A quarter century has passed since Soviet Jews got out of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, and the eleven other Soviet countries. As soon as the doors opened, we began to leave our “Egypt.”
Many of us arrived as refugees, by hook, by crook, helped by HIAS, the Joint and other Jewish organizations here in America. Hundreds of thousands in America protested for two decades for our release, and the rest is history.
A generation later, we’re the darlings of all immigrants by what we have contributed to science, law, technology, and medicine, along with arts and letters. We have our Sergey Brin and Mila Kunis, even Gary Shteyngart. We’ve “made it” as far as eyes can see.
As Jews, however, we’re behind the curve. Americans have called us ingrates for not jumping into Jewish life “whole hog.” Where’s your tzedaka? Where’s your shul attendance? And yes, participation on the boards, committees, and task forces that decide where money goes, what causes get attention and which don’t.
Puh-lease, we say. Free country, darn it, I do what I want. I’ve paid whatever “debt” I had to HIAS or the Joint with my raw success. Nobody tells me how to live or pray or give or how to be a Jew. We didn’t leave oppression just to be oppressed again. Religion was illegal. Our grandparents were quite proud as Jews, but we had no traditions we could practice.
Benjamin Goldschmidt wrote what many of us think last week. How many times have I, myself come up against pathetic “Russian” jokes (vodka 5 times a day? How often do you beat the wife?), the patronizing looks and questions when I’ve come to “outreach” Shabbat dinners run by mainstream synagogues? Often, we are presumed to show up just for dinner or free stuff. Thanks, but I’ll take my time and money elsewhere next time.
We rush to blame the clueless federations, rabbis, synagogues, a lack of understanding, and the patronizing. Vodka with latkes, anyone? Don’t make me part with lunch. (I like my scotch and bourbon, anyhow). We have our Soviet skepticism on guard against their Jewish “propaganda.” Since they don’t get us, why bother?
But forget the federations and the organizations and cluelessness for one moment. How about ourselves? Aren’t we capable of more – much more – as Jews? For people so obsessed with education, knowledge, learning, and achievement, it is sad to say we’re often uninformed and lazy about Jewish practice. This brings us… up to par with most Amerikansky Jews.
And anyway, who are we first – Russians or the Jews? Our culture – language, literature, and music may be tied to the motherland, but Russia’s changed. And we’ve changed, ourselves. The Russian culture is dying a slow death, despite the brilliance of the art and music now produced in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Russia is decaying economically and socially. What’s there that’s really ours – the graves? The memories? That’s nothing much to hang a hat on, but it’s true. When was the last time most of us were even back in Russia or the FSU?
And what of us, here in America? Are we just Shteyngart’s People of the Russian Shtick? Or maybe we’re a wholesale caricature – violin-playing doctors, checkmate coders, Brighton hustlers, hard-charging Jewish mothers, boardwalk mafia? Let’s take back the New Yorker narrative. We’re made of finer stuff than that. We have our history and books and memories and stories – what an opus!
After the hell endured by our ancestors in the Russian Empire, then the Soviet Union, we owe it to ourselves to know, at least, what is it that they suffered for. Was it for communism? For better food and cars? Maybe for us to live like hipsters, yuppies, and aspiring oligarchs inside the Promised Land of Brooklyn? Maybe for 50 Shades of Sausage at the Brighton Bazaar?
Hardly. It was for us to live as full-fledged Jews without the fear of pogroms, of starvation, of denouncement by our neighbors – and to practice our traditions in our way.
Freedom’s not free, we know. Our rights come tied to big responsibilities. Why are we keen to teach our kids piano, chess, the Russian Canon, but not Torah? Is not all ethics and morality we know from there? And what about the ways to deal with all life’s difficulties? Vague notions and appeals to books and constitutions and parental guidance don’t sustain a people. Kids drift away, embrace new books and constitutions, more alive and convincing arguments.
Of course no people can be painted with one brush. Chabad has done amazing things to bring so many of us closer to a heartfelt Judaism. Many of us have been to Israel and felt connected to the place. Many now put their kids in Jewish schools. There is measured progress (that’s faint praise).
Before we rush to blame all others for our poor engagement in the Jewish world, let’s take a long, deep look at our own problems in the mirror.
Why should we hold ourselves to standards for poor refugees straight off the boat? Twenty-five years is a long time. We’ve achieved great things. We “kids” now have our own. Are we not capable enough – more capable than anyone, I’d argue – of practicing a Judaism that lives and sings – and doesn’t dwell on death and memories and the past – and also doesn’t sting with snark or shtick? There is a third path and we have to tread it.
As immigrants, we have tremendous energy to change the status quo. We’ve done just that as new Americans – at work, in school, the lab, the studio, in business, and in arts. It’s time to take upon ourselves – for our kids’ sake – a living, breathing, vibrant, brilliant Judaism.
The time is now to shed the Russian immigrant mystique, grow up and do, not talk. To quote Hillel the Elder in the Ethics of our Fathers, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”