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Across the Former Soviet Union Russian or Estonian? Language Signals Rift in Estonian Community

December 6, 2005
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Parents are pulling their kids out of the Tallinn Jewish School, but not because they don’t want them learning about their Jewish heritage. And it’s not because it’s expensive — the school, which teaches Hebrew and Jewish history alongside secular courses to students in grades 1-12, receives municipal funding as part of the government’s subsidy for cultural minority education.

No, parents say they’re pulling their kids because they don’t want them studying in Russian, the language of the hated Soviet overlords.

When the Tallinn Jewish School opened in 1990 in this former Soviet republic, 350 children enrolled for the first year, more than 10 percent of the 3,000 Jews living in the country. This year just 200 children are enrolled, down from last year’s class of 250.

Marina Karboinova, the school’s vice principal, says only that it’s “possible” the recent drop in enrollment is a result of the school’s language orientation. But the issue highlights a growing rift within Estonian Jewry that pits Russian speakers against native speakers of the local language.

As in many other former Soviet republics, Estonia’s Jewish community is split along linguistic lines. No official statistics are available, but approximately one third of the Jewish population are descendants of Estonian-speaking Jews who began arriving in the country during the 19th century.

The other two thirds arrived during Soviet rule, between 1940 and 1990; they’re not only relative newcomers, but Russian-speaking ones.

Because the Tallinn Jewish School holds classes exclusively in Russian, “most Estonian-speaking Jews do not send their children there,” said Elhonen Saks, author of a number of Estonian-language books on Jewish subjects.

More and more Estonian Jewish parents are sending their children to secular Estonian schools instead. As a result, these children may be missing out on the basics of a Jewish education.

School and community officials are worried about the drop in enrollment.

“It is a problem that the school is trying to solve,” said Jevgeni Plink, a member of the school’s board of trustees. “We are trying to develop a new educational program to attract and retain more Jewish students.”

The school’s dwindling numbers may affect other areas of Jewish life in Estonia, as the school is the main recruitment ground for local Jewish youth organizations. According to counselors from youth clubs sponsored by the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel, the majority of those who take part in the clubs’ activities come from Russian-speaking families.

“This is a major problem for the Jewish community,” said Chabad Rabbi Shmuel Kot, 28, Estonia’s only resident rabbi. “We need to give language skills to students that will enable them to find a job or receive higher education in Estonia.”

Kot believes the Jewish school needs to offer more classes in Estonian, thereby attracting and keeping youth in Estonia and within the Jewish community.

But reforming the school may not be enough to draw youth to Jewish life.

In a time of heightened Estonian nationalism and a resurgence of Estonian-language use among the general population, it might seem problematic for the country’s Jewish community to cling to its Russian-language identity.

The name plaques at Dor va Dor, Tallinn’s Jewish center, are in Estonian, but the center’s day-to-day operations and paperwork are conducted in Russian. The center’s newspaper, Hashahar, is printed in Russian, and its Web site,, has yet to publish an Estonian version.

Though anti-Soviet sentiment abounds in this new European Union member-state, the Jewish Community Center’s veterans’ club still celebrates May 9, a Soviet-era holiday marking the official German surrender to the Red Army.

May 9 is officially celebrated in Russia and some other former Soviet republics, but not in any of the Baltic states, including Estonia. The fact that it’s celebrated at the JCC may exacerbate the community’s outsider status, critics fear.

Cilja Laud, chairwoman of the Jewish Community of Estonia, explained that the JCC’s language and cultural practices merely reflect the demographic makeup of those who use it.

“We’d celebrate the Estonian Day of Independence if enough people wanted it,” Laud said.

But they apparently do not, as the majority of JCC members are pensioners who benefit from the center’s social and welfare programs. They’re older, more used to Soviet ways and — more often than not — are of non-Estonian origin.

“Estonian Jews are better integrated into Estonian society — they do not need the help of the Jewish community,” school trustee Plink speculated. Unlike the Jews who came to Estonia during the Soviet period, the native Estonian Jews already had well-established social networks and didn’t need the community’s help to integrate into the fabric of the country.

Though Estonian citizenship requires knowledge of the Estonian language, many members of the Jewish community — some of whom have lived their entire lives in Estonia — do not see a need to learn it. That view isn’t restricted to pensioners.

“Why do I need to learn Estonian?” asks Anna Azovtseva, a student at the Jewish school. Having grown up in a Russian-language family and surrounded by Russian-speaking friends, she isn’t interested in mastering Estonian.

“I know I will need it to get a job here, but tell me, how many people in the world speak Estonian?” she said. “I’d rather know English, it is more useful.”

Paradoxically, Jewish organizations’ efforts to strengthen connections between Jewish communities in the Baltic region may further reinforce the Estonian Jewish community’s Russian-language inclination.

Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia all have a high percentage of Jews who settled in the countries during the 50 years of Communist rule — and Russian is the language they share.

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