For the past six months Blognik Beat has been dedicated to exploring the past, present, and future of Russian-Jewry. Its bloggers have reached back into time to re-tell the story of their ancestors, of their hardships in the Soviet Republic and their struggles in acclimating to a new world. But this blog has not strictly been about detailing the stories of adversity. Its content has allowed us to peek into the Russian-Jewish mind, into how they think and view the world. This blog has adventured into Russian dating, politics, culture, schooling, but most importantly it has looked into the soul of a people. A people who will begin to become more important, influential, and involved whether others are prepared for that end or not.
I sincerely hope that as one of the many bloggers at Blognik Beat, I have allowed The Forward’s readers to better understand the Russian heart and soul. I hope that those who have read my, as well as other posts, have come away with a better idea of how the traditional American Jewish community can work with the up and coming Russian Jewish community. If we do not start to bridge the gaps between these two peoples then we will have failed ourselves in keeping one of the Jewish peoples most sacred covenants: “Kol Yisrael Arevim Ze-lah Zeh,” — “All of Israel is responsible for one another.”
Do we really wish to continue down this path of mutual disengagement? Ten years from now, when the distance between the two groups has widened considerably, we will ask the same question of what should be done to bring the two together. When no credible answer appears, both sides will blame one another as such is always the outcome when solutions do not appear. I truly despair that such a situation will present itself.
I spent the summer before college holed up in my room in front of my laptop watching strange cartoon letters take shape and trying to replicate them on my own. I was teaching myself Hebrew.
I’d just been to Israel twice and had become deeply embarrassed that I could not understand a language that was my own, despite the fact that there were thousands of years between us. From the first class in college, I fell in love. There was something about Hebrew that was so instinctive to me; it felt like I was coming home. But it was also hard. Harder than I thought it would be, harder than tracing letters before they flickered off the screen.
The verb conjugations killed me. I kept forgetting how to add. I frequently forgot the difference between hatul, cat, and kahol, blue. I walked around in a daze of flashcards. I also spoke to myself in my head for hours at a time in the simple words I began to know, like a six-year-old.
At around this time of year the Tel Aviv beaches are filled with foreigners, hotels are booked to the last room, and thousands are floating their troubles away at the Dead Sea. Many programs have brought Jews, specifically those of college age, to Israel. The most popular of these programs, of course, is the Taglit-Birthright trip, which has allowed roughly 300,000 young Jews to visit the Jewish homeland. Still, even with this success, one of the questions that has repeatedly troubled the Jewish establishment is how to continue the connection — how can we make the 10 day experience last a lifetime?
This is, perhaps for all the Jewish organizations involved, the game changer that transforms the face of modern Jewish activity for the next generation. After seeing Israel first hand, students leave the country with more questions than answers — a reaction that should be seen only as positive. For some, these questions lead them to become more involved in pro-Israel organizations on college campuses and many organizations have sprung up to proactively advocate for Israel, or as they call it: “hasbara.”
Hasbara Fellowships, Binyan, CAMERA, AIPAC, CJP, JNF, RAJE — these are but a handful of organizations that offer trips to Israel at unbelievably low costs, some of which can even be free. But not all of these organizations are affiliated with pro-Israel advocacy. Many look to broaden the base of possibilities by including programs based on the Jewish belief in tikkun olam. These programs look to attract students with interests in the environment, volunteering, community relations, and social change. To qualify for some trips you are required to become a “satellite” of their organization on your college campus. For some this means distributing the organization’s material, running programs or bringing speakers to campus.
For more than half of my life, I was not a citizen of any country. For twelve years, I had to append every application, every interview, and every flight with a long explanation of my life. For all of my teen years, I was a glitch in the civic duty system. From 1999 until 2010, I was stateless.
You can still find the street where I was born by its name, but not the city. You can find the region, but not the country. The polity to follow assumed jurisdiction over my citizenship, an act I was not implicit in. That is the case for many Russian-speaking Jews, but few go on to reject their new political status.
