Talking ‘Bout My Generation: Perspectives from Jewish People with Fourth-Wave Soviet Families: Part I

For my final, two-part essay in this project, I decided to take the community component of my Tikkun fellowship one step further by learning about the perspectives and ideas from my peers. I gathered responses from Jewish adults whose families came to the United States in the fourth and final wave of Soviet immigration* from two categories: those who were born in the United States and who came to the United States with their families at seven years old or younger.

Initially, I thought I would focus only on those who were born in the United States with family who immigrated from the former Soviet Union, but found that it would be valuable to expand my reach to those who experienced most of their childhood, adolescence, and adulthood in American society. I chose to focus on seven years old and younger specifically because human memories tend to start solidifying at that age.**

I shared this survey across social media and email wildly, posting it to different groups and asking my social connections to share it with those that fit the persona. Between November 23, 2018 and February 3, 2019, I received 34 valid responses.***

・・・

I am currently 25 years old. I got responses from Jewish adults between the ages of 19 and 37. The most responses came from adults aged 25 and 26.

I’m currently located in the Chicagoland metropolitan area. I got responses from people located in major metropolitan cities across North America, including Austin, San Francisco area, New York City, Chicago, Denver area, Philadelphia, and Toronto, Canada. The most responses came from the Chicago area.

My family came to Chicago in 1992. Responders and their families came to the United States and/or North America between 1979 to 1999. The most responses were for 1993 and the second most responses were for 1996.

My family came from Kyiv, Ukraine. Responders said that they and/or their families came from various places in the Soviet Union: Moscow, Russia; Chișinău, Moldova; Gomel, Belarus; Kyiv, Ukraine; Zhitomir, Ukraine; Orsk, Russia; Azerbaijan; St. Petersburg, Russia; Berdychiv, Ukraine; Kazan, Russia; Krivoy Rig, Ukraine; Minsk, Belarus; Tajikistan; Donetsk, Ukraine; Rostov, Russia; Uzhgorod, Ukraine, and Odessa, Ukraine. In a majority, 8 responders said they came from Moscow, Russia and 6 said they came from Kyiv, Ukraine. In an overall majority, 16 responders said they came from Ukraine and 14 said they came from Russia.

My family applied to be religious refugees with the American embassy in 1989, and were called in for their appointment in 1992. Their number was 10,000 in line. They went to the American consulate in Moscow, Russia and cited moments of anti-semitism, where my family members were rejected from universities and jobs because of the Jewish ethnic marker on their passports. They had to go through a medical checkup, as well. My mom says that when they found out about their approval to leave the Soviet Union, it was the happiest day in her life.

In short answer responses, my peers shared stories of how their families came to North America. Most people said their family and/or parents came as refugees. Some came directly to the United States. Others went through other countries, like Austria and Italy. Some families came on a green card. Most had no clue how they would pay rent or feed their families when they landed in the United States. Ambient anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union was frequently cited as the root cause of a family’s departure.

Amidst the shared experiences, certain stories responders were unique, detailing even more difficult paths for their family’s arrivals to North America. One person’s family defected from the former Soviet Union, where they went abroad “for a conference,” then applied for refugee status in the United States.

Another person’s parents came to the University of Pittsburgh on a student visa; their dad was able to find employment immediately after his doctorate.

Rather than coming to the United States as refugees, one person’s family moved to Israel in 1995 to be with their extended family, then moved to United States later on.

Another responder mentioned that their family came as refugees through HIAS, a Jewish American nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian aid and assistance to refugees.

Another reported their father being chased by the Russian mafia.

I didn’t expect the tales of otkazniks and refuseniks. One responder mentioned that their father was an otkaznik and had a five-year travel ban, which ended in 1994. In order to leave the Soviet Union before it collapsed (around 1979), one needed to pay 10,000 rubles (the median salary would have been ~100 rubles per month in the 1970s). There were windows of time that people were allowed to leave the country and other times they were not. Those who had already organized to leave and were blacklisted from work and housing were unable to leave legally while the borders were closed; they were considered otkazniks. This person’s family arrived in the United States as stateless refugees. Another responder reported that their parents were refuseniks for 14 years before they got refugee status. Refuseniks was an unofficial term for individuals, typically Soviet Jews, who were denied permission to emigrate, primarily to Israel, by the Soviet Union.

