Title: "From Slavery to Freedom: Liberating the Soviet Jewish Woman from Gender Inequality"
Abstract: From the outset, the Bolsheviks strove to create an official atheistic communist culture and revolutionize the norms of behavior of Soviet citizens, regulating all aspects of everyday life. Guided by the ethos of the Party, Bolshevik culture was didactic, moralistic, and atheistic, as it tried to rid Soviet citizens of religiosity, and as it aimed at breaking down the old customs, beliefs, and manners that characterized pre-revolutionary life. My proposed seminar presentation will focus on the cultural wars that took place in Soviet society, and specifically those that surrounded the attempt to eradicate religion and create a New Soviet Woman equal to men. While focusing specifically on the emergence of radical Jewish women, who were more eager and better equipped to join the public sphere and rebel against the ways of their mothers than non-Jewish women, the talk will explore how gender informed their involvement as “agents of Revolution” in the building of the Soviet system. Ester Frumkin became one of the most committed and angry agents of Revolution, as she attempted to put an end to gender inequality by uprooting the existing traditional patriarchal society. The higher degree of urbanization, literacy, and tradition of political activism among Jewish women enabled them to take on leading roles in the Cultural Revolution of the late 1920s, actively participating in the 1930 gold-campaign to support industrialization and collectivization and fulfill the First-Five-Year-Plan, as brigades of women seized – presumably from their own mothers and grandmothers - Sabbath silver candle-sticks and goblets to donate to the Revolution. Moving away from the specific historical context of the Soviet Union and its Jewish minority, the second part of the presentation will investigate the nexus between feminism and the struggle against clericalism that emerged in different European and American contexts during the twentieth century, investigating the role of gender inequality in shaping activism.
Bio: Elissa Bemporad is the Jerry and William Ungar Associate Professor of East European Jewish History and the Holocaust at Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk (Indiana University Press, 2013), winner of the National Jewish Book Award and of the Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History. The Russian edition was recently published with ROSSPEN, in the History of Stalinism Series. She is currently finishing a book entitled Legacy of Blood: Jews, Pogroms, and Ritual Murder in the Lands of the Soviets, which will be published with Oxford University Press. Elissa is the co-editor of Women and Genocide: Survivors and Perpetrators (forthcoming with Indiana University Press in 2018), a collection of studies on the multifaceted roles played by women in different genocidal contexts during the twentieth century. She has recently been a recipient of an NEH Fellowship and a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. Elissa's projects in progress include research for a biography of Ester Frumkin, the most prominent Jewish female political activist and public figure in late Imperial Russia and in the early Soviet Union.