‘Russian’ Immigrants, In Search of a Communal Identity

By Leah Moses

Published August 08, 2003, issue of August 08, 2003.
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In Russia we were called “Zhids.” Here in America we are called “Russians.”

Why is it that no one, including ourselves, seems to be calling us what we are: Jews?

At the first annual “Russian Heritage Week,” held in June in New York with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s blessing, the best and brightest of our community were paraded around as modern-day immigrant success stories. No longer the stereotypes of petty businessmen from Brighton Beach, brutal mobsters and gorgeous blondes of easy virtue, the festival showcased our community of educated, intelligent, industrious people who have succeeded in a broad variety of fields.

To judge by the heritage-week festivities, our community has finally made it in America. We were being officially baptized as Russian — not Russian-speaking, not Russian-language; even the quotation marks around “Russian” were being removed.

The only problem is, that is not who we are.

The so-called Russians here in America are actually Jewish refugees from 15 former Soviet republics, among them Georgian, Bukharian and Mountain Jews, who do not consider Russian their native language. The Ukrainian, Georgian, Azerbaijani and other “brotherly Soviet” people who have made it to America, with or without Jewish families, are similarly uneager to find themselves once again under the watchful eye of Big Brother Russia.

Of course, ethnic Russians have come to America along with Jews, but Jews still constitute the overwhelming majority of our community. Moreover, there is a real Russian community in America — descendants of people who immigrated after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, or after World War II. These Russians probably do not have the slightest idea about the heritage week held in “their” honor.

Now, we have no need or interest to go out of our way to separate ourselves from non-Jewish Russians living here in America, our former Soviet “brothers” and “sisters.” Nevertheless, we did not come here to join them in a state within a state, a kind of mini-Soviet Union on American soil.

Our goal has always been to join a different group: American Jewry.

Soviet Jews were not ethnic Russians that believed in Judaism, but rather ethnic Jews whose religious and cultural roots were ripped up by an anti-religious, antisemitic empire. Here in America we have tried to face and fight the consequences of that forced assimilation by attempting to revive our national pride and reclaim our Jewish heritage.

We all remember how offended we felt during the early years of immigration, when people called us “Russians” — by American Jews, in order to distinguish us from Polish, German, Iraqi and other fellow Jews; by American gentiles, because Russian was the common conventional term for all Soviet peoples.

Now, with the annual “Russian Heritage Week” — not to mention a planned annual parade akin to those held by other nationalities — a conventional term has become the official name for our community. In the process, we have been transformed from Jewish refugees who were forced to flee oppressive Russia into Russia’s cultural ambassadors here in America.

This sad metamorphosis was on display for the whole city to see at a heritage-week reception held at the mayor’s Gracie Mansion residence, where VIPs were greeted by Jewish girls in Russian costume, Russian caviar and vodka were served, and the Russian consul was the life of the party.

Perhaps most disturbing is the rush by Jews who fled forced assimilation in Russia to assimilate once again into Russian culture, this time here in America. Why are we so eager to take on a name that we associate with oppression as much as African Americans associate the term “Negro” with slavery?

The table talk in our community has yielded numerous reasons for the rush to assimilate. A popular conspiracy theory has it that Kremlin emissaries are methodically and cunningly transforming us into a powerful Russian lobby. The idea of a cultural vacuum has also gained currency, arguing that Stalin’s savage campaign against Jewish intellectuals resulted in Soviet Jewry’s involuntary attachment to the domineering Russian culture.

The only theory that matters, though, is the one of America as the land of opportunity. With opportunity, however, comes responsibility.

The responsibility for creating a communal identity is ours and ours alone. We need to be asking ourselves what kind of life we, Jews from the former Soviet Union, want here in our new home.

We can start by finding a more appropriate name for our community.

Leah Moses is a staff writer for the Russian-language Forward.

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