Growing up with the struggles of my own family’s story and hearing such vastly similar and different stories from my peers further illustrates to me the reasons for which so many Jewish families fled the Soviet Union.

My family came to Chicago, where they settled in the West Rogers Park neighborhood amongst other Jewish people from Soviet bloc countries.

Responders said their families came to many locations across North America, including Chicago, Illinois; New York City, New York (many Brooklynites); Louisville, Kentucky; Detroit, Michigan; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Columbus, Ohio; Indiana; Oakland, California; Massachusetts; Arizona; Los Angeles, California; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Portland, Oregon; Denver, Colorado; Elizabeth, New Jersey; Washington D.C., and Monsey, New York. The cities that received the most votes were Chicago (10) and New York City (8).

I spoke Russian in my home, growing up, although my maternal grandma also spoke Yiddish, my great aunt spoke Ukrainian, and my dad spoke both Ukrainian and Russian.

Russian was not the only language spoken amongst responders with their families at home (though it was the overwhelming majority: 100% of responders said they spoke Russian with their families). Other languages were Yiddish, Hebrew, English, Spanish, and Hungarian. The majority of responders learned to speak Russian before they learned to speak English or other languages.

My family upholds a blend of different traditions in the new world. We started to celebrate Hannukah, Rosh Hoshanah, and Yom Kippur, as my parents learned more about Judaism as a religion in their first years in Chicago. We also celebrate the Soviet celebration of New Year’s Eve, Noviy God (complete with my beloved yolka, or New Year tree), as well as International Women’s Day and the Celebration of Spring and Labor (May 1/2). My family now celebrates Thanksgiving as an excuse for family and family friends to gather around distinctly non-traditional Thanksgiving foods and mostly Soviet foods. I also distinctly remember the superstitions we practiced that came from a combination of our backgrounds.

Responders varied from matching my answers to adding their own unique elements. Most responders mentioned that they celebrate a combination of Jewish holidays, like Shabbat, Hannukah, Rosh Hoshanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Passover, but many said they do not go to temple/synagogue.

“Seldom did we celebrate Jewish holidays because my own family had to hide their religious identities due to Stalin’s 1935 ban on religion,” one person said, perhaps giving one reason to why so many secular, post-Soviet Jews celebrate Jewish holidays.

Another person mentioned that their family celebrated the Jewish holidays without “emphasis of religion, just culture and transliteration of prayers from the Russian newspaper/calendar.”

One person did mention going to synagogue/temple on high holidays when they were growing up. Another person mentioned celebrating Jewish holidays religiously, as their family was Orthodox in the Soviet Union and continues to be religious today.

“I went to a private Jewish elementary school from grades kindergarten through third grade,” one responder wrote. “I learned Hebrew, as well as about the religion and culture. I brought a lot of that home, so we celebrated Pesach, Hanukkah, and Rosh Hashanah. I remember going to synagogue with my mom on a few high holidays. After we moved and I went to public school, we stopped celebrating holidays. My mom makes latkes and we’ll light the menorah occasionally, and we’ll celebrate Passover every once in a while, but both my parents were raised in the Soviet Union and are atheists. We don’t talk about religion or God at home. My cousin grew up more religious and has become observant as she’s gotten older, but the rest of the family is [secular].”

Most responders mentioned celebrating Noviy God, one person said it “has always been the apex of the holiday season” for them.

“I loved watching my parents celebrating when I was a child, and we continue celebrating together now,” they said.

“Although my mom cannot stand Ironiya sudby, ili S lyogkim parom! (The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!),” another person added, citing a movie that Soviets typically watch annually on New Year’s Eve.

“A huge family ordeal,” a different responder said. “We feast late, watch Russian concerts [on Russian language television] and NYE [countdowns] in the United States. We open presents after midnight.”

Like in my family, we typically had someone dress up as Ded Moroz and Snegurochka. One responder mentioned that their grandpa dressed up as Ded Moroz and their dad was Snegurochka.

