In early November of 1989, my mother and I immigrated from the Soviet Union. Three days after we left, the wall collapsed, bringing to an end the official state entity we were escaping. We left because we were Jewish.
For seven months, we traveled between two worlds. HIAS monitored our progress, from the place we left to the place we would arrive at. During this journey in-between, my mother and I both experienced anti-Semitism, as we had in Russia.
Officially, we were “stateless.” My mother faced her own unique challenges during this time, some of which I know and others that I can’t. But I was happy; I didn’t have to go to school and I was now an adventurer. For those seven months, I got to live without an immediate past or future, measuring the world by all the possibilities before me, toying with them like a boy in a sandlot. And in those seven months, I became the beneficiary of a very unique condition in this world, that of the unaffiliated.
Before me was America, or Israel, or Australia, or Italy, all the places we could end up. Ultimately, we landed in South Florida, which is a sort of Israel in America – hot, dry, designed as a maze of settlements whose fences communicate some impending danger outside. And I went through all the performance of American Jewishness: Bar Mitzvah, Jewish Middle School, Maccabi Games, summer camp, and the passing around of Snoop Dogg cd’s as if they were some secret reinterpretation of the Torah.
And yet, I cannot say that I had ever really felt Jewish as a thing rising out of my experiences in the Soviet Union, same as I never felt Jewish in my American performance of it.
The place within me where I feel this Jewishness, like a violin in a caravan along a long road, is in the time spent in-between possibilities, and from conversation with the unlived ghosts of those unchosen selves.
When I finally returned to Russia in 2008, I had this eerie sense of walking alongside another self, the one who had stayed, the one who never lost his language and national culture and family. I began a conversation with this unlived self, first weighing the pros and cons of being Russian or American, negotiating the difference of opinion and conditioning and personality between the one who stayed and the one who fled.
I can see him even now, more confident than me, maybe a little less considerate of the perspective of others, more naturally at ease. He’s got a little machismo, his feet solid on the ground, maybe with shorter hair and a thick mustache as an ironic homage to the eighties. I do not envy him. But I am curious about the differences between us: How can one human have the potential for both of these outcomes?
Similarly, is there a conversation between me and my unlived Israeli-self. Part of the mythology of my family’s story is that had my mother and I received our permission to leave the USSR one day later, we would have had to go to Israel. My mother feared this; as a slightly neurotic and overprotective single mother, she feared me being conscripted. When I almost joined the marines in my late teens, she nearly lost her mind, and recruited my father who had stayed in Russia and whom I had had no communication with for ten years, to convince me not to join.
Nevertheless, some of my family who left Russia after us did go to Israel. My mother’s younger sister regularly reaches out to tell me to visit, to meet my cousins, to come do a reading, to see my “homeland”, as she calls it. Her disposition is similar to my mother’s, artsy and a little wild, both of them still craving the uninterrupted love of their father, an actor who passed away over twenty years ago. It was he who had changed our last name from something Jewish to something more Soviet, “more Lenin-like”, so that he could act. Irony is the great currency of my family and its chief inheritance, as my grandfather, now with the “more Lenin-like” last name, spent the final twenty years of his life working for the Shalom Theater in Moscow.
What fascinates me so much about my aunt, within the context of our family’s humanist disposition, is her Zionism. I’m not surprised by it; Israel is her home. On a daily level, she confronts fears that are only conceptual to me. And yet I am quite certain that had she come here instead, she, too, would have ended up confronting this conversation with her unlived ghosts, which I think would have become for her, as they have for me and my mother, the locus of her Jewishness.
I am, in fact, for all intents and purposes, Jewish. My birth certificate says so under “nationality.” The joke is that the Soviet Union did this so that we could be easily rounded up if need be, and often we were. During the Doctor’s Plot, my great-grandfather, who was assistant secretary of agriculture at the time, helped secure visas for Jews seeking escape, before he himself was arrested in 1952. So there is something in my cultural DNA that recognizes the necessity of Israel. For a people who had been cast out of countless geographies, culminating in the mass engineering of the Holocaust, to have a state that is always open and sworn to protect them, is like the assurance of a well in the dessert – the source of reprieve, a beacon communicating a future, hope – a destination.
I can imagine my unlived Israeli-self, militarily trained, roots firmly weaved into the culture of the land, sworn to protect that patch of home by any means necessary.
And I can imagine my American-self walking along with that ghost too in conversation. What would my American-self say to that ghost?
Last week I attended the Hannah Arendt Center Conference at Bard College, the title of which was “Racism and Antisemitism.” Much of the performance of that conference has already been documented in an earlier oped in the Forward and series of letters to the editor over the past 10 days. In short, an all Jewish panel on anti-Semitism featuring Ruth Wisse, a staunch Zionist, was protested by the Bard student group “Students for Justice in Palestine,” and the next day Batya Ungar-Sargon, a moderator for that panel, read an emotionally potent letter and left the conference in protest.
Opinion | What The Bard Panel On Anti-Semitism Taught Me About My Own Jewishness
All of my affiliations met within this single event. I am an associate fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center and felt for Roger Berkowitz and the other organizers of the conference. Over the years Professor Berkowitz has often faced reactive backlash against his willingness to support the protection of a space where those in disagreement can meet, including those protesting, in scholarship and in body.
