When I was a refusenik teenager in Moscow I heard maudlin jokes about Jewish emigration. One of them told of a special voice recording created at the visa office. You dialed the main number and heard “zhdite otkaza” (“wait for your request to be denied”) instead of the conventional “zhdite otveta” (“wait for your call to be answered”). This hangman’s joke reflected the hopeless atmosphere of the early 1980s, when emigration was at a near standstill and about 1.7 million Jews remained in the U.S.S.R.
Another refusenik joke betokened a Jew’s undying hope of getting out of Russia by designating the last, legendary Jewish woman in the entire city of Leningrad. Her name was Aurora Kruiser, and she, too, was getting ready to weigh anchor. (If you don’t get the joke—and these jokes don’t work well in translation—let me explain: Aurora is the name of a Russian cruiser which in 1905 survived the Battle of Tsushima, was eventually returned to the Baltic Fleet, and in October 1917 allegedly fired a blank shot to start the assault on the Winter Palace. After World War II, Aurora was permanently anchored on the Neva and became a museum.)
I also recall a futuristic joke depicting a street scene in 2020. A boy and his father are walking in the center of Moscow. The boy pulls his father by the sleeve and points to an older lady rushing along: “Look, dad, I think it’s a Jew.” The lady stops, looks the boy in the eye and wails, “I’m not a Jew, I’m plain crazy.”
Jokes of this sort have become a vestige of the Soviet past along with the “fifth” line in the passport and with manifestations of “streetcar” anti-Semitism. But it’s not only Jewish jokes of the Soviet era that are disappearing. Jewish faces and Jewish names are starting to vanish from the Russian mainstream—from literature, the arts, and the entertainment industry, and also from the achievement rolls of sciences, medicine and humanities. This seems especially true for Russia’s millennials. Russia’s Jewish community is dwindling despite all the advances of the post-Soviet years. Today’s core Jewish population of about 180,000 still puts Russia in the 6th place in the world, behind Israel and the U.S. by millions, and also behind France, Canada, and the UK. Now free to emigrate, people of Jewish descent are still leaving Russia in very significant numbers. They are leaving Putin’s Russia despite what appears to be a state protectionism of sorts, and despite the low incidence of public anti-Semitism and vibrancy of Jewish communal and religious institutions. Israel is the only country that accepts Jews by default, and just in the first half of 2016 alone, emigration from Russia to Israel increased by about 9 percent as compared to the previous year, according to the leading Jewish-Russian demographer Mark Tolts. The remaining Jewish population of Russia is not only declining but aging. Outside the ultra-Orthodox community, the median age of Russian Jews is about 60 and the birthrate is the lowest of any ethnic group in the Russian Federation, and below replacement level. (To compare, the median Jewish age in the U.S. is about 40, and the level of childbirth is 1.9 children per Jewish woman; in Israel the median Jewish age is about 32, and the level of childbirth is 2.9 per Jewish woman).
Jews are, some notable exceptions aside, less and less known to and knowable by the average Russian citizen, and especially so in smaller urban centers and the rural areas. The late-Soviet and post-Soviet outflux of Jews from Russia has taken a toll on the public awareness of and public attitudes toward Jews. A recent survey by Moscow’s Levada Center suggests that “the majority of Russian citizens […] do not personally know any Jews (among family, relatives, close acquaintances and colleagues).”
Is it time to compose an elegy for Russia’s Jewry?
I recently pondered this question during a visit to Moscow. My older daughter Mira and I watched a circus performance at the Nikulin Circus on Tsvetnoy (“Flower”) Boulevard—Moscow’s “old” circus. A flood of childhood circus memories carried me back to a different era, the Soviet late 1970s. When I was 11, Mira’s present age, I went through a phase of wanting to be a circus performer. My father knew a Jewish woman who was on the faculty of the Moscow College of Circus Arts, and one time she took me backstage to meet the gymnasts and clowns in training…
At the circus, Mira and I were guests of my close friend Maxim Mussel, grandson of three Jews and an ethnic Russian. In 1990 my friend was about to make aliyah but changed his mind at the last minute. He started a successful marketing business, married a Russian woman, had two kids, and Mira was now sitting next to Maxim’s teenage daughter, a lovely Russian girl who looks more and more like the Jews in her family. As the band played the opening number, I perused the program, searching for and not finding Jewish names among the circus performers. And then I saw this: “With you the whole evening is the Comic Duo ‘Club House’—Bella and Alex Cher.” The long program was in Russian, yet the names of the clowns were printed in English. The clowns were a man and a woman in their early forties, both clad in black, white and red, and both sported matching, large round spectacles. The she-clown wore an apron with many pockets, and she appeared on stage carrying a broom, like a custodial lady intent on cleaning up her partner’s slapstick mess. The jokes had a distinctly melancholy tone, as if pointing to a different political climate, when laughing always meant both something less and something more than what it means in present-day Russia. The whole clowning routine was charming and occasionally quite funny, but also pierced with longing for the glory of Soviet circus arts. I was intrigued by the names of the performers, which made me think of Sonny and Cher. Yet to an average Russian in the audience, the English spelling and the sound of the names signaled foreignness and un-Russianness. Probably Jewishness, too. A closer examination of the other side of the program revealed that the last name of the duo of clowns is “Chervotkin,” and that in Russia “Alex” used to be Aleksandr, and “Bella” used to be Elena. I later discovered that Aleksandr Chervotkin (aka “Alex Cher”) actually came from a prominent Russian family of actors and circus entertainers. In the late 1990s, the couple had moved to the U.S. to perform with American circuses and adopted a new stage name. Some 15 years later they were invited to perform in Russia, now appearing there as Bella and Alex Cher.
In the old Soviet days, quite a few Jews adopted Russian pen names and stage names to bypass anti-Semitism and not to “stick out.” But Jewish names are in vogue in today’s Russia, and expatriate clowns with a Jewish-sounding stage name now amuse Russian audiences. Do the real Elena and Aleksandr Chervotkin have Jewish ancestors? They apparently do not, but that isn’t really the point. In Russia, a country continuously losing its real Jews, Bella and Alex Cher are playing the part of imaginary Jewish clowns. Is Russia, then, laughing at her Jews? With her Jews? Laughing without Jews?
I wanted to interview the duo of clowns who amused the Russian audience with bitter-sweet Jewish humor. I sent them several emails and Facebook messages with questions. A few months have gone by, and I’m still waiting for an answer.