Due to unexpected circumstances, my family came to the United States in 1998, pretty late in the scope of Jewish emigration. My family’s role in the St. Petersburg Jewish community was important, so there were no plans of leaving it. However, the Judeophobia we faced in Russia was so egregious, we were later granted political asylum, and remained in New York City. With no relatives here, we were ineligible for refugee status, which is what most Russian-speaking Jews used to gain residence.
From a minority as Jews in Russia, we took a minority approach of emigration, and even then were left in the margins due to our political status. According to USCIS (INS) data for 1999, around 500 other people were granted asylum from Russia, compared to around 12,000 Russian immigrants. These immigrants, refugees, continued to hold their original passports but I, instead, had to remain in the US until the day when I could step across a border again.
I live in Philadelphia. My parents live two hours away. So, when my husband and I were looking for a house last year, one of the most important features was the second/third bedroom. Because that’s where my parents would stay. So every house we looked at carried the specter of my parents. Would they be comfortable here? Would this room be big enough for them? Because I’d lived with them for eighteen years, then on the weekends in college, and I was really looking forward to hosting them in my house.
Where am I going with this introduction? Oh yes, this man is crazy for putting his mom on a futon. At least by Russian standards. We’ll put aside the fact that he builds furniture, this was what really struck me:
“Well, Theo, I’m sure you are going to have a comfortable night on the futon,” I said.
“Uh, Mom?” Theo said. “I don’t think you’ll be taking my bedroom. That’s the master bedroom. I am the master. I don’t want to sleep out here. This is the guest room.”
That was the moment. That was when I realized the earthshaking reality of having traveled to see my child, only to become a guest in his home. He was not my child, but my host, a grown-up. I could feel the tectonic plates of power shifting and grinding between us. A volcano of protest sputtered out, and I agreed that the living room, er, guest room, was the perfect place for me.
I’d love to meet the first Russian child to say these words to his or her parents and remain among the living. No, they won’t be killed. They’ll be eaten alive by guilt.
Stephen Colbert was left blushing after a visit from Regina Spektor, the Russian-born beauty who was promoting her new album, “What We Saw From The Cheap Seats.” The two spoke about immigration, Soviet spies and Spektor’s upcoming visit to Russia for the first time in 23 years.
The singer even had some kind words to say about Colbert, in Russian.
Watch the interview and Spektor’s fantastic performance:
When it comes to connecting with one’s heritage, it may be hard to target an idea or belief that drives a person to do so. For those Russian Jews who yearn for that connection, who need something to look to beyond rabbis and Shabbat dinners with all flavors of kugel, there is a way.
I just graduated from college where I made many amazing friends over the years from a very different background than my own. I am now headed to South East Asia, where I will spend a month exploring the cultures and traditions of Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos. While one chapter in my life comes to a close, another one has already begun.
As I look back on my adventures and look forward to another one, I know that it is meeting new people and sharing our beliefs and stories of upbringing that helps me mold my own view of myself. Personally, I feel very in-tune with my roots, and I believe that is due both to the religious and non-religious experiences I have had in my life. While inspiring speeches around a Shabbat table and trips to Israel ignite the meaning of what it is to be Jewish both traditionally and spiritually, I have also found it very valuable to go beyond that and to see the beauty and learn about people of different nationalities, heritage and religions.
When President Obama made public his support for gay marriage on May 9th on an ABC interview, and re-affirmed his belief at an LGBT Leadership Council fundraiser, he garnered a range of reactions from fervent support to avid disapproval. Apparently the president’s announcement has generally not affected people’s opinions of Obama, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center, but there was a major discrepancy between the older and younger adults surveyed: 42 percent of people over 65 viewed the president less favorably while 62 percent of respondents between 18 and 29 years old did not.
In the greater American Jewish community, the resonating feedback reflects the general liberal viewpoint that has been prominent in the demographic. That is, most American Jews would probably be in support of Obama’s statement since we have always been in support of the ostracized and discriminated against as we were ourselves not too long ago. Yet, within the demographic is a substantial Russian Jewish population that greatly disagrees with homosexuality, but especially in the right of marriage for homosexual couples.
