Herzl knew of a rumor about Russian Jewry, but, after he became familiar with representatives from Russia, he noted that he was convinced that they required his help and spiritual leadership, and here at the Basel Congress, he saw that Russian Jewry had brought such a powerful culture that he couldn’t even imagine.
He continued, saying that they have an inner wholeness that had been lost by most of the Jews of Europe. They weren’t assimilated into any other nation, but drew upon all the good that there is in these peoples. By looking at them, he began to understand what gave power to our ancestors to survive in the most difficult times. Once, they asked Herzl, “What would happen if only the Jews of Russia follow you?” He answered, “Only? This is absolutely enough for me.” (From the book by Felix Kandel, The Land Under Our Feet, Book 1, Part 3, Chapter 11)
Russian Jewry is characterized by the integration of many different factors. First, it is very multifaceted. Jews were scattered to all corners of the empire. They settled in Moldavia, Crimea, Central Asia and the Caucasus. Secondly, a serious attraction to inner spiritual development was observed in them, whereas the environment around them was very limited. This is because, at that time, there existed the law of serfdom, a monarchy, and, in an especially rigid way for Russians, they didn’t let the Jews do anything, and a threat always hovered above them, and they feared for their lives. So, they had to provide themselves with at least some kind of security.
The state of affairs itself led to the appearance of an inner craving to find somehow to express oneself. In order not to be dependent on society, the Jews needed to give expression to some value by themselves, to reach their own self-expression within themselves, but from the outside, permission was not given to them. In principle, this has continued to our day, maybe not on such a level, but if we compare this with the days of my youth, I also felt a violation of human rights.
In this way, the general atmosphere in the remote places pushed a person toward great inner attainments since he knew that he only had what was found within him. He could not be a doctor, a politician, or a professor as it was in the West. At that time, there already existed a strong stratum of Jewish intellectuals there. At the same time, there was an an active distancing from Judaism. Many Jews changed their religion, like Strauss, or they completely assimilated into the society that surrounded them. Much later, they were the first who began to leave Western Europe and move to America where they created an absolutely new community that didn’t preserve their customs.
When I asked my grandfather, “Why, in your time, didn’t you travel to America along with everyone else?” He answered, “How could I go where I would have had to work on Shabbat? So, I stayed here.” For him, it was completely clear that in spite of all the pressures and terrible circumstances, he could maintain his internal law here. This was the essential difference between the Jews of Western Europe and the Jews of Eastern Europe, even though the latter were far more oppressed. The Czarist regime couldn’t leave them in peace and quiet. The Jewish question was a sickness within him, and it caused him great suffering. So, new decrees were constantly being issued that limited the rights of the Jews, and the opinion spread that they should be pursued and deported to the backyard of the empire. There, they could exist more or less quietly in spite of everything if only given the opportunity.
Question: Did something unique exist in the Russian people that compelled them to violate the rights of the Jews and thereby prepare them for the great breakthrough?
Answer: I wouldn’t say this. The Russian character is very full of contradictions because it is created from the symbiosis and conflict of different cultures. So, a Russian can begin to beat someone and, immediately after begin to hug and kiss him with great weeping. He himself doesn’t know what manages him, and this is a clear Russian characteristic. So in Russian society there are many bursts of cultural achievements that are impossible in the West. This made an impression on the Jews while they stayed within the irascible Russian society..
The atmosphere itself pushed them to develop. Because you don’t know what will happen to you in the next moment, you need to be directed only toward what is in you, what you know and can do, what you are in yourself. So, the most important were science, knowledge, and understanding of how to become something compared to others, but that this uniqueness will be within me because tomorrow I could become naked and barefoot, but, this they can’t take from me. So, the Russian Jews, who didn’t know what would come tomorrow, were obliged to go into science or culture, to gather an inner cultural or scientific charge, and when the time arrived for some kind of small self-expression, then all of the gathered inner potential began to erupt. The main thing for them was to express themselves.
From KabTV’s “About Our Life” 5/7/15