Lately I’ve caught my parents exchanging a certain look — some kind of amused smile, a mixture of surprise and disbelief. Whenever I let slip a reference to an anecdote about Odessan Jews or to a Soviet comedy film or to a Pushkin fairy tale — whatever they fed me throughout my childhood — they glance at each other: “How does the child know this, too? Did we really teach her this?”
Mine is the typical story of first-generation Americans: Child-of-immigrants rejects memory of Old Country, then slowly returns to embrace heritage and writes nostalgic short stories about said past from afar. Though it’s been 30 years since my parents came as teens from the Soviet Union, 11 years before I was born in New Jersey, there are random moments in which I feel all-too-Russian. My shopping lists and menus are, reflexively, scribbled in a cursive cyrillic; I’ve stopped cheating with the English translations, and now turn to the original Pasternaks and Rybakovs. In my first post-college apartment, I find myself trying to create a home out of the little things I grew up seeing in my grandparents’ homes: the Ukrainian wool blankets, vibrant aprons, silk house robes, blue and white porcelain.
Yet as our nation’s election fever mounts, I am suddenly reminded of my own indisputable Americanness, made all the starker when facing the Soviet mentalities that accompany my books and crystal vases.
As always, the table conversations among family members are heavily political. I grew up listening to the adults engage in what seemed then like heated debate, but what I realize now were just normal conversations. My earliest memories begin with harsh criticisms of Bill Clinton, followed by respectful nods and praises when mentioning George W. Bush, and then outrage over anything Barack Obama. My family is similar to the rest of the Russian Jewish community, which numbers 220,000 in the New York area alone (according to UJA-Federation of New York’s 2012 census) and is known for its overwhelmingly conservative vote. A study conducted by the American Jewish Committee showed that 63% of Russian Jews supported John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, compared with 11% supporting Obama. In drastic contrast to the rest of the secular Jewish community in the New York area, Russian Jews have created a consistently right-wing voting bloc.
And so we, the American-born children, have grown accustomed to the hard-line views. At the summer dacha in the Catskills, relatives exchange conspiracy theories and analyze our president’s secret Kenyan birthplace. “Obama! On zhe nye Amerikanetz!” they declare. He’s not even American. His politics smack of communism (“and we know what that sounds like, we know”). Having grown up behind the Iron Curtain in a society that was relatively homogenous, Russian Jews are notoriously wary of “the other,” rarely having encountered it — thus the president’s foreign skin color poses yet another reason for apprehension. And the president’s cold treatment of Israel is probably most upsetting for a community that places Israel as central to its Jewish identity. “These naive Americans liberals, they don’t know how to deal with Iran,” relatives tell me. “They keep sweet-talking to our enemies; as if sweet-talking ever helped the Jews. Keep talking yourselves into the grave; that’s all you’re doing.”
Over tea, friends and neighbors sigh and shake their heads. “We need a strong leader,” they lament, and then proceed to reminisce about the Reagan America they first arrived in.
Sometimes we nod in response, and often we bite our tongues. My generation of immigrants’ children seeks its own understanding of a political identity — partly because we’re exhausted from the past, but also perhaps because this is how we define becoming American. We attempt to reject their fears and unapologetic temperaments, and we try to move past whatever paranoia they’ve brought here, in order to reinvent ourselves. When discussing policy, we struggle to stay quietly respectful of our elders, yet we’re plagued with whispering doubts: Have we become just as xenophobic and extreme as our oppressors were in the Old Country? Are we now at fault for the very same prejudices that victimized us there — and does that mean we’ve been defeated? And why must everything, for the older generations, be in such drastic extremes? Where is moderation for this Old World intelligentsia?
As students, it seemed to us that the shores of liberalism gleamed with promise: If we’d only subscribe to the political views of liberal American Jews, we’d become fully American, real New Yorkers, eloquent intellectuals. By stripping away our hawkishness, we’d receive all the luxuries of American living. We’d stop constantly looking over our shoulder like Diaspora Jews; we’d gain new and gentle sensitivities; we’d learn to wear the Star of David without anxiety, and our jokes would no longer be laced with morbid irony: “Children, don’t be too loud, the neighbors will hear and they’ll make a pogrom.” And perhaps the most precious of luxuries: Once we became fully American, our hot-bloodedness would cool down.
“You don’t understand,” our elders tell us.
But we are the enlightened ones, we insist proudly. With their engineering institutes and suspicious faces, their rusted photographs of trips to the Caucasus and their Moscow satellite television — what do they really know of politics in this country? So they read Marx in their youth, but surely they have not read Machiavelli, Locke and Kant, too; surely they have not traveled and written as freely as we do today.
“And what do you know about suffering?” they ask, looking at us with weary eyes. “What do you know about poverty, illness, hatred, oppression, ah?” They don’t need to recount to us their experiences. We know each story — every communal flat and every rations line and every bread shortage, each time someone didn’t get into university simply because he had the wrong nationality. We already know each nameless face that disappeared into a Ukrainian ravine or Siberian gulag, each evening fiddling with radio dials to hear the Voice of America, each breathless day waiting for a visa. No matter how irrational their views may seem to us, we still have a hard time denying their validity — in light of every story they have told us, every suitcase full of war medals and photographs, woolen blankets and carefully-wrapped porcelain.
And even when we nod politely and offer percentages, philosophy, rational analysis, they still don’t hear us: Our soft American accents betray us.
Avital Chizhik has written for The New York Times, Tablet and Haaretz.