American Jewish Women from Russia are Emerging from Inside the Matrushka Doll
Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union profoundly changed the Ethnic make-up of Fair Lawn, New Jersey, my suburban hometown. These immigrants (we called them “the Russians”) settled in a town that already boasted a diverse Jewish community with active Reform, Conservative, Orthodox synagogues as well as a large population of Israeli emigres. By the mid 1990s, Jews made up about 40% of the population of Fair Lawn, many of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union. They put Fair Lawn on the map, making it stand out among the many largely Jewish suburbs that surround New York City. From a New York Times article entitled “A Jersey Suburb with Some Surprises” to history hooks, commentators refer to Fair Lawn as the prototypical suburban enclave of former Soviet Jews.
Commentators are less likely to note the ways in which Fair Lawn served as a veritable laboratory for ALL PHOTOS BY JOAN ROTH, EXCEPT FOR PHOTO OF intra-ethnic .Jewish relations. As a child growing up in the Orthodox Jewish community of Fair Lawn, I witnessed countless interactions between established, American-born Jews and the “Russian” emigres. Some of these exchanges were respectful and warm. Through a program sponsored by our synagogue, for example, my parents met Riva and Meyer, a couple from Moldova. Riva and Meyer took my parents to a nightclub in Brighton Beach, thoughtfully pre-arranging kosher meals for them to sample. My parents, in turn, invited them for meals in our family’s sukkah. They shared a cultural conversation that enriched the lives of both families.
I recall other interactions, though, that still make me cringe. Here is a true story that is as disrespectful as it is bizarre: the principal of my Orthodox high school decided to give all of the immigrant students Jewish names. Instead of asking the students which names they preferred, or if they had anv deceased relatives that thev would like to commemorate the principal decided to dub all the “Russian ” boys Daniel (something to do with symbolically coming out of their lion s den). Whenever anyone called out the name Daniel in the hall, all of the male immigrant students would turn around to answer
Anastasia, my younger sister’s classmate, had a similar (and probably more typical) experience. Someone in the school felt that Anastasia needed a more “American ” first name. They decided to call her “Stacy”—a name that she loathed—on all of the official class lists. For her bat mitzvah, the parent-teacher association bought her a necklace that featured her new, hated name in cursive gold lettering. While the PTA had good intentions, some gifts can hurt.
To open a more authentic exchange, we invited six women to the LILITH offices for a night of (decent) vegetarian Chinese food and (spectacular) conversation. Each of these women had emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States—some as young children, others as adolescents, another as a 21-year old. They discussed the different ways in which they negotiate a rather complex set of personal identities—as women, as Jews, as former Soviets, as Americans. Throughout the course of their lives in America, all of these women have chosen their own unique and deeply felt names.
One theme that emerged out of this talk is the fraught relationship between the former Soviet Jewish immigrants and the American-born Jewish community. In these women’s experience, American Jews were generous with donations but did not engage in enough real talk. Our panelists now are as firmly embedded in American society as they ever were in the immigrant community—a perfect position to lead a conversation that should have started years ago.
On American Jews’ Attitude Problem
Rimma: I didn’t grow up religious at all. My father would go to synagogue on Yom Kippur, and I remember as a child he thought we should try to go to a synagogue and my mother had no interest. So we went to a synagogue a couple of times, just he and I. And we felt so out of place. We were the former Soviet Jews, we were the “poor” ones. I think mostly that American Jews are incredibly condescending. And they’re so proud of their dual bar and bat mitzvah thing—you know like, “I had this bar or bat mitzvah and this poor girl named Svetlana couldn’t, so I wore a bracelet with her name.”
Inna: You mean they had bat mitzvahs for people who couldn’t?
Rimma: Yeah — for the poor Soviet Jews who couldn’t. And you know, it kind of rubbed me the wrong way because I find it incredibly condescending. American Jews always seemed so interested in enlightening and ennobling without any true or deep interest in the actual lives and experiences of the emigres. I’ve heard American Jews talking about wanting to teach the former Soviet Jews how to be Jews.
