The purpose of this project is to examine a generation of Russian Jewish immigrants who came to the U.S. as children in the late ’80s and early ’90s. This generation uniquely absorbed several worlds of influence during its formative years- the impact of a Soviet Russian background, the experience of immigration, an immersion into American culture, and a shift in what it means to be a Jew. As this group becomes the first generation of Russian Jewish adults raised in America, they will both set the tone for their communities and represent them in the larger American cultural landscape.
The goal is to create a portrait of this generation through two methods:
- survey a subsection of the U.S. Russian Jewish population who came to the U.S. as children (participate in the survey!)
- feature individuals representing diverse experiences and perspectives in a short documentary film
Posts tagged Russian.
Regina Spektor, “Après Moi”
This song features several verses of Boris Pasternak’s poem, “February.”
Февраль. Достать чернил и плакать!
Писать о феврале навзрыд,
Пока грохочущая слякоть
Весною черною горит.
Достать пролетку. За шесть гривен,
Чрез благовест, чрез клик колес,
Перенестись туда, где ливень
Еще шумней чернил и слез.
Где, как обугленные груши,
С деревьев тысячи грачей
Сорвутся в лужи и обрушат
Сухую грусть на дно очей.
Под ней проталины чернеют,
И ветер криками изрыт,
И чем случайней, тем вернее
Слагаются стихи навзрыд.
(Translated by A.Z. Foreman)
February. Get ink. Weep.
Write the heart out about it. Sing
Another song of February
While raucous slush burns black with spring.
Six grivnas* for a buggy ride
Past booming bells, on screaming gears,
Out to a place where rain pours down
Louder than any ink or tears
Where like a flock of charcoal pears,
A thousand blackbirds, ripped awry
From trees to puddles, knock dry grief
Into the deep end of the eye.
A thaw patch blackens underfoot.
The wind is gutted with a scream.
True verses are the most haphazard,
Rhyming the heart out on a theme.
*Grivna: a unit of currency.
Haggadah shel pesakh (Story of Passover), cover from the second edition. Drawing by Alexander Tyshler. Moscow, 1927.
In 1921 the Central Bureau of the Bolshevik Party’s Evsektsii sent instructions to all local branches to organize “Red Passovers.” Popular brochures that came to be known as “Red Haggadahs” were published, specifying how to conduct the alternative celebrations. Many were written by local activists following a series of centrally directed patterns. One of these was the Komsomolishe Haggadah (Komsomol Haggadah), published in Moscow in 1923 by Moyshe Altshuler. Traditionally the start of Passover (an eight-day holiday during which consumption of bread or leavened products and yeast is forbidden) is marked with the Bdikas khometz—a search for all remaining traces of leavened food, followed by its burning. In Altshuler’s Komsomolishe Haggadah, this ceremony was transformed as follows:
Ten years ago the working class of Russia with the help of peasants searched for khometz (leaven) in our land. They cleaned away all the traces of landowners and bourgeois bosses in the country and took power in their own hands. They took the land from the landowners, plants and factories from the capitalists; they fought the enemies of the workers on all fronts. In the fire of the great socialist revolution, the workers and peasants burned Kochak, Yudenich, Vrangel, Denikin, Pilsudskii, Petlyura, Chernov, Khots, Dan, Martov, and Abramovich. They recited the blessing: “All landowners, bourgeois and their helpers—Mensheviks, Esers, Kadets, Bundists, Zionists, Esesovtses, Eesovtses, Poaley Zionists, Tsaarey-tsienikes, and all other counterrevolutionaries should be burned in the flame of revolution. Those who are burned should not ever survive, and the rest should be given to us and we shall transfer them to the hands of the GPU.
The Komsomol Haggadah combines all enemies of the Soviet regime as khometz, and recommends burning them. Equating antagonists who were notoriously anti-Jewish, such as the commander of the White Army Alexei Denikin, to Jewish Soviet opponents, such as Bundists or Zionists, was a popular method of Soviet propaganda.
Every seder ritual was transformed in the Soviet Haggadah. The traditional hand-washing and blessing before the meal became a political statement:
Wash off all the bourgeois mud, wash off the mold of generations, and do not say a blessing, say a curse. Devastation must come upon all the old rabbinical laws and customs, yeshivas and khaydorim, that becloud and enslave the people.
Some Soviet Haggadah texts … simply replace “God” with the “October Revolution”:
We were slaves of capital until October came and led us out of the land of exploitation with a strong hand, and if it were not for October, we and our children would still be slaves.
The Komsomol Haggadah argues that Passover is not a celebration of real freedom but rather of spiritual slavery, because the holiday comes only from heaven. In contrast, genuine freedom is in the hands of the proletariat, and therefore one must celebrate May Day.
