Younger generations’ identities are caught somewhere between their past and their present, complicated even further by their encounters with Russian–Jewish culture and American–Jewish culture.
[This essay is from Contact, a publication of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. Reprinted with permission.]
By Josh Tapper
Paintings by Polina Barskaya
On a sweaty July evening last year, more than 1,300 people filled the pews inside the main sanctuary of Toronto’s Beth Tzedec Congregation, where Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet Jewish dissident and political prisoner, and Irwin Cotler, his one-time lawyer, were sharing the stage. It was the sort of event that had been taking place in Jewish venues across North America over the previous few years, as communities marked the 25th anniversary of milestones in the history of the Soviet Jewry movement: first the Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jews march on Washington in 1987, then the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the massive outpouring of Jews it precipitated.
In Toronto, the reunion of Cotler and Sharansky was one steeped in nostalgia: Sharansky, the symbol of a decades-long struggle to win emigration rights for Jews repressed by the Soviet regime, and Cotler, one of thousands of North American Jews who made the grass-roots campaign to free their Soviet brethren a Cold-War era cause célèbre, forcing it onto the international political agenda in the 1970s and 1980s.
To hear Sharansky and Cotler tell it, the legacy of the Soviet Jewry movement was one of lasting solidarity between ex-Soviet Jews and their cousins in the United States and Canada. Sitting across from the diminutive Sharansky, Cotler, a recently retired Canadian Member of Parliament, explained how the human-rights battle informed his own Jewish identity and sense of purpose. In response, Sharansky spoke of how Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain discovered “that there were Jews all around the world who were like family and wanted to help us.”
After the event, as the two speakers posed for pictures, a friend and I considered its familiar, self-congratulatory message. My friend was the daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants from Moscow and a co-organizer of the Toronto chapter of Limmud FSU, an offshoot of the international Jewish culture festival designed exclusively for Jews with roots in the former Soviet Union. To her, the grand, triumphalist narrative of the Soviet Jewish exodus seemed woefully out of touch. What about the very real struggles of cultural and religious integration that came later?
From the 1970s through the early 2000s, some 500,000 Russian-speaking Jews are believed to have landed in the U.S. The majority arrived in the 1990s, years after the heyday of the refusenik movement, according to Sam Kliger, the director of Russian Jewish Community Affairs at the American Jewish Committee. Today, the total of Russian-speaking Jews – a culturally diverse category that includes Mountain Jews from the Caucasus and Bukharan Jews from Central Asia – is disputed, but estimates range from 600,000 to as high as 800,000. In 2013, the Pew Research Center’s survey of U.S. Jewry found that Jews born in the former Soviet Union, along with their descendants, comprise about 10 percent of the American Jewish population.
Rather than immediately joining the ranks of American Jewry, these hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking Jews developed into a distinctive cultural, political and economic force well outside of it. Indeed, their experience in the United States and Canada has been less about commonality and cohesion – the legacy of the Soviet Jewry movement espoused by people like Sharansky and Cotler – than it has been about difference and division.
The phenomenon can be traced back to the early days of Soviet immigration, in the 1970s. “There was this general expectation that Russian Jews would come to the United States with their head down and say ‘thank you,’” for unshackling them from the Soviet Union, said Anna Shternshis, Associate Professor of Yiddish and Diaspora Studies at the University of Toronto and an expert on post-Soviet Jewry. Synagogues and social-service organizations funded by American Jews, notably the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), assisted in the resettlement process, carrying over the vigorous financial and moral support of the Soviet Jewry movement. The implicit quid pro quo was that these Jews from the Soviet Union they had worked so assiduously to liberate would embrace the American Jewish way of life once they settled in stateside.
Instead, they mostly rejected it. Cloistered in dense Russian-speaking enclaves like Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood, the Jews who managed to secure exit visas under the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Trade Act of 1974 – which compelled countries with restrictive emigration policies, including the Soviet Union, to loosen them in exchange for economic benefits – had other concerns, like tackling the hardships of navigating a new country: learning English, acquiring degrees and diplomas, finding jobs. “It was like they were parachuting in from Mars, and acculturation was pretty intensive,” Kliger said of the new immigrants, many of whom arrived as highly trained academics, scientists and engineers but found themselves marginalized on the U.S. labor market.