Margarita: Something that I definitely felt growing up in Long Island—the sense that the American Jewish community looked down upon the former Soviet Jews. There are definitely instances of people who had done amazing things—for instance, my dad was friends with a man who passed away a few years ago, who was part of the Long Island committee for Soviet Jews, and he was personally responsible for liberating some of the politically oppressed in Russia. He helped to get them out of Russia and into the U.S. and then he helped some establish jobs and start off…But there is still this sense of, you’re on the poor side of the family.
Anna: I do think there was some condescension towards the wave of Russian/Soviet immigrants that came to America. My family was adopted by the American Jewish community and we went to synagogue for the first, like, month, and then my parents had other things to do [laughter].
Margarita: When we moved in to our new house in Long Island, some of the neighbors came by to meet us. They heard that there was a Russian family that moved into the neighborhood. And this girl who was my age, right across the street, ran over and was so excited to meet me! “I’ll help you learn English!” And I said back to her, “Thanks, but I actually already speak English fluently!” [More laughter.] And she had already told all of her friends that there was this Russian girl that she was going to teach and help, and then when they met me on the first day of eighth grade – they were speaking very slowly to me, asking how was Russia and if I missed it…and I said that I didn’t know, that I was about a year old when we left, and I’ve been living in the city my whole life. And after she realized that I didn’t need her help, I was no longer her friend.
Being Soviet vs. Russian vs Jewish
Inna: Those words are sort of loaded. I could tell someone that I’m Russian, but I would never say that around anyone who is from the former Soviet Union. Because being “Russian” means that you’re not Jewish.
Anna: I get lectures about that from my parents all the time! [Laughter, agreement] Margarita: I had to go through the whole explanation when my uncle and aunt—they came here about 10 years after we did —they had a very big issue with writing that their nationality was “Russian” on American documents. My uncle said, I’m not Russian, I’m Jewish. And you were Jewish on your passports, and on all your documents, that was part of the issue in Russia. So being Jewish was a national identity for him as well as a religious one.
Inna: That seems to be a very difficult concept for Americans to understand. Because most of the time I get, are you Moldovan? I say, no, I’m not ethnically Moldovan. I’m Jewish. And they say okay, are you Russian? I say no.
Olga: That has definitely been discussed extensively in my family too. The issue that we were never Russian there, that’s why we were persecuted there, that’s why we couldn’t do what we wanted to do there, couldn’t achieve what we wanted to achieve. And then to be identified as Russian when we got here was a little odd.
Inna: I’m always disappointed that I don’t speak [Russian] well but I think my family feels like, what can you do? That’s the price of coming here, and going off to the schools you went to, and not hanging out with us every night.
Olga: I feel like when I speak Russian I get taken back to being a child, so when I speak to my parents about just kind of everyday things, I can talk in Russian. But when it’s something serious, I find that I just can’t. Not because I can’t find the words but because it makes me feel like I’m 10. As opposed to when I speak English, it makes me feel as old as I am.
Anna: I think I tend to use the Russian identity when it suits me. And I probably bought into the American definition of “Russian” because I do say that I’m Russian without thinking of the distinction between “Soviet” and “Russian,” even though when I think about it in conversation with other Russians I would say that I’m Soviet….And something that I’m sort of embarrassed about but I—I’ve spent a lot of time in Europe because my boyfriend lives over there. When I’m over there I always manage to bring up the fact that I was born in Russia. Only then do I start talking about the fact that I’m American, and I adhere to these American political ideals. So the point is, I sort of tend to use that as a temper to my American identity.
Anna: I think because it makes me, sort of, less of a typical American. Which in all other senses I probably am. I had a typical high school experience, a typical college experience. I had very few Jewish friends, I had very few Russian friends. I don’t know how I managed to do that at Yale!