Instead of the story of how the sea was divided, we speak about the brave heroes of the Red Army near Perekop. Instead of the groaning of the Jews in Egypt and God’s miracles, we speak about the real sufferings of the proletariat and peasants in their resistance against their exploiters and their heroic struggle.
In 1927 Altshuler’s Haggadah was reprinted with minor changes. The second edition featured a new illustrator—Alexander Tyshler (1898-1980), who worked for the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre. Although it still mocked traditional Judaism, the pictures were milder and included more positive images of Jewish workers and soldiers. Instead of ridiculing religious traditions alone, the second edition incorporated other “hostile” elements, such as Zionists, bourgeois Jews, and even Soviet bureaucrats. Judaism was now seen not just as a religion but rather as a banner under which all Soviet enemies were united. In other words, from an anti-Judaic piece of propaganda, the Red Haggadah eventually became anti-Jewish in general.
 The phrase “ten years ago” refers to the October Revolution of 1917 and is taken from the second edition, which was published in 1927.
 The first edition Di komsomolishe adds that all other shlim-mazls (losers) and parasites should be burned in the flame of revolution.
 GPU is the acronym for Gosudarstvennoe politicheskoe upravlenie, or State Political Administration (secret police). The entire sentence refers to a customary saying that is pronounced when one burns khometz before Passover: “Any khometz, or leaven, that is in my possession that I have not seen, have not removed, and do not know about should be annulled and become ownerless, like dust of the earth.” The particular expression rephrases the saying by identifying khometz with the representatives of ideologically hostile political parties.
— Anna Shternshis, Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (2006), p. 27-34.
My parents did not speak Yiddish to me or my sister. They wanted us to speak Russian. But they spoke Yiddish between themselves, so we understood and learned it. Also, I spoke Yiddish with my grandmother, who did not speak Russian. When I was seven I was supposed to go to school and was very excited about it. My mother wanted me to go to a Russian school. One day she took me to the director of the school. Then she told me to say that I did not speak Yiddish. I was very surprised, because this was the first time my mother asked me to lie. I said: “Mother, you used to say it is not good to lie!” She answered then: “This time, it is better for you not to say the truth. Do not reveal to them that you know Yiddish.”
When we arrived there were three men in the room. I entered with my mother. They asked me in Russian my name, my age, and then they asked if I knew any Yiddish. I said I did not know Yiddish. Then one of the men told me [in Yiddish]: “Meydele, gey farmakh di dir!" [Girl, go close the door!] I went to close the door. That was how they enlisted me in a Jewish school.
Ida V. (b. 1923), on how she ended up in a Jewish school in Odessa in 1930. Oral testimony in Anna Shternshis’ Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (2006), p. 16-7.
"A great number of Soviet Jewish schools were established in the mid-1920s. In theory, these schools were designed for children who spoke Yiddish as their native language. Jewish parents often preferred Russian schools because they felt that such an education would give their children more opportunities in the future. But government officials insisted that Jewish children attend Soviet-run Yiddish-language schools, as many ideologues believed that children would learn Soviet values better if they were taught in their mother tongue. […] The specifically Jewish element in the curriculum was used simply as a tool to convert the Yiddish-speaking population into a Soviet-thinking one."
Thursday, February 28, 2013 // 6pm
Columbia/Barnard Kraft Center
606 West 115 Street, New York, NY
Speak Memory is an exhibition of four recipients of the COJECO Blueprint Fellowship: Katya Meykson, Irina Sheynfeld, Tanya Levina and Yuliya Levit. This show explores Russian-Jewish immigrant identity, artists ties to the historic past, and the connection to our roots that we feel in everyday lives.
(via Soviet Samovar)
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)
Limmud FSU Princeton 2013:
3-day Festival of Russian-Jewish Culture, Learning and Entertainment!
A truly unique event, organized and run entirely by volunteers, Limmud FSU has revolutionized pluralistic Jewish engagement of Russian-speaking Jews by involving them in an array of interactive workshops, intellectually-stimulating discussions, a festive Shabbat celebration, controversial debates, film screenings, artistic performances, music, dancing and much more.
Join us on March 15 – 17th, 2013 and experience the magic of Limmud FSU!
(via Soviet Samovar)
Bakst’s Self-portrait, 1893, oil on cardboard, 34 x 21 cm., The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
Léon Samoilovitch Bakst (Russian: Лео́н Никола́евич Бакст) (10 May 1866 – 28 December 1924) was a Russian painter and scene- and costume designer. Born as Lev (Leib) Samoilovich Rosenberg (Лев Самойлович Розенберг).
