Posts tagged Jewish authenticity.

The Russian-Jewish club, I imagined, would provide an environment that would foster the complex, and sometimes contradictory, Judaism of Russian-Jewish students. I wanted to create a meeting place for students like myself to explore the Jewish side of our heritage, while still maintaining our ties to Russian traditions. My intention was that students might feel a closer connection to Judaism by realizing the unique space they occupy on the Jewish spectrum.

[…] Because of the varied geopolitical backgrounds of the students involved, the organization strives to provide a space in which we are all able to explore what it means to be Jewish as children of Soviet refugees, in all of its complexity. In doing so, we’ve discovered a shared question, raised consistently as we’ve considered our Jewish identities: does our neglect of many traditional Jewish practices make us “bad Jews”? This has been a question I, myself, have constantly entertained.

Jonathan Levin, “First Generation Soviet-Jewry Descendants: Bad Jews?" (The Nation)

(via Soviet Samovar)

“In Russia,” Sirotin says sadly, “I was told I cannot be Russian because I have a Jewish face. Here, the Jews say, ‘Can these be Jews? They’re so Russian!’ What does it mean to be a Jew without feeling for the religion that is a whole national-spiritual-ethical way of living? I can’t explain it. But I feel Jewishness in my essence, under my thoughts. I feel it in my heart. So now we are trying to find a way to be. It was very difficult to be a Jew in Russia. But it is not easy to be a Russian Jew in America.”

More than a few of the new immigrants were outraged that those who had lived comfortably in the United States for much of this time would dare to tell them that they were not Jews. Indeed, surveys of Soviet immigrants in the United States show that a large majority strongly identify as Jews, far more strongly than do most American-born Jews.

Annelise Orleck, The Soviet Jewish Americans (via sovietjewry)

With such a lukewarm response from the Soviets [to observant Jews’ attempts to teach and outreach to them], tempers flared among older Brighton immigrants. […] Their resentment was openly expressed. You could hear it on the streets, on the boardwalk, in the synagogues, in the stores: “Why did we fight to bring them here? Why did they want to come here? They’re not even Jews. They don’t want to be Jews.” The Soviets irked Brighton residents for a host of reasons, but the oldtimers’ anger often took the form of a single rebuff: The newcomers were not really Jews.

Some strongly Jewish-identified members of the immigrant community tried to mediate. Alexander Sirotin formed the Jewish Union of Russian Immigrants to sponsor activities with a Jewish theme among the new arrivals. Through the 1980s he was host of “Gorizont” (Horizon), a Russian-language radio show on the Lyubavitch Hasidic radio network. The message of Sirotin and other Jewish-identified community leaders in Brighton was: Let the Soviet immigrants nourish their Jewish identities in their own ways, in their own time. As examples, he pointed to an emigre Yiddish theatre troupe and to gatherings of senior citizens at which Yiddish songs and poems were sung and recited by recent Soviet immigrants.

By contrast, many American Jewish attempts at outreach were perceived by newcomers as somehow threatening, no matter how well intentioned. Several days after he arrived from Moscow in 1974, Victor Rashkovsky awoke to find two young men whom he did not know, and who spoke no Russian, praying and nailing a mezuzah (decorated case containing a holy scoll) to his doorpost: “All I understood was that they wanted to proceed with some ritual they considered to be important.” He thought that he recognized them from a local synagogue and so he let them proceed but he had no idea what they were doing. “Only later did I learn this custom.”

Annelise Orleck, The Soviet Jewish Americans (via sovietjewry)

Russians call me German, Germans call me Russian, Jews call me a Christian, Christians a Jew. Pianists call me a composer, composers call me a pianist. The classicists think me a futurist, and the futurists call me a reactionary. My conclusion is that I am neither fish nor fowl – a pitiful individual.

Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894)

Anton Grigorevich Rubinstein (Russian: Анто́н Григо́рьевич Рубинште́йн) (November 28 1829 – November 20 1894) was a Russian pianist, composer and conductor. As a pianist he ranks amongst the great nineteenth-century keyboard virtuosos. He founded the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, which, together with the Moscow Conservatory founded by his brother Nikolai Rubinstein, were the first music schools of their type in Russia.

Rubinstein was born to Jewish parents in the village of Vikhvatinets in the district of Podolsk, Russia, (now known as Ofatinţi in Transnistria, Republic of Moldova). Before he was 5 years old, his paternal grandfather ordered all members of the Rubinstein family to convert from Judaism to Russian Orthodoxy.

