Russian, American, Jewish: Not so Fast

fishman[This essay is from Contact, a publication of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. Reprinted with permission.]

By Boris Fishman

My first novel, A Replacement Life (HarperCollins, 2014), was about a failed writer who starts forging Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn. I wrote it as a goad to a moral reckoning, but also a love letter; a provocation, but also an exegesis. The moral reckoning was for my fellow ex-Soviet Jews – I immigrated in 1988 at age nine – whose occasionally flexible relationship to the law is well-known. I aimed to expose and exhort, not vilify and harangue, and, ultimately, to offer understanding to people traumatized by lifelong rejection, abuse and oppression. But considering the way America had received us and helped us, wasn’t it time we stopped living like savages?

I failed in all my aspirations. If many Russian-speaking Jews read my novel, I’m not aware of it. (“We don’t read books in English” was the best explanation I got.) As for American Jews, my failure to provoke was at first encouraging: American Jewish readers seem to have graduated from the communal insecurity that marked its reactions to public American examinations of private Jewish sin like Portnoy’s Complaint and, more significantly, Leslie Epstein’s King of the Jews. It was only later that I realized that they weren’t shocked because they didn’t think the book was about them, much as the German-Jewish immigrants of the 1830s saw the Ostjuden who came 50 years later as a people apart. At almost every reading, someone rose to offer her story of disappointment in Russian-Jewish immigrants, just as virtually every Russian-speaking Jew ended up speaking, albeit privately, about “us” and “them.” I was the shocked one: Everyone seemed to have given up.

I did more than a hundred readings from A Replacement Life, many before heavily Jewish audiences which were almost never integrated between Russian-speaking and American Jews. (Ironically, it was in the smaller and supposedly less vibrant – in comparison to mighty New York – communities where I came across better integration: In Minneapolis and St. Paul, neither side enjoys the self-sufficient numbers that Russian-speaking and American Jews in the New York area do.) I’m no social scientist, but anecdotally, this observation keeps bearing out – even those Russian-speaking Jewish acquaintances who’ve found a place for observance in their lives tend to manifest it in specifically Russian contexts, even if they came to America very young.

National cultural shifts seem to explain this in part; we no longer live in a country that, a century ago, saw Jews far more skeptically. Back then, if you wanted to belong, your best chance was with your own. Today’s multi-culturalism also means you don’t have to conform to some elite notion of America to feel at home: you can stay in south Brooklyn, avoid learning English, and still somehow feel like a full-fledged American. A century ago, greenhorns from Eastern Europe couldn’t wait to assimilate. Not today.

But even these cultural obstructions seem powerless against the great swell of American culture. Within two generations if not one, three if not two, my descendants will seem exactly like other American Jews; is there much difference today between descendants of German Jews and the Eastern European Jews who followed later? Not really. In this scenario, the worry about Russian-speaking Jews’ relationship to religion morphs into concern about observance among American Jews, period. I see my descendants acting like very American Jews, indeed, in their preference for Jewishness over Judaism – if that. Unlike many secular Jews, however, I worry about how meaningfully culture alone can sustain an identity that, after all, derives from a religion.

Because of this, I’ve tried to engage with observance and ritual. Here, too, I’ve failed, due to my encounter with what has felt like an unbearable emphasis on conformity: This is how you do it, and no questions. I’ll never forget a Shabbat dinner for Russian Jews at a religious home in south Brooklyn where, stupefied by the uncontextualized monologue issuing from the sage at the head of the room, I started poking my styrofoam plate with a plastic fork and was reprimanded for doing work on Shabbat. Such literal rigidity does nothing to inspire a novice; such voluntary self-restriction, in a world already more than restrictive enough, feels like a parody of self-abuse when it hasn’t been preceded by a slow steep in Judaism as a historical and, more important, an intellectual experience. And by intellectual, I mean: Questions, doubts and argument are welcome; the spirit matters more than the letter; and there are no easy answers. (Passover may be the story of our enslavement in Egypt, but it began with one Jew’s abandonment by his own brothers.) It’s not a safe time for Jews in the world, but the rise of uniformity and xenophobia I see among many observant Jews in America and Israel feels like an equal tragedy.

My family fled the Soviet Union because it wanted to save me from the industrial oppression of a place where no questions were allowed, and I’ve made good on their aspiration by choosing a profession where questions, not answers, are the point, and a life where I enjoy the extreme privilege of often being able to ask myself what I think. And if America has rewarded me for this, American Judaism – in the admittedly limited forms I’ve encountered it – has not. I’ve felt more invitation to insert myself – my experience, my questions, my doubts, my exasperation, my disagreements – at a church service in rural Virginia, where no one present felt entitled to imagine who I was before I spoke up. (This is rare in church environments, too, I know.) It’s a shame because as I’ve become older, my craving for community – and for refuge from a world that likes to bare its teeth more than its heart – has only increased. But until this changes en masse, I think American Jewish communities will have a harder time inspiring new congregants, Russian or not, and we will, with regret, continue to look for our sense of community elsewhere.

Boris Fishman was born in Minsk, Belarus, and immigrated to the United States in 1988 at nine. His first novel, “A Replacement Life,” was one of the New York Times’s 100 Notable Books of 2014, and won the Sophie Brody Medal for Achievement in Jewish Literature form the American Library Association and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. His new novel, “Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo,” has just been published by HarperCollins.