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Eastern Front

Israeli- and Russian-born immigrants are changing the face of American Jewry

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Geffen Braunstein waving an American flag after his Israeli father became a U.S. citizen. (Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; Braunstein photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A new influx of Jewish immigrants is reshaping American Jewish life by offering a take on Jewish identity that is, for the most part, self-confident and secure. Many of these immigrants are Israeli; many more come from the former Soviet Union. For them, the familiar conundrums and existential challenges of intermarriage, dwindling synagogue attendance, and declining religious affiliation among young Jews are less important than a modern-day version of the stubborn old-school ethnic pride that the American Jewish community largely abandoned once the gates to mainstream American institutions swung open.

According to a 2004 paper by Sam Kliger, one of the foremost experts on Russian Jewish immigration, there are approximately 700,000 Russian Jews living in America. Estimations of the precise number of Israelis living in the United States vary from 200,000 to nearly three-quarters of a million. Both waves of immigration, from Israel and from the former Soviet Union, mostly took place over the past two decades, each not a trickle of individuals but two massive waves of Jewish immigration that are reshaping American Jewish society.

It seems that everywhere one looks, former Israelis like Bar Refaeli, actress Gal Gadot, and producer Haim Saban, and Russians like Keith Gessen, Gary Shteyngart, and Sergey Brin, are becoming the most visible side of Judaism in America. Whereas the first generation of Israeli and Russian arrivals have, in the time-honored tradition of immigrants, toiled in gray and grinding professions—shopkeepers, taxi drivers, and so on—their sons and daughters are rapidly rising to cultural prominence. The Moscow-born Brin co-founded Google. The Israeli-born, New York-based Yigal Azrouël is one of the fashion world’s trendiest designers. On HBO, In Treatment—a television show based on a popular Israeli series and produced by the Tel Aviv-born, Los Angeles-based actress Noa Tishby—is a hit. Gossip Girl’s Michelle Trachtenberg reportedly speaks Russian with her parents; so does Black Swan’s Mila Kunis. And the list goes on.

While there are large differences between Russian- and Israeli-born immigrants, both groups subscribe to a complex web of allegiances, no longer Israeli or Russian, and not yet purely American, keeping in touch with their home cultures on the web and subscribing to satellite television services that allow them to keep up with their favorite singers and sports teams. Consider, for example, the young men sitting in a New York restaurant on a recent weekend, eating hummus. The way they ordered it—im galgalim, with wheels—reflected a certain level of connoisseurship; the wheels are cooked chickpeas, a way of serving Israel’s favorite food that’s customary in some of the Jewish state’s more discerning hummus joints. They drank Israeli beer and talked loudly about the Hapoel Tel Aviv soccer team over the restaurant’s loudspeakers, which were blasting the latest by Moshik Afia, a popular Israeli crooner of sticky love ballads. It was about as quintessentially Israeli as a scene could get, but the restaurant was on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Scenes like this are not uncommon in New York, Los Angeles, Miami: young Israelis, with or without families, congregating together and living life as if they’d never left Tel Aviv, Haifa, or Jerusalem. Recent research shows that Israeli-Americans maintain a far tighter connection to their Jewish identity than do American-born Jews. A survey released by the UJA Federation of New York last year, for example, put the number of former Israelis living in the metropolitan area at 81,000, the majority of whom strongly identify as Jews. Nearly all respondents, for example, said they celebrated Passover and Hanukkah; 87 percent said that they fasted on Yom Kippur; 61 percent lit Shabbat candles regularly; and 60 percent kept a kosher home. In contrast, according to the latest National Jewish Population Survey of 2001, only 59 percent of all American Jews fast on Yom Kippur, 28 percent light Shabbat candles, and 21 percent keep a kosher home.

The disparity between Israeli-Americans and their native-born Jewish counterparts doesn’t surprise Joel Kandy. Born in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv, he moved to New York nearly a decade ago to pursue his bachelor’s degree at Columbia University. In Israel, he said, he would’ve been considered secular, spending most of his Shabbats with friends at the beach. In New York, however, he strongly identifies as Jewish, lighting candles every Friday evening and throwing raucous bashes for fellow young Jews each year on the first night of Hanukkah. When I asked him to describe his identity, he seemed baffled by the question.