One person mentioned how their family used to celebrate Hannukah by lighting a menorah and giving each other gifts on New Year’s Eve, but currently they do not uphold the New Year’s Eve traditions and continue the tradition of Hannukah with their own, growing family. A few echoed the sentiment that they no longer celebrate New Year’s Eve and do not have a “Christmas tree” in their home for the holidays.

A few mentioned celebrating Maslenitsa, Halloween, Thanksgiving, International Women’s Day, Victory Day (May 9), and calling the men in their family on February 23 (Defender of the Fatherland Day).

“We did Thanksgiving like it was Pesach II, without turkey or traditional American foods,” one person said. “Just a state-sanctioned excuse for a family reunion with food (my baba made golubtsy and pumpkin pie).”

One responder mentioned celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday and Hannukah as a family/cultural holiday.

As for superstitions, as one person said, families seem to have been “superstitious about EVERYTHING.”

People brought up never leaving your keys on the table (bad omens of financial loss and tears), stepping on someone’s foot if they stepped on yours first (so you don’t fight), never celebrating a birthday early (this was bad luck, so birthday parties the weekend before were not allowed), don’t sit on cold ground (you won’t be able to have children), if a bird poops on your car you will have money, if you have hiccups someone is remembering you, don’t whistle in the hoss (bad omen of financial loss), spitting over one’s shoulders three times before re-entering a house (to ward off evil or the “evil eye”), looking in the mirror before re-exiting a house (to also ward off evil” letting the cat in first when we moved, a cat washing their face before guests arrive, not bringing home peacock feathers or certain types of plants (bad omen), no umbrellas open in the house, no empty bottles on the table, knocking on wood (for good luck), pu pu pu (to rid yourself of bad luck), stepping on another person’s feet if they stepped on yours by accident (to avoid fighting), not cutting tags off of clothes while you’re still wearing them, dropping a spoon (this means an old woman will come visit you), never saying goodbye through a door frame, and sitting together before travelling (for good luck).

“One tradition thing that I still do is any time I am going on a trip somewhere else, я сижу на дороге,” one person said. “I’ll sit down and reflect on the trip to come before leaving the house.”

Some traditions were not holiday-based or superstition-based, but more ingrained in the culture. For instance, one person mentioned constant tea drinking, going on long walks for no reason (pragulka), never hiring baby sitters or house cleaners, defining a man’s work versus a woman’s work, Russian salami/bologna sandwiches for lunch, and making toasts with very long speeches (often poems) on special and commemorative occasions (always clinking glass except when honoring someone’s life after death).

Learning about others upheld traditions and holidays mirrors a lot of my own family’s experiences, things I didn’t think about until considering survey responders’ answers. For instance, though my immediate family is secular, we have extended family that has become more religious since their arrival to the United States. Often times, those family members stop upholding some of our traditions and focus more on Jewish holidays. But as for superstitions and drinking tea, that stays constant throughout my family. Funny how some customs are hard to let go of.

Growing up, Soviet films, music, and books were an integral part of my childhood. My parents influenced my taste in music early on, with groups/artists like Boney M, Секрет (Secret), Verka Serduchka, Alla Pugacheva, Valery Meladze, and Vladimir Vysotsky.

I watched films (mostly animated children’s films) like Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors, Cinderella, Varvara Krasa Dlinnaya Kosa, The Golden Horns, Winnie the Pooh, The Bremen Town Musicians, Cheburashka, Nu, pogodi!, Kot Leopold, Karlsson-on-the-Roof, Operation Y and Shurik’s Other Adventures, The Diamond Arm, Three from Prostokvashino, and The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!. By nighttime, I was raised on Alexander Pushkin’s fairytales and short stories.

For live action films, responders mentioned a lot of Soviet-era cinema. People mentioned films like Operation Y and Shurik’s Other Adventures, The Diamond Arm, The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!, Likvidatsiy, Beregis’ Avtomobil’ (the Russian version of Roman Holiday), Ivan Vasilievich Menayat Professyu, Kavkazkaya Plenitza, Solaris, and Tanya Tretevei Planeti.

