October 23, 2009
Russian Jews in the Diaspora: Choice or Destiny?
By Elena Medvedovski, PhD
For a Russian Jew, there was no question of whether he was to be or not to be a Jew, and if he was to be one, then what kind of Jew: secular, religious, a Zionist, or an advocate of life in the Diaspora. “Russian Jews did not become Jews, they were born Jews,” Aleksandr L’vov asserts: being a Jew was an incontestable “fact of biography.”
By Elena Medvedovski, PhD
Recently I happened to see a documentary film shot by a Russian Jewish action committee in Boston. The film begins with a rare historical chronicle. The first few frames of the film show a procession of the first wave of immigrants coming down the passenger ramp of a ship. The men are wearing broad-brimmed Hasidic hats and traditional lapserdak
overcoats, and the women are wearing wigs and long homespun dresses, while the children are in caps, with their payis
flying. Scenes from a world that has vanished...
One procession takes the place of another. We see scenes of a modern-day chronicle. In the frame is a procession of people in which our compatriots can be recognized, and the entire procession expresses restrained energy and power. We see posters, small flags, the skeleton of a bus that has been blown up, and we understand that this has to do with a demonstration in support of Israel. After the frame, the filmmaker comments on the connection between the two scenes in a somewhat paradoxical fashion. Israel, in the filmmaker’s opinion, is the only thing that links the present wave of immigrants to their distant ancestors, the only thing they have left of their Jewishness.
Such a commentary makes one think about the fates of Russian Jews in the Diaspora, about their past, present, and future. What really connects present-day American Russian Jews with their distant ancestors from the shtetl
? Can the link with Israel be the sole manifestation of their Jewishness? Will their children, like their parents, see Israel as the core of their Jewish identity? Perhaps even this link will seem to the future generation to be an anachronism, something they recall only from time to time at the family dinner table. And then the very concept of being a Jew will seem obsolete, something that belongs to a legendary epoch of persecutions, camps, and struggle for a way out.
Therein, perhaps, also lies the phenomenon of the Russian Jew, for whom being a Jew was not an ideology, not a religion, not a culture but, in the apt phrasing of Aleksandr L’vov, (1) an incontestable “fact of biography.” For a Russian Jew, there was no question of whether he was to be or not to be a Jew, and if he was to be one, then what kind of Jew: secular, religious, a Zionist, or an advocate of life in the Diaspora. “Russian Jews did not become Jews, they were born Jews,” L’vov asserts. All the realities of life in the Soviet empire, starting with the entry on the birth certificate and ending with the personnel department, were constant reminders that Jewishness was not a choice but a destiny. Hence the passiveness of Russian Jews, which Jews in the West find so hard to understand; when it comes to any Jewish events, centers, communities, or participation in the life of the synagogues, Russian Jews hold themselves aloof. Interestingly, similar tendencies are observed also in post-perestroika Russia.
This passiveness is not a special quality of character, for in all matters concerning their career, adaptation to a new country, and relationships with friends and within the family, these are completely active and competent people. At the same time, their Jewishness lies in another sphere. I would call this the non-materialized sphere, a “psychological rather than physical reality.” (2) If being Jewish is a destiny, then the next question that arises for a Russian Jew is how to apprehend this destiny: to try to evade it, make peace with it, or stand up to it.
At any rate, destiny is something predetermined, rather than a free choice; it does not require a person to be active, to take actions (just as, for example, speaking one’s native language requires no special choice or physical effort). Therefore, in the Soviet era, the Jewishness of a Russian Jew was not actualized in the form of religious practice or active cultural interest, not only because religious practice was banned by the regime, but also because this practice was associated with real actions that were perceived as alien and incomprehensible. Jewishness primarily took the form of psychological reflection in conversations in the kitchen. Reading the reports of all kinds of Jewish organizations in the CIS countries, reports that complain of the passiveness of Russian Jews and of the low attendance rate at Jewish events, one has the impression that such a tendency continues to this day. Moreover, it is continuing on what is now new soil.
Now let’s turn our minds to the West, to Russian Jews who have come to America or to Europe. They remain the same Russian Jews there, with the same reflective and passive attitude toward their Jewishness. For many of them, Jewishness is connected first of all with an elusive sense of destiny, while Jewish education and religious traditions are understood as part of the everyday culture rather than of a spiritual culture. In this sense, the sarafan
[traditional dress worn by Russian women] and kokoshnik
[headdress worn with the sarafan
], and the Chanukah candles and Sabbath challahs can fall, for a Russian Jew, into the same category of everyday culture, which frequently has no profound spiritual meaning.
After moving to America or Europe, a Russian Jew continues to perceive his Jewishness as something decreed by destiny. As before, he requires no actions to express and display it. However, such a sense of oneself profoundly contradicts the entire complex of ideas and worldviews that define the national, cultural, and religious identity of a Western Jew. Above all, for him his religious and ethnic affiliation is by no means just a fact of biography that is not subject to change. For example, an American of Italian origin chooses the extent to which he will be loyal to the national traditions, language, culture, and religious practice of his community. Frequently, after marrying and having their own children, Americans become more involved in the religious and cultural life of their community.
The involvement of Western Jews in Jewish cultural life and the motivation to give their children the elements of a Jewish education are brought about by the very same desire to express their Jewish identity in a more active way. (At the same time, an American Jew may elect not to express and display his Jewishness in any way at all.) The synagogue (possibly with the exception of the ultra-orthodox synagogue) is not only a house of prayer but also a social and cultural club, where a European or American Jew can form closer ties to his community and give his children a greater opportunity to learn about their Jewishness and associate with other Jews in the same age group.
The wide-scale failure of Russian Jews to participate in community life evokes irritation and incomprehension among many Western Jews. It seems to them as if these are not the Russian Jews for whose freedom to emigrate they fought by taking part in demonstrations. The mutual failure to understand the very essence of the Russian and the Western European or American models for perceiving Jewishness creates a mutual estrangement.
The children of the Russian Jewish immigrants, however, are growing up in another world. The mute sense of Jewishness as a destiny to be borne is not something that is inherited. For them, the mandatory “fifth line” [which indicated “nationality,” a required passport and identity category in the USSR] is, in the best case, history.
That is precisely why, for our children, being Jewish is no longer a destiny but a conscious choice. We, their parents, can contribute to this choice by offering them an opportunity to acquire the foundations of a Jewish education and of Jewish culture. Then support of Israel will not be the only bridge between us and our children; there will also be a lively dialog about our identity as Jews.
Readers, what do you think?
(1) Aleksandr L’vov, “V poiskakh russkogo evreia” [In Search of the Russian Jew], in Evreiskii mir [The Jewish World], htpp://www.ort.spb.bu .ru.
(2) Aleksandr L’vov.