“I’m a Jew,” he replied, as matter-of-factly as if he were talking about being male, say, or a biped. “It doesn’t matter where I live. As long as I remember my roots, as long as I keep my traditions, I’m a Jew. Why would I try to hide away from it?”

According to most available data, the influx of Jewish immigration to the United States has not led to a groundswell in synagogue attendance. Instead, Israelis and Russians choose to congregate with their own, in new and dynamic groups like Generation R at the JCC in Manhattan or the nationwide Dor Chadash. And for both former Israelis and former Russians, Judaism is central and robust: According to Kliger’s survey, nearly 70 percent of Russian Jews in America strongly adhere to their Jewish identity, preserving practices and traditions. The comparable number for the Jewish community at large, according to the 2001 population survey, is a much-lower 52 percent.

Natasha Mozgovaya belongs, in a sense, to both groups of immigrants. A Russian-born Israeli, she now serves as the Washington bureau chief for Haaretz. She can understand, she said, the forces that drive the formation of the Russian-Jewish community in America. “There are many people striving for a sense of identity they were denied in the Soviet Union,” she said. “Many Russian Jews reject the Soviet system, but they are still fond of the Russian culture and the Russian Jewish culture.” And whereas in Israel, she said, Russian Jews “tried to conduct their absorption from a position of strength, as a group with a distinct culture and awareness that their unique identity is valuable,” in the United States “it couldn’t work the same way because the numbers weren’t as impressive in comparison to the total population.” As a result, while Russian-born Israelis still remain an exclusive group often seeking to limit contact with the population at large, Russian-born American Jews have no choice but to integrate faster into the community.

Still, Mozgovaya added, many Russian Jews living in the United States want to integrate on their own terms, and, in so doing, discovered that the official institutions of the American Jewish community weren’t always on their side. “I might guess some were simply disappointed that the Russian Jews they fought to let go chose to settle in the United States and not in Israel.”

There is, of course, no way to prove any institutional animosity on the part of the American Jewish establishment toward Russian and Israeli immigrants. On the contrary, one can find numerous initiatives reaching out to the newly arrived and seeking to integrate them into the community. But Mozgovaya is not wrong for claiming that a certain uneasiness hovers above any instance of Jewish immigration to the United States: According to the existing paradigm, those who identify as Zionists—including, according to most surveys, the majority of American Jews—believe that Jewish immigration should be a one-way street, Israel-bound. The two recent, massive waves of Jewish immigration to America, the first of their kind since Israel’s establishment in 1948, call that paradigm into question. This, in part, was what propelled Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua to express what many Israelis already think, namely that Zionism is the sole purview of Israelis.

“The concept of Zionism is dear to us,” Yehoshua recently wrote, “and therefore it is important that it find expression only in its rightful place: in the difference between us and the Jews of the Diaspora or the exile.” In other words, to truly be a Zionist, one must choose to live in Zion. If it chooses to truly embrace Russian- and Israeli-born Jewish immigrants, the American-Jewish community will have no choice but to directly challenge this assertion, leading it into a head-on ideological collision with Israel. The Jewish state seems to be aware of this conundrum: Recently, Israel reversed its decades-old policy and began encouraging Israelis who had immigrated abroad to return home by offering them the same financial benefits given to any foreign-born Jew wishing to make aliyah to Israel.

“We don’t look at these people like we did before,” Sofa Landver, Israel’s minister of immigrant absorption, told me in a recent interview. “Before, we always said [that returning citizens are] traitors who left the state. Now, the government of Israel approved funds to bring people back home and give them the same conditions as olim,” or the people who make aliyah.

Those Israeli- and Russian-born immigrants who choose to stay in the United States, however, are challenging the community’s existing infrastructures. Primarily constructed around religious denominations, much of the organized American Jewish community has little place for people who, like Israelis, have grown up divorcing Jewish identity from religious practice, or who, like Russians, have grown up in societies that forbade the study and practice of religion. But the strongest apparent explanation for the gap between the recent immigrants and the established American Jewish community has little to do with institutions and a lot with intuitions: For American Jews, being Jewish is a complicated undertaking woven into a long history of fear and pride and doubt and desire. For Israelis, and for Russians, it’s simply something that you are, something that you do, something that requires less thought than action.

