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The prohibition to consume pork is perhaps the most familiar aspect of kashrut, the system of Jewish dietary laws, even though the pig is only one of a number of unclean animals mentioned in the Pentateuch. In Jewish memory, the rejection of pigs is an indicator of Jewish difference; one Yiddish expression characterizes a pig, dover akher (“another thing”) as something not to be mentioned by name.

The Jewish taboo against pork has been used against Jews. When Tsar Nicholas I (r. 1825–1848) introduced the military draft among the Russian Empire’s Jews (in the Cantonist laws, 1827) young Jewish soldiers who were often forcibly converted to Christianity were obliged to eat pork in order to prove their true rejection of Judaism. During the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, the attackers smeared pig’s fat on the lips of captured Jews. Both Jews and non-Jews regarded this action as a serious assault.

Pig breeding is prohibited by Talmudic sages (Sot. 49b; JT, Ta‘an. 4:8, 68c), but communal ordinances prohibiting such activities and dating to the seventeenth century suggest that the prohibition was not always observed. There were Jewish pig dealers in interwar Poland, and Jews used pig bristles to manufacture brushes. In the 1920s–1930s, pig breeding became an important industry in Soviet Jewish agricultural settlements, where it symbolized the new Jewish secular life. In 1930, Jewish agricultural colonies in Crimea handled 7,000 pigs, and in 1938, Ukrainian Jewish collective farms reported impressive success in such breeding.

Soviet Jewish literature portrayed the pig breeder as an ideal type of new Soviet Jew. Vladimir Bill’-Belotserkovskii’s (1885–1970) Russian-language drama Pogranichniki (Frontier Guards; 1937) depicts a Jewish soldier named Kogan, who is captured by the White Army. During his interrogation, Kogan is asked if he is Jewish, and he proudly replies that he is a Soviet Jew, and that his father is the best pig breeder in Birobidzhan (the Jewish autonomous region in the Russian Far East). Yekhezkl Dobrushin’s Yiddish buffoonery Mitn ponim tsum khazer (Turn Your Face toward the Pig; 1926) features a Jewish teenager who convinces his religious grandfather to become a pig breeder in order to improve Jewish welfare.

Soviet Yiddish folk songs describe pigs as full-fledged inhabitants of a Soviet shtetl: “Khazeyrim vi di leybn shpatsirn af der gas” (Pigs Like Lions Are Walking on the Street). Perhaps the most famous Yiddish-language glorification of pigs is found in Leyb Kvitko’s (1890–1952) poem for children, “Anna Vanna, the Brigade Leader,” in which children want to play with “di naye, sheyne khazerlekh di kleyne” (newborn beautiful little piglets). The poem, translated into Russian by Sergei Mikhalkov (1913– ), the author of three Russian national anthems, became the best-known work of Yiddish poetry in the Soviet Union.

After World War II, Jewish pig breeding subsided as Soviet Jewish collective farms ceased to exist. Eventually, the combined forces of emancipation and Yiddish propaganda in the Soviet Union led to a situation in which observance of any religious laws, including abstaining from pork, became a largely irrelevant factor in the ethnic identity of post-Soviet Jewry. Yet the majority of the descendants of East European Jews in North America, Israel, and Western Europe still follow the Talmudic assertion that the pig is dover akher.

Suggested Reading

Gennady Estraikh, “Pig-breeding, Shiksas, and Other Goyish Themes in Soviet Yiddish Literature and Life,” Symposium 57.3 (2003): 157–174; Anna Shternshis, Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939 (Bloomington, Ind., 2006).