Margarita: Going through college, I realized that I was a lot more “Russian”—especially in my relationship with my family— than American. When I was living in the dorms, if my mom didn’t talk to me, or hear my voice, at least once a day, I’d get these panicked voicemails—where are you? Are you alive? And she actually worked about 10 blocks away, so she could have just stopped by and seen me for lunch. I would talk to some of my friends and they’re like, oh yeah, I talk to my parents about once a week. And I’m thinking, oh, that would never happen. I just can’t even imagine that scenario.
Rimma: You said a couple of times that you learned from your more recently emigrated friends about relationships, that they have relationships differently. I’m not quite sure what that means.
Margarita: I just found that my Russian friends had a deeper understanding of me. One friend is a great example: she was dating an American guy—he’s a great guy, he was really there for her. They lived together, and her mom was sort of like a neurotic Russian mom, called her 15 times a day, needed to tell her how to do everything around the house [laughter]. It was sort of like, I know you’re in your mid-twenties but I’m still going to tell you how to live your life. And she told me that a very pivotal part of her relationship with this man was when he told her, “You just have to cut your mom off Just let her go.” And she understood that he could not understand how her family worked. And for her, it wasn’t an option to reject her mom or her family. But he was someone who talked to his mom once or twice a week and everyone was always cheerful. And I guess her family was more rambunctious, and that made him uncomfortable.
Olga: I don’t know if I necessarily agree that it’s a characteristic of American men and Russian women. Because I live with a man who is not Russian but who is Jewish, and I never thought that he didn’t understand the way that my family worked. I think that he does, and even though it’s probably a little bit different than how his family works, there are a lot of similarities and I think he feels very comfortable with my family. He’s got a Jewish mother himself [laughter].
Anna: Maybe the attitudes that each of us has toward Russian peers or Russian friends come from our parents’ attitude? My parents—for the longest time—just did not like Russians. At all. They didn’t want to have anything to do with the Russian community. I remember one time I liked a guy who had a pretty tenuous relationship with Russia—he was from Armenia. My parents flipped out, completely. They said, you are going to get dragged under Under what? [Laughter.]
Rimma: You were subverting the assimilationist project!
Margarita: That’s funny, because my parents had the reverse. They’re like, you need to date a Russian Jew. And I’m thinking—it’s hard enough as it is! [Laughter.] And it’s funny because they also said, you have to have Russian Jewish friends. And it’s only once they stopped saying it, that I naturally did it, because it wasn’t something forced and I didn’t think about it. I was dating someone in college who was far from the perfect Russian Jew that my mom envisioned, fie was Irish-Italian, Roman Catholic. And this was someone who wanted to convert to Judaism. He said he wanted to convert, to become Jewish, to learn my language to communicate with my parents. But I told him, they speak English! If I understand what you’re saying, they’ll figure it out! [Laughter.]
Margarita: When you look at who’d you be happy with, part of that, I think, is someone who does understand your background and your personal history. And yes that’s something I would like. Does it have to be someone who’s Russian Jewish and has gone through everything I have? I don’t think that’s vital, that understanding does not have to stem from having gone through the same experience. Now I’m dating a Russian Jew and I like it, but it really is the person. His similar background happens to be an extra bonus.
Olga: I don’t think I’ve ever been in an environment where there was this huge selection of Russian-Jewish people. When I went to high school, even though most of my parents’ friends are Russian-Jewish, there really weren’t that many Russian people who went to my high school or were in my classes, and then I went to college at Dartmouth and that’s not exactly a place with a thriving Russian-Jewish community! [Laughter.] So I never had this, well, buffet of Russian Jews to pick from!
Inna: You’re not tapped into the Russian set-up network!? [Groans, laughter.]
Olga: I’m engaged, so that’s sort of out of the question right now [laughter]. But in college, I never dated guys like that, and then after I graduated I met my current significant other.