Leon was born in Grodno (currently Belarus) in a middle-class Jewish family. After graduating from gymnasium, he studied at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts as a noncredit student, working part-time as a book illustrator. He was expelled from the Academy after depicting figures in the Pietà as impoverished Jews.
Beginning in 1909, Bakst worked mostly as a stage-designer, designing sets for Greek tragedies, and, in 1908, he made a name for himself as a scene-painter for Diaghilev with the Ballets Russes. During this time, he lived in western Europe because, as a Jew, he did not have the right to live permanently outside the Pale of Settlement.
During his visits to Saint Petersburg he taught in Zvantseva’s school, where one of his students was Marc Chagall (1908–1910).
"Babel chronicles how both the Red and White Armies, while fighting each other, would also both commit horrible atrocities against the Jews in the old Jewish Pale, leading Gedali, a Jewish shopkeeper to famously ask, “which is the Revolution and which the counterrevolution?” In stories like “Gedali,” the narrator is forced to confront his dual, seemingly contradictory nature as both a Jew and a fighter for the Revolution.”
Isaac Babel shows a hint of optimism.
(Isaak Emmanuilovich Babel’; 1894–1940), Soviet Jewish short-story writer and playwright. Isaac Babel was born in Odessa and brought up in the Russified middle-class family of a dealer in agricultural machinery. In 1916, Babel met Mendele Moykher-Sforim, the “grandfather” of Yiddish literature. Babel’s love of Yiddish is reflected in the subtext of his Russian prose, as well as in his adaptation of one of the popular folktales about Hershele Ostropolyer, “Shabos-Nakhamu” (1918). It was for love of Yiddish, not just want of money, that Babel wrote the screenplays of Sholem Aleichem’s Menakhem Mendl stories, Evreiskoe schast’e (Jewish Luck; 1925), and a novel, Bluzhdaiushchie zvezdy (Wandering Stars; 1926), and edited two volumes of stories by Sholem Aleichem in Shimon Hecht’s Russian translation (1926). The Zionist and Hebrew influences of his childhood had to be concealed after the Bolshevik Revolution, but the response of the post-Kishinev generation to pogroms and to the decay of shtetl life are evident in Babel’s first published story, “Staryi Shloime” (Old Shloime; 1913), which describes an old man’s suicide after his sons abandon Judaism under socioeconomic pressure.
In 1915, he drafted a semiautobiographical story, “Detstvo. U babushki” (Childhood: At Grandmother’s). The contradictions and paradoxes of Russians and Jews living together fascinated Babel all his life. He explored this theme even before the revolution, in an undated manuscript about a Jew, Yankel, who helps rescue a priest’s son from imprisonment, and in the story “El’ia Isaakovich i Margarita Prokofevna” (Ilia Isaakovich and Margarita Prokofevna; 1916), about a Russian prostitute in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg) who helps a Jew from Odessa to evade tsarist antisemitic residence restrictions.
In Babel’s Odessa stories (written between 1921 and 1937), the character of the gangster Benia Krik represents lost Jewish empowerment as well as the joie de vivre of Odessa Jews. A film, Benia Krik (1927), relates the fate under Soviet rule of the band of gangsters Krik controlled. Later tales, including “Froim Grach” (written in the late 1920s), “Konets bogadel’ni” (End of the Almshouse; 1932), and “Karl-Yankel” (1931) similarly tell of a vibrant Jewish community that was brought to an end in the name of a socialist future.
In 1924 Babel began to compose a series of stories, Istoriia moei golubiatni (Story of My Dovecote), about his Jewish childhood in Odessa and his work with the Cheka in 1918. These stories depict a child’s vivid impressions of pogroms and antisemitism, while the pull of nature and budding sexuality lure the boy in the tales from his Jewish home to the unfamiliar and hostile Russian world. The title story brilliantly describes the incomprehensible violence of a pogrom.
By the end of the 1920s Babel sought a sparser prose style. An experiment with a longer form, the incomplete novella Evreika (The Jewess; 1927), tells of a Jewish Red Army officer who transplants his family, the Ehrlichs, to Moscow.
Babel’s first stage play, Zakat (Sunset), based on the Odessa stories, had a short and not particularly successful run in 1928, while his second play, Mariia, the first in a trilogy, was banned at the rehearsal stage in 1935. It became increasingly difficult for him to publish his writing, and his works were heavily censored. At the Soviet Writers Congress in 1934, Babel declared himself to be a “master of silence.” He was arrested on 15 May 1939, forced to confess to being a spy and a counterrevolutionary, and executed on 27 January 1940. (via)