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  • Writer's pictureAnat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov

Slideshow and writing exercise: Jewish holidays behind the Iron Curtain


Despite what many think: in fact, the USSR did not have a total ban on Jewish holidays. But there was a real danger in celebrating Jewish holidays - many were arrested without actual crime, and sent to the Gulag under the false accusation of "spying" or "anti Soviet propaganda".


In this lesson, students will use photographs to learn about Jewish life in the former Soviet Union.


Slideshow_ Jewish holidays behind the Ir
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The Soviet Union was one of the two superpowers in the world (along with the United States), but this power did not last and disbanded in 1991, only after 74 years of existence.

The occupying government tried to erase any non-Russian communist identity.

In the Soviet Union there were 3 million Jews, but the policy was against religion, any religion.

The Soviet regime banned Jewish life, but on the other hand prevented Jews from entering Israel.

In the eyes of the Soviet leadership – the departure of the Jews was a symbol of the failure of propaganda that the Soviet Union is a paradise on earth.

Therefore, any expression of Judaism, *Zionism, sympathy for Israel or the desire to immigrate to Israel was considered treason.

Many were arrested without actual crime, and sent to prison for espionage or treason.

The Soviet government treated citizens as state property, and it was forbidden to leave the country without special permission: not for a trip and certainly not to leave the USSR. Anyone who wanted to leave had to go through the Interior Ministry, and usually get a refusal (AKA Refusenik).

According to the USSR, the Soviet society is superior and preferable and so a sane person will not want to leave. If someone is interested in leaving, it's a sign that he needs remedial education in order to get him back on track.

In the Soviet Union, unemployment was prohibited by law.

The Refuseniks, marked as “traitors”, were often fired from their jobs after applying to leave, and thus became criminals.


Watch the slideshow as a class, then discuss the details. Pick one image or examine them as a collection.

Give students a task to choose from:

  • Become a journalist and come up with a headline about the scene.

  • Song or story: Write about the photo, and describe what they think happened a moment before the photo was taken and what you think happened next.

  • Write a monologue from the point of view of one of the people in the photo.

  • Stick a photo of the photo in the center of a piece of white paper and draw what you think is happening outside the photo frame.

  • Make a photocopy of the image along with thought-bubbles above the heads of some of the figures. Have students fill in the bubbles with what they think the subjects of the photograph are thinking.


This lesson was originally written by the Lookstein Center team to the Refusenik Project.

We have updated a few parts of the lesson and the slideshow.


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