Waves of Russian-speaking Jews, through the post-Soviet 1990s, exhibited little interest in joining the American Jewish family – and when they did, it was often on their own terms. “There was no thanks,” Shternshis said. “They didn’t want to go to synagogues and they didn’t want to go to Jewish community centers – except to ask for help.” Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, explained that Jewish communities, with the best of intentions, often viewed the new immigrants as new recruits, fresh blood to populate their synagogues and day schools. The plan, reliant on membership and tuition subsidies, “was doomed to fail,” Sarna said. It only bred mutual resentment, feelings that lingered well into the 21st Century.
“There were a lot of complaints on the side of Jewish American organizations about Soviet Jews of the first immigrant generation being ungrateful for all the support and help that they received from HIAS and other organizations during the initial resettlement period,” said Larissa Remennick, a sociologist at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv and the author of Russian Jews on Three Continents: Identity, Integration, and Conflict (Transaction Publishers, 2007).
Lea Zeltserman, a Toronto-based writer who publishes The Soviet Samovar, an email newsletter devoted to Russian-speaking Jewry, explained the friction as a case of mismatched expectations. Born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Zeltersman’s family left the Soviet Union in 1979 when she was an infant, and transited for several months in Vienna and Rome before arriving in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1980. Zeltserman, whose own family managed to escape thanks to the Jackson-Vanik amendment, said she doesn’t know of anyone with a similar story who isn’t grateful for the Soviet Jewry movement. “It’s why we’re here – and I’m definitely glad I’m here and not there,” the 38-year-old said, referring to Russia.
Growing up in Canada, however, she had a sense that whatever her community did, it wouldn’t be enough to reciprocate the efforts of North American Jews. “All my life I’ve been hearing comments: Were we grateful enough? Were we Jewish enough, even though we spent our lives in the Soviet Union being persecuted for it?”
The sentiment echoes in the U.S. as well as Canada, as some feel American Jewish institutions still struggle to move past the feeling that they were jilted by the newcomers. In the Jewish Daily Forward last year, Benjamin Goldschmidt, an assistant rabbi at Park East Synagogue in New York who is the son of Pinchas Goldschmidt, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow and spiritual leader at Moscow’s Choral Synagogue, took a harsh, condemnatory line against American Jews for continuing to condescend to Jews from the former Soviet Union.
“I have seen too many Jewish organizations incessantly remind Russian Jews how much they’ve done, how many time they stood in the cold screaming ‘Let my people go,’ how many letters were sent to politicians, how much money was raised to obtain matzo and gefilte fish,” Goldschmidt wrote in the op-ed. “It’s true, American Jewry. You have done powerful work on behalf of Soviet Jews. But you have to stop shoving it in their faces.” (The Jewish Daily Forward, August 10, 2015)
Russian-speaking Jews have adapted into American, if not Jewish, life almost seamlessly. Remennick told me that over the past two decades, the earning power of Jews from the former Soviet Union has become significantly higher than that of non-immigrant, middle-class Americans; and with an annual median income approaching $100,000, they’re entering the same economic stratum as middle-class American Jews. “The fact that Russian Jews have often, within a decade, settled down and found themselves earning at the same level as their non-immigrant peers is astonishing and almost unprecedented in American immigrant history,” Sarna said.
Evidence of their success (and influence) can be found in myriad quarters, perhaps most obviously in Silicon Valley, where Sergey Brin, who emigrated from Moscow in 1979, co-founded Google, and Jan Koum, a transplant from Kiev, sold WhatsApp, an instant messaging service, to Facebook for nearly $20 billion in 2014. Over the past ten years or so, American-Jewish literature has been inerasably colored by immigrant writers Gary Shteyngart, Anya Ulinich, Boris Fishman and David Bezmozgis (a Canadian), to name a few, who have translated the unique contours of the Russian-speaking Jewish experience for native audiences. Ironically, Russian-backed foundations like the NADAV Fund and the Genesis Philanthropy Group have, in that same period, left a deep imprint on the American-Jewish philanthropic world, bankrolling programs at Brandeis, the Foundation for Jewish Camp, Birthright Israel and Hillel.
