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A View on Russian-speaking Jews, Then and Now

Russian Jews, NYC, Library of Congress
Russian Jews, NYC, Library of Congress

Let’s take a moment and get into a frame of mind. Imagine you’re a professional, hip, 30-something. Life is good. You have a desirable roster of friends and a rising social standing. On social media, let’s say on Facebook, you’ve been careful to craft an image of sophistication, good fashion sense, wit, and style. Your posts are liked and commented-on by followers, who themselves have attractive photos, they are stylish people who know how to attract. And your online friend list has been growing, you even have a few influencers following and commenting on your photos. Basically, even though you’re at the age where you shouldn’t care so much, it feels good to be in the cool crowd.

You just posted a photo of yourself, the one with just the right outfit, in front of the new restaurant that everyone has been talking about. On cue come the likes and already a few comments. But wait a second, what’s this? A comment from your 75-year-old uncle Morris! Your mind races. Why did he send you a friend request two weeks ago? What does he need to be on Facebook for? It’s not like he has anything worthwhile to post about. It’s not like he matters to the people who do social media right. You accepted his invite, well, because he is your uncle, and now…..His comment sticks out like a pineapple in a box of almonds. There it is, among the other comments from your hip friends that wrote things such as “That’s hot”, “Jealous”, “heart emoji”, you have to click read more to see his whole message. There is nothing particularly horrible about what he writes, although it does read like a formal letter and starts with a “Good Morning”. Then he writes about the nice picture, how important good health is, that you should eat more meat because you are too skinny, and on it goes with more 75-year-old uncle stuff. And then he signs the three-paragraph comment with “kisses from Uncle Morris,” and some emoji that makes no sense.

A wave of embarrassment flushes over you. What will your social circle think? How will this be interpreted? You think for a moment about deleting the comment, but the truth is, Uncle Morris has always been nice to you, what if he notices and gets upset? Can you hide the comment, maybe make it less visible? Oh, and what will your vegan friends think about the meat reference? You were pretending to be vegan too for some time now. Oh, Uncle Morris, why couldn’t you just be in my life at family functions and not where others can see we are related?!

Back in the late 1800s early 1900s this is exactly how the German Jews who were already established in the United States felt about the Eastern European and Russian Jews stepping off the ships on American soil. Over the previous generations, German Jews moved into America’s upper middle-class society. As a community they were doing well financially, thought of themselves as American first, and many belonged to the growing Reform movement that viewed traditional orthodox Judaism as a relict of the old continent where many wished it, along with its practitioners, to remain.

The Russian speaking Jews who at this time were immigrating by the thousands were another matter. Poor, uneducated, wearing their shtetelish garbs, while probably reeking of haring and pickled foods, these adherents to the Orthodox version of Judaism were an embarrassment, and a potential burden for the established German Jews. Despite knowing that the “Russian Jews” were escaping pogroms and terrible economic conditions back home, there were organized attempts by some German Jewish groups to lobby the government to curb the number of Jewish immigrants out of Eastern Europe. Other German Jews simply moved away from areas where the Eastern European Jews were settling. As the Lower East Side in New York City became a hub for Russian Jews living in overcrowded tenements, German Jews moved to NYC’s affluent Upper East Side with its manicured streets and brownstones.

While generally looking down on the Downtown Jewish, there was also a mobilization among America’s German Jews to help assimilate the newcomers. In 1906 the American Jewish Committee, led by Louis Marshall, the son of German Jewish immigrants, was created to assist the plight of Russian Jews who were facing pogroms and other persecutions in the Russian Empire. The organization also helped immigrants to adapt to the modern American way of life.

It seems that the German Jews in America were pushing the Russian Jews away with one hand and pulling them in with the other. What are we to make of this? Perhaps just like in the story at the beginning of this article, the Russian Jews reminded the German Jews about their own position in the not-so-distant past. Perhaps they wanted to forget about their roots back in Europe, of the prosecutions, the antisemitism, the humiliations, and centuries of being second class citizens. The reemergence of these walking relics with their long beards, tzitzit, and Yiddish slang might have been an unpleasant reminder to the German Jews that underneath their fine garments, clean shaves, and outward sophistication, they were one and the same with the Eastern European Jews, something that would tragically be confirmed to the Jews living in Germany less than half a century later.

Forward back to the present. The descendants of the Eastern European Jews from a century ago have now fully assimilated. They are no longer Jews of Russian or Ukrainian descent, but American Jews, indistinguishable from the descendants of German Jews. But now there is a new demographic, Russian-speaking Jews who immigrated from the former Soviet Union during the exodus of the 80s and 90s. Many still speak Russian at home, and their identity is shaped by the stories they heard about World War Two, by the hardships of life under communism, and by the experience of immigration.

Unlike the Russian-speaking Jews from 100 years ago, for the most part, the new wave was much less focused on religious observance and much more on classical education. While organized religion is not a big factor for many Russian Jews, most will still gravitate to Orthodox institutions for their Jewish needs as opposed to the Reform and Conservative movements. There is a political and philosophical divide between Russian Jews and “American Jews.” American Jews tend to lean liberal, while Russian Jews for the most part are conservative. I’ve seen many conversations between individuals from the two groups that went something like this, “you want to see socialism, let me tell you about the bread lines I had to stand in back in Moscow,”…..”but Boris what about social and economic justice.”…..”I had to drive a cab when I came to America, and I have a PhD in physics from Moscow University, no one gave me handouts.”

And then there is the issue of political correctness and approach to sensitive topics. American Jews tend to be measured and see things in shades of gray. For many Russian Jews, political correctness takes a far back seat to whatever they see as the correct side to the issue. For example, Russian Jews are unapologetically pro-Israel. There are no caveats or strings attached to their support. When it comes to antisemitism, Russian Jews will view it coming from all side, not just from the far right as many American Jewish institutions tend to do. So, once again we are in a situation where on one hand the two groups are very far apart on many important and difficult issues. On the other hand, each sees a part of themselves in the other. Neither group can hide from its past, nor its future.

About the Author
Gennady Favel has led marketing, community outreach and communications for a number of Jewish nonprofit organizations. His writing has been featured in eJewishPhilanthropy, The Forward, The NY Daily News, and Jewish Week
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