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Russian Jews have been preparing for this crisis our whole lives

It’s hard to resist employing the kind of cynical Jewish humor that Russian-speaking Jews know so well when speaking with Americans. If you’re asked a question you don’t want to answer, well, be a clever Jew and respond back with your own question.

For Russian Jews, whether they reside in Moscow, Ashkelon, Berlin, or Minneapolis there is one thing they can be sure of: hard times will come.

Alex Zeldin

I successfully resisted the urge when my editor posed to me the question: How will COVID-19 change the Russian-Jewish community? I really wanted to ask a question in response: What Russian-Jewish community? But the honest answer is, COVID-19 won’t change Russian Jews. Without coordinating with each other, most Russian Jews have unknowingly been preparing for COVID-19 their entire lives.

To get a sense of what I mean, it’s important to first understand who we’re talking about. After all, there is no communal structure to speak of for Russian Jews in America or other places where they fled to. There is no Russian Jewish Rabbinic Assembly, Union of Russian Jewish Congregations of America, or Russian Jewish federation (unless you count UJA’s Russian division or a Russia-based Jewish organization that, for better or worse, has good Kremlin access).

Advocacy groups that fight for Russian Jews do so for broader reasons. Chief rabbis, where they exist, are not authority figures that most Russian Jews, most of whom are aggressively secular, would abide by anyway.

How even to define Russians Jews? Are we Jews from former Soviet Republics? Jews who speak Russian? Where does that leave Bukharian Jews, who also fled from the Soviet Union, but as a community are far more literate in Judaism and communally cohesive than their Ashkenazi brethren?

And surely we would include among Russian Jews a Jew born to Russian-speaking parents in Brighton, Frankfurt, or Haifa. They may not have waited in lines for food due to deficit, or experienced being denied a place at a university for being a Zhid, or remember the siege of Leningrad, but they grew up on pelmeni, the finest Italian music from the 1970s at Russian dance halls, and memorizing Pushkin’s poetry.

In what may be a familiar concept for Jewish historians, Russian Jews, wherever they went, carried their cultural outlook with them.

And that cultural outlook is serving Russian Jews well in the face of a pandemic. Most Russian Jews I know in the tri-state area, even enthusiastic Trump supporters, began stocking up food and medicine in late February. Raised to be skeptical of authorities claiming to look out for us and keenly aware of what life without the essentials is like, we Russian Jews prepared for the worst.

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For Russian Jews, whether they reside in Moscow, Ashkelon, Berlin, or Minneapolis, there is one thing they can be sure of: hard times will come. Rely on what you can be sure of in this world.

Alex Zeldin is a contributing columnist for the Forward. His work has been featured in Tablet Magazine and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @JewishWonk.


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