May 01, 2020

"He Loved Freedom and Russia"



"He Loved Freedom and Russia"
Lev Kupernik

On October 1, 1905, a crowd of thousands escorted the attorney Lev Abramovich Kupernik to his final resting place in Askold’s Grave, one of Kiev’s Christian cemeteries. They carried hundreds of wreaths from institutions, political parties, and private individuals, many with red ribbons that the police made them remove once they caught up with the procession. Revolutionary speeches were delivered in Russian, Polish, Yiddish, and Georgian. When the funeral concluded and some in the crowd began singing revolutionary songs as they filed out of the cemetery, their path was blocked by the police. A shoot-out began, and a young woman, a Jewish student, was mortally wounded, enraging the crowd and transforming the funeral procession into a full-blown antigovernment protest.

One remarkable detail about the passing of this Christian convert that became known across the world was that he was commemorated with the El Malei Rachamim prayer for the dead in synagogues throughout Russia, remembered as “Aryeh Leib ben Abraham Kupernik.” In other words, although he had converted, he still held a place in the hearts and minds of his fellow tribesman as a “true Jew.”

This striking historical phenomenon has provoked the interest of scholars. Cultural studies expert Shulamit S. Magnus points out that, among converts who did not break with their fellow Jews and indeed worked to further Jewish welfare – the likes of Daniel Khvolson, Jan Bloch, and Victor Nikitin, whom she refers to as “good bad Jews” – Kupernik alone was unreservedly counted by Jews as one of their own. And this despite the fact that he himself was not imbued with a sense of his own Jewish identity and was a staunch advocate for the total assimilation of the Russian Jewry. At the same time, he was an ardent defender of Jews, never failing to intercede on their behalf and never afraid to expose government wrongdoing.


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