The Hannah Arendt Center continues to be a genuinely rare platform that encourages dialogue among difference, a type of space that is going out of vogue in today’s reactionary climate.
I am also a former student at Bard, and so I felt for the students. I was ticked off by their protest, in part because it feels more like theater than content to me. And yet, I couldn’t help but to imagine their predicament as it appears to be harder to remain unaffiliated today than it was when I was a student, as now they face an uncommon mandate to pick a side in any debate immediately or face being “canceled” by their peer group.
To remain on the margins is often shameful today, and nuance does not organize rallies. They see suffering and they want to move against it, with a limited handbook of tactics at their disposal. But I also felt for the speakers on that panel. I could see Ungar-Sargon felt betrayed by her affiliated group of scholars and intellectuals, which for many Jews hits at the core of a nearly primordial trauma, that no matter how much we may engender ourselves to a group, there may come a time that when faced with the choice to stand with or abstain they will remain silent.
That’s why Israel is there, I guess. It is the place where, wrong or right, Jews stand together.
As one who feels unaffiliated, I stand, in part, with everyone in this conversation, which sort of leaves me in an awkward half chair pose – hips tight, knees shaking, and not quite sure what to do with my arms. The hardest perspective to see is Ruth Wisse, and yet I’m going say it’s there, too, the entry point being trauma itself. She is a Holocaust survivor, the only one to take the stage at the conference. I agree with nothing she said. In fact, I find most of her positions abominable. And yet, of course she is so unapologetically married to those positions as she is a direct bridge, memory embodied, to a genocidal event.
I don’t think the students who protested her can imagine that. I don’t think we have the practices for that today. And if they could, I don’t necessarily think they would have chosen not to protest, though maybe they would have chosen a different form.
I cannot know. But I am certain that they would have taken to the protest with them a heavier burden of consideration, a greater and more complicated slice of life and its ever shifting picture, for they stood with solidarity for the trauma of the Palestinian people, but I am not sure they carried to the stage with them the trauma of a Holocaust survivor as well. And herein lies the whole issue for me: the responsibility of the social justice actor.
Today more than ever, we are talking about “trauma,” a concept that was once contained to the field of individual psychology, which has emerged in relationship to groups, scholarship, our histories, and global politics. It is mined with trigger points, but offers opportunities as well.
The third participant on the panel was Shany Mor. During the panel, he raised the key question, which I paraphrase here: “Why is there such a high standard for Jews?”
This question sticks with me more than anything else that happened there, because it is at the center of the conversation of my Jewish identity and my relationship to Israel.
As an immigrant in America today, I feel a natural allyship with all other fleeing parties. This is because I know what it is like to flee, and what it is like to meet the bully of assimilation. I have walked across the disempowerment of being from “there” to the power of being one who is “here,” and thus, I meet all new arrivals with the map of that journey.
The “standard,” when you have walked across, is to hold both perspectives, the empowered and the disempowered. It may seem like a “high standard,” as Mor put it, but I see it as wide instead, because it simply states that once I have seen something I cannot unsee it.
Similarly, the Jewish people had undergone the most recent and globally visible genocide in history. There have been other genocides since, but the Holocaust is one of those rare events upon which history pivots. And having gone through this, and having come into a position of relative world power, as a full participant upon the world stage, we choose, and demonstrate, how healing may happen. Or we can, as soon as we recognize that we have a choice.
We faced a terrible event, traumatic down to the blood, branded onto our bones. You would think that we would find a way to be a beacon of how to heal that trauma. Psychologically, that is where I sense much of the anger at Israel comes from. We want so badly to have the hope of healing, to have an example not only of the disempowered finding power, but of them using that power to offer up to the world another way. So many of us want Israel to choose to represent that hope.
That is the “standard,” and the gap terrifies us, as Jews and as others witnessing, because we want to believe there is another way. And so much of the world is waiting, eager to see some group that has experienced such visible trauma and transform it into hope in the desert, into a recipe for medicine. Whether we find it sad or empowering, the fact is that it is up to the traumatized to find another way, for we are the ones who know the map.
Something else I saw at the conference: there was much indignation in other arenas as well. There were a number of panelists who disliked each other. The irony is that those who were indignant were indignant most against exactly those with whom they share the most commonalities. It leads me to observe that we do not become indignant with those who are far from us, our abstract neighbor. To the abstract we offer a dry anger, incapable of being carried great distance without withering away.
No, indignation, the wet heat that threatens contamination and breaks the barriers of skin, humanist laurels, and rational minds, is reserved for those we love, or want to love. It is as if the anger is at the space between us and at the tragedy of the effort it would take to travel across that space. For anger, always, simply covers something else – the desire for connection and belonging. And until we recognize this activity within us, until we can sit with our ghosts, be they unlived or those of our forefathers, we will continue to be left exposed to the manipulations of authoritarianism, totalitarianism, nationalism, and those who seek might above harmony.
What would I say to my unlived Israeli ghost were I to walk beside him? Same thing I said to the Russian one: “Let’s continue this conversation, for you, too, belong with me.” Because it is in this conversation between my unlived selves that I find who I am, and I find my Jewish identity, as I walk next to the ghosts of my forefathers; as I walk next of my unlived selves, always in company wherever I may be across the desert of life.
Nikita Nelin is a 2019 Associate Fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center, a member of the Southern Collective Experience, and a freelance writer currently at work on a memoir exploring immigration and Jewish identity.