Rubinstein, brought up as a Christian at least in name, lived in a household where three languages were spoken—Yiddish, Russian and German. Much later, when his musical “Russianness” was called into question by musical nationalist Mily Balakirev and others in The Five, Rubinstein might have been thinking of this part of his childhood, among other things, when he wrote [the above quotation] in his notebooks.

Conversion allowed the Rubinsteins to travel freely, something not permitted practicing Jews in Russia at the time. (via Wikipedia)

If the Russians celebrate Christmas, how can they be Jewish? […]

[T]he following morning, [I] called up my friend Yanna, a Russian-born magazine journalist, and referred the question to her. […]

It turns out that while Christmas proper (“Rashdistvo” in Russian) was not sanctioned by Soviet authority, New Years (“Novy God”) was. Citizens of the Soviet Union infused Novy God with the traditional symbols of Russian Christmas: the figures of Grandpa frost (“Diedmoroz”) and his helper or granddaughter Snowflake (“Sniguruchka”), trees and gifts, carols and lights. The national, officially secular holiday was celebrated by all, including Jews.

“God was nonexistent, and anything Soviet was repulsive,” Yanna explained, “so ‘New Years’ was the single most important day of the year, at least as important as one’s birthday. It was a ‘pure’ holiday, clean of religion, of politics and of brainwash.

“For us,” she continued, “this was in fact the only holiday. We were a Jewish family and conscious of our Jewishness, but lacking the most basic knowledge of the history of its people or its traditions. I remember one Passover when we got Matzos from a friend who traveled in from St. Petersburg. We sat on the table full of bread and pork and we ate them without really knowing what they meant. All we knew is that they were Jewish, and they tasted heavenly.

A Christmas Journey Part 11: Granpa Frost & Snowflake (+972 Mag)
Title: Ekh Lyuli Lyuli #3: Assimilation & Authenticity 0 plays

Ekh Lyuli Lyuli #3: Assimilation & Authenticity
Air date: July 19, 2011 - 4pm EST

"In Russia,” Sirotin says sadly, “I was told I cannot be Russian because I have a Jewish face. Here, the Jews say, ‘Can these be Jews? They’re so Russian!’ What does it mean to be a Jew without feeling for the religion that is a whole national-spiritual-ethical way of living? I can’t explain it.

Selections from Annelise Orleck’s book The Soviet Jewish Americans, interspersed with some great music. Readings touch on the history of Soviet-Jewish immigration to the United States; questions of Jewish identity, authenticity, and memory; and the ways in which generational differences have affected and influenced experiences of immigration and assimilation in North America.

*Note: The first few seconds in the above recording are from the show just before.

Music:
"Train Across Ukraine" by Golem
"Dumay!" by The Unternationale
"Immigrant Song" by Amsterdam Klezmer Band
"Di Arbuzn = The Watermelons" by Mikveh
"Borsht Revisited" by Daniel Kahn & the Painted Bird
"How It Ends" by DeVotchKa

Download the podcast.

  October 10, 2011 at 04:33am

Alexander Sirotin sums up the cultural tension that divided Soviet immigrants from other immigrant and native-born American Jews: “Here in America the first concern of the Russian Jew was not religion. Being Jewish had kept them from getting many good things in Russia. They want those things first: good apartments, good jobs, respect, education for their children. But the American Jews offered prayer books, candlesticks, prayer shawls.” When Soviet emigres chose not to accept them, their American neighbours were insulted and often lashed out. “In Russia,” Sirotin says sadly, “I was told I cannot be Russian because I have a Jewish face. Here, the Jews say, ‘Can these be Jews? They’re so Russian!’ What does it mean to be a Jew without feeling for the religion that is a whole national-spiritual-ethical way of living? I can’t explain it. But I feel Jewishness in my essence, under my thoughts. I feel it in my heart. So now we are trying to find a way to be. It was very difficult to be a Jew in Russia. But it is not easy to be a Russian Jew in America.”

More than a few of the new immigrants were outraged that those who had lived comfortably in the United States for much of this time would dare to tell them that they were not Jews. Indeed, surveys of Soviet immigrants in the United States show that a large majority strongly identify as Jews, far more strongly than do most American-born Jews.

