Jewish Identity in Anti-Semitic Lands


Russia and England provide interesting contrasts when it comes to anti-Semitism. Both have rather shameful histories of Jewish persecution–anti-Jewish pogroms were a common feature of 19th century Russian life, Jews were banned from England for more than 350 years from 1290-1656–and both retain legacies of anti-Semitism. In Russia, Jews are openly discriminated against and blamed for the ills of society, while in Britain, anti-Semitic statements are surprisingly commonplace.

Two recent stories illustrate how the particular cultures of these countries can affect people’s sense of religious and cultural identity. The JTA tells the fascinating story of Bella Leidentel, the 73-year-old matriarch of a a small Jewish community in Russia’s Far East. As a child she doesn’t remember much anti-Semitism, but after World War II, she noticed that people began blaming Jews for the war. As a young woman, she found anti-Semitism so overt that she made a decision to turn her back on Judaism. She told people her Jewish-looking features were actually Armenian.

“I promised myself that there wouldn’t be a single Jew in my family,” she said… without even a whisper of regret. “So I married a Russian.”

The only problem was, the Russian man she found was a Judeophile. When she wanted to get a nose job to remove her most distinctive Jewish feature, he told her he wouldn’t allow her back in the house if she went through with it. “He read heavily about Jewish culture and history, and passed on the information to Leidental with pride,” says the article. She ended up embracing her Judaism, and becoming a fixture in her local Jewish community. In a bizarre way, intermarriage was an antidote to anti-Semitism.

The story of Julian Anderson, a British composer, is quite different, according to the Hampstead and Highgate Express. His grandmother came to England after fleeing anti-Semitism in Lithuania.

Julian describes himself as a half-Jewish lapsed Anglican who is now attracted to the spirituality of Buddhism. “My father, though nominally a Litvak, was agnostic and I became an adherent of Anglicanism in my late 20s, though when it set out its doctrinal attitudes on certain issues that I felt strongly about and with which I could not accept, I moved away from the Church.”

One wonders if English anti-Semitism didn’t have something to do with his drifting away from Judaism. Ironically, despite having no religious attachment to Judaism, Peterson has made a name for himself with works inspired by Eastern European folk music. His most-performed work is the “Khorovod,” which is greatly influenced by the hora. This is an interesting demonstration of the way Jewish culture has undergone a resurgence in modern-day Europe while Jewish religion continues to struggle.

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