I was a very hated kid. Remember, it was the years of Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire speech, all those movies: Red Dawn, Red Gerbil, Red Hamster… and I felt like I was the Big Red Kid. My parents had expected that after the anti-semitism of Russia that kids were going to love me because I was Jewish, but that’s not how it worked out at all. I was Russian in their eyes; I had a big fur coat and big fur hat and I was clearly the enemy.
So I decided to write a satire of the Torah. We were all being force fed the Torah and the Talmud and the kids had to chant and memorize this stuff that didn’t mean really anything to many of us. So I wrote my own version of the Torah which was called the Gnorah; Exodus became Sexodus, you know, all that kind of stuff. It was a very raunchy, horny kind of book that only an 11- or 12-year-old could write. And it became… I wasn’t popular exactly, but my first friends were made because of that. Other kids felt that there was a kind of, ‘Oh, this guy has something to show us.’
Gary Shteyngart, on arriving in Queens and enrolling in Hebrew school [x]
Novelist Gary Shteyngart emigrated to Queens from the Soviet Union in 1979 at the age of 7. In his memoir, Little Failure, he writes about adjusting to life in a country he had been taught to think was the enemy. In his interview he talks to Terry Gross about his struggle to learn English:
My problem was that I didn’t know any English. So on top of not knowing any English, there was another language, Hebrew, which was even harder, that they were trying to teach me. It was too much.
… And at home we had no television so I couldn’t learn English from TV, so for the first years in Hebrew school I would sit apart from everyone at the cafeteria … and I would just have long conversations in Russian with myself … in this gigantic fur hat and fur coat speaking in a language that nobody understood. And all the kids would run up to me and do the crazy sign and laugh and laugh and laugh, but I wouldn’t stop because that was the only language that would make me comfortable. … In speaking it, I could pretend that the people I loved were around me.
I had fur coats and fur hats and [they] smelled of various woodland animal-type smells. The teachers would take me aside and say, “Look, you can’t be this furry. You can’t dress in these furs. Children won’t play with you if you have that much fur on.” … Basically what I was told in school every day was where we came from was wrong and where we were now was right. … It’s a lot for a sensitive 7-year-old to be told that everything he loved and believed in has to be replaced with something else.
Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure, speaks to Fresh Air about adjusting to life in America after leaving the Soviet Union when he was 7. (via nprfreshair)
When we came from the Soviet Union, we were arriving from a different planet. There was nothing. All we had was one ABBA record, you know? We kept listening to the song “Money, Money, Money” as a kind of primer on capitalism, but that’s all we had.
For a Jewish kid, in Leningrad and then Queens, disguises were mystifying. They still are.
In three years our family will leave for the United States. The nondenominational New Year’s Tree and equally secular Grandfather Frost will be gone — the local Jews of Kew Gardens, Queens, will tell us both traditions smack of a certain Christian holiday, making them verboten. No more pine smells at the end of December, rather a seven-fisted candelabra that someone at the local synagogue is kind enough to throw our way. And no more sacks bulging with caramel cow candy and lunar rovers. We are poor enough that my main toy is a pen, followed by a donated Chewbacca action figure, missing half of one paw.
This is the most truthful, relevant thing I’ve ever seen written about Russian Jews and Christmas (what the heck is the point of Hannukah, really? Sorry, I don’t really “get” the menorah thing) Gary Shteyngart is like the identical twin brother I never had. I think if the two of us were put into the same room, one would vanish in a puff of smoke.
For every boy it is of great importance whether his parents are strangers or not. If they’re not, then he knows the place where they were born. He could go there, if he wants to see it with his own eyes. He can point out the street where they lived as children. He could ring the bell of the building where they went to school. He knows what they have learnt, he knows the songs they sang and the games they played. Because he learns and plays and sings exactly or almost the same as they. The classroom he’s in doesn’t differ that much from the classroom they have been in. The teacher is just like the teacher they have had and their friends are the same kind of friends as theirs.
But a child of immigrants cannot look back, he grows up without a background and his curiosity for this grows ever larger, and is ever less satisfied. He doesn’t understand a thing about his grandparents. He doesn’t even know what they did for a living. It is a lot if he knows them at all. The people don’t know his background and because of this, they don’t know what to expect of him. The parents of other children wonder if they could interact with him, and invite him to a birthday party. Because of this, his environment in school and outside of that will have an accidental character. It is not an addition or continuation of his home. Partly it is even a contrast to this. Only in the long term does this contrast diminish bit by bit. It disappears when he becomes an adult and he goes his own, independent way. But even then memories will continue to stir his mind.
Abel J. Herzberg about growing up in the Netherlands (Amsterdam) in the beginning of the 20th century as a child of Jewish-Russian immigrants.
Source: Abel J. Herzberg, Letters to my grandchild (Bieven aan mijn kleinzoon). Translation by me.
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
American Fund for the Relief of Those So Bitterly Oppressed in Russia Will Be Used to Bring Thousands Here.
New York City is just beginning to feel the crest of another great wave of Jewish immigration. The Russian massacres have caused more Hebrews to look hither for a refuge than have ever before turned their faces toward this land of freedom and wealth. The “plagues of the sword and torch” that have smitten their race in Russia in the last few weeks exceed any catastrophe known to their history since their dispersal. As was said the other day in the appeal by the National Hebrew Relief Fund Committee of the United States to the Jews of this country:
"Apparently no calamity of such magnitude has befallen Israel since the fall of Jerusalem. All the horrors of the Inquisition, all the persecutions of the Middle Ages, seem incomparable with this stupendous and unspeakable crime, both in its malignity and in the number of people affected and endangered."
And yet in spite of all these horrors it is said by Jews as prominent as Oscar S. Straus that the worst is still likely to come.
Headline in the New York Tribune, dated December 17, 1905
See the newspaper page here & more of the article transcription here.
Aron Aronov & the Bukharian Museum. A new short documentary.
"On the top floor of a yeshiva in Queens, Aron Aronov has gathered unique items from the culture and heritage of the Bukharian Jews, a minority group from Central Asia. But maintaining a museum single-handedly has it’s challenges."
The inception and growth of the Jewish anarchist movement in the United States were inseparable from the mass immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe starting in 1881. Jewish immigrants from the czarist empire had been schooled in Russian radical politics of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—a period when the revolutionary movement and the anarchist project cooperated against tyrannical oppression by the czar. Jews participated actively in the Russian populist movement (Narodnaya Volya) and in assassination attempts against a succession of government officials and against the czar. Women anarchists like Vera Zasulich, Vera Figner, and Gesia Helfman provided role models for the young generation of Jewish women in the Russian Pale of Settlement who were receptive to secular and political involvement. Some of the women who participated in Jewish radical circles and in anti-czarist agitation at the time of the 1905 revolution came subsequently to the United States.