Jimmy Breslin: My Word Is My Bond

Binyamin L. Jolkovsky: Passing (it) On

Rabbi Yaakov Bleich: Questions Most Can't Answer

Julia Gorin: Confessions of a Refusenik Gone Secular

Ellen Small: Fireflies Light Up The Sky At Night

Dr. Jacob Mermelstein: Depressed Kids, Good Lives

Josh Pollack: A Divided Cyprus Mounts the World Stage

Nehama C. Nahmoud: The Jews of Yemen

Susan Rubin Weintrob: The Greening of American Jewry

Reader Response

First Person
December 10, 1997 / 11 Kislev, 5758


...of a Refusenik Gone Secular

Don't let the smile fool you. NYC comedienne Julia Gorin isn't in a laughing mood. Today, she prefers to call it as she sees it.

MY RE-ACQUAINTAINCE WITH MY FATHER after more than three years of separation behind the Iron Curtain occurred in 1976. I was three-and-a-half. It was then that my mother, sister and I were finally allowed to immigrate to the U.S. to be with him.

Inna and I were soon enrolled in a local Jewish day school in Baltimore. As a family, we attended synagogue on Friday nights, we went to other events there almost weekly, and I even mastered speaking Hebrew.

The highlight of those early years would come every December, when we would go to the white mansion where Mr. Baer (a pseudonym) held his annual Chanukah party.

We would walk in, and to the right there would be a brilliant, dazzling ...Christmas tree, complete with presents for all the children strewn about its base. There was nothing strange in this to a family of Russian Jews, who kept a lit "New Year's Tree" during the holiday season in the Old Country, as was the Russian tradition. Besides, the Jewish philanthropist's wife was Christian.

At Mr. Baer's expansive dining-room table, my father was always planted close, but not next to our host -- in a way that the two could exchange a few words but not engage in any substantive conversation. After all, Mr. Baer already did his mitzvah just by inviting to his table the pathetic, thick-accented Russian Jew and his family, dressed in the same funny clothes they wore to last year's party. For him, that was good enough.

Mr. Baer was interested more in what my father was than who he was. And after a couple years, we stopped going to the mansion. We also stopped attending Friday night services. Eventually, my sister and I enrolled in a Baltimore County public school. I lost any Hebrew I had picked up.

THE INCARNATION OUR JUDAISM took after that was public school during the week and two hours of Hebrew school on Sundays at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation -- the hyper-Reform Mecca for Jewish American princesses and princes which sealed our fate of lifelong non-observance.

Growing up, I had Russian-born friends who were far worse spiritually-off than we -- friends who never so much as affiliated with a synagogue. In their teens, the girls fasted on Yom Kippur as a means of dieting, but they never did it inside a synagogue.

But just like these Russians, my family fell into the stereotype of "Godless Russians," as the emigres are still called in some Reform and Conservative circles by the same members who once kept empty chairs at their seder tables for their oppressed brethren trapped under the Iron Fist.

If organized Jewry expected to see Grandpa from the shtetl of 1910 stepping off the plane at Kennedy Airport, donning tefillin and dressed in black, the expectation was unrealistic and born of ignorance. And if American Jews thought religious freedom was the immigrant's chief goal in leaving the USSR, they were twice mistaken. Personal freedom, which brings with it the chance to worship as one pleases, was our chief motivator -- not religious fervor.

I asked my father the other day why we stopped taking part in the kind of Jewish life I remember from our early years here.

He told me: "I tried to enter this life, but it just never took. Being educated in the 'material' sciences in an atheistic society made a religious life very alien to me, and it became a burden."

THE JEWISH ESTABLISHMENT in America had vested a great deal of hope in Russian Jews. If only because of our sheer numbers, they saw in us a chance to revitalize American Jewry -- their American Jewry, which they destroyed through assimilation and intermarriage.

Today, the Russians' lack of commitment to a religious life, coupled with the almost daily stories painting the entire community as a din of mobsters, welfare cheats or, at best, hungry capitalists, causes the establishment to throw its arms up and ask: "Why did we bother?"

Yet who are these Jews that rail against assimilation and brainstorm regularly on what direction American Jewry should take -- who at times criticize us "Godless Russians" and at other times try to inspire us? They are the very same Jews who keep "Chanukah bushes" blazing at Christmas and who intermarry. And what brand of Judaism, exactly, are they trying to interest us in? The pathetic New Yorker/bagel-and-cream cheese Jewishness that passes for Judaism in America today?

If ambivalent Jewish "leaders" can't come up with a formula compelling enough to interest their own children, how can they expect to ignite Judaism's spark in Russians who have no tradition of Judaism and to whom its rituals and practices appear mechanical and feel utterly unnatural?

Our benefactors expected to see active, paying congregants in the temples because they sprang for our tickets to come here. If they have to ask themselves why they bothered, then they did it for the wrong reasons.

In taking up the Soviet Jewish cause, American Jewry was helping fellow Jews. Period. The Russians never pretended to be anything more. If the help was given not out of principle, but as an investment in increased synagogue membership and future contributions to their coffers, then the Jewish establishment is, essentially, now getting what it deserves.

Complicating things further, the establishment is embarrassed by its burly, unrefined "Poor Brother." This embarrassment manifests itself the way it has for generations: The Jews who made it here first set up extensive social service networks to help the new arrivals. But once the newcomers are clothed, housed and fed, they are kept at arm's length. Even after Russians have found their feet and the relationship is no longer one of client-administrator, American Jews have a hard time regarding the immigrants as equals.

RUSSIAN JEWS WANT TO MAKE IT in American life as much as American Jews do. They come here and are bent on fast and furious success and assimilation. Their main newspaper, Novoye Russkoye Slovo, which for them serves as the 1990s version of the turn-of-the-century Yiddish Daily Forward,, encourages its readers to learn English immediately, to naturalize and become productive members of the economy and finally, to cast a wide net all over the country so as to avoid the ghettoization of areas like Brighton Beach. In essence, the message is, "Be Americans."

Russian Jews may not practice the rituals of what passes for Judaism in America today, but they have a connection to Judaism that others can't understand -- one that is more visceral than the average American's. Traditionally, they have a lower rate of intermarriage. Israel is nearer and dearer to them. In a way, they have kept Judaism closer to the heart, and when their souls have been sparked by Orthodox outreach groups, the Russians have gone all the way.

But as they move closer to becoming American Jews, they risk losing a lot. Many Russians I've met have concrete, pertinent questions about Judaism.

They're educated and they're looking for substantive answers. But they rarely get any.

The Soviet Jewry "cause" was won. We're here. But what was the plan after that? What we need are practical ideas of how to interest Russian Jews in something they know nothing about, rather than offering them the tokenism of the seder chair. There must be something concrete -- a sense of who they are, what that means, and what they've been missing -- so they don't waste away as Jews.

Above all, lend them an ear and a shoulder. This is a community that survived Hitler and Stalin. What is to keep them from going the way immigrants only 50 years ago did -- in their own separate, unaffiliated directions? Then, the waters of what would or wouldn't work were unchartered. By now, we've had testing grounds. We must not ignore history. We must begin to treat the Russians as menschen. They have ideas on how to reach their own. They should be granted the opportunity to take on leadership positions.

It was clear what the objectives were when freeing Soviet Jewry was a cause du jour. My family, for one, was grateful to our American benefactors and advocates for helping make our freedom possible. But now it's time to deal with the reality beyond the cause.


Julia Gorin is a writer and stand-up comic living in Manhattan.

©1997, Jewish World Review