This strong and largely unquestioning embrace of Judaism as ethnicity is part of why a host of organizations catering to Russian-born American Jews—from the growing youth movement Ezra to a dedicated Birthright trip designed for American-Jews of Russian origin—are thriving. Limmud—the worldwide organization of Jewish learning that gathers young Jews for annual weekends of interdenominational, interdisciplinary study—has its own gathering, in the United States, for Jews born in the former Soviet Union, or FSU. Meeting in the Hamptons this summer, it attracted 800 people, none of whom, presumably, would have felt comfortable attending a similar Limmud conference intended for Jews of all stripes. As Haaretz’s American correspondent, Mozgovaya was on hand to cover the Limmud FSU conference last year. There, she interviewed 27-year-old Yevgeniy Zingman. “I am American Russian Jew,” he told her, “because I am no longer a real Russian Jew and I am definitely not an American Jew.”

Marks of this distinction are also visible in the new wave of novels by young Jewish writers. While there are, of course, exceptions, it is nonetheless interesting to note that many of the acclaimed American-born writers focus their work on Jewish protagonists living outside of the United States. Jonathan Safran Foer’s debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated, sent its narrator in search of ancestors in Ukraine, while Great House, the new novel by his wife, Nicole Krauss, roots its plot in Chile, Jerusalem, and Budapest. Nathan Englander, another American-born literary superstar, wrote his most recent novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, about an Argentinean-Jewish lowlife struggling during that country’s Dirty War period. It is not a coincidence that all three chose as their subject the tragedy-tinted lives of Jews in places far away and times far gone; Jewish life in Budapest or in a village in Ukraine is far more monolithic than Jewish life in Washington, D.C., where Foer, for example, grew up. It is, to use a fraught word, Jewish life at its most authentic.

In contrast, the Russian-born Jewish writers seem to relish turning their attentions on their American lives. Both Gary Shteyngart and Keith Gessen, to name the most obvious examples, have produced debut novels featuring Russian-born Jews doing their best to machete their way through the thicket of American, intellectual, often Jewish life. Neither writer bothered looking any further than his own biography for traces of authenticity.

This confidence may also be a revealing lens through which to examine the rightward shift of the American Jewish community: The number of Jews who vote Republican has grown more or less steadily since 1992 and now hovers around the 25 percent mark. Rather than assume that Jews, traditionally Democratic voters, have become more amenable to lending their support to Republican candidates and ideas, a different explanation can be found by looking at the numbers: Out of the 5.2 million Jews living in the United States (the number posited by the most recent population survey), 700,000 are Russians and 500,000 Israelis, a total of 1.2 million, or nearly a quarter of the total Jewish population in this country. The Russian population in Israel, according to a study released last week by the Israeli Democracy Institute, tends to support harsher measures against the Palestinians and tends to support strong leaders, and there is no reason to believe Russian Jews in America, overall, adhere to radically different ideas. Israeli-born Jews living in America are even simpler to decipher: With most still intricately connected to their homeland, they overwhelmingly tend to see support for Israel as the sole criterion by which to measure American politicians.

The absence of even the most basic research on both communities means that there is still a relative dearth of statistical evidence to verify the above hypotheses; yet they may serve to explain, at least in part, a cultural and political shift that is visibly occurring in Jewish centers across America. With so many American Jews now foreign-born, we’re likely to see their values become ever more prominent in the community at large. This means a greater affiliation to foreign culture—Israeli television, say, or Russian music, both recently hits in screenings and concerts around New York—but also a deeper adherence to Jewish values and certain practices. Anyone concerned with the future of the American Jewish community would do well to take the latest generation of Jewish immigrants into consideration.

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Harold Tobin says:

I`m sure glad I live in the UK where at the momnt Jewish observance is still strong in the mainstream. Unfortunatly we seem to copy American Jewery albiet much later.

Ira Forman says:

The huge flaw in the Liebovitz piece is the assumption that the Jewish community is moving right because since 1992 the Republican vote Jewish has climbed steadily from a low of 11% (Perot received 9%). This is the worst type of misuse of statistics– starting from a low point to prove your point. In fact the Jewish Democratic vote has hovered (in presidential years) around 80% since 1992. Prior to that (1972-1988 the GOP portion of the Jewish vote fluctuated between 30%-40%.