Almost everyone brought up their love of Soviet animated films (mostly made for children), like Nu, pogodi!, Cheburashka, Winnie the Pooh, Karlsson-on-the-Roof, The Bremen Town Musicians, Old Khottabych, Three from Prostokvashino, The Pokrovsky Gate, Hedgehog in the Fog, Ma-ma, Kot Leopold, the Russian comedy films directed by Leonid Gaidai, (Russian-version) Pippi Longstocking, Neznaika, Doktor Aibolit, The Mole, Blue Puppy, Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future, and Masha and the Bear.

“And of course I bought all the standard Soviet animated series on DVDs for my kids [to watch] one day,” someone added after listing their favorite animated stories.

People also loved skazki, or children’s fairytales, that they read in illustrated books and/or watched in animated cartoons. Alexander Pushkin was well known in canon of children’s literature, including his story The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish and The Captain’s Daughter.

“I don’t have much that I remember from growing up,” one responder said. “But I do recall my mother reading me fairy tales from a big book by Pushkin.

Others cited Russian literature they grew up reading or later read in life, like works by Tolstoy, Gogol, Lermontov, Chekhov, Akhmatova, Gorky, Turgenev, Bulgakov, and Silver Age poets. One responder mentioned having books on Soviet and World War II history books around the house.

“My grandpa’s doing,” they said, referencing the World War II history books. “I was never as big a fan of them as he was.”

As for music, the amount of people that admitted listening to Alla Pugacheva was interesting, though not entirely surprising. Pugacheva captivated an entire generation (and thusly their children).

“I listened to a lot of Alla Pugacheva CDs,” one responder said.

“Also, extremely embarrassingly, I loved Alla Pugacheva,” another added.

Others mentioned Verka Serduchka, Visstosky, Gorodetesky, Anna German, soundtracks from films like The Diamond Arm and The Irony of Fate.

“Basically any sad, Russian poetry set to Bard-style, acoustic guitar,” one person said.

Responders also mentioned the blend of disco/rock music that thrived in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, like Boney M, Deep Purple, and DDT.

Only two responders did not mention media they consumed when their family came from the Soviet Union.

“Soviet culture was discouraged in my family,” the first person said. “The [Soviet Union] was considered the oppressor and there were lots of bad feelings towards Russian culture.”

“I never really watched or listened to much Soviet media once we came to the United States,” the second person said.

Learning about the majority of responders experiences with media my and their families had grown up with was like a trip down memory lane. I was reminded of stories and music I had forgotten about it. For the two responders who did not engage with Soviet media, I tried to think about how different I would be without the stories and art I grew up with. The storylines of the films and music my family passed onto me shaped my love of art. On the other hand, I understand the mindset of not wanting to consume propaganda. The balance between what Soviet people were allowed to make in the media versus freedom of artistic expression found a subtle balance amidst the media I enjoyed growing up.

My family and I still watch movies and listen to music together; some from my childhood, some new media they want to share with me. I try to limit our conversations surrounding politics in the United States, as disagreements often lead to intense conflict. In general, we enjoy talking about art, travel, philosophy, comedy, and of course, food.

Where there is a Soviet, there is food or the discussion of it. Food was a common topic mentioned by responders.

“Food brings joy and my family is growing, so it’s great to have my daughter around my parents and grandparents,” one responder said.

“[We talk about] what kind of food they had available in the former Soviet Union,” another responder said. “I realize their access to food is so much more limited. But I find that intriguing. I have cod liver and sprats fairly often when I visit my parents. But when eating [a specific] food seldom comes, that food becomes that much more of a delicacy. I wonder what those foods were in [the former Soviet Union]. My family likes food.”

Other responders mentioned food in relation to the hardships of living in the Soviet Union.

“My parents recently started talking about be hardships in living and getting food while in Ukraine,” one person said. “I enjoy discussing how my grandparents daily lives were in the Soviet Union, because it was so different from my life growing up in the US.”

Others mentioned how they loved hearing about the things their family members did for fun growing up, talking to them about their history, their individual upbringings, who their friends were in the Soviet Union, and how their relationships have changed since immigrating.

“I learn more about the country they grew up in, personal family history,” one responder said. “I also get an understanding of what kind of struggles Jews faced in the USSR and how that related to my own personal issues.”

“Most of my parents’ friends moved to the States,” another added. “It’s intriguing learning how they have changed since the Soviet Union. Perhaps for my own sake… so I can prepare for what’s to come for myself.”

