The Eastern European Story: The Reappearance Of Jewish Community.

Let us now turn to a new phenomenon: the reappearance of the Jewish communities of Eastern and East Central Europe in the last decade or so, since the fall of Soviet Communism.

One of the most extraordinary developments in recent years has been the return to life in Jewish communities whose voice had been stifled for two or three generations. More than that, the communities themselves had been dismantled and had ceased to exist in any meaningful way. If there were still officially recognized community structures, including - in some cases - official rabbis, for the most part these were seen as organs of the state apparatus that had decided to suppress Jewish life in the countries under Soviet control.

The Jews were indeed, as they had often been called, the Jews of silence. Nonetheless, the question continued to loom uneasily in the air: if they were given a platform, would they have anything at all to say as Jews? In other words, had the Soviet system succeeded in wiping out a separate Jewish consciousness and identity besides that of the Jew as victim? It was clear that many states still pressurized - even terrorized - their Jewish population so that many felt themselves victimized as Jews.

Such a situation might be enough to allow a person to retain awareness of being Jewish; but would it be enough to pass on a Jewish identity based on some awareness of Jewish knowledge or content, or at least a desire for it? If not, as soon as the pressure was lifted from the Jews, the chances were that nothing would remain: deprived of their status as victim, the Jews might simply become like everyone else. In fact, years of incessant victimization might make them see assimilation and a proper acceptance by the non-Jewish community as the most desirable goal.

It was clear that some semblance of Jewish identity had been preserved in certain specific groups. We see this clearly in the rise of the select, intellectual, ideological ‘refusenik’ movement in the Soviet Union of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the larger towns and cities, an underground movement of cells of Jews developed that participated in clandestine Jewish and Hebrew-language learning. The primary goal of their members was to prepare themselves for leaving Russia and going to Israel. Their story is important and we shall return to it in the fourth part of the booklet. Nevertheless, without in any way minimizing its importance, it was clearly not representative of the Jewish masses.

With the fall of the Iron Curtain in the late 1980s - not just in Soviet Russia itself but also in the countries under its influence, leading to their independence - it was unclear how most of the Jews in those countries would react. The fact that most of these countries moved, sooner or later, towards democratic rule, made the question even sharper. Now that the Jews were largely free to start up their communities again, and fashion them appropriately to their needs. The question was: would they want to?

Interestingly enough - and perhaps predictably - the Jews were not left alone to make their decisions. Soon after the changes in government structure began to develop, a number of Jewish organizations from other parts of the world began to move into the vacuum and to make their presence felt. Some of these represented religious streams of different complexions. Habad Hassidut became particularly active, in some places continuing an underground tradition that they had built up during the years of darkness. Reform and Conservative Judaism started to develop connections, establishing synagogues and developing educational frameworks.

Other organizations represented Zionism: shlichim (emissaries) were sent out, and camps and educational programs organized. World-wide Jewish organizations such as the Joint Distribution Committee provided much-needed welfare funds and structures, in some cases, like Habad Hassidut, continuing and expanding work that had been developed in secret in previous years.

It was like a series of electric currents’ being applied to the body of a comatose stroke victim, to see if there would be any response. Would the patient die on the operating table, despite the massive medical and support staff that it was receiving? The answer, it seems, was no. The patient - Eastern European Jewry - started to respond, despite the massive memory loss resulting from years of sickness. The Jews of silence were finding their voice. Amazingly, it seemed that, in many cases at least, they had something to say. All over East Central and Eastern Europe, communities started faltering back to life.

It was not an easy process. Many people were happy to identify themselves as Jewish, although it was not clear to them what exactly it might mean. Were they seeking an ethnic or cultural identity? Did they desire any kind of religious expression? Many simply did not know. In many cases, it was not even clear whether they possessed the tools to make their own decisions. Generations of brainwashing against the validity of any religious expression - not just Judaism - weighted the odds against the emergence of a strong religious identity.

In addition, many of the well-meaning organizations from around the Jewish world that started working in the communities had very specific agendas, sometimes backed by material inducements. These organizations were often prepared to tell the local Jews what sort of Jewish life they should lead before the people had had a chance to think things out for themselves.

Nevertheless, a Jewish revival started to develop and is continuing today.

Let us now examine a number of issues connect to this revival. In order to do this, we will focus on one of the most interesting of the ‘new’ Jewish communities, that of Hungary. As we shall see, the story of this community is different from those of the other destroyed communities of East Central Europe. We will introduce the community in the same way as we introduced the other national communities in Part Two, examining its profile through the usual categories.


 

 

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03 Dec 2006 / 12 Kislev 5767 0