Liel Leibovitz’s article today in Tablet Magazine is nearly as much about the similarities between two groups of American Jews—those born in Israel and those born in the former Soviet Union—as about the differences between those groups and the rest of American Jewry. His provocative point is that the Israeli and Russia Jews have made an outsize contribution to American culture, yet only uneasily fit the American Jewish mainstream’s idea of what it is to be an American Jew. Something, in other words, has got to give.
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.
My favorite part is the comparison, toward the end, of the novels of typical American Jews and the novels of Russian-born American Jews. Some of us are still stuck in the shtetls, and it is not those of us who are the least far removed from them.