On my own college campus of Rutgers University, the feelings of jubilation and optimism for a freer and more just society were somewhat conspicuous, as it lies in the fairly liberal state of New Jersey. The local gay community is quite active but did not respond with any events like parades, fundraisers or guest lecturers as one would expect after such a significant change in governmental viewpoint. Yet, there may be a silent response because of the controversy surrounding a current case that has impacted the Rutgers populace: Dharun Ravi, a Rutgers student, has been sentenced to prison time for invasion of privacy for using a webcam to spy on his gay roommate, who later committed suicide. Regardless, the number of gay and lesbian groups on campus and the openness with which the community interacts with the wider student body proves that this case was neither detrimental nor typical of the average student.
A month ago I attended an event on Russian-Jewish philanthropy. The big name speakers — Russian leaders of major Jewish organizations — explained that we were witnessing a watershed moment. The Russian-Jewish community in America, which had over the past few decades lived off of the welfare of others, had risen to a considerable position of power and wealth. After accepting the help of others it was now in their hands to return the favor, to use their newly established wealth to positively influence the direction of the Jewish community in America and abroad. But there is one problem according to those leaders I heard speak: the Russian-Jewish community has not yet taken upon itself the responsibility to shape the future of Jewish discourse. Their participation peaks when it comes to the issue of Israel, albeit this peak is reached most unfortunately during Israel’s hours of crisis.
This then begs the question: what is the future of Russian Jewry in America? It is a question the majority of American Jews have consciously avoided. True, for many years there was not much time to think, to constructively understand where the Russian-Jewish community could be integrated with their American-Jewish counterparts. When the floodgates of the U.S.S.R. opened the only task at hand was to make sure that the Jews who had braved the Iron Curtain would survive in America. The future of these Jews was to be decided at a later date. Now is the time to confront that which we have put aside, forgotten about, and feared to approach.
I have no empirical data to support some of my conclusions, but nevertheless I’d like to lay out several ways of approaching our situation so that both communities may begin to grow together. First, and perhaps most importantly, is to approach the Russian-Jewish community on equal footing. Lecturing and patronizing them will undoubtedly alienate them. We must never forget to be humble in our interactions with them. The established American-Jewish community has deep, foundational problems of its own such as an ever increasing intermarriage rate and no proven way of dealing with it, a skyrocketing of Jewish day school tuition, and the decline of the synagogue as the center of Jewish life. Accusing the Russian-Jewish community of being “lesser” Jews because they fail to follow the laws of kashrut will without a doubt drive them away. I have seen this first hand with my fellow Russian Jewish friends at Brandeis University. We must develop an equation that leaves out the question of who is the better Jew, while taking into account the perspective of the Russian Jew, the lens with which this person views the world around them.
With much fuss and fanfare, this week’s NYU 2012 university commencement marked the conclusion of my undergraduate career. But instead of rushing forth and celebrating recklessly, determinedly, as is perhaps appropriate, that evening was a decidedly low-key affair. In this post-graduation haze, the only thing I’m inclined to do is sit and self-reflect by the glow of my computer screen (a cathartic state rather characteristic of my generation, unfortunately or not).
These past few days have been certainly eventful, to say the least. Last weekend I spent three days in Princeton with hundreds of Russian-speaking Jews from around the United States and Canada, at the annual Limmud FSU conference. Limmud can be described as a number of things: a learning experience, a celebration, a reunion, and a big party, all surrounding the central theme of Judaism. Limmud FSU brought together Russian Jews of all ages, backgrounds, political inclinations and religious beliefs (or lack thereof). It was intense and interesting, challenging and frustrating, wickedly fun at times — and for someone notably secular, very Jewish. Perhaps uncomfortably so.
So what does Limmud have in common with a graduation ceremony, aside from the scores of people speaking on big heavy topics and imparting tokens of wisdom like tchochkes at a campaign rally?