The Liebovitz statistical argument is akin to saying that Hoover was a good economic manager because in the first year and a half of his presidency (until October 1929) GDP grew impressively.

Lawrence Kobrin says:

Taken in a broader view, this article seems to be yet another proof (if one were needed) of what historians term the fallacy of extrapolation.
Over the years, all the pundits bemoaned the increasing percentages of intermarriage, the lowered synagogue attendance or affiliation, and predicted the demise of American Jewry outside of the orthodox. Along come the Russians and Israelis and turn this all on its head, and possibly point to an increasing identification with Jewish interests. Never predict might be a good maxim.

Michael Gantz says:

In considering the effect of recent Jewish immigration trends on American Jewish political affiliation, it is imperative to answer the following questions:

1. What percentage of the Russian and Israeli Jewish immigrants have achieved American citizenship and are registered to vote?
2. When using the terms “American Russian Jew” and “American Israeli Jew” is it meant to speak of all of the immigrants in each category who presently find themselves in the USA or only those who have become naturalized citizens of the United States?

These factors make all the difference when considering any increase in a more “conservative” or Republican-minded allegiance among Jewish-American voters.

Apparently, Liel has just discovered that Jewish immigrants to the US from elsewhere tend to think, feel and act like…immigrants. They cling to the culture, customs and identity they grew up with. They don’t feel entirely at home with locals–even Jewish ones. And their relationship with Judaism is still the one formed by their first country, not their adopted one.

Similarly, Jewish immigrants to Israel from the US or Russia tend to retain ties to their previous homelands, to feel out of place in their new country, and to carry their previous forms of connection to Judaism with them. Is this this really a big surprise to anyone?

A much more interesting question about these new Jewish immigrants to the US is one that Liel didn’t even touch on: how will their children and grandchildren feel about their Jewish identities? Among past Jewish immigrant communities, the pattern has been clear: retention of Jewish identity across generations has correlated strongly with specifically religious commitment, as opposed to mere cultural or ethnic identification. And Liel gives no reason to believe that the new immigrants’ descendants will be any different.

Rebecca says:

My inscientific observations of both of these communities is the following: Israelis want to associate with other Israelis. They will only marry someone who is Israeli or will convert. They do not want to date or marry an American Jew. Russian Jews may say they are Jewish but don’t know a thing about Judaism. They too will have nothing to do with American Jews, viewing them as ignorant or uneducated. Reminds me of the per-1948 attitudes…. which coincidentally was founded by waves of Russian Jews. I don’t know where the figures came from but I would like to know just how many of these populations are actively involved with any type of Jewish organization outside of thier immediate circle. Most likely none to very few. That does not imply change for the American Jewish community, it implies a division.

Dan Simon above makes a significant point. Liel is comparing new or 1st generation Russian and Israeli immigrants with American Jews whose ancestors immigrated to the U.S. typically between 1881 and 1924. I think he’ll find that many of these earlier Jewish immigrants quickly abandoned Jewish ritual but clung, for a couple of generations, to Jewish “culture,” before largely surrending to assimilation. Is there any reason to assume that the children of these Russian/Israeli immigrants, who Liel alleges have no interest in mainstream communal American Judiasm, won’t accelerate this process? Also Liel should check his census numbers: he’s making a leap in logic by assuming that many Russian and Israeli immigrants are included in the 2010 Jewish Databank survey’s calculation of the “core” Jewish population in America. [http://www.jewishdatabank.org/Reports/World_Jewish_Population_2010.pdf]I’m guessing that very few are included, especially Israelis, most of whom I’ve encountered refuse to consider themselves truly settled in America, but stubbornly insist that the will return to Israel at some vague time in the future.

Most of the comments to this interesting article are of political nature – who are those Russian Jews living in USA and Israel? Why most of them conservative while most of the American Jews are liberal? Why most of them support the Republicans while most of American Jews support the Democrats?
The answers to those questions may be found in the spiritual, not political area. Firstly, the Democrats are moving the country toward more liberal social structure that is more toward the socialism (more welfare, more redistribution of wealth, more government power, etc.), and the Russian Jews suffered immensely under socialism of the Former Soviet Union – they hate it! Secondly, although intuitively, the Russian Jews feel the Torah and Jewish historic experience are closer to the free-market, capitalist organization of human society, and that that is not what the American Jewish majority believe in.
All those questions are being studied in a new book by Vladimir Minkov “The Jews and their role in our world: personal journey to discovering Jewish identity” which could be seen at amazon.com. Unfortunately for an English speaking reader this book is in Russian. However, in a few months it will be published in English.