Annelise Orleck, The Soviet Jewish Americans
  October 10, 2011 at 04:18am

With such a lukewarm response from the Soviets [to observant Jews’ attempts to teach and outreach to them], tempers flared among older Brighton immigrants. […] Their resentment was openly expressed. You could hear it on the streets, on the boardwalk, in the synagogues, in the stores: “Why did we fight to bring them here? Why did they want to come here? They’re not even Jews. They don’t want to be Jews.” The Soviets irked Brighton residents for a host of reasons, but the oldtimers’ anger often took the form of a single rebuff: The newcomers were not really Jews.

Some strongly Jewish-identified members of the immigrant community tried to mediate. Alexander Sirotin formed the Jewish Union of Russian Immigrants to sponsor activities with a Jewish theme among the new arrivals. Through the 1980s he was host of “Gorizont” (Horizon), a Russian-language radio show on the Lyubavitch Hasidic radio network. The message of Sirotin and other Jewish-identified community leaders in Brighton was: Let the Soviet immigrants nourish their Jewish identities in their own ways, in their own time. As examples, he pointed to an emigre Yiddish theatre troupe and to gatherings of senior citizens at which Yiddish songs and poems were sung and recited by recent Soviet immigrants.

By contrast, many American Jewish attempts at outreach were perceived by newcomers as somehow threatening, no matter how well intentioned. Several days after he arrived from Moscow in 1974, Victor Rashkovsky awoke to find two young men whom he did not know, and who spoke no Russian, praying and nailing a mezuzah (decorated case containing a holy scoll) to his doorpost: “All I understood was that they wanted to proceed with some ritual they considered to be important.” He thought that he recognized them from a local synagogue and so he let them proceed but he had no idea what they were doing. “Only later did I learn this custom.”

Annelise Orleck, The Soviet Jewish Americans
  October 10, 2011 at 04:17am

I was interviewed about my documentary on the Jewish Women's Archive blog! ›

vladislava:

Written by Leora Jackson

I spend a lot of time thinking about Jewish identity: what it means to be Jewish, what kinds of obligations I have because I identify as a Jew (if any), and what kinds of factors moderate or mediate the ways in which Jewishness and Judaism can be understood. Because of this, I really enjoyed watching Vlada Bilyak’s documentary about Jewish identity for young people from the former Soviet Union. Vlada interviews friends, peers, and family, editing her footage to produce a commentary on Jewish authenticity and the present-day negotiations of young Soviet immigrants with dominant North American Jewish themes and practices.

You can check out Vlada’s film in full online (part 1, above, and part 2). I was thrilled to have a chance to talk to her this week about her inspiration for the documentary and what she’s been thinking about since.

Q: What was the original motivation for your film?

Vlada Bilyak (VB): The subject matter of the video was something I’d been thinking about for a little while, that I hadn’t started exploring. I was trying to examine my own Jewish identity as a Soviet Jew who immigrated to Canada from the former Soviet Union as a kid: how my positionality influenced my Jewishness and Jewish identity. I wanted to figure out if the feelings and experiences that I had were unique to me or if there were actual patterns with people my age who had similar backgrounds. It was, in a lot of ways, a very selfish project.

A lot of it was borne out of studying in a course called “Diaspora and Feminisms in a Jewish Context,” studying marginalized Jewish identities within greater Jewish communities. A lot of that course was focused on Jewish women of colour and queer Jews and, while I don’t belong to either of those groups, I identified with the feeling of marginalization within dominant Jewish culture.

Q: And do you think that you found patterns?

VB: I definitely think that I did. I feel really good about having had the opportunity to talk to people and breathe a sigh of relief at hearing others say things that had been on my mind. There were obviously lots of differences, too. There were differences in where that identity has taken people. Some people completely rejected Judaism for themselves, having grown up with Jewish practice, observance, and actual organized Judaism not being a part of their lives. They are totally fine with their completely secular lives and identities. Others swung the other way. One person was ba’al teshuvah, which made her parents really uncomfortable. I think I fit somewhere in between those two. I think that my connection with Judaism now, and the ways that I think of myself as a Jew and am interested in Jewishness for myself are influenced by my identity as a Soviet Jew, and the way that I grew up and the way that my family interacted with Jews.

Q: Where are you now in terms of what it means to be a Jew, or to be authentically Jewish?