After finishing my first year of college and returning home happily to see my family and friends, I have been thinking about the level of education given at the university level and the preparation that secondary schooling gives in the United States. The result: we need to change the way we educate children in our country and elevate the standards across all subjects, primarily in middle school and high school. Not only do college courses demand much more time and effort of the student, they also place an emphasis on self-discipline, a virtue that is intrinsic in Russian education. I do not believe that we must give up “room for creativity” in our course schedule, as many supporters of the American system of education advocate for, but I feel that we must put the focus of our educators and parents on stricter studying methods and increasing the level of difficulty of classes.
Coming from a Russian immigrant background, as many fellow children of immigrants may relate to, I was put under plenty of academic pressure since I initially entered school. When the average classroom program was not demanding enough, my parents placed me in additional preparatory programs such as Kumon (a math and reading learning center) and CTY courses (Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth). Those extracurricular classes put an emphasis on independent learning and agility, which nurtured my academic interests and growth outside of the classroom. Meanwhile, some of the classes for the “gifted and talented” in my school were not challenging me enough, and only in high school did I feel more pressure and challenges from Advanced Placement classes. Now in college, I realize that there is a dramatic difference in the intensity of coursework between high school classes and average college courses. Even AP preparation does not demand as much as that of higher education. This brings me to my next point, that the Russian system of education should be looked upon as a beacon of inspiration, given the strict training and inculcation by educators.
Talks with my parents hint at a childhood filled with great demands in school as well as extracurricular activities, which are representative of the culture they and other immigrants instill in their children. Yet, it amazes me how the level of difficulty differs drastically. Take algebra, for example, which they completed in 5th grade, while in the US most kids begin to study in 9th grade. The trends in science education are comparable to mathematics, where children in the Soviet Union consistently took physics, chemistry and biology every year from the time they were 10 until graduation from school. Science in America is also taught in a poor manner with the students only getting a peek at each of the three main science subjects for a year in high school; that is not enough time. Unfortunately, the majority of American students are falling behind in standards our national government has dictated, so it is easy to see why college students struggle later on in courses that were never part of a foundation for such learning.
More than 500 young Russian-American Jews from across the United States will gather at Princeton University for a conference designed to bring them closer to Jewish history and culture.
The Limmud FSU conference will take place at Princeton May 11-13.
Limmud FSU is a festival of Jewish learning featuring a program of lectures, workshops, round-table discussions, music and a wide-range of cultural events presented in Russian, English and Hebrew. The goal of the program is to bridge young Russian-speaking Jews and their disconnect from the American Jewish community.
I was at my local grocery store this weekend, standing in line at the checkout. I saw that the line next to mine was moving faster. With stealthy Soviet queue analysis skills acquired only by years of living with Russian parents, I scanned the lines, assessed the length of time, and made a beeline into the line next to mine. I got through the checkout maybe ten seconds faster than I would have in the other line. I won.
These are the types of stories you always hear about how hard people had to hustle in the Soviet Union to avoid the staggering bureaucracy and inefficiencies. Apparently, even twenty years after the fall of communism, this is still the case. Miriam Elder writes:
Finally, it is your turn. You put six items of clothing on the counter. Oksana Alexandrovna lets out a sigh. This would be the point where you would normally get your receipt and go. But this is Russia. It’s time to get to work. A huge stack of forms emerges. Oksana Alexandrovna takes a cursory glance at your clothes. Then the examination – and the detailed documentation – begins…. There are 20 boxes that could be ticked. Is this sweater soiled? Is it mildly soiled? Very soiled? Perhaps it is corroded? Yellowed? Marred by catches in the thread? All this, and more, is possible. The appropriate boxes are ticked. But that is not all – a further line leaves room for “Other Defects and Notes”. By now, you have spent less time wearing the sweater than Oksana Alexandrovna has spent examining it.
On my blog and here in the Forward, I’ve dissected every single issue of Russian-Jewish life in America, from Russian Dolls, to raising Russian kids. But there’s only so much introspection you can do before you reach a meta-loop and break the universe.