Rimma: My partner and I have a Jewish home, because she’s an American Jew. But in a way, she could be as foreign as a space alien to me, as I’m sure I am to her. Because then I’ll be like, oh you Americans. Even though I feel so American I sometimes say, you Americans, I don’t understand you! [Laughter.] Your food, I don’t understand it. But I really enjoy that we have a Jewish life. And I guess what I mean by a Jewish life is that we have a strong Jewish community, when we go to synagogue we have a place to go, we have community we can go with. But I feel like whoever I’m with, I’m going to be different from that person. Because I’m not going to find anyone who is like me! Were I to find someone who was a former Soviet whatever, were I to find someone Jewish, are they going to be a techie? Are they going to a vegaquarian [a vegetarian who eats fish? [Laughter.] Are they going to be so many other things? But even with all that, I enjoy being with someone who’s Jewish. I enjoy not having to have that conversation of—I understand that the crucifix is an important symbol to you but I’m not so thrilled with having it hang above my bed. [Laughter.]
Inna: In high school, when I started identifying as a feminist, it sort of seemed funny to my parents. And the crazy thing is—and I tell my mother this now, I should have told her then—where did she think I learned all this stuff from? I learned all this stuff from her! But that wasn’t the way they saw it. Even now when I say things about my career or I have an experience where it’s difficult to be a woman in a certain setting, or I talk about how I’m at a meeting with 12 people and I’m the only woman, they say—well you just shouldn’t care about that. Just do what you have to do. And I think, well that’s a very feminist attitude. But at the same time, they turn around and think it’s very funny when I say I’m a feminist….
Olga: I think part of it is that when our mothers were growing up it was kind of expected that they would have a career, they would get married, they would have kids. Whereas here I think it’s still a big rising point, people argue about whether you can have all of those things. But our grandmothers did it, our mothers did it, and it’s kind of the way they think that things just are. I think if a woman chooses to be a stay-at-home mom, it seems to them like a luxury, rather than that she should have been there in the first place.
Anna: I remember in college I got a second-hand copy of The Feminine Mystique, and I read it and I loved it…and I gave a copy of the book to my mother and she started reading it, and she calls me up and says, what kind of trash is this? [Laughter.] She said, this is ridiculous, none of this is true. Now here’s my mother, she has a job and everything, but she got married when she was 20, and had me when she was very young. So first she had me and then she went to school and then she had a career. So she went through all of it, she knows how hard it is to be a woman. But she refuses to put language to it, or put words to it….
Margarita: I think that’s interesting because I called Rachel [Kranson] and we had this conversation where I voiced my concern about this magazine because I didn’t really consider myself a feminist. But then I thought back and I remembered what I had as my high school quote, and it was; “The man who says it can’t be done is usually interrupted by the woman who’s already doing it.” And that clearly defined the way that I was, at least, thinking then. Not so much marching around carrying a poster, but I was always concerned about my career and doing something I enjoyed.
I felt like all through college while I was figuring out my career plans, my parents were very supportive of me getting that career going. But somehow a year afterward they were like, so—Who are you dating? When are you getting married? And I was like, that’s not how it works! I have these interests, I really like what I do, there’s more to it! And it never occurred to me that the next thing was getting married and sitting at home. So I feel like they were very supportive at first, and now that they realize the path that I’ve chosen they’re getting very frightened, they think I’ll never have a family or I’ll never want that.
Lara: I think I had almost exactly the opposite experience. My mother had a brilliant career. And I got married at 21, which is very common in Russia because college girls usually get married during the last years of college so I did what everybody did, I got married. But I didn’t expect to stay home with the children, because in Russia I would have had a career like my mother’s. But when I got here, I couldn’t find a job and I couldn’t afford to go to school, and I stayed home with the children. And I was so ashamed of it. I thought, what would my mother think about me? It’s such a disgrace to stay home with the children and not to have a career. And I was approaching 30—I was 28—and I wasn’t thinking what if I never get married, what if I never have children. I was thinking the opposite—what if I never have a career? What will I do? That’s so shameful. So I approached my career at 28, after I had two children, and I started school.
Being Jewish in Russia
Rachel: I’m going to switch directions a little bit. I wanted to ask if you remember a particular moment at which you became aware of having a unique background.
Lara: I’d like to talk about this. For me, it was very painful to discover that I was Jewish. I even wrote a story about this in my book, it’s called “There Are Jews in My House.” I used to think of the word Jewish as an insult. It was something humiliating, to be called a Jew…and horrible things would happen to me. When I was five and I was in pre-school, one of the bigger girls approached me and said, I know something about you. So she took me to the bathroom. And she was twice as big as me and I was really afraid of her. And she said to me, you are a Jewess. And she also said not Jewish, but “Jewess.” And I said, “Why?” And I didn’t really know what it meant because nobody in my family or on television or anywhere had used that word. Somehow I understood that it wasn’t a good thing and that it was unfair that I was Jewish. And she said, what do you mean, why? Look at yourself, look at yourself in the mirror! So I looked into the mirror and she pointed out, look at your nose. You have a Jewish nose. And look at your eyes. You have Jewish eyes. And look at your ears. And she tried to fix my ears. [Laughter.’] A Russian person would say that [a Jewish ear is] pink, fleshy, bent. She said, your ears don’t look Jewish, but it doesn’t matter. You are a Jewess, all the same. And I was so upset, and I came home and I cried the whole day. And I said, if we have to be something, why Jews, the most horrible thing? Why can’t we be Uzbeks, at least?
Rimma: You know what I just remembered, was that my mother told me that in school, in the teacher’s gradebook, they would list your nationality. [Murmurs of assent.] So that it would be your name, and the fact that you were a Jew, and then, you know, whatever grade you were getting in your math class. That was relevant!
Inna: Yeah, so they could lower the grade for Jews if there were too many with high marks.
Anna: When I went to school—I only went for first grade, but I remember.. .I had applied to go to a special English school. My parents brought me, and I went through a whole test. I had to recite a poem, and they asked me who Lenin was, and I said “the father of our nation,” and I did some math problems. It was very embarrassing, my father still brings it up, and I still blush. And I got rejected from the school, and my parents explained to me it was probably because I’m Jewish. And I was about eight at the time and I totally didn’t understand what that meant. And I didn’t until I came here.
On the Immigration Experience
Rachel: For those of you who were in America when you were younger, do you remember any particular moment when you realized that you had a unique background?
Rimma: Before my parents moved us to Fair Lawn, they moved us to another neighborhood in New Jersey, which is working class, no Jews, certainly no Russians, and I was coming straight from Brooklyn. The town was Ridgefield Park. It was the middle of second grade. I didn’t have much experience with Polish and Italian Catholics, and suddenly there I was. And I was “The Commie.” [Laughter, assent.] I was an eight-year-old Commie! That was in 1982.
Anna: The emotional stakes seem to be so much lower for the later generation. I loved being called “The Commie,” because it was a cool thing that I was from Russia. There was this kid who used to tease me that I was a spy, and I used to say, yeah, I am.
Rimma: Because it wasn’t the Cold War
Inna: I once got a kid sent to the principal’s office in second grade, because he used to turn around and yell, COMMIE! COMMIE! And I couldn’t pay attention. And I wanted to have a whole conversation with him like, don’t you understand? We hate Communists! [Laughter] But of course some seventh-grade boy who is turning around in social studies class to call me Commie doesn’t want to hear about why you left, and the fact that you’re anti-Communist.
Anna: You know, I had a kid on the school bus who turned around and called me “Jew, Jew.” And I never reported him. And to this day when I think about it. I’m so embarrassed that I didn’t do anything about it. While no one made fun of me for being Russian, there was anti-Semitism. And I’m sure I keep blocking it out of my mind, because it only comes up now that we’re talking about it.
Inna: I think when I came to New Jersey was the first time that I realized I was different. I mean—the Commie thing, that didn’t happen often. The more general things were going to kids’ houses and realizing that you’re different. I remember at sleepover parties, the moms would make pancakes in the morning. And pancakes were such a symbol of America to me! And my mother would say, oh do you want to have a sleepover party too? And I didn’t want to have a sleepover party because she wasn’t going to make pancakes in the morning. She was going to make syrniki [cheese latkes], which I loved, but we couldn’t serve that!
Rimma: I feel that right now. I mean now that you’re saying it, I have that feeling. I remember that sleepover. It was a Friday night and my mother was going to have hamburgers. My mother liked to make her hamburgers with mushrooms inside, and that was weird, ground meat with mushrooms inside. And that feeling that the food is not going to be right. My parents are going to be weird. Things are going to be different.
Margarita: I came here when I was a year and a half, so I pretty much should have grown up American, but all my parents’ friends at the time were Russian-Jewish. I had this little community of friends who were all Russian. I went to school and I realized that I didn’t understand what the teacher was saying. For the first month and a half when I talked to her I called her “lady” [laughter]—in Russian, because I didn’t speak a word of English. Luckily I was in Queens, and it was a public school and I kind of looked around and—I wasn’t the only one who was different. I was just different in my own way. There were a lot of immigrant kids. Many of the students did not understand English and had no idea what the teacher was saying. The teacher was amazing, she brought everyone up to speed; she was a very patient and nurturing person.
And then I moved to Long Island: it became more of a Russian issue. Because they thought that I’d just flown in and didn’t speak a word of English.
Inna: They probably thought that you took a boat.
Margarita: Yes, and that’s where I learned English, because I had so much time on the boat to study!
Inna: Someone asked me once if I had to climb a wall, if I had to sneak out, if I came through Ellis Island. [Laughter.]
Margarita: Once I picked up the language, every student that came in from the former Soviet Union was told to sit next to me, and I became the interpreter. And I was supposed to both keep up with my studies and interpret. I never thought that the people I helped were actually very grateful. It took me a while to understand that it was because they were embarrassed, and didn’t want to be in the position of getting extra help. They were clearly smart, but there they were, getting help from another student. And then, later, I always had this very odd relationship with them, because I was the one who held their hand for the first couple of months, and it was not something they were proud of For me, it was great to be able to help someone.
Russian-Jewish & Queer
Rimma: New York has this lesbian and gay community center. And they have groups for everything, everyone. There’s a gay stuttering group. There are transsexual volleyball groups. Everything you could imagine. And I went and checked online to see if the)’ had any Russian groups, and they don’t have any. And I said this to someone and they said, why don’t you start one?
Inna: Who else would be in the group?
Rimma: I don’t know who would be in the group but it wouldn’t be me! [Laughter.]
Rimma: So anyway, I did this search. I didn’t find anything, then someone said you should start it, and I realized that I couldn’t start it. Because I felt like I couldn’t possibly identify with whoever might come, because I’m so Americanized. And I heard that there was a group in San Francisco organized by an American who had some sort of —affection—for Russian Jewish lesbians [laughter]. I felt a little weird about it so I never followed up.
On Jewish Identity
Inna: For me, the religious part is a bit confused. It has sort of weaved in and out in my life. I went to yeshiva until fourth grade, and that affected me a lot. I learned how to read Hebrew—I’m never going to forget how to read Hebrew— and I can go to services in Hebrew. I went to a sort of typical American Hebrew school in New Jersey, a sort of mainstream Conservative egalitarian synagogue and got bat mitzvahed. There weren’t a lot of Russians there. But at that age, I really wanted it. I really wanted the bat mitzvah, I wanted that experience. But then after my bat mitzvah I stopped, and then in law school I started doing Jewish stuff again. When I go to services, I really want to go to a Conservative egalitarian service; I want those kind of songs, I want the service to be that way. And then sometimes I go to this Russian synagogue in Fair Lawn with my parents, just because they sometimes go there on high holidays, and I’ll go with them because I spend the holidays with them. And it’s a Lubavitch synagogue. I don’t like that the women are separated. This year I actually got my parents to come to a Conservative egalitarian service. I identify in many other ways, too. Israel, and culturally, and because of my background, I don’t think that could ever go away. I mean, my life is like it is because I’m Jewish. We wouldn’t have left the Soviet Union if I weren’t Jewish. I have no clue what my life would have been otherwise.
Anna: I had several years of Jewish education and it definitely made a deep impact on me. But I think—I don’t actually know that much. And when I go to services I can read texts and I remember some of the melodies, but I think I make up a lot of stuff in conversation with other Jews and pretend to know more than I do know. So I built up in my head the idea of what Judaism is like, and I keep kosher and I go to services, but I don’t really know all that much about the laws, the traditions. So I have my own special brand of religious Judaism, which sort of has a heavy social activist component. So for me, it is mostly a religious identity. I have a lot of fights with my parents because they consider themselves 100% Jewish—and yet they don’t keep any laws.
Rimma: So it’s like—what does it mean to be Jewish when you’ve never been to a synagogue? [Laughter.] Well, you are Jewish! Absolutely. I absolutely believe it because I lived most of my life that way. Completely Jewish, and almost completely ignorant.
Anna: Right. We used to have arguments because my mother is very defensive about Israel. And I’m pro-Israel, but she [has this] emotional blind spot. So, almost as a reaction against her, I think, I have to bring up the Palestinian point of view, and human rights. So the [Jewish] national identity, for me, almost always comes last. And the traditions—even though I don’t know most of them—vaguely, I really like them. And I make up a lot of stuff It’s kind of a handy tool when I talk to my boyfriend—I can make something up and say it’s a Russian-Jewish tradition! [Laughter.]
Margarita: But going back to the question, I just wanted to say this, because I’m just amazed—and I thank you guys for being so honest, because growing up all the time amongst all these American Jews, I did not get a formal Jewish education and like you, I get mixed up all the time and say it’s a Russian Jewish tradition! That kind of combines with the other question—I feel like American Jews have to make a little more effort to be a little more accepting and understanding, because when we came here, we were just trying to get all our bearings. It was definitely a priority to understand our Jewish history, but I think for some of the parents they just wanted their kids just to get into school, to learn the language, to be successful and integrate into society.
Today is my grandfather’s birthday. It’s been many years since he passed away. But when he came here, he went to synagogue all the time, because he could speak Yiddish, And it was another community outside of just the Russians that he could socialize with. And in honor of the sacrifices that my family made, both recent and generations ago, I could never deny being Jewish. I could never get married in a church. I think if I were Catholic I’d probably be the same way on that side, only because of my family. As an honor to my family, and all the generations that have remained Jewish. I don’t think that I would want to be the one to change that. But for me the religious aspects are not as strong, not at this point in my life. I don’t practice at all, there are some days I feel guilty other days I don’t. Partly, this comes from how I was raised. not particularly observant. Also, I’ve never been bat mitzvahed. But I would like to someday do it in Israel. I’ve never been to Israel. I’d like to go. When I can really make it a very meaningful experience.
Rimma: You know I “pass” among American Jews because at some point I was interested enough that now I can go to pretty much any Reform service and I have it memorized. And I like to joke that I go back to the oral tradition of Judaism, when none of us could read, and since I have it all memorized I have a more authentic Judaism! [Laughter.] And I can’t read Hebrew because I was busy learning English, or busy forgetting Russian, or busy doing other things. And I feel a little sad about it. And it seems like it’s too hard, it’s too hard to know everything, to integrate everything. There are times when I feel really invested in my Judaism. Not in my Jewishness—I mean, that’s always going to be there, that’s my ethnicity, that’s just me. But I mean like the spiritual aspects. And then I want to go study, I want to learn everything, I want to be a Reconstructionist, I want to—you know, I want it all. I can’t have it all. But I wish that I’d had the years of day school so that I could say I know this much, and I know what I do and don’t like. But because I chose it as an adult, maybe I feel freer to go my own way.
Olga: I went to Jewish day schools for two years, and that had a big effect on me. And then for a while after that I would try to be kosher, which didn’t really work as a 14-year-oId in a non-kosher home [laughter]. I find that I’m also more comfortable at Conservative services, I guess because those were the kind that I went to most often. But then at the same time, I don’t live a lifestyle that’s consistent with being a Conservative Jew. I don’t keep kosher, I live with a man that I’m not married to…[laughter]. All these things. And I don’t feel particularly bad about them. So I guess I don’t know exactly where I fit in on that continuum.
Anna: When I choose to identify myself religiously or spiritually I’d say I’m Jewish, and not Jewish-American. Because for me that’s an entity that I don’t really belong to, although my actual religion is a big part of my life.
Class, and Career Choices
Lara: Now, very recently, I discovered a very unpleasant but powerful identity. I think I’m Soviet. I have a deeply Soviet mentality. I didn’t know that it influenced me so greatly until lately, when I realized I think like a typical Soviet person. I used to thinly that poor people were good and virtuous and rich people were evil. And part of me can’t do anything about it. I feel uncomfortable when somebody describes a luxurious lifestyle. And I just can’t make myself order about service personnel. I can’t ask a waiter to change a plate; I won’t have it changed. I just can’t do it. I didn’t expect that upbringing to influence me so much.
Inna: Probably, technically, I’m upper class—although I haven’t been working long enough to really feel like that yet. Although I suppose that it’s true.
Rimma: You say that as I’m embracing my downward mobility. [Laughter.]
Inna: Well, I’m proud of it, but sometimes it’s sort of strange to think that about myself because I didn’t necessarily grow up that way. Or maybe it was a very steep climb up, so I feel like I don’t relate to people who had an upper-class upbringing. But then when I think about what my reality was, well, I never felt financially deprived of anything. Maybe that’s a testament to my parents making me feel like that or to them actually doing well very quickly.
Rimma: Perhaps that’s also part of growing up in the suburbs. You know, when we first got here and we lived in Brooklyn, it was in a very small apartment—well not very small, it was a one-bedroom apartment, it might be perfect for me now! [Laughter.] But my father felt very constrained by living in the city, he had to get to the suburbs. And it was definitely an economic achievement.
Marqarita: I think that this steep climb—steep and very fast—is the one thing that can kind of tie it [the immigration experience] together, definitely universal. You rarely hear of anyone who came here, had to be on welfare, and has remained on welfare for ten years.
Rimma: Right, like they were on welfare while they were studying to pass their medical boards here. Now they are doctors. They live on Manhattan Beach in their enormous houses. They have become incredibly successful. [Laughter]
Margarita: See what some of the kids of the Russian immigrants are doing, careerwise. You see a lot of doctors, techies, lawyers. Few are social activists or doing not-for-profit work. You loiow I thought about not-for-profit, and I’m just thinking about the conversation that I’m going to have to have with my parents. And just their minds blowing up, being like, what do you mean? What’s the point of that?
Rimma: We have a friend who went to high school with us, who is Russian Jewish, who had an amazing career in advertising. Advertising, profiled in some I-don’t-know-what magazine, she was doing incredibly well, making a lot of money. And then she told her mother that she wanted to go back to graduate school for a PhD. in Anthropology. Her mother said, “What? Why would you give up your career?” Now she’s in Moscow doing her field study. [I’m familiar with] that feeling that you were just talking about— that you’re going to give up a solid career to go to school to do something that might not result in a stable life.
Margarita: And it’s funny, because I always thought that a main goal of coming here was for us to “make it,” but I’ve always thought that the next step of “making if was that you had a choice. And that you could actually say, I absolutely love this and I want to do this, regardless of whether or not it is the most socially acceptable and lucrative profession.
Inna: I suspect that there are not going to be a lot of people in non-profit in this generation. But I suspect that in the next generation there will, and you’re not going to be able to pick them out from any other Americans.
Rachel Kranson, our interviewer, studies Jewish American history at New York University. Before starting her doctoral program, Rachel worked as Assistant Editor at Lilith.