Russian Jews and the Cultural Code

I’m taking it out of the comments under the last video on Culture Code. There was an argument with Konstantin Sh. over nationality. His comment:

But we Jews who repatriated from the former Soviet Union do not have such a (Russian) identity. I do not consider myself a Russian in any way. And I do not consider myself to be a Uzbek in any way. The vast majority of Russian-speaking Jews in Israel identify themselves the same way. For decades, we had great difficulty in explaining this to the native Israelis, so that they would not call us “Russians”. Now only those who want to offend us or the completely illiterate riffraff call us that. Cultured people refer to us as “dobray russit” (Russian speakers), or “yotzei brit amoatzot” (natives of the Soviet Union).

My answer:

“But we Jews who repatriated from the territories of the former Soviet Union do not have such an identity” – don’t speak for everyone. Speak only for yourself. I understand that it is now fashionable to cantilate and deny one’s (nominal or real) Russianness, but such generalizations about everyone are at least irrelevant.

Konstantin Sh:
I have reason to speak even if not for all of them, but for most of my fellow countrymen. Because there were times, right after the arrival of the great Aliyah from the USSR, when this issue was discussed in the media, on television and in the newspapers. This has nothing to do with the current situation at all. I remember once, in the early 90s, watching a program on a Hebrew Israeli TV channel. It was a talk show, like Urgant. The guest host was a not very old woman, talking about topics related to medicine. And as she was talking, she said: “Russian doctors,” referring to doctors who came from the Soviet Union. Immediately there was a lot of talking and noise in the hall. The woman did not immediately understand what was wrong, what she had said? What exactly the audience did not like? And people began to shout out to her from the audience what it was that they did not like. She immediately apologized, and corrected herself: “Yes, yes, of course, sorry, I meant to say repatriate doctors from the USSR.

My answer:
1) to speak for the majority, one needs to conduct a sociological study with a correct sample
2) it may have been more common in aliyah in the 90s. current aliyah consists largely of the grandchildren of Jews, who consider themselves Russian people with Jewish roots. And these Russians become Israelis in the first place. They can become Jews in the cultural sense (culture is a very broad concept, which includes everything – language, habits, traditions, food, movies, books, etc.). They can become Jews in the religious sense (convert to Christianity). Staying Russian at the same time. There is nothing strange about that. I would say so – if a person comes to Israel – and completely stops to communicate in Russian – then yes, this person ceases to be a Russian to some extent, loses this identity. But if the person regularly uses Russian in communication – his Russian cultural code remains unchanged. At the same time he can expand it, become a multicultural person (multiculturalism in a good sense). I think that a person who was born and raised in Russia/USSR, even with all the cancelling and erasing of everything Russian from his life – still remains Russian in many ways – because of the fact that he grew up, was brought up… lived in the country.

When people emigrate, they adopt a new national identity (e.g. Israeli), but this does not mean that they completely lose their Russian cultural identity. They can maintain a connection to Russian culture and language, which allows them to retain their Russian cultural code.

Konstantin Sh:
I agree with you in many respects. But there are also objections 🙂 First, the argument about sociological research is correct, but it is double-edged. You didn’t do a study either, before you said, “you are all Russian Jews” 🙂 Regarding Russian Israelis, I certainly agree 100%. Many Russian Israelis are becoming fine citizens that Israel can and should be proud of. And I will be the first to throw a stone at anyone who somehow discriminates against or offends Russian Israelis because they are not Jewish, or not entirely Jewish, or even less so, not halakhic Jews. Just recently, we were all mourning for a Russian guy who was killed in a terrorist attack and who shielded his fiancée from a terrorist bullet. Thousands of Israelis of different nationalities came to his funeral.

But no, Jews who were born and raised in the USSR did not become Russians. Even though their native language is Russian, and even though they have read more Russian writers than Jewish ones, and watched more Russian movies than any other… We were not considered Russians in the USSR, and we were poked in the face by our Jewishness throughout our lives. My neighbor, Dima Abramson, was beaten up at school just because he was an Abramson. I, thank God, avoided that, because my last name is not obviously Jewish. But the hatred, the contempt, the humiliation from people who somehow found out about my nationality was enough for me, too. One period, in high school, I became friends with two good Russian boys from the parallel class. They didn’t know about my nationality at first. And we got along fine. One day, the three of us were walking in the park. And I saw them walking away from me, and they were whispering about something. Then they come up to me and ask me in a serious tone: “Kostya, tell us the truth, as friends, are you the Antichrist?”

Okay, we can talk about anti-Semitism in the USSR for a long time, that’s not the point now. Let’s return to culture. If you look closely at Russian culture during the Soviet era, you will notice that many of the most prominent cultural figures – artists, directors, composers, singers, musicians – are of Jewish ethnicity. So it’s still a question – were Jews brought up in Russian culture, or were Russians brought up in partly Jewish culture 🙂 .