That’s the point I reached last December. I was tired of writing about Russian-Jewish issues. I was tired of Russian grocery stores where all the women judge you if you’re wearing sweat pants. I was tired of living in the warm Russian Jewish bubble of Philadelphia where everyone hears you cough three miles away. I was feeling suffocated by the expectations of the Russian-Jewish community.
Up to this point, I’d followed the Russian Jewish life plan exactly and without deviation: studied hard in school, studied harder in college, picked a major that would result in a job where I didn’t have to make lattes, got married early and bought a house. But last winter, I reached my limit. I realized that if I continued to follow everything that was mandated of me by the norms of our immigrant culture, I would die inside as a non-Russian, non-Jewish individual. I was more American than I thought. I, like Belle from Beauty and the Beast, wanted more out of life. It really says something about how at the end of the rope you are when you’re legitimately quoting Disney characters.
In today’s world, our lives revolve around technology and social media. Day in and day out, we text, Tweet, and see what other people are doing through a constant flutter of photos and status updates. We long to be connected to everything and everyone, feeling naked without our phones or compulsive checking of Facebook. But when the day is done, what do we really get from refreshing the webpage just to see all the photos our “friends” are posting from yet another party that looks identical to all the rest?
In this Moscow Times article, our elders recall how fond they were of their childhood. They reminisce about playing out in the backyard and relaxing with their grandparents during summer vacations. Even in the hard times of the Soviet Union, when food and money were scarce and religious freedom was non-existent, they are able to remember a simple and happy time. But now, with so much more freedom and opportunity than our grandparents could ever imagine, we can barely boast that we are as happy as they were then. With one in every 10 U.S. adults diagnosed with depression, it makes me wonder if all the hype of technology and social media plays a part in the rise of this disease.
The constant comparison to what your peers are doing, what you should look like, and feeling like an outcast if you are not updated on the latest device makes people feel inferior and takes away from their quality of life. As someone who finds myself wishing I could just make Facebook and Twitter disappear sometimes, yet can’t imagine life without these things, it makes me thankful that the lessons I am learning from Judaism can help me stay connected to the things that really matter and bring me happiness.
I read an article last month in Philadelphia magazine about how American men aren’t growing up. These kinds of trend pieces aren’t new. Neither are pieces examining why Americans are raising their kids the wrong way. Just look at Amy Chua and the “bringing up the French bébé” phenomenon. But seeing this last one in particular made me think that the Americans are dealing with a nationwide problem that’s independent of whether your child is a Tiger, a Bébé, or just some Russian guy in the Bronx named Boris.
American kids are often raised to be afraid of everything: strangers, candy, and most importantly, strangers with candy. After a childhood spent in bubble wrap, they’re suddenly pushed off to college. They’re told they can do “anything they want,” which includes majoring in Underwater Basket Weaving. Then, they’re told to become self-reliant right away and handed a whopping student loan bill. There’s a reason the old trope of the parents redecorating the bedroom the minute the door slams exists. The result is college-age kids who are overwhelmed by the real world and become directionless, unmotivated, and move back home to watch Golden Girls reruns all afternoon. But it also produces talented musicians, screenwriters, and journalists who would have otherwise been told to just give up and start playing chess for money.
In the Russian community, things are a little bit different. Kids are the center of the Russian family, adored, and loved. But they’re never spoiled rotten and are in fact put to use as soon as they can be. Raising Russian kids takes lifelong dedication and a struggle against the inherent laziness and impulsiveness of childhood. Most of my friends and I were left home alone as early as age 6 because our parents had to work. It was never seen as an issue. We were pressured to get majors that would guarantee us real jobs after college, not to “follow our dreams,” and seeing how difficult it had been for our parents to become upwardly mobile, we had a deeper understanding of hard work. The result is hundreds of thousands of Russian Jewish doctors, lawyers, software developers, and Forward blog writers.
