Brighton Beach, Bat Yam and the New Jewish Exile

These essays about Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union offer a golden opportunity for readers to shed some stubborn stereotypes.

'The New Victims,' by Zoya Cherkassky-Nnadi. Artwork shows olim coming off an El Al flight.
Courtesy of the Rosenfeld Gallery

“The New Jewish Diaspora: Russian-Speaking Immigrants in the United States, Israel and Germany,” edited by Zvi Gitelman, Rutgers University Press, 319 pps., $33

In the early 20th century, the Russian Empire was home to five million Jews. Today there are fewer than 400,000 in the former Soviet Union. Where did they all go? The previous century offered an impressive catalog of options for being relegated to oblivion, and what with the wars, the constant pressure to forgo religious identity, the anti-Semitism, the purges and so on – many of the Jews who survived in the country dreamed of leaving. The waves of Jewish émigrés washed up on the shores of Bat Yam and Brighton Beach as soon as departure became possible, in the 1990s. They also set down stakes in Berlin.

This is the story underlying “The New Jewish Diaspora” – the tale of immigrants to three countries, as told and interpreted by sociologists, anthropologists, demographers, political scientists, historians and cultural scholars. A group of these scholars gathered five years ago at Harvard University for the first-ever academic conference on the subject; the book under review is a collection of the articles and papers that were presented there. Although not necessarily intended for the lay reader, it contains a wealth of information and insight that cast different aspects of this immigration in a new light, and makes for a most intriguing read.

It’s a loaded topic from just about every possible angle, entailing a wide variety of beliefs, ideologies and trends, and it starts with the need to translate the term “diaspora” into Hebrew, in the context of both those from the FSU who immigrated to Israel and elsewhere. Pezura would be the most literal translation, but instead people usually refer to it as gola or galut – the “exile” – a term that connotes forced emigration, Jews being torn away from their ancient homeland. “Exile” implies that one left one’s homeland because it was no longer possible to live there, but not necessarily that there was an inherent promise of a better life elsewhere. None of these definitions are apt to describe the departure of Jews from the FSU, their choices of destination, or what happened later to them as olim (immigrants to Israel) who had left a crumbling totalitarian state.

Add to this conceptual vagueness theories by some scholars who see the life in the Jewish Diaspora as the optimal existence for such people, and those in Israel who see it as undermining Jewish survival – and you’ve got yourself a hot topic, rife with academic squabbles. And these are evident in the pages of this book, as when Prof. Zvi Gitelman, the editor of the collection, takes to task “some academics, perhaps aiming to fit into the mold of the alienated, marginalized intellectual (who nevertheless draws a nice university salary).” That barb is directed mainly at Daniel Boyarin, a historian of religion, and his brother, anthropologist Jonathan Boyarin, who are leading proponents of a theory that stresses the great advantages of the Diaspora. The Boyarins will make further appearances in the book, too, as a number of different scholars criticize them indirectly in their articles.

Let’s begin with some numbers. The data presented here show that, unsurprisingly, the country to which the majority of immigrants from the former Soviet Union came during the years in question is Israel; that out of 2.9 million people who belong to this Diaspora and came to Israel, only 1.6 million define themselves as Jews; and that those who chose to leave Israel and return to their homeland did not do because of problems with identity or fear of Israel’s wars, but simply out of the desire to improve their economic situation.

Who is staying in this country? Who is packing their bags again and returning to the country of their birth? Clearly, definitions of Jewish identity play a key role in the decision to stay or leave Israel, but in this story, too – as the article by social anthropologist Marina Sapritzky entitled “Home in the Diaspora?” shows – there are many surprises. Sapritzky looked at the community life of immigrants who returned to Odessa after spending years in Israel, and found that for some their Jewish self-definition had been strengthened, and they were making an effort to maintain the Hebrew they learned and to keep up their connection with the Jewish state. Sapritzky seeks to reexamine what the ideas of “home” and “homeland” mean to these immigrants.

Indeed, as historian Jonathan Dekel-Chen’s article, “Rethinking Boundaries in the Jewish Diaspora from the FSU,” shows, “diaspora” is not solely a geographical concept. It’s primarily a state of mind, and while most of the immigrants in question do not maintain a religiously observant lifestyle, the “glue” of identity is mostly tribal in nature, based on shared memories from the land of origin. Thus, communities in places as disparate as Brighton Beach, Bat Yam and Berlin become culturally autarkic – they live completely “Russian” lives.

Even so, when they come to America, it seems, Russian-born Jews really do try to adopt certain elements of American identity. In contrast, Israeli-born individuals who immigrated to the United States tend to perceive their stay there as temporary. They often head for the suburbs where they continue to miss their homeland intensely.

In this collection, in addition to articles that deal with immigrants’ elusive identities, there is a fascinating piece by Anna Shternshis, a scholar of Yiddish, titled “Virtual Village in a Real World: The Russian Jewish Diaspora Online,” about the web Diaspora space. The work of several immigrant writers who have stirred interest not only in the Diaspora and in translation, but in their lands of origin too, is also discussed. And all of this, one should remember, is still very preliminary.

In a book such as this, I would have also liked to find some discussion of the drama of relations between new immigrants and old-timers, an examination of the different stereotypes that have adhered to these immigrants in their new countries, and insight into the second generation and how its members have or have not assimilated in the Diaspora chosen for them by their parents. All this will apparently have to await future academic conferences.