Still, the Russian-speaking Jewish community is, in many ways, a world apart from the American Jewish mainstream. Consider the history: After World War II, Soviet state anti-Semitism crippled Jews’ social and economic mobility. Being Jewish was, in effect, a curse. “It was based on all the different ways that you were held back in life,” Zeltserman said. So, for the first generation of ex-Soviet Jewish immigrants, such negative associations left them suspicious of religious observance and communal organizations.
“Generally speaking, Russian Jews fulfilled more or less what is expected of American immigrants,” Shternshis said. “They learned English, they found jobs, they did all these things that they were supposed to do. But they did not become ‘American Jews.’ They integrated fully into American society, but they created their own mode of Russian Jewish culture” – one that is primarily ethnic and not religious, generally uninterested in religious observance, culturally Soviet, and politically conservative.
For them Jewishness meant difference – but not in a good way. Why nurture it in the new world?
Things are changing, though, for younger generations of Russian-speaking Jews who grew up outside the Soviet Union. Their identities are caught somewhere between their past and their present, complicated even further by their encounters with Russian-Jewish culture and American-Jewish culture. “We constantly have this tug-and-pull of whether we’re Russian or American or Jewish,” said Olga Barskaya, 28, a Brooklyn resident who emigrated from Zhitomyr, Ukraine, with her family in 1994. “People in my age group – we have one foot over there and one foot in the U.S. We’re very Americanized, but we hold onto our Russian roots very strongly. Being Jewish circles through both.”
In response to this multiplicity of identities, a spate of tailored programs has cropped up in recent years. The initiatives serve to bring Russian speakers into the wider Jewish community while emphasizing the uniqueness of Russian-Jewish identity. The immensely popular Limmud FSU festivals, which are held in cities across North America, Europe, Israel and the former Soviet Union, are but one example. In New York, where about half the total population of Russian-speaking Jews in the U.S. are thought to reside, the 15-year-old Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations oversees more than 30 immigrant aid, religious and youth organizations.
When I asked Barskaya why Russian-speaking Jews need their own targeted programs she laughed, then exclaimed incredulously, “Have you met a Russian Jew?” She has attended Limmud FSU in the New York area for the past seven years. For her it’s a place where “you can be Jewish, but not too Jewish,” where you can study Tanach in the Russian language or hear a lecture by Sasha Senderovich, a scholar of Russian Jewish literature at the University of Colorado, or sing classic Soviet songs.
In an email, Ilia Salita, Chief Executive Officer of Genesis Philanthropy Group, insisted that the children of Russian-speaking Jewish parents will continue to “see their Jewishness through a post-Soviet cultural lens” – even if there does “come a point in the future when the younger generations of those who immigrated from the FSU will either think of themselves as American Jews or ‘just Americans.’”
But whether the Russian-Jewish experience in America will ultimately lead to integration – as many hope it will – remains uncertain. As Sarna notes, it was at least three or four decades before the multitudes of Yiddish-speaking, Eastern-European Jews that arrived in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries felt fully integrated into the American Jewish community. “I think the same will be true of Russian-speaking Jews,” he said. “We haven’t reached 40 years for most of them.
Sarna, for one, believes that education is the key to integration and pointed to Genesis – which funds a center for the study of Russian Jewry at his university – and Limmud FSU as forces working to imbue Russian-speaking Jews with a positive sense of Jewish identity. “The more Russian-speaking Jews understand what it means to be a Russian-speaking Jew, paradoxically, it will be easier for them to make their way proudly in the larger Jewish community.”
Shternshis, however, suggested that the inculcation of Russian-Jewish heritage and identity by increasingly assertive funding organizations, such as Genesis, might actually preclude integration, driving Russian-speaking and mainstream American Jews further apart. She is skeptical the divisions will ever wear down. “American Jews live in a very different world than Russian Jews,” she said. “It’s not two people of the same community.”
Josh Tapper is a journalist based in Toronto. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The Washington Post, Tablet, The Jewish Daily Forward and The Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Born in Cherkassy, Ukraine, Polina Barskaya lives and works in Brighton Beach. She received her MFA from Pratt Institute and a BA from Hunter College. Working from photographs, her paintings of the Russian Jewish immigrant experience have been shown in group and solo exhibitions in New York and New Jersey, most recently at Novella Gallery and Honey Ramka.