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Why Russian Jews are the way they are

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I have given over a 100 talks and discussions for Jewish groups in Canada. Of them many were entitled “Why are Russian Jews the Way They Are?” My audiences, ranging from shuls to community centres to Jewish book clubs, wanted to know why Russian Jews love ballet, why they eat pork, why they value math and chess, and above all, why they never meet them at the Canadian Jewish institutions. My answer is usually short: because these institutions do not promote the culture that Russian Jews consider theirs.

Canada is home to nearly 60,000 Russian-speaking Jews. A few thousand of them arrived in the 1970s, but the majority came in the past 25 years, and very often via Israel, frequently through the “skilled-worker” program, which requires both a high level of education and knowledge of English. Many are now involved in high-tech, medical and many other top sectors of the Canadian economy, while others became leaders in real estate, food processing and construction.

Politically, Russian Jews are on the conservative side, in relation to both Canada and Israel, to which they have strong personal connections. But except for nominal membership in various Chabbad-run institutions, participation in some heavily subsidized programs, such as the J-Academy summer camp, they usually ignore the organized Jewish community. You won’t see them at Jewish day schools, in shuls, at JCCs, except for when they work out.

Even Limmud, a transnational festival of Jewish learning created a special branch – Limmud FSU – specially for Russian Jews, and in its Canadian version, the Jewish content is minimized, whereas building business networks are given a priority. When Russian and Canadian Jews interact, they find more things that divide rather than unite. David Bezmozgis, the acclaimed Canadian Russian Jewish writer profiled elsewhere in these pages, whose family came to Canada in the 1970s, wrote poignantly about these painful and hilarious contacts and conflicts.

Back in the “old country,” the Soviet Union, Jews suffered from both official and popular anti-Semitism. For Russian Jews, being born Jewish seemed a misfortune, a problem that could only be resolved by manifesting extraordinary talent. Examining how they lived in such a society, I argued, in my recent book, When Sonia Met Boris: an Oral History of Jewish Life under Stalin (Oxford University Press, 2017), that to them, being Jewish ultimately meant overcoming it, as one overcomes a disability or a disadvantage.

When they left the Soviet Union, they were quite surprised to find out in the West, including Canada, that this perception didn’t exist, but they were expected to learn something about Jewish culture in order to be considered Jews, not just Russians. Yes, they happily accepted and continue to accept some free or heavily subsidized programming that came their way, but they also truly rejected the notion that they had to pay to be in the community – the notion of shul membership fees or even tuition for Jewish day schools seemed ridiculous.

As soon as Russian Jews settled enough to send their children to private schools, they selected ones that provided maximum social mobility by focusing on academic success or building networks. Those who cannot afford private schools often send their kids to French Immersion programs to teach them “another free language.” As immigrants, they need to work harder to succeed, and they know how to embrace the challenge. They understand this as the major part of being Jewish.

Another element of being Jewish is remembering one’s roots and maintaining one’s culture. An example of this is the widespread celebration of May 9, a Soviet-origin anniversary of the Victory Day in World War II. In Russia and in the Soviet Union, military parades and fireworks marked that day every year. In 21st-century Canada, we see marches and celebrations at Earl Bales Park, featuring participants holding pictures of war veterans, aging former soldiers themselves wearing their medals, as well as speeches by local rabbis and politicians, and more. Above all, the holiday now celebrates how the Soviet Red Army helped to liberate Europe from the Holocaust. The pride in the heroism of Soviet war veterans among Russian Jews translated into one of the strongest pillars of contemporary Russian Jewish culture.

They continue to treasure Russian language and literature, high quality theatre and visual art. Russian language is heard often in major European exhibits at the Art Gallery of Ontario and all major productions of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. The Toronto-based company ShowOne Productions caters to these tastes and runs a successful series, featuring Russian Jewish soloists such as Mischa Maisky and Vladimir Spivakov. Some successful concerts and theatrical shows include Jewish content too – a play about the young Marc Chagall, one about Soviet Jewish life in the 1980s, and a recent large-scale concert of Yiddish oldies at Roy Thompson Hall are among many fully sold-out productions frequented by Russian Jews.

Even though Show One Productions is a commercial organization, it managed to become one of the major facilitators of Russian Jewish culture in Toronto. It succeeded in doing so because it does not prescribe what the community should or should not consider Jewish. Instead, it addresses the cultural needs and thus develops and sustains the culture relevant to Russian Jews.

Historians of modern Jewry know: Jewish culture is nothing but fluid and flexible. Many forms of established contemporary Jewish practices, such as ultra-Orthodoxy or, lehavdil, secular Judaism, originated in the 19th century, and seemed radical at the time. Jewish communities that succeeded to survive always thrived on plurality, not insisting that all members practise one mode of Judaism. Today, the Canadian Jewish community faces a challenge to reinvent its own future – one that includes, rather than excludes, addresses rather than prescribes, and possibly becomes more Russian than it ever imagined it could.


Anna Shternshis is the Al and Malka Green Associate Professor in Yiddish Studies and the director of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.

Published in the ЯCJN.

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Anna Shternshis is the director of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies and an Al and Malka Green associate professor in Yiddish studies at University of Toronto.