I don’t consider myself any Russian or any Uzbek. Just like a scientist who specializes in the study of some people, who knows the language and culture of that people well, does not become a representative of that people himself. We have Ksenia Svetlova, a journalist and Arabist who knows Arabic fluently and has studied Arab culture in depth. She did not become an Arab in any way. In the same way, I did not become Russian by reading Pushkin and Dostoyevsky and watching the films of Tarkovsky and Bondarchuk. I don’t feel connected to this culture. But with Jewish culture, yes, I do. Because at my grandmother’s house there was always Jewish music at Idish, at Passover we ate matzah, at Rosh-ah-shana we had stuffed fish, at Hanukkah my grandfather gave me some change, my grandfather tried to teach me Hebrew, and the way of life, all relations in the family, all our values were different from those of my Russian friends, but they were the same with those of my Jewish friends, acquaintances, and relatives. I never considered or felt that I was Russian. As a bearer of some Russian culture, maybe. But not a Russian person. I am not a Russian Jew. I am a Jew familiar with Russian culture. And even if I can’t speak for others, and even if I’m so one-of-a-kind, nevertheless, you can’t say to your audience, “you are all Russian Jews,” if I am part of that audience 🙂 You can say, “you are all Russian, Jewish, Russian-Jewish, and members of other nationalities.” I remembered: in official speech in the USSR it was not customary to use the word “Jew” at all, because it was widely regarded as abusive. That is why the media used to say: “Russians, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Georgians… and persons of Jewish nationality” 🙂 .

This has nothing to do with modern-day cantankerousness or blotting out, and everything to do with the current war. The war is a big, separate subject, better left unaddressed so as not to stir up passions. I’m not trying to blurt anything out. I communicate in Russian, watch movies, videos, and read books in Russian because it’s easier and more comfortable for me. But it doesn’t make me a Russian person. You yourself, in your first answer, wrote that everyone has the right to determine his nationality. Well, my nationality is not Russian-Jewish, but Jewish. And I know for a fact that I am not alone. I hope I didn’t overburden you with such a long answer, and thank you for finishing it 🙂

My response:
1) Konstantin, I don’t really understand why you cite unreliable information. Your quote: “…You also did not do research before you stated: “you are all Russian Jews”…”. I did not state that anywhere. I did not have such a quote. What is the point of putting what I did not say in quotes?

2) “We were not considered Russians in the USSR, and were poked in the face by our Jewishness throughout our lives.” I am very sympathetic to people who have suffered from Nazism, xenophobia, chauvinism, racism, and other oppression on any grounds. But that is not an argument for cancelling ALL people of any ethnicity and generalizing your negative experiences to entire nations. I strongly dislike your tendency to generalize. You are very fond of using words like “all” and phrases like “…the Jews who were born and raised in the USSR did not become Russians. It stings the eye. Many Russian Jews became/ consider themselves to be Russians. I know such people personally. But there are also those who can’t forgive anti-Semitism and don’t consider themselves Russians (I personally don’t know such people). Okay. Russian (including Russian Jews) people who are now being chased and harassed also have similar feelings and do not recognize the national characteristics of other countries, regardless of kinship and/or cultural code. There are people who return from emigration back to Russia despite the dangers of the current situation. These are individual cases, they occur, but they are not a single truth or law of the universe.

3) “So it’s still a question – were Jews raised in Russian culture, or were Russians raised in partly Jewish culture?” For me, the question of a person’s DNA is not important (although it is important to some for (mostly) religious reasons). I care about a person’s cultural layer. It’s funny that you yourself (ashamedly for some reason) acknowledge the existence of Russian Jewry, calling it partly Jewish culture.

4) “I don’t consider myself any Russian.” This is your right. The right of your personal self-determination. To each his own, you just need to generalize less 🙂 There are many people who consider themselves Russian Jews. By the way, I recommend Parfenov’s film “Russian Jews.

5) About Arabists or people who study culture, because that’s their job – if people adopt another country’s culture and identify with it, they may change their identity to some extent. Or they may not. If you are an adult, you have an established cultural code, you may be resistant to the world around you; if you are a child and you grew up in a country, you will most likely absorb its cultural layer one way or another. Again, most likely.

6) I think a lot of people’s perception of their identity is largely based on negative experiences they’ve had. Seeing the whole world or all people of a country through the prism of their negative experiences is wrong in my opinion, although we humans tend to do this. I recently received a comment with a link to a video of an alleged “rabbi” Daniel Bulochnik, who promotes the following theme: “Every Jew should have 2800 goyim slaves” (google the video, I don’t want to link to that). Crazy freaks are everywhere; there are sects that essentially foment anti-Semitism. That’s not to say that we should set our worldview on one person or negative experience at a time. By doing so, we are essentially sinking to the primitive level of shallow people who look at the world through the prism of chauvinism.

All people are equal. Nationality is first and foremost an individual’s self-determination. There is no need to impose our point of view on anyone and generalize everyone “in the same way.

May all flowers bloom 🙂

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