Columbia University in the City of New York

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Per Aspera ad Astra: The Making of Soviet Jewish Selves – Public Program

Please join the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, the Department of Germanic Languages, and the Harriman Institute for a conference, Per Aspera ad Astra: The Making of Soviet Jewish Selves. Registration required.

The beginnings of the Soviet Union saw a dramatic shift in rights, policy, and rhetoric toward non-Russian peoples. Many ethnic minorities that had been considered “aliens” were newly recognized as equal citizens. The early years of fledgling Soviet rule were characterized by national-territorial questions and state subsidization of regional languages. Jews were one of the officially recognized minority groups, and Yiddish, the common tongue of Eastern European Jewry, became an official language of the Soviet Union. While language was standardized, the question of identity remained open ended, multifaceted, and polemic. Geographically, socially, and ideologically scattered, Soviet-Jewish identity was anything but uniform. Zionists, Yiddishists, territorrialists, Bundists, socialists, and communists were equally invested in the question of national determination, with each group constructing their own sense of self. Under nascent ideology and infrastructure, the Soviet Jew quickly assumed leading roles in the production and administration of power and culture. These early years, though marked by adversity, held the potential and promise for astronomical success. Following this brief cultural renaissance, Jewish culture—namely Yiddish language culture—was stifled by the arrival of high Stalinism, whose imperative of russification was ruthlessly enforced. To stay afloat amidst the perilously shifting political currents, the Soviet Jew had to navigate the between the utopianism of the Soviet idea and the brutal conditions of its pursuit.

In his new book How the Soviet Jew Was Made, Prof. Sasha Senderovich (University of Washington) examines Soviet Jewishness through a series of literary and artistic representations that ultimately position the Soviet Jewish person as a liminal figure. On October 5th, 2023, the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, the Harriman Institute, and the Department of Germanic Languages at Columbia University will hold a one-day graduate conference, featuring talks from Gennady Estraikh (New York University) and Elissa Bemporad (Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center), and a keynote talk from Sasha Senderovich that will examine, from a range of disciplinary perspectives, the implicit question: How, indeed, was the Soviet Jew made?

Conference organizers:
Noa Tsaushu, Department of Germanic Languages, Columbia University
Elaine Wilson, Department of Slavic Languages, Columbia University.



10:00 – 10:45am | Morning Session

Ester Frumkin: A Jew at War with Judaism

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Prof. Elissa Bemporad, Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center

(Moderators: Elaine Wilson and Noa Tsaushu)

By analyzing the words and deeds of Ester Frumkin, who in the wake of the Bolshevik rise to power rejected her Bundist past to join the Communist Party and bring the Revolution to the Jewish street, Bemporad will explore her role in forging the new secularist Soviet Jew. As a teacher, editor, author, and riveting orator, over the course of the 1920s and 1930s Frumkin helped forge the revolutionary minds of thousands of Jewish youth, imbuing them with a new anti-religious ethos.

3:00 – 6:00pm | Afternoon Session


Birobidzhan: A Hapless Embryo of a Jewish Land

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Prof. Gennady Estraikh, New York University

(Moderator: Noa Tsaushu)

Ninety-five years ago, in March 1928, the Soviet government announced its plan of building a Jewish territorial unit in Russia’s Far East, on the border with China. Birobidzhan, initially the name of the territory, later was turned into the name of a new city, the center of the Jewish Autonomous Region. Both the city of Birobidzhan and the JAR are still atavistically present on the map of contemporary Russia. The talk ­­– based on the 2023 book The History of Birobidzhan: Building a Soviet Jewish Homeland in Siberia­ – will focus on the factors that hindered the project’s development from start to finish.


How the Soviet Jew Was Made

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Keynote Lecture by Sasha Senderovich, University of Washington

(Moderator: Elaine Wilson)

Senderovich will discuss his new book, How the Soviet Jew Was Made, (Harvard University Press, 2022; finalist for the 2023 National Jewish Book Awards). The book offers a close reading of postrevolutionary Russian and Yiddish literature and film that recast the Soviet Jew as a novel cultural figure: not just a minority but an ambivalent character navigating between the Jewish past and Bolshevik modernity. Drawing on Yiddish and Russian-language literature, films, andreportage, Senderovich finds characters traversing space and history and carrying with them the dislodged practices and archetypes of a Jewish world in the process of transformation. Senderovich urges us to see the Soviet Jew anew, as not only a member of a minority group but also a particular kind of liminal being.

Image: Issachar Ber Ryback, Jünglinsporträt, Jüdische Typen Aus Der Ukraine: Zwölf Original-Lithographien. Berlin: Essem, 1924. Courtesy of Klau Library, Cincinnati, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion


Event Videos

Panel I


Panel II


Panel III