VB: Looking back on the video, and especially things my mom says in the video – my mom plays an interesting role – completely unintentionally, by the way, she plays a contrast. I think she inadvertently did this, it’s not explicitly part of her own politics, but she identified how classist the superficial markers of Jewish identity that I associated with Jewish authenticity were. When she talks about putting on a pair of sweatpants and you’re Jewish, sending your kids to camp and you’re Jewish – well, not everybody can do that.

Something else that she says is “Vlada, it’s all in your head’ and I don’t think that it is. I don’t think that my association of these things with Jewish authenticity is uncommon. I think even beyond that, for example, people going to services at a shul is something that people associate with being authentically Jewish and a good Jew, and that’s a really exclusive thing. Not everybody can pay for High Holiday tickets, not everybody can go to shul every week. I’m talking about how a lot of those things are classist, and that’s not the only thing you can talk about, but for me, looking back, when my mom said that, it really pointed out to me how that can’t be true. I do not believe that that is what Judaism is about. I don’t believe that being Jewish is a privilege for those that have enough money to be Jewish, or those with certain identities.

What my mom pointed out is not just classism – it’s also about sexism, racism, able-ism that is totally wrapped up in notions of authentic Judaism. For myself, I think that people should focus on challenging those notions, rejecting those notions, creating their own ideas about what it means to be Jewish. Taking back that power for themselves, defining that for themselves and with the other people around them. Rejecting these oppressive and exclusive ideas.

Q: What do you think that Judaism could mean or should mean, then?

VB: Firstly, I don’t think that there should be an authoritative figure that decides or determines what is Jewish to someone or what isn’t, or how people live Jewishly. I think that is up to people to define for themselves, or should be. I can only really speak for myself: for me, all of these feelings of inauthenticity, that I was somehow fake, and these fears of being discovered were really tied to my Soviet Jewish identity and how that played out. The fact that I grew up in a really secular household, the fact that I didn’t grow up with all of those markers that I talk about in the documentary, and the fact that I identified as an atheist – all of those things filled me with such dread, and taking all that into account, how could there be a way that I identified as Jewish, taking on that identity for myself.

Over the past four or five years now, I’ve been thinking about myself and my Jewishness as being tied to history – I’m actually quite insignificant in the span of everything; there were tons of individuals before me that survived and resisted violence and oppression. One of the things that the documentary made me realize is that I don’t have to look so far back to find that – I can look as far back as my own mom. I think that something my mom makes clear to me in the documentary is that to reject all of that struggle and resistance that came before me, to deny that that existed is a problem. Instead, I want to take power from it, and identify with it, and learn from it, and have that history inform who I am and my politics and things that I want Jewishly today.

Q: Could you describe an experience that’s been meaningful for you as a Jew? Either in the context of Jewish life or outside of Jewish life but that’s impacted you as a Jew?

VB: Two things: One is that in the past year and a bit I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in a radical Jewish community with folks here; having pretty regular Shabbes dinners on Friday nights, which has been really, really nice. I don’t think that I realized how much I appreciated those dinners until I entered an environment where I didn’t have them. Then I realized how much I actually missed them. I think that those Shabbes dinners mean something different for everyone who’s there. For other people, they may mean a lot religiously. For me, it’s about having community, feeling comfortable, feeling like you have space to relax and unwind, feeling like you have space to talk about Jewish stuff that you don’t have space to talk about during the week with people who want to hear what you have to say.

Something else is that since creating this documentary, I’ve been getting responses from people, and having the opportunity to connect with people in different places around the world who have related with my experiences and validate my experiences. I’ve realized through this project that this isn’t a unique thing that I’m going through, that it’s quite common, but that’s doesn’t mean that I don’t still feel isolated in this. Having people contact me, and want to get involved in the project, share thoughts about it – and these are people who overwhelmingly are not actually Soviet Jews themselves, and a lot of them aren’t even Jewish – that’s been really nice, and it makes me feel less isolated and more enthusiastic about engaging in these kinds of conversations and this kind of research and these kinds of projects. It makes me want to continue working on all of this.

Q: Any last thoughts?

VB: If anybody’s interested in getting in touch with me, either being interviewed or having a chat or sharing their thoughts, I would love that. I’m also keeping a compilation of various things that I find that are interesting to me – images, quotations, anything relating to Soviet Jewish history, culture, immigration on a website.

  April 16, 2011 at 05:52pm via gotochelm

Chabad forces Moscow Jews to ask a question that might not have occurred to them otherwise: “Who is an authentic Jew?”

Caryn Aviv & David Shneer, New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora (2005)