Old Photos: Soviet Jews in 1959

Over the last several months the Soviet Union’s campaign against Jews and Judaism has intensified. All over the country synagogues have bee closed, prayer meetings have been raided and newspaper articles have appeared attacking Jews as “thieves” and “enemies of socialism.” In this climate of official attacks, hoodlums have felt free to stone and set fire to synagogues, Jews have been severely beaten and even killed.

The extent and the virulence of the new campaign, which may come as a shock to the outside world, does not surprise the Jews of the USSR. They have had to live with organized anti-Semitism for more than a decade. ” The government regards Christianity and Islam as the “opium of the people,” a Gentile Russian told me in Moscow recently, “but it treats Judaism as if it were poison gas. What’s more, it doesn’t matter whether a Jew is religious or not. He’s pushed around just because he’s a Jew.”

Life Magazine, December 7, 1959. “New Agony for Russian Jews”.

The following photos are a rare sight – for the first 18 years of my life I haven’t seen a praying Jew; partly because most of the people I knew were not religious (at least not known to be religious); partly because all but one synagogue in my city were not functioning (one was a gym, another one housed some archives and who knows what else); partly because openly practicing a religion and especially Judaism which has visual attributes (head cover, facial hair) was not compatible with having a career and sometimes a job.

Jew wrapped in ragged ritual shawl w. phylacteries on head and arm praying in dilapidated synagogue. © Time Inc. Jerry Cooke
Elderly Jew at service in Synagogue.© Time Inc. Jerry Cooke
Hebrew students and teachers being instructed in the Talmud.© Time Inc. Jerry Cooke
Elderly at Hebrew services.© Time Inc. Jerry Cooke
Congregation at Hebrew services in synagogue.© Time Inc. Jerry Cooke
Old believers outside Hebrew Synagogue.© Time Inc. Jerry Cooke
Woman in synagogue using worn prayer book to follow service.© Time Inc. Jerry Cooke
Shopper in one of the three ritual butcher shops permitted to Moscow Jews is out of Kosher meat.© Time Inc. Jerry Cooke
Kosher butcher preparing to kill chicken for customer.© Time Inc. Jerry Cooke
Jews worship in chilly dilapidated synagogue.© Time Inc. Jerry Cooke
Orthodox bearded Jew.© Time Inc. Jerry Cooke