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As Russian Jews, We Are Characters in Someone Else’s Story

As far back as I can remember, I knew that I had to hide everything about my life from my friends at school. Kids absorb secrecy around class and money like sponges, and for a small child who barely paid attention to what we were learning in school, I was amazingly sentient of what I was and wasn’t supposed to reveal.

I was one of the few kids in my Orthodox Jewish day school in St. Louis, Missouri, who was from a recently arrived Russian family, which meant that I wasn’t Orthodox and my family hardly knew what it meant to be Jewish. My mom put me in the preschool there within weeks of our landing in America in 1996; I was among the hundreds of thousands of Soviet and post-Soviet Jews who were allowed to come to the U.S. because of the lobbying efforts of the organized Jewish community. We made up a respectable share of American Jewry, but in that school, growing up among affluent fourth- and fifth-generation American Jews, my overriding sense was that I was alone. Russians had no real place in the American Jewish story other than as refugees who had just come from somewhere very bad, and thus we were in a position to be reformed and taught to do Judaism properly. We were useful to American Judaism, and to Orthodoxy especially. 

The author with her mother, 1993, Babruysk, Belarus.

The author with her mother, 1993, Babruysk, Belarus. Image by Marina Bolotnikova

My mother decided that I would go to religious school because the public schools in St. Louis had been ruined by racial segregation and post-war white flight. We couldn’t afford to live in the neighborhoods with good schools, and private Orthodox schools, out of a sense of Jewish obligation, gave scholarships to families who couldn’t pay tuition. My mom was 36, too old to acquire English perfectly, and a single mother who had also brought her elderly parents to the U.S. Many immigrants quickly climb the economic ladder, but under those circumstances, she could not. Orthodox Jewish school was her way of making sure I’d be in a good environment. Jewishness, for her and so many immigrants of her generation, was little besides a negative identifier, something that limited her opportunities in the Soviet Union but never provided her a community or a sense of belonging. Russian-Jewish culture had been largely destroyed after World War II—so, in my mother’s mind, the school also represented a way of giving me something she could never have. 

But adults can forget that putting a child in a radically new context will change them, that I couldn’t merely be dropped into an Orthodox community without wondering why I wasn’t like everyone else. Most of my classmates lived near one another in one of two major St. Louis neighborhoods within walking distance of an Orthodox shul. Many of the families could afford to live on one income, so the mothers could stay at home to care for four, five, six, or more children. They spent Shabbats and holidays together, and often I would be invited to participate in this, too. School was tightly intertwined with Jewish life in the home. Every fall, we went Sukkah hopping at my classmates’ homes and ate snacks in the cool air of each of the earthy, brightly decorated huts. My home was conspicuously missing from each year’s field trip because we never had a Sukkah—my mother didn’t have a clue what any of that was about, and we didn’t have the property to build one anyway. 

The author with her mother

The author with her mother in St. Louis. Image by Marina Bolotnikova

Young children want nothing but to conform, and although I was rebellious and hated authority, I couldn’t bear to not be normal. I thought my life would be over if my friends knew that I wasn’t observant like them or that I didn’t live in a big, comfortable suburban house, so I would respond to their questions about my home life vaguely, making strange allusions to ways in which my mom and I were observing the chagim. Secrecy became my norm. It was the only way that it made sense to me to go through life, because being different as a child is doubly painful when your nonconformity is a matter of whether or not you’re a good Jew, a matter of your soul (it didn’t help that, as any Russian-speaking Jew knows, the Hebrew word for an evil person, rashá, is roughly homophonous with Russia, which became a running joke at probably every Jewish day school in the country).

Of course, details of my life still slipped through in various ways, and all of the adults knew. When I was turning twelve, the mother of a friend called me with the idea of planning and hosting a Bat Mitzvah for me at their house. The offer was so generous, and therefore so embarrassing, that I politely declined. Another time, at 13, I won my school’s Geography Bee, the national competition for supreme middle school nerds, and took an additional test that qualified me for the state-level Bee. My mom and social studies teacher and I were to travel for the competition, and the teacher (who wasn’t Jewish) mentioned that we would need to make accommodations to be able to observe Shabbat while traveling. I was so panicked by the thought of revealing that, actually, we didn’t keep Shabbat, that I didn’t go to the competition at all. I withdrew, to the complete horror of my mom. 