Gal Beckerman, Forward’s opinion editor and author of “When They Come For Us We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” the defining book on Soviet Jewry, talks about meeting the refuseniks who attempted to hijack a plane and draw attention to the troubles of Russian Jews.
What is life like for the Bukharian Jews who have found a new life in New York? The Forward’s Paul Berger spends an evening at a Bukharian restaurant where old and new memories are celebrated by the community.
Despite having grown up in an overbearing society, people raised in the former Soviet Union feel that they do have many happy childhood memories.
Passover in my family has rarely been a formal affair. At one point, when I was a child and my family still observed a few watered-down traditions plucked out of the Jewish canon, we would gather round a makeshift Seder table to read selections from the ShopRite Haggadah. A Seder plate and stack of supermarket matzos would be placed on the table symbolically and I, being the youngest, prompted the ritual by asking the Four Questions as necessary.
As a child, this tradition (unglamorously lacking in bunny mascots and pastel candy) always seemed like more trouble than it was worth. I felt that those tedious procedures — the eating of the chalk-flavored, unleavened bread; the sharing of the Kiddush cup with relatives — were done mainly to appease my father, the observant member of our largely secular clan. Nonetheless, I would sit through the grueling ceremony until my mother permitted my escape, upon which we children bolted from the kitchen to scavenge for hidden matzo, fueled by promises of glorious bounty to be granted upon its discovery.
It wasn’t until my college semester abroad that I truly appreciated this holiday for what it’s worth. I was studying in Tel Aviv at the time, but my Passover break was spent in Turkey’s enormous capital city, Istanbul.
Year to year there isn’t much change when it comes to my Passover Seder. Wine, matzo, and politics are always the dominant features. But this year I want to be conscious of the message the Haggadah provides and what it means to me.
Searching for that meaning forces me to look back on the vastly divergent Passovers experienced by my parents. The Seders my mother grew up around in the United States were rooted in tradition. It would run continuously through the night, reaching far past midnight because her father refused to miss a single word of the Haggadah. Every prayer was said, each song was recited, and her father would even dress up as Elijah the prophet. I try to look back and imagine my grandfather leading the Seder and I see the meticulousness with which he recited the Haggadah. I see him focusing intently on each word, each prayer, and each explanation. I hear him speaking in his calm yet demanding voice to all the guests at the table that God had once again brought us back to Eretz Yisrael, and that hopefully next year we would rejoice in Jerusalem.
At the same my grandfather was reciting those words, my father was in Odessa, secretly attempting to find matzo for a Seder that was illegal. In Soviet Russia, the Seder was an affront to communist ideology. Therefore, any attempt to buy matzo, recite a prayer, or hold a Seder would be punished, sometimes severely. Despite the yearly struggle my father and his family went through every year, they were usually able to find a small amount of matzo. Their Seder, however, was in no way comparable to that of my mother’s. My father, his friends and family, would sit around a table and enjoy a dinner much like any other, except at this one they would eat matzo.
Growing up as a single child to a Russian Jewish immigrant family, I have always felt the pressure to succeed. In a Russian Jewish home, success is often defined as perfection. Though I don’t know much about life in Russia, I can imagine that people were more invested in becoming “perfect” rather than taking a nurturing step-by-step approach towards growth. It seems that Russian culture is primarily concerned with where you stand on the ladder, rather than how many rungs you have climbed.
I got a taste of the marathon lifestyle, where it is easy to forget what matters most. And while I appreciate the drive instilled by my Russian culture, my Jewish identity has been the line in the sand in my life; it keeps me from being distracted from what matters most.
Soon we are going to be celebrating Passover, our exodus from slavery. Growing up, Passover was always just another meal in my house. We had matzo on the table, probably right next to the bread. And until recently, I never really understood that the holiday offered us a wonderful opportunity to spend time with our families. Given that my grandfather is a Holocaust survivor, and unfortunately was always made to feel inferior because of his religion, my family still feels that we are Jewish at the end of the day and it is imperative for us to mark the holiday.