History and culture of the Jews in Russia
The Jews, one of the world’s oldest peoples, after the Roman conquests were expelled from their historic motherland, Judea and Israel. They have settled all over the world forming two groups, the European Ashkenazi and the Asian Sephardim. The museum exposition arranged in two rooms presents the history, religion, and culture of Russian, as well as Central Asian and Caucasian, Jews. To which group do most of Russia’s Jews belong? Why is the specific lifestyle of Jewish communities called “shtetl”? How was a shtetl, or town, organized? What was a qahal like? What peculiar feature did a Jewish dwelling place have? What is the Jewish law kashrut? How did traditional everyday meals differ from festive ones? How and why did the Jews keep the Sabbath rest day, or shabbat? What object in a synagogue is believed to be the most sacred one? How Judaism, the Jews’ ethnic religion, helped them retain their ethnic integrity?
Sources indicate the 2nd millennium BC as the time of the Jews’ arrival in West Asia. In the history of the Ancient Middle East, the Jews were similar to their neighbors, but within the Hebrew Jews community the concept of monotheism emerged and the creation of the Bible text began, which later determined the nature of the spiritual life not only of Jews but also of Christians and Moslems.
The Jews were a people who as early as in antiquity saw the collapse of its own state, destruction of its main sacred places, and hardships of living in strange lands, but it did not disappear like many peoples of the past in similar situations, but worked out mechanisms of survival in Diaspora settlement. In the Middle Ages, Jews abiding in small groups in lands of Europe and Asia became a historic norm. In fact, the Jewry in many countries became an ethno-confessional group with its own customs and rules, important for the economic life and international relations of each country, but surrounded by an atmosphere of prejudice. Of no small importance for ethnic preservation of the Jewish people was strict adherence to the spirit and letter of their own religion with its special prescriptions and prohibitions; commitment to the bookish culture was important, which enabled a person to feel himself living where his books were.
As a result of the making and expansion of the Russian Empire in the late 18th and up to mid-19th century, it gained control of the regions on the Baltic Sea and along the Dnieper and the Vistula with a European Jewish population, and the Caucasus and Central Asia with an Oriental Jewish population. In all places of their settlement, the Jews were a minor part of population, but considerably influencing the regional landscape.
The purpose of the exposition complex existing in the Russian Museum of Ethnography is to show the components of the historical process of generation of the Jews’ peculiar spiritual / religious culture, especially that of Russian Jews, and to demonstrate the ethnographic realia of the Jews’ lifestyle in the 19th century Russia under the circumstances that had emerged in various ethnic environments. The specifics of the culture dictated exhibiting artifacts of several Jewish ethnic/territorial communities: Ashkenazi, Caucasian (Mountain and Georgian) Jews, and Central Asian (Bokharan) Jews. The Ashkenazi collections, as more numerous, are used for integrated display of everyday and religious features of Jewish culture, while the artifacts on the Oriental Jews enable focusing on particular aspects of material and spiritual life.
A background of the emergence of this exposition, which in fact is the core of a museum of Jewish culture in a wider context, was that by the beginning of the 21st century the Russian Museum of Ethnography had concentrated the collections on the Russian Jews’ ethnography. The museum’s collections were formed both from the Museum employees’ own acquisitions and transfers from museums of Russia and neighboring countries. The Russian Museum of Ethnography has retained the objects resulting from the expeditions of the Jewish Historical and Ethnographic Society made in the early 20th century, in particular the known An-sky’s collection on the ethnography of the Ashkenazi Jews.
The new complex with its wide timescale complements the existing tradition of opening monographic and regional expositions at the Russian Museum of Ethnography, whose material only covers the timeframe of the late 19th to early 20th century.
The determinants of setting up the exposition “History and culture of the Jews in Russia” are the development of museum studies in Russia and studies of ethnic cultures, which gave rise to museums of Jewish culture already in the early 20th century, and the new perception of the problem’s urgency after a long chronological interruption.
It is important to note that the idea of setting up this exposition complex was an initiative of the President of the RF. The implementation of this initiative is a contribution to further development of St. Petersburg’s role as the cultural capital of Russia.