The author in yeshiva day school

The author in yeshiva day school Image by Marina Bolotnikova

As I came to understand much later, the Orthodox community’s largesse toward Russian immigrants wasn’t a true effort at integration so much as a form of charity. The teachers, rabbis, and other adults in the room weren’t used to dealing with difference. Once, in sixth grade, a Judaic studies teacher, Mrs. W. asked me whether my mom spoke Yiddish. I was pretty sure she didn’t, but I was interested in the question, so I asked. My mom confirmed that she doesn’t, and neither do her parents (they were part of the early wave of Jews who lost the language to urbanization and Russification). “I think she does,” Mrs. W. replied to me suspiciously. It felt strange that she really seemed to think I was lying about something both so small and so personal. My natural rebelliousness, combined with her skepticism of children from irreligious families, made it easy for her to doubt me. I was used to being distrusted and scolded, but that moment also meant something else. To the American Jewish world eager to rehabilitate us, Russian immigrants represented a precious, enduring connection to the eastern European Jewish past. We were characters in someone else’s story. If we didn’t fit the narrative that existed about us, our benefactors didn’t know what to make of us.  

That story reminds me of a recent talk by Masha Gessen about the modern immigrant experience. How does a person show that she deserves the rights she is to be given as a refugee? Immigration is a process of making ourselves understandable to our hosts, of living out a narrative that they believe makes us virtuous, deserving, capable of becoming part of their communities. “We try to explain who we were in an entirely different context, in an entirely different place, an entirely different time,” Gessen said. “One might say that we lie. Because that story is not translatable into this story. It is always a fiction.” What happens, after all, when we are unable to play the part that’s expected of us?

My life now is radically unlike what it was then. I went to a secular high school, then to Harvard, and while many of my close friends are Jewish, few are observant.

Yet my memory of life through eighth grade has shaped me in profound and sometimes contradictory ways. I’m hardly the first Russian-American Jew to say that growing up in an American Jewish community made me feel inherently, cosmically bad and dirty, a feeling that still surfaces in the most unexpected contexts.

But I also have the warmest memories of the people I grew up with: One friend, whose father was a rabbi, always had me stay with her during Pesach. There were seven unruly siblings, and their modest home was always messy, in a way that made me feel they had better things to care about than maintaining an immaculate house. I sat through their Seders and songs and the story of the exodus from Egypt, which was the most thrilling thing in the world to me. These experiences have made it possible for me to see a world beyond the secular elite bubble I live in, where everyone is obsessed with their achievements and status and productivity; it still offers me a joyful, less punishing vision of human life.  

I think my mom hoped I would gain something like this when she put me in Jewish school. She couldn’t have imagined the strange tangle of religious, economic, and geopolitical tensions that I would encounter there, and because she always made sure I was in environments where my peers had more than me, I now easily pass for someone who grew up upper-middle class. I have the education, worldview, hobbies, and desires, and all this makes it persistently difficult to talk about my real class background. White American Jews are read as wealthy, an image that doesn’t necessarily map onto the immigrant experience. Those who aren’t don’t have an easy way to explain themselves. 

A while ago, I was in the running for a job I really wanted. The company gives preference to candidates from backgrounds underrepresented in journalism, and their questionnaire asked me about my race, gender, sexuality, veteran status, and disability status. Because America doesn’t think of itself as stratified by class, corporate diversity programs don’t ask or care about it—American business depends on pretending that inequality is driven by merit. After my interview, it struck me that I really wished I had a way of talking about class and the deprivation I experienced as a child, of escaping the narrative I knew my interviewer had subconsciously written about me. 

I hadn’t realized until it was too late that I was still hiding in the secrecy I internalized as a child. Much as I never had the words to explain myself to my Orthodox school peers, secrecy prevented me from surfacing my story many years later, even to myself. It pushes the most important experiences of life out of consciousness.

Class secrecy is both a cause and effect of our national narrative of class denial; the two reinforce one another. And as I learned through ten years of yeshiva day school, false narratives are no accident. They are there to conceal what the powerful don’t want to see. 

Marina Bolotnikova is a Boston-based journalist and editor for Harvard Magazine.

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