A Russian Flavor
Unfortunately, like with the first wave of immigration, the new immigrants better integrated into American life than into American Jewish life, though there were exceptions to this rule. Having been deprived of their Jewish education and the ability to have an active Jewish life in the FSU, many did not understand the way the American Jewish system works. And for the Soviet community, cultural Judaism — as opposed to organized religion — was more comfortable.
Vadim Kashtelyan moved to Baltimore from St. Petersburg in 1992 and now lives in Owings Mills. He recalled being paired by JFS with a family that belonged to Oheb Shalom, which is the synagogue he and his parents still attend. He was enrolled in Sunday and Tuesday school there and ultimately went to the Shoshana S. Cardin School for high school. At the University of Maryland, he became active with Hillel and started a Russian Jewish Club through which he hosted Hillel-sponsored Shabbat dinners in his home. Monthly, he said, 40 people would attend.
Kashtelyan said in St. Petersburg his family never practiced its religion because of the anti-Semitism and persecution in the FSU. They knew about Chanukah, he told the JT, about Simchat Torah.
“They used to sneak around the corner to get their piece of matzah on Passover,” Kashtelyan said.
In the states, they used their Judaism as a reason to gather friends and family. There were few rituals. If they took on something new, he said, it was based on information he brought home from Oheb or Cardin.
“Russian people are hesitant about religion because of how they were raised,” Kashtelyan said. “[My parents] didn’t send me to Jewish school to get a religious education. But it was important for them, having gone through the persecution … they wanted me to have a strong Jewish identity.”
He said American Jews often ask themselves if they are American Jews or Jewish Americans. For Soviets, there is yet another layer.
“Am I a Russian American Jew? A Jewish American Russian? I don’t know which one I would say. I think being all three are important to my life,” said Kashtelyan.
Maintaining one’s Soviet heritage and history has certainly been a thrust.
Weinberg said that while the Jewish community was working to set up the new immigrants to be successful American citizens, she used to coach them to remember from where they came.
“I particularly liked … advising parents not to forget their Russian roots as they celebrated their Jewish heritage and became Americans,” said Weinberg.
This is something Razumovsky tried to do for his now young adult son and that he is doing for his 17-month-old daughter. He said keeping traditions “mostly starts at home.”
“We read Russian books, listen to Russian songs and do the things with which we grew up,” Razumovsky, who is from Georgia, said. “We start by speaking Russian at home.”
His daughter plays with nesting dolls, and, he said, he is glad the community is offering more Russian activities, such as certain dance performances and films through the Gordon Center For Performing Arts. He plans to take her to these types of events when she is older.
He said it is “always interesting to introduce two cultures together. With Michael [his son], he has a lot of Georgian traditions, but also growing up in Baltimore, he has everything from the Ravens to Halloween.”
Said Spector: “We are Americanized with a Russian flavor.”
Beginning early next month, the local community will have a chance to taste this Soviet culture. The Journey ,Together celebrations, which include an arts and culture fair, athletic and traditional performances, Russian treats, an art exhibit, an evening gala and more [see “The Journey, Together”] launch on Oct. 12.
However, the vodka and the Galinka dancers are only half of the story that will be told. Through the week of events, according to Razumovsky, the community will tell the story of the Russian exodus, celebrate the collective accomplishment of the American Jewish community and the contributions of Soviet Jews to American life. It will also serve to educate the next generation of Russian-speaking and American Jewish leaders about the power of the collective and be a backdrop to further involvement of Russian speakers with the organized community.
The events, according to Razumovsky, are being planned predominantly by leaders from within the Russian-speaking community, with the assistance of The Associated and the Jewish Community Center.
Spector said Soviet immigrants had to work doubly hard to make it in the states, and during that time, many forgot to give back to the Jewish community that was helping them, or even to reflect on how they were able to restart their lives. Now, she said, her generation can take a step back.
“Our kids and grandkids don’t know how we all came here,” said Spector. “It is not right. This has to be somehow explained. We have to say thank you.”
Razumovsky, too, said he thinks the Soviet community has matured, and he, who has already become actively involved with The Associated, would like to see others jump on the bandwagon.
Chikvashvili, who at one point served as the Soviet poster child for the local federation, said he did so to help other Soviets, but he also took — and still takes — tremendous satisfaction form the experience. He said it is time for the Soviet community to know “giving and helping someone is more enjoyable than being a recipient.”
For his part, Terrill said he has learned a lot over the last 25 years. He said he knows the Soviet community is proud of its heritage. And he wants to celebrate that. But he also sits in awe when he is around a boardroom table with members of the Soviet community — a community that could have been shut down forever.
“A lot has been written on a move of Americans — and American Jews — to be more individualistic. This [story] ought to give people pause,” said Terrill. “As a collective, we can make miracles happen. This is a beautiful thing.”
Author’s note: Some of the research for this article was culled from historic sources discovered by Rudy Stoler. Learn more about his project at jewishawakening.wordpress.com.
Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief — firstname.lastname@example.org