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Eastern Front

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

Liel Leibovitz
December 07, 2010
Geffen Braunstein waving an American flag after his Israeli father became a U.S. citizen.(Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; Braunstein photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.