Jewish American Heritage is Always Evolving

By Judith Rosenbaum

When we think about Jewish heritage, our minds often turn to the long arc of history and the resilience and contributions of Jews over centuries or even millennia. Jewish American Heritage Month – celebrated in May – was created in this spirit in the aftermath of the 2004 commemoration of 350 years of Jewish life in America, to recognize the significance of Jewish contributions to American culture since Jews first set foot here in 1654.

This Jewish American Heritage Month, however, I find myself focusing on the newer contributors to the Jewish American narrative – those immigrant Jewish communities that have more recently woven their unique perspectives and experiences into the fabric of American life.

One such community is Soviet Jews, who began immigrating to the U.S. in the early 1970s and came in large numbers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Jewish Women’s Archive has launched a new online collection that offers a glimpse into the experiences of both Soviet Jews and the American Jewish activists who worked to free them, with special attention to the leading role of women in the movement. Based on interviews with seventeen women and men living in the Boston area, conducted in partnership with students from Brandeis University and SUNY Binghamton, this collection documents the special moment of partnership that the Soviet Jewry movement represents within the context of Jewish American heritage. Together, their stories describe a movement that lasted nearly 30 years and eventually helped resettle approximately two million Soviet Jews and their relatives.

The movement to free Soviet Jewry and the massive immigration wave that it made possible not only reshaped the American Jewish community, it also sparked a (re)articulation of Jewish identity. For those refuseniks trapped behind the Iron Curtain, connections with a network of foreigners who visited, offered support, and advocated for them provided a new sense of family and belonging. Anna Charny, in her interview with JWA, described the rabbis who visited her community in Moscow as the “closest thing to family,” emphasizing the “feeling of the importance and the impact” of those meetings. For Janna Kaplan, her connection with a larger Jewish community transformed her sense of what was possible: “Learning who I am as a Jewish person, as a Jew with a history – that gave me a sense of dignity, a sense of self-worth. I’d never had those things. And also a desire to see if I can make something of my life out of the dead end where I found myself.”

These relationships were deeply meaningful to the American activists, too. For some, like Fran Putnoi, working with Soviet refugees enabled her to honor her own father’s immigration history. Bernice Kazis and her husband helped teach newly arrived Soviet Jews about being Jewish in America: “We would sit and talk to them about what it means to be able to say you’re Jewish in the U.S. It was very spiritual and very moving for me… to take these people who were afraid to be Jewish and say to them, it’s ok, we can put this [mezuzah] on your door, and you don’t have to be afraid. It was tremendous – tremendous for them and tremendous for us,” Kazis says. Andrea Waldstein helped create a bi-cultural seder for nine years, bringing together American Jewish women and “new American” Jewish women to explore the festival of freedom – an experience that changed the meaning of Passover for all involved.

The pivotal roles that women took in this movement also sparked growth and new leadership opportunities that helped transform the American Jewish community. Judy Wolf described how women “pushed from the ground up. We were willing to do those small things to highlight the plight of Soviet Jews which the men really weren’t willing to do.” Because women at that time were not in leadership positions of national Jewish organizations, Wolf points out, they “had the worst and the best of both worlds. The worst was they weren’t where they should have been. The best was they had the flexibility and freedom to move… Women were extraordinarily instrumental,” in both Russia and in the U.S.

Jewish American Heritage is always evolving, incorporating new immigrant communities that – in becoming American – challenge both American and the Jewish communities to expand and redefine themselves. This May, as we celebrate the contributions of Jews in America, let us learn from the experiences of more recent arrivals and those Americans who drew on their Jewish values to expand the Jewish story in this country.

Judith Rosenbaum, PhD, is the executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive, a national organization that documents Jewish women’s stories, elevates their voices, and inspires them to be agents of change.