Fasting on Yom Kippur is one of the leading Jewish ritual practices both in Israel and among Jews living outside of Israel. It is second only to Passover Seder observance. Remarkably, these two (Yom Kippur and Passover) have managed to retain the status of the most observed holidays under a wide variety of circumstances: from the religious wastelands of the Soviet Union to the individualistic and secularised Western societies today to the more traditional Israel. In Israel about 70% of Jews fast on Yom Kippur. In the United States of America, the United Kingdom and France the proportion is lower, say, in the range of 50%-60%. Further, observing the fast on Yom Kippur is not entirely unpopular, even in the least religious Jewish circles: in fact, 25%-33% of the Israeli, American and British Jews who are not involved in Jewish communal life or who explicitly identify as secular fast on Yom Kippur. All these numbers originate from surveys of Jewish identity and practice; a conversation about ‘how observant we are’ and ‘who is more/less observant?’ would be impossible without these surveys.
25%, 50%, 70% -are these big or small numbers? For many enthusiasts and promoters of the Jewish religious observance these levels are miserably low, but then – would anything less than 100% satisfy them? For anyone who has seen the lowest low levels, on the other hand, the contemporary levels of observance in Israel and in the West are amazingly high. To explain this over-excited characterisation and what ‘the lowest low’ means I would need to take you to world that no longer exists.
I was born and spent my childhood in the Soviet Union. My first ever visit to a synagogue took place precisely on Yom Kippur. It was 1986 and I was twelve. Mihail Gorbachev had come to power in the previous year and, in hindsight, the days of the Soviet Union were counted. Let me assure you: nobody suspected that in the autumn of 1986. For the provincial Jews it was business as usual. I accompanied my grandmother to the one and only, and very old, synagogue in our city. A pair of us was the most commonly occurring type of worshippers. Two types of people came to the synagogue on Yom Kippur. The old, who came to pray like they did in their youth, and the very young, like myself. Both these groups were considered to be out of the zone of danger regarding the Soviet authorities. According to rumours, ‘being caught’ going to a synagogue would lead to being fired from work and not being accepted anywhere else. Pretty much like applying for a visa to go to Israel. Whether this was true or not-I did not know and I still do not know. All I knew was that pensioners could not be fired (any more), and children could not be fired (yet). Those situated in-between the pensioners and the children did not come to the synagogue, but some of them congregated to break the fast in private houses. My aunt kept such an ‘open house’ and served food to anyone who came.
I vividly remember the conversations that developed on the long and muddy road connecting the synagogue and my aunt’s house, where many worshippers went after the prayers. Some of the unfortunate ‘non-worshippers’ in the age group 20-50 years joined us along the way and I had to endure a few lectures about how I should consider being more ‘careful’ now that I was no longer a child but more of a teenager. My reckless attendance of the synagogue might lead to ‘troubles’ and might wreck my otherwise undoubtedly brilliant future in the Soviet Union. I trace my strong dislike of the word ‘careful’ to that long walk on the muddy road mid-October 1986. Perhaps uncharitably, I replaced it then with ‘cowardly’ and, because that worked so well, never got over this association. But this is not an essay in the psychology of human response to perceived danger. It is about Yom Kippur observance. So, let us get back to that.
8,000 Jews lived in my city, a large industrial centre with nearly one million residents, situated in the European part of the Russian Federation. Most, if not all, were Jewish evacuees from Ukraine, who managed to escape to Russia in the early days of the Great Patriotic War (the Russian label for the Russian chapter of the Second World War), and their descendant. If I count all those who came to the synagogue on Yom Kippur that year and all those who came to my aunt’s open house after prayers, then, being generous, I arrive at 100-200 people. And that gives you the proportion of Jews observing Yom Kippur in a large city of the Soviet Union, outside the traditional Pale of Settlement, in the mid-1980s: 1.2% – 2.5%. Close to nothing.
How does it all look now? While the levels of observance in Israel and Western Jewish Diaspora communities have been reasonably well documented by surveys, in Eastern Europe we do not have the same level of certainty. One thing is clear: Eastern European Jews are much less observant than Western European and Israeli Jews. The most recent investigation of religiosity levels among Jews in Hungary indicated that Yom Kippur is probably observed by no more than 5% of Hungarian Jews. A recent survey of the communally-involved group of Russian Jews found that about 24% of the respondents fast on Yom Kippur. Given the type of Jews responding to the survey – those most dedicated to Judaism and Jewish culture – we are led to the conclusion that the real levels of Yom Kippur observance among Jews in Russia are probably close to the levels registered in Hungary. The gap in observance between the Eastern and Western European Jewish communities is still tremendous. There has been much talk about the national and religious revival in the post-Soviet space. Now you know what it meant for Jews, if translated into the numbers of Yom Kippur observance: an increase in observance from 1%-2% to probably about 5% or so – surely an increase, though current levels are still in single digits. Neither religiosity nor ‘Jewishness’ in today’s Eastern Europe have any stigma attached to them, not to the extent they used to before the collapse of Communism, anyhow. Thus, the very low observance levels in Eastern Europe can only be explained by the lasting impact of forced secularisation – something that the West and Israel never experienced.
In the three years that followed my educational mid-October walk from the synagogue to my aunt’s house the Soviet system effectively came to an end. The collapse of the Soviet Union as a political entity took place shortly after. The majority of Soviet Jews left. About 1.5 million Jews lived in the Soviet Union at the time of the last Soviet population census which was conducted in 1989, just before the start of the mass immigration, and 1.3 million left within a decade or so to various destinations with two thirds of this number emigrating to Israel. In Israel they formed the most secular group, yet their levels of observance today are much higher than the levels observed among Jews living in the Soviet Union and its successor states, then or now. Believe it or not: 44% of Israeli Jews born in the Soviet Union fast on Yom Kippur – a recent Pew survey of Israeli Jews reveals.
That is quite a transformation. The lyrical types among sociologists see it as a sign of a national and religious revival, while the cynical types maintain that the greater observance of the former Soviet Jews is simply their method of ‘fitting in’ socially and culturally. The pragmatic types, like myself, ask ‘who cares?’. Observance is observance, and, among the former Soviet Jews in Israel as well as among others, it can stem from ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ reasons. The ensuing similarity of lifestyles between immigrants and non-immigrants is not inferior in quality because of ‘impure’ or complex motivations of the former. What is more: the Israel-born children of the former Soviet Jews display levels of observance surpassing the levels typical of their parents and very close to the levels in the Jewish population of Israel as whole – about 65% of them fast on Yom Kippur, the same Pew survey tells us. Even the cynical observers would have to admit that conformism has little to do with this pattern: Israel-born children have nothing to prove and no need to make a special effort to fit in. It must be a national and religious revival then, and if it is not, I do not know what is.