In topics of the here and now, responders mentioned discussing career advancement, business, and money management with their family, based on their experiences immigrating to the United States. Other responders mentioned discussing Yiddishkeit, health, house projects, philosophy, religion, art, music, and politics.

“We also have pretty interesting political discussions about socialism and American politics,” one responder said. “I find that they’re very well informed and have interesting views on domestic politics. They were very skeptical of my studying Political Science in college, but are fine with it now that I’m planning on going to Law School.”

“It’s cordial and pleasant but distant and we are conflict-avoidant,” one person said.

Many responders mentioned what they do not discuss with their families.

“We fight about everything, no matter what it is,” one responder said. “We all have extremely different opinions about everything.”

“When I avoid really touchy subjects, we end up having a really good time and just joking with one another,” another responder added.”

Some mentioned not seeing eye to eye with their families; others mentioned various levels of emotional abuse and completing avoiding discussions with their family.

“I don’t like talking about politics with my family because they (understandably) are much more conservative than me and my sister after growing up in the Soviet Union,” one person said.

Another responder mentioned not discussing their weight with their family.

“Boy, is it just Russian parents who comment on every pound their child has gained or lost?” they said. “Sheesh. It makes me feel self-conscious.”

Body image, feelings, and mental illness were common topics responders said they avoid discussing with family.

“I feel embarrassed to tell my parents some mental health kind of things,” one responder said. “Probably because I want to present an image of being healthier than I am. Mentally. Physically.”

While some responders said they were comfortable discussing politics with their familiies, an overwhelming amount of responders said they avoided discussing politics with their family when they could.

“After seeing the disaster of the USSR as a communist state they see any “socialist” movement in the political Left as inching back toward the way the USSR was,” one person said.

“American politics,” another responder said, adding to the list of political discussion points many responders avoid wiith family. “They’re a bunch of Trumpkins.”

“Though I can get some stuff through to my grandma if I express it in the right way,” another responder said, mentioning they avoid discussing their queerness and transness with their family, “She’ll throw a fit if I mention going to Pride, but I got her to admit she thinks transphobia is awful. She came with me to a very lefty vigil for Pittsburgh where we openly named killed Gazan kids in the Mourner’s Kaddish and where one speaker was an imam, and she only had positive things to say. My mom is entirely unreachable, though.”

Many brought up not discussing politics in relaiton to Israel and Palestine, in particular.

“We also don’t talk about Israel,” one person said. “They idolize it, in a sense. As a progressive, I don’t share their views and find that they are incapable of having a rational conversation about the topic. They’ve never been there but see it as some mythical haven that can’t be touched.”

“My family and I have drastically different political views,” another said. “My parents tempers are incredibly short and their patience is practically non-existent, so hard political conversations are never productive. Any conversations that touch any of those subjects I listed usually end in a screaming match.”

In culmination, a few responders mentioned not discussing anything that would be heavily emotional, political, or religious.

“It escalates into a screaming match, always, and there’s no point in arguing because we’re all too stubborn to be swayed,” one person said.

I, too, have many topics I avoid discussing with family, in particular, American politics, climate change, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I’ve been able to discuss certain Leftist economic and social issues with my mother and other specific members of my family, but it’s been in glimpses, small moments when I knew that all parties were open to hearing each other’s perspectives (me included). In general, I find it easier for my family’s happiness to discuss topics outside of politics, be it art, life building, career building, travel, and their immigrant journies.

・・・

For the next installment of this essay, the survey responses will focus more heavily on the Jewish part of the experience for children of Soviet-Jewish immigrants.

*“Since late 1988, when the Kremlin began to relax emigration restrictions, hundreds of thousands of people have flooded into Europe and the United States from the territory of the former Soviet Union.” From the 1992 New York Times article “From Russia with Hope: In America to Stay — A special report; Seeking Shelter in U.S. After the Soviet Storm.”

**This information is based on current psychological research.

***In total, I received 44 responses, but unfortunately, 10 were not included as they did not meet the age or background specifications. Any responses received after February 3, 2019 were not counted as part of the analysis in this essay.

Danielle Levsky’s “Identity Diaspora”

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With my family, community and my own rich experiences in mind, I’ll be focusing on creating a collection of essays over the next year.