On the Challenges of Russian-Jewish Cultural Conservatism
For the last couple of years, I have been sitting on a committee that seeks to unite the Russian-speaking Jewish community of Los Angeles through carefully designed events and educational programing. Among the many discussions had, a leading conversation involves the preservation of Russian-Jewish identity.
When it comes to our Russian identity, we tell jokes about the Soviet Union, listen to Russian songs from our parents’ generation, recall the Soviet Jewish movement and its impact on the American Jewish community, marvel at the giant Russian writers, and relish in our collective love for borscht and pelmeni (Russian dumplings). We pull at the emotional strings of what it means to hold onto an amorphous Russian identity. Conversely, when it comes to our Jewish counterpart, though on the whole quite diverse, we are united by customs and rituals. Of course, no one is asking us to choose one over another, but in terms of cultural conservatism, ritual “is best understood as an authoritative mode of symbolic discourse and a powerful instrument for the evocation of those sentiments out of which society is constructed” (“On Ritual and Social Stability,” Bruce Lincoln). Put differently, ritual is the fabric of cultural continuity — a vessel to preserve a culture.
The centrality of ritual in relation to Jewish identity became paramount on a recent Jewish Leadership trip to Israel through the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Among the many sights visited, we stopped at Mt. Herzl, a cemetery for Israeli soldiers. As we left the cemetery, regardless of their religious levels of observance, participants partook in the Jewish ritual of hand-washing, a custom that symbolizes a spiritual cleansing. After I had asked some why they had done this, they said that is what “we [Jews] do when we leave the cemetery.” Indeed, even when it comes to ritual, doing is what we are instructed to do.
To offer a few examples of how ritual performance contributes powerfully to the maintenance of a society, I turn to a series of Jewish rituals such as laying tefillin every morning, lighting Shabbat candles, havdalah, washing hands before meals, breaking a glass under a wedding canopy in order to remember the destruction of the Second Temple, facing Jerusalem when praying, and countless other rituals of our spiritual beliefs, which have sustained Jewish identity through the ages.
When it comes to Russian identity, however, the lack of ritual contributes to a waning affiliation of those born to parents or grandparents from the former Soviet Union. Reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, eating pelmeni, watching Cheburashka, and singing Katyusha are all wonderful, but do not constitute ritual. Through my seven years in a Russian Language and Literature PhD program at UCLA, my professors were American-born and, like many Russians, read the great Russian writers in the original texts, love a good bowl of borscht, are experts in Russian and/or Soviet history, speak Russian almost without an accent, and can decode Russian jokes with the ease of a native Russian speaker. And yet they are not Russian. They are Americans.
Finally, and perhaps most illustrative of how ritual contributes to preservation are the pilgrimages taken by Jews from around the world to Israel. To put this into perspective, Russian non-Jews living abroad will not send their kids to a Russian birthright program to visit Moscow and St. Petersburgh. Likewise, Russians living outside of Russia for several generations do not identify Russia as their homeland. Jews on the other hand, have been historically conditioned to long for Zion and as such, Israel is one of several dominant features of Jewish identity.
Although one may object to my placing ritual at the center of Jewish cultural and religious preservation by stating that unlike the monotheistic religions or national identities worldwide, Jewishness hinges upon the notion of a religion and a people. I do not argue with this position. Indeed, Jews are both a people (Am Yisroel) and a religious group, which has, to wit, surely contributed to their historical plight. But if they were just a nation and not a religious group, they would, like the Capayan people or the Khmer Empire, to name a few, vanish. It is, therefore, precisely because of ritual, which is intrinsically and categorically conservative in nature, that Jews persist.
On our committee, there are those who seek to uphold our Russian identity. They urge for language preservation, arguing that through language we can maintain our Russianness. They are not incorrect. Language, as has been seen in the revival of Hebrew at the turn of the century, is a major vehicle for national identity formation. But the difference between the Hebrew revival in the early 20th century and the desire to preserve Russian abroad boils down to intention. The intention of reviving Hebrew was to build a national identity in the newly envisioned homeland of Palestine; contrary to this, the intention to preserve Russian is to conserve a language outside of its national homeland. Furthermore, as chair of Jewish History at the University of Colorado, Bolder, David Shneer argues, “Russian is becoming the Yiddish of now. Russian is the global lingua franca of the Jewish Diaspora.” Shneer’s astute observation crystalized when I asked my then 4-year old son how he knew that we were Jewish. “Because,” he said, “you speak Russian.”
Serving on the committee is an honor because I am surrounded by fellow Russian-speaking Jews who care very deeply about their community. As a scholar of Russian-Jewish history and literature, I am often asked about the future of Russian-speaking Jews abroad. For the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, this is an important question because, in order to integrate and engage Russian-speaking Jews in their programs, they need to understand this community and its specific needs. To be sure, I am not arguing that there is no such thing as a Russian identity, nor am I advocating for people to choose one over another. What I am stating, however, is that because ritual is absent in the make-up of Russian identity, those groups who identify themselves as “Russian-Jews” will diminish and integrate into the larger American Jewish community.