" Not all domains of Soviet life were ruled by anti-religious ideology. Spirituality became one of the “trends” in the late Soviet era and an embodiment of resistance to collectivistic values."
Prof. Nelly Elias, chair of the Department of Communication Studies, and Dr. Julia Lerner from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology only met and became close friends a few years ago at the University. But they still marvel how their lives have followed similar trajectories. They were both born in the former Soviet Union (FSU) a few months apart and both came on aliya in 1990 when they were 18. Both studied sociology as undergraduates – Elias at Tel Aviv University and Lerner at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Then their paths diverged to different institutions and different academic disciplines: Elias in communications and Lerner in anthropology. By the time they earned their doctoral degrees, Elias was a leading specialist in immigrant media while Lerner was breaking ground in the anthropological study of migration. Their paths finally crossed in 2007 when they conducted a joint research study at BGU.
“After 20 years in Israel, we were comfortable enough to return to our roots and study Russian-speaking immigrants. There are remarkable developments going on among the Russian-born Israelis. We both became especially interested in their changing attitudes towards religion, so we developed a joint research study of Russian speaking religiosity in Israel,” they explain. The study integrated Lerner’s expertise in anthropology and Elias’ in communications, as the project involved reviewing ethnography, life stories and an examination of media content.
At first glance, the very title of the joint study, “Post-Soviet Religiosity,” sounds like a misnomer. Those who remember the massive wave of immigrants from the FSU in the 1990s clearly recall how those Jews overwhelmingly defined themselves as non-religious or even anti-religious. In the Soviet Union, Jewish identity was ethnic in nature and did not involve Jewish-religious affiliation. Yet, recent surveys report that only about 30 percent of Russian-speaking Israelis define themselves as non-believers; in other words, 70 percent are affiliated with some sort of faith. The ethnographic studies also report on visible evidence of Russian-speaking immigrants' active participation in local religious communities, both Jewish and Christian, all over Israel.
Elias and Lerner explain that global research has shown that religiosity often intensifies after immigration because faith and participation in a religious community offers cultural, social and psychological resources to a population that feels uprooted. These resources help immigrants cope with the upheaval in their lives as “religion in immigration offers a strong belonging device.”
However, they cannot attribute post-Soviet religiosity in Israel solely to the “religion as resource” explanation. First, the vast majority of the immigrants had been non-religious. Second, the transformation took place in both strong and weak population groups, reducing the argument that it was a way of belonging. Many prominent scientists, media personalities, public and political figures have found their place in a religious community.
This suggests a second explanation for Russian-speaking religiosity in Israel: It is a way to belong to the Israeli national collective. FSU immigrants in Israel have drifted towards and adopted mainstream societal norms shaped by the Jewish calendar, holidays and customs. “One of the participants in our study told us that the kippa in Israel is a kind of membership card into Israeli society,” explains Lerner. “He said that it serves the same function as having a communist party membership card in the Soviet Union.”
The researchers suggest that the centrality of Judaism to the definition of the dominant collective identity in Israel and the incorporation of religious affiliation into the foundation of Israeli citizenship imposes its influence on newcomers as the immigrants adopt and imitate the powerful patterns of the hosts.
However, this hypothesis does not explain why some FSU immigrants adopted non-mainstream religious choices. Some have become members of ultra-orthodox and marginalized Jewish religious groups (including Kabbalah and Jewish New Age groups) while others have turned to various forms of Christianity.
“At some point we realized that we had to study this issue in the context of the transnational phenomenon of post-Soviet culture. It wasn’t enough to view it solely in the immigrant/Israeli context,” they explain. Hence, Elias and Lerner turned their attention to the FSU and the changes that had taken place there, particularly the remarkable religious revival in the post-Soviet reality.
Elias’ and Lerner’s research led them to the conclusion that while Soviet ideology eschewed all forms of religion and purported to create a “New Man,” this process was not monolithic. Marxist-Leninist dogmas and Soviet rituals lent quasi-religious overtones to everyday life. In other words, atheism and Marxism took on attributes of religion. However, not all domains of Soviet life were ruled by anti-religious ideology. Spirituality became one of the “trends” in the late Soviet era and an embodiment of resistance to collectivistic values.
The post-Soviet space is currently characterized by a broad cultural phenomenon of religious awakening. “Thus we feel that Russian-speaking religiosity in Israel should also be seen as part of the post-Soviet religious reality, and not only of the increasing religiosity in Israeli society,” they conclude.
Another similarity in Nelly Elias’ and Julia Lerner’s life stories is that they are both married to non-Russian speakers and became mothers only recently. Today they successfully combine dynamic academic careers with raising energetic Israeli toddlers whom they are both trying to bring up as bilingual children. “It’s not easy,” says Elias. “Today, 15 percent of the Israeli population is Russian speaking, but as time passes, the second and third generations of immigrants are losing the language quickly. It is a second language that they use for daily life, but they cannot read or write it. Much to our regret, we are witnessing this among our students who come from Russian-speaking families. They cannot speak Russian fluently and are unfamiliar with the basics of Russian culture.”
Lerner adds with a smile, “One way or another, it seems that we always seem to imbue our research and teaching with our personal experience; this has been a most interesting and productive process for us. So perhaps our next research project will deal with intergeneration cultural transmission in immigrant families."