How the Soviet Jew Was Made by Sasha Senderovich is a scholarly work, but it also presents urgent perspectives for any post-Soviet Jewish American who has ever entertained the question What made my parents the way they are? What accounts for their dark view of the world, their elevated sense of humor and irony, and, perhaps most poignantly for this particular group, their unquenchable anxiety?
Many Soviet Jews familiar to Western readers are defined at least in part by their absence from the USSR. For example, the painter Moishe Shagal (later Marc Chagall), who was born in 1887 near Vitebsk in what is today Belarus, traveled extensively throughout Western Europe before World War I and moved to Paris in 1923, having spent no more than seven years in the new Bolshevik state. Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum, better known as Ayn Rand, left the USSR in 1926 and spent most of her days perfecting her egoism in the United States. Google cofounder Sergey Brin, born in Moscow in 1973, was resettled in Maryland by 1979, part of a large wave of Soviet Jewish immigrants (which included me).
In academia the Soviet Jew has long been seen as an ideological suitcase ripe for stuffing. Whether as an idealistic but ultimately failed Communist, a Zionist in training, an eternal refugee, or a Tevye-like throwback for his nostalgic American brethren, the Soviet Jew wanders across the imagination with a counterfeit passport always in need of stamping. Works about Soviet Jews have often focused on reclaiming the Jