By Natasha Mozgovaya, Haaretz Correspondent
WESTHAMPTOM, NEW YORK – They sing the American national anthem first. Then “Hatikvah.” They forgo the Russian national song for obvious reasons. The 98-year-old granddaughter of Sholem Aleichem, Bel Kaufman, goes on stage and tells the audience how she held her grandfather’s hand and he told her this helped him to write better. Then Knesset members and an adviser to Israeli president Shimon Peres discuss whether there is a Russian elite in Israel, and the imam of the great mosque in New York talks about the relations between the Jewish and Muslim communities.
Several hundred young adults are in the audience, the children of Russian Jews who decided to migrate to the “Goldene Medineh” rather than go to Israel. While the children of Russian immigrants who came to Israel and experienced the difficult years of integrating into the new society debated whether their parents had made the right decision by preferring Israel to “Little Odessa” in Brighton Beach, the youngsters in the Russian-Jewish community in New York posed the opposite question: Is the lucre of America preferable to Jerusalem of Gold? Young Russian-speaking Jews who gathered two weekends ago for a “Limmud FSU” conference at the Hampton Synagogue, in Westhampton, New York, said that the families’ decisions tended to be intuitive.
The wave of Jews that began to emigrate from Russia nearly two decades ago tended to split evenly between the U.S. and Israel. More than 350,000 people settled in New York alone. During the last few years they have begun to increase their involvement in the Jewish community, they have set up fund-raising organizations, and after several failed attempts to elect candidates to the local political scene, scored a first success recently, when the Moscow-born Alec Brook-Krasny was elected to the New York State Assembly. The children of an earlier wave of immigrants, from the 1970s, some of whom do not really speak Russian, formed an organization called Generation R, and are diligently looking for roots. Meanwhile those from the more recent wave, who migrated to the United States as children or teenagers, and are now in their 20s and 30s, are looking for alternative ways to express their Russian American Jewish identity.
“I am American Russian Jew, because I am no longer a real Russian Jew and I am definitely not an American Jew,” says Yevgeniy Zingman, 27, who came to New York with his family from Russia and today works for a financial company that specializes in real estate.
Zingman is active in the Jewish community during his free time. “Something Russian burns in our souls. I have learned to live and work here, and to find friends, but I find it easiest to communicate with guys like myself. We’re left with all sorts of social rituals from there, and concepts of friendship, and it’s difficult to find substitutes for that. I came here at age 14, to a very American environment, but culturally, I feel as though I have been put in a can of preserves. I follow the new Russian music to some extent, but mainly listen to the ’80s and ’90s rock on which we were raised.”
Zingman has visited Israel five or six times and says, “it is very important for my identity and my life.” He even considers himself a Zionist, although he is not contemplating immigration at this time. “Look, it’s not that I haven’t though about it a lot. By and large my parents made the decision for me. Part of our family made aliya to Israel, some migrated to America, and so we mulled it over a lot. But our relatives in Israel wrote us: Think twice. My parents thought it over and we came here.”
Zingman speculates that “maybe my soul” is in Israel. But remembering as he does the difficulties he had in adjusting to life as an immigrant to the U.S., he says he doesn’t want “to go through all that again, with work, a language, friends.”
Zingman does not know what his family will be like in the future. He says: “I am pragmatic, and I understand it is difficult to maintain a three-dimensional identity. What is most important for me is that my future children will be Jewish, but yes, I would like to retain also some of the Russian culture.” The best he can do at the present, he suggests, is to invest in “strengthening the ties to Judaism – then we’ll see how it will go with the Russian.”
Different values, different jokes
Olga Monastyrskaya, a 27-year-old graphic artist, migrated with her family from Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, when she was 16. Her mother’s extended family settled in Karmiel, Israel, and her father’s family moved to New York. “So father took the initiative and moved us here,” she says, with the hope that his daughter would have a good future. Today Olga works for the publisher Simon & Schuster as a designer, and her life is indeed quite good, she says. She loves it in the United States.
“I finished studying, I work in a serious place, and there are many perspectives,” she adds. Yet she and the people who surround her have a common history and identity: They are Russian Jews.
“I don’t have a problem with the Americans. I work with them and have friends, but their culture is different and they were raised on different values, different jokes,” she explains. “The Americans are more formal. As a rule, you cannot just go over to someone and hang out in his kitchen until 5 in the morning over a glass of tea or vodka and talk as we did in Ukraine. You have to coordinate plans. There may be some exceptions, but you are more likely to find soulmates among migrants like yourself. I had an American boyfriend for two years, and I made friends with Israelis, but something was missing. So I continued looking, and I found Russian Jewish migrants like me, bent on talking philosophy and singing with a guitar. Maybe it’s nostalgia, but this culture is part of us. It’s not because we have failed, but because this is what satisfies us, spiritually.”
Leon (Lunia) Gayer, 33, and English teacher, has been living in Brooklyn for 16 years. “We had an aunt who joined one of the first waves of immigration to Israel. Grandma used to correspond with her in Yiddish. I began studying Hebrew when I was still in Odessa, but we decided to come to New York because they said that in Israel you must serve in the army and the Russian experience with the military has not been too great. One relative told us we were crazy even to consider Israel, where he said they live in mud huts …. Here I remained quite Russian, because in America there is no pressure to give up your previous culture and identity. Because of this approach, the link to tradition comes from a more correct place, without pressure and coercion.”
We are not deserters
Despite the arguments of activists who fought for aliya to Israel and were insulted when Russian Jews “deserted,” many migrant Jews are drawn to tradition precisely when they are in the Diaspora. M., 28, from Pennsylvania, was raised in a secular Russian Jewish family, but became a Conservative Jew as an adult. Today he wears a skullcap, eats kosher food and observes the Sabbath. He traveled for hours to Limmud FSU, in Westhampton, in the hope of finding a Jewish match.
“The community in our town is small,” he said. He did find someone there he wanted to marry, but she was of Sephardi background, and her parents rejected him as a groom. Finding a bride in Israel sounded enticing, but he works for the U.S. Defense Department, and fears such a marriage would harm his security clearance.
Oksana Baiul, the former Olympic ice skating champion for Ukraine, arrives at the conference wearing a coif and immediately becomes an attraction. Everyone wants to be photographed with her. “I discovered my Jewish roots at quite a late stage, at the age of 25, because I am an orphan,” she says. “However, the Jewish community received me warmly and now I am helping raise money for an orphanage in Ukraine. Many Russian Jews are looking for a way back to tradition and I think it’s really good for the community.”
Until recently, the American Jewish community ignored the Russians’ uniqueness, hoping that over time they would be absorbed into the community’s usual framework. Israeli diplomats and local representatives of organizations such as the Jewish Agency also preferred to ignore reality. However, the Limmud FSU convention demonstrated the extent to which attitudes have changed. Showing up at a one-day meeting with 400 participants were Israel’s minister of immigrant absorption, Sofa Landver, the country’s consul general in New York, Asaf Shariv, several Knesset members and a Jewish Agency emissary who considers them a potential source for high-quality immigrants.
“Three hundred and fifty thousand Russian Jews in New York mean that every third Jew in New York is a relatively new immigrant from Russia,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, who hosted the conference in his synagogue. “We see the increased number of visits to our synagogues as well as [the interest] of many others who were eager to learn more about their roots and tradition. It is our responsibility to talk to them. They have big gaps to fill with regard to issues that trouble the Jewish community in the United States. We have missed many years by ignoring them. For 15 years the Jewish community did not know how to communicate with them. But it is also clear to us that it is impossible to transform them into ‘us.’ You can expose them to issues, you cannot force them to adopt a particular way.”
Chaim Chesler, the Jewish Agency’s former treasurer and founder of Limmud FSU, says that he faced a lot of criticism when he started the project. “Why do ‘the Russians’ need a unique approach? Let them come to classes with everybody else, like all the Jews,” he recalled the comments.
But they did not come. “Because when it comes to sensitive matters such as religion and identity, only Russians can touch other Russians’ souls. Finally, 32 organizations contributed to the project, because it works. When a Russian Jewish community assumes responsibility for intensifying and strengthening its identity, it works; not when Israelis or American Jews try to explain it to them.”
“Of course I’d like to see all these young people in Israel,” said Minister Landver, of Yisrael Beiteinu, “but you’ve got to be realistic too. You can’t always say right up front: ‘Come over.’ It has to come from them, out of their searching. I know this feeling from the synagogue in Leningrad where we used to meet. It just grabs you, this spirit, the desire to make aliya – not because someone persuaded you. Recently we have seen an increase in the immigration of these young people.” Knesset Member Zeev Elkin (Likud), who also came to the conference, thinks that Israel and the Russian Jewish community in the United States have a clear interest in strengthening their ties. “The Russian Jews here are beginning to realize that Israel is a significant arena for the American Jewish organizations. And the Jewish organizations are beginning to understand that this community will not put up with being on the sidelines; that they will break away unless they have equal rights. It’s not just the community’s considerable size. These are educated people, energetic and quite a number of them are successful too. The process is slow, but we should integrate in time.”