theater Ida Kaminska writes of her mother Esther Rachel, termed “the Jewish Eleonora Duse,” that she was educated by three forces: “the poverty she saw with her clever eyes, the suffering with which her great heart empathised, the injustice against which she was able to rebel. All became components of Esther Rachel Kaminska.”
The kashariyot were young women who traveled on illegal missions for the Jewish resistance in German-occupied Eastern Europe during the Holocaust. Using false papers to conceal their Jewish identities, they smuggled secret documents, weapons, underground newspapers, money, medical supplies, news of German activities, forged identity cards, ammunition—and other Jews—in and out of the ghettos of Poland, Lithuania and parts of Russia.
In its commitment to socialism, diaspora Jewish nationalism, and Yiddish secular education, the life of the Yiddish pedagogue and writer Helene Khatskels closely reflects the history and ideals of the Jewish Labor Bund, which she actively supported. Her unfaltering devotion to her pupils, evident from both her own writings and writings about her, makes her stand out in the charged atmosphere of East European Jewish politics in the early twentieth century.
Lia Koenig is known as the First Lady of Israeli Yiddish Theater for her complex roles in world drama. After immigrating to Israel from Poland in 1961 with her husband Zevi Stolper, she began her legendary career at the Habimah theater. Koenig was awarded the Israel Prize, the Israel Theater Prize, and the EMET Prize.
Poet Feiga Izrailevna Kogan was born into the Moscow Jewish community in 1891. Throughout her life she composed books of and about Russian poetry while harboring a love of Hebrew. Some of her works include: Moia dusha (My Soul) and Plamennik (The Torch).
Rokhl Häring Korn is a major figure in modern Yiddish literature. Her early work established her reputation as a brilliant narrative writer in verse and prose and a passionate lyric poet. In her later work she developed into a poet of complex, sustained meditation, with a remarkable ability to turn her life into symbol. In the course of her writing career she published eight volumes of poetry and two collections of fiction.
Hanna Krall was born on May 20, 1937 in Warsaw into an assimilated Jewish family. Her parents and other relatives perished in the Majdanek concentration and death camp, while she survived with the help of some Poles, moving between the village of Krasnogliny, Warsaw, Ryki, the Albertine cloister in Zyczyn and other places.
Isa Kremer (Belz, Bessarabia, 1887-Córdoba, Argentina, 1956) traveled the world performing art, folk, and classical music. She studied and sang opera in Italy but appeared as an art singer in Odessa, where she was the wife of Israel Heifetz, the editor of The Odessa News. Her great legacy is her Isa Kremer Sings Jewish Life in Song, a book and album of Jewish songs.
Mariana Kroutoiarskaia was a talented Russian composer and music producer who dedicated her entire life to music, film, and television. Kroutoiarskaia worked as a music editor for Russian television, a lecturer, and a composer for many films. She also supervised the arrangement and publication of music for children by various composers.
In the introduction to her 1977 book While Messiah Tarried, a history of Jewish socialist movements, Nora Levin wrote that she hoped “young Jews groping for ways to reconcile their own social radicalism with Jewishness ... will be heartened in their quest by the knowledge that there have been several generations of other young Jews who have made a similar struggle.”
Jacqueline Levine is an outstanding example of female activist leadership in American Jewish life. In over five decades of service to the Jewish community, she has combined her powerfully deep liberal political beliefs and activities, which benefit the poor and disadvantaged, with her concern for the vast needs of specific Jewish communities.
Irma May was a pioneer in American Jewish philanthropy. Her reports from Eastern Europe motivated social action, while her political and speaking skills moved both the New York and larger Jewish community.
Project Kesher is a feminist Jewish organization empowering women in the Independent States of the former Soviet Union (FSU) to build a society in which inclusive Jewish life can flourish, and where women are the instruments of peaceful change.
A 1905 Yiddish operetta Roumanian wedding.
Romania was a wellspring of the Yiddish theater, as there were Jewish theater troupes in the major Romanian cities and acting troupes traveled throughout the country performing dramas, comedies, musicals, and operettas. Women played a significant role in performing and shaping Romanian Yiddish theater and became known internationally for their work on the Yiddish stage.
Like their male counterparts, over sixty percent of Soviet Jewish women were highly educated and employed as professionals or white-collar workers. Before emigration, over ninety-five percent of these women combined full-time employment with motherhood and family roles (Tolts, 1997; Buckley, 1997). Beside the need, common to both sexes, for economic and psychosocial adjustment in the new country immigrant women faced specific challenges that reflect cultural differences in sexuality, fertility and family life.
Mollie Steimer, a leading anarchist and advocate for the rights of political prisoners, was a codefendant in one of the most publicized antiradical trials in American history.