Oh dear. Another half-baked column from Liel Leibovitz with his all too frequent lazy thinking, lack of research and idealogical bias.

Chaval.

I think that the author is absolutely on point when talking about the new kind of identity that emerged with the new generation in the Russian-Jewish community; it’s neither American-Jewish nor Russian-Jewish but, rather, a balance of the ethnicity, citizenship and culture. Those organizations which were able to recognize the nuances of the Russian-Jewish identity in the United States have been able to attract a tremendous amount of the new constituents of all ages who identify, firstly, as Jews and who take active part in the Jewish community life.

Here is an excerpt from an essay of a Havurah Summer Camp Program designed specifically for the teens from the Russian-Jewish families and an example of what a successful initiative can achieve:
“I was never part of anything big. Being the first born of Jewish Russian immigrants, I wasn’t part of the soccer team because my parents didn’t like the idea of a young girl playing such a rowdy sport. I also didn’t to go Hebrew school like many of my classmates. In my constant effort to be considered “normal,” despite lacking obvious things that could help me fit in, I completely avoided the idea of my Jewish heritage.
Until I was sent to summer camp.
And here we were (during Shabbat dinner at camp), here I was, finding joy in the culture that has forever been a part of me, but was always dormant. I could feel it starting to sizzle inside of me, as my soul grew warm with this new finding. My culture, my religion, my race. It all of a sudden seemed so beautiful to me. I realized that I didn’t have to be able to read Hebrew, I didn’t have to go to synagogue every Friday, and I didn’t have to know every single prayer in order to be Jewish. Despite these things, I felt I shared something with each and every person in the room. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was part of something. Part of something bigger than a club, bigger than a team, bigger than anything I have known.”

Israeli_dude says:

Hummus Im Galgalim? I live in Israel and if you walk into your local hummusiya (hummus joint for all you non Israelis) and ordered your meal with galgalim no one would know what you were talking about! Moshik Afia… what?! This is not quittenstial Israeli scene. It is a typical scene of Israeli ex-pats who complained about their country all day and all night till they drove all their friends crazy, and then they finally did us a big favor and left. Then they spent the rest of their lives pretending to live in Israel. It’s quite pathetic, I feel sorry for them. With all our troubles here, at least we are home…. As for the rest of the Diaspora community… give it another century or so and we Israelis will be the only major and thriving Jewish center on the planet. By 2050 there will be over 10 million of us… and how many of you?

Vikki S. says:

This article and most of the comments remind me how very complex Jewish identity is and for that I am grateful.

Glad to hear it’s not just me, Israeli_dude. So, according to google.co.il:

no results for חומוס עם גלגלים (hummus im galgalim);
and, count ‘em, two sites with חומוס על גלגלים (hummus al galgalim) — one a restaurant in Beit Hanania and the other a joke on a blog.

I think the author meant gargarim (whole beans) instead of gal’galim. Unfortunately, the rest of the article doesn’t inspire confidence either. A weird mix of facts, half-baked conclusions and fallacies.

Well, at least we know the answer to Golda Meir’s comment to the young Senator Joe Biden when he visited Israel shortly after he was first elected that he loves to repeat to Jewish audiences, “We have no other place to go.” Wrong, Golda, there is another place that an increasing number of Israelis have chosen to go and find more attractive: the USA. As the Netanyahu government keeps moving more to the right and the Chassidim, drunk with power, more insane, those numbers will accelerate.

Jeff, I think you mean Jews only have two places to go: The US and Israel. You think many Jews have just stopped making aliyah? I also think you mean Haredim, not Hasidim, as there are much more of the former in Israel and they exert more power over politics.

The question of identity does not exist among Israeli Jews. It does not exist among Russian Jews also: if parents are Jewish then their children are also Jewish, does not matter if they believe it or not. Such straightforward attitude is a product of their harsh and tumultuous experience – first, during Holocaust and then, later, when they lived among “brotherly nations” in “workers’ paradise” or (for Israeli Jews)in the Jewish state. For the American Jews, however, the question of identity always creates hot debates because its definition is heavily influenced here in USA by the Christian values and liberal ideology. From the point of view of Jewish identity Orthodox Judaism is the closest one to the beliefs and desires of Israeli and Russian Jews. Being, however, mostly secularists, they found that it’s too difficult for them to follow its rigorous practices. On another hand, Reform Judaism, which offers suitable religious services, is absolutely foreign to them when it comes to the definition of who is a Jew. Majority of Israeli and Russian Jews see Reform congregations as social clubs rather Jewish institutions and therefore don’t find any justification for joining them in order to express their Jewish identity. For that reason they are looking for other, different venues (cultural, ethnical, etc).

Really interesting piece. As a Russian Jew who came when she was small, with the hordes in ’91 and frequently navelgazes on this very topic on her blog, some of this rings true, some does not (for instance, I don’t think that Shteyngart, even though he is my favorite author, is an accurate representation of American Jews; I tend to think of Jon Stewart, Barbara Streisand, etc. as “real” American Jews.)

I think the most important thing to point out is the accuracy of the assessment that Russian Jews (even those of us who came here when we were small or were born here 1st generation) feel uncomfortable identifying with American Jews on the vein of religion simply because we weren’t brought up that way. For us, being Jewish is not a choice in practice-it’s genetics and the stamp of “Jewish” on the infamous line 5 of Soviet passports-(Nationality)- and we’re proud more of historical Jewish accomplishments rather than religious life and we don’t understand how someone can choose to identify as “not Jewish” if their parents are.

As a result of the American community’s Jewishness being focused on religion (BBYO, etc, which we never attended), there is a definite gap between the 20-something American and 20-something Russian Jews I know, myself included(even though I have participated in Hillel, etc and learned all the lingo necessary to be a Russian American Jew). What this means for the future as my generation starts to have 1st generation American children, it’s hard to say other than just the fact that we don’t go to synagogue and practice being Jewish in other ways (for me, it was learning Hebrew) doesn’t denote a “second Holocaust.”

Very interesting piece. I lived for 12 years in Israel with my family returning in 1980 because of family illness. I still have many friends in Israel and yes I fought in Yom Kippur.

As long as these Jews don’t subscribe to “Shh, don’t make waves” and can be tough as Israelis then there will be less anti-Jew problems because anti-Jews are not used to strong Jews.

Julius and Ethel Rosenerg were sentenced to death.
Jonathan Polllard was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Bernie Madoff was sentenced to 150 years and was severely beaten in a minimum security prison.
Irv Rubin, second in command to Meir Khahane, was murdered the first day in prison.

Is it all because they were Jews? You better believe it. If they were blacks the blacks would have threatened riots or violence and they would have been released/

All I say is we need strong Jews. The ADL and all the other Jew (I don’t use “ish” or “anti-Semitism”) organizations are weak and uselss controlled by wealthy children of wealthy Jews. The Nazis would have used them to head the Jew councils.

Be strong and be proud.

Bill Levy zev57@aol.com

Israeli_dude says:

Gene: “The question of identity does not exist among Israeli Jews.”

The question of Jewish identity does not exist here, it’s a given. It’s obvious. But the question of other kinds of identity – ethnic and culture of parents – is hugely relevant! When you throw together Moroccans, Poles, Iraqis, Ethiopians, Russians, Romanians, French, Egyptians and all the other ethnic background that make up multi cultural Israel, the question of identity is relevant! Less with every generation as it all gets mixed up into one Israeli salad. And there is the struggle between the religious – secular camps too.

Vicki, I don’t think you totally understand what you call the “real” Jewish American experience. Indeed, the American Jews you mention–Jon Stewart, Barbara Streisand–identify more ethnically than religiously. I would say, perhaps, that many reform Jews here put more emphasis on ethnicity, precisely because reform is not so religiously demanding.

To my knowledge, BBYO is not all that religious (my sister probably wouldn’t have gone if it were) and there are TONS of secular/ethnic groups for American Jews.

To factor ethnicity out of the Jewish American search for identity means you are essentially disregarding troves and troves of literature (i.e. “secular” Jewishness) as well.

But seriously…have you really not met non-religious American Jews who are proud of their Jewishness???

Eli,

I didn’t reference Stewart et al as an example of secular versus religious American Jews, I simply mean that when I think about American Jews, American Jewish immigrants like Shteyngart and Gal Gadot don’t come to mind for me. They don’t represent what I view as American Jews because they are still outsiders in my mind. I’m not saying that these people constitute the “real” Jewish American experience at all.

I’m not factoring out anything. Philip Roth, etc, etc are great. But the sense that I get from just talking to my friends is if I ask them, “Are you Jewish,” they’ll say, “Yes, Reform,” or “Yeah but I don’t really go to synagogue,” whereas for Russian Jews, the answer is as described above,
“I’m a Jew,” he replied, as matter-of-factly as if he were talking about being male, say, or a biped. It’s just something we are.

Most of the Russian Jews I know are in fact atheist (or agnostic) but talk about Jewish affairs and take as much interest in Israel and Jewish history as anyone else.

It’s a tricky question, really, what it means to be Jewish in America, and it is extremely subjective. I am just offering my own personal observations based on years of examination and my own personal experiences, confirming that some of what Liel wrote rings true for me.

To be a 3rd or 4th generation American Jew is much more nuanced and varied than you seemingly imply. Religiousness/Jewishness for us has even more gradations than just atheist, reform, conservative, orthodox, secular, etc. This is why I take issue with your and Liel’s comments: they’re awfully reductive, and seem to ignore the “culturalness” and ethnicity of American Jews, things we take pride in.

And I guess we’re just used to categorizing ourselves, as America has offered us a variety of identities. Obviously, if one is reform, he or she is automatically a Jew! They’re just being specific. But I ask again: you haven’t met any 3rd or 4th generation atheist American Jews??

Also: maybe they don’t count as Russians, even though they speak the language, but the Bukharan community in Queens is huge, and very observant.

PS: Do you read any of Eugene Ostashevsky’s poetry?

That’s the whole point. American Jewishness is varied and Russian Jewishness is more uniform. In my experience, Russian Jews often don’t categorize themselves the way American Jews do. We are “just Jewish.”

Even my Bukharan relative in-laws don’t consider themselves as much Bukharan as Russian Jewish (again, these are the ones I know and I am certainly not part of the Bukharian community at large and therefore cannot comment on how they perceive Judaism). The ones I know are also not very religious at all aside from traditions/superstitions that most Russian Jews also follow.

The key is, any piece about a section of the population is going to be reductive and, again, I am not making sweeping assumptions about all American Jews, just about *my* ideas. Note how I put “in my experience” in every comment. You seem to imply that my comments give me some authority over all Russian Jews observing the American Jewish experience and it is this that rubs you the wrong way.

No, I haven’t read Ostashevsky; thans for letting me know about him.

The condescending, pseudo-authoritative tone of the totally incorrect ‘hummus im galgalim’ explanation speaks volumes about the writer.

Who cares about hummus authority?! Vicki and I were having an engaging debate! Which I think at this point has boiled down to post-modern semantics…and in my experience, the Bukharans I have met are quite religious, much more so than my Ashkenazic, 3rd generation, atheist girlfriend who grew up in the same neighborhood.

Great article, great discussion, thank you! I can relate to so many statements in both the article and the comments.

The degree of Americanization among Russian Jews depends on where they settled in America. Those living in Brooklyn have a much stronger Russian identity than those living in say, Virginia or Kansas.

Russian Jews are very diverse in their religious and political viewpoints. Those who came here in the 1970s arrived for different reasons than those who came in the 1990s.

While Israeli Russians are often assumed to be on the side of Avidgor Lieberman, there’s Natasha Mogovaya writing for the leftish Haaretz. That paper hates Lieberman.

Woody - Tel Aviv says:

Bill Levy says of the Rosenburgs, Pollard, and Madoff:

“Is it all because they were Jews? You better believe it. If they were blacks the blacks would have threatened riots or violence and they would have been released.”

What a racist jerk. I think the only hope for Jews is that the old nutters die off and a new generation (of course we’ll have to overcome the poisoned Israelis) can begin to act like humans again.

You made some decent points there. I looked on the internet for the issue and found most individuals will go along with with your website.

I stumbled upon this post earlier today while at the office. Very helpful. Sent the link to myself and will likely bookmark it once I make it home.

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I’ve said that least 2411380 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

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