The Russian-Jewish Manifesto


We were all asked to write the one adjective that described who we are. Or rather, what our Jewish identity is. Or even even better: who we are as Jews. A gaggle of hormone-ridden Jewish teenagers from across the globe wrote witty responses like "human," "alive," and "curious."

Boris, my best friend, looked over my shoulder to see what I was writing. A 16-year-old Muscovite who never failed to make me laugh, he whispered that on the count of three, we would both scribble our adjectives on the already crowded paper.

I wrote "Russian-Jew." (I cheated because I used a hyphen.) He wrote "Jewish."

There we were: a first-generation American and a born-and-bred Russian. Yet, it was the American who identified as the Russian Jew, and the Russian Jew who identified as the Jew.

Was something wrong?

Russian Jews, particularly their children, have been a point of fascination for the Jewish community at large. (It's even gotten to the point where there are classes on "How to Teach Russian-Jewish Students." I've seen this.) Perhaps because my brother and I wouldn't have names like Leora and Vladislav (name changed), or be alive in the first place, were it not for that very community's efforts. And to them we owe a great debt. Seriously guys, thanks. But I've always felt a certain inexplicable mystique surrounding our traditions and lifestyle.

About 70% of American Jews vote Democrat-- I don't know what you Canadians do-- while between 60% and 70% of Russian Jews vote Republican. (This extends beyond Brighton Beach, mind you.) Around the December holiday season, we put up our New Year's Trees. (They ARE NOT CHRISTMAS TREES. My feelings about them are for another post altogether.) We send our children to Hebrew school on Saturdays and to Russian school on Sundays.

In fact, children of Russian Jews, in my experience, are likely to be far more proficient in Russian than children of many other Jewish immigrants. Then again, I say this because the reason behind this proficiency may be generational.

My father, child of a Polish immigrants, never learned Yiddish, German or Polish from his father. But that was the age of much more assimilation. It wasn't "in" to teach your kids your mother tongue, at least as much as it is now. Names were changed, and anti-Semitism was much more overt. (The neighborhood where my father lives did not accept Jews until the seventies.) We tried not to seem obviously Jewish, and, for the most part, we succeeded.

But screw the Levittowns and welcome the individuality! Be yourself! Down with mashed potatoes and up with tacos, quiche and Pad Thai! Remember the deer eyes of Avital Sharansky? (Neither do I.) But maybe you were the student in Yiddish school who spoke to a Refusenik on the phone? (My father was.) Did you have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah twin? (I hope you did.)

Well, we're here now. And so are their kids. We've infiltrated, and we are the Russian Jews. A few of us came before, fed with apple cake and greeted with smiles and hushed whispers of "are you... erm... a Refusenik?" Most of us came in the nineties. And we assimilated in a different way: we were proud of what made us different.

I am hauntingly brought back to the Russian who called himself Jewish and the (proud) American who called herself Russian-Jewish. Through a very unscientific experiment, this result repeated itself. The children of Russian-Jewish immigrants overwhelmingly identified as Russian Jews, while actual Russian Jews called themselves Jewish.

What the heck?

But then I realized-- in the Soviet Union, it was difficult to be both Russian and Jewish. Actually, it was pretty impossible. You were one or the other (or a whole host of other ethnicities.) But if you were Jewish, that was in your passport, on all your documents, written on your face. It was probably in your last name, too. You were Jewish-- ah, but were you Russian?

So, when my mother's generation came to America, all of its members wanted to give their children all that they didn't have-- better opportunities, education, lives, etc.... and the ability to be Russian.

And we took that opportunity, dammit. We are the children of your Bar/Bat mitzvah twins and of the Refusenik you spoke with on the phone. We have New Years trees and we eat strange food. We vote Republican and we don't know quite how to use articles in a sentence. But we bring Mila Kunis, and we're not communists. (Maybe THAT's the adjective I should have written.)

Some people (primarily children of earlier waves of Jewish immigration, e.g. my father) recoil when I say I'm a Russian Jew. I mean, my dad doesn't call himself a Polish Jew.

But I've always been both, and I've tried to explain. I really have. I've just tried to embrace what those before me could not have. My being a Russian Jew does not negate my being Jewish or my speaking Hebrew or English or being a proud American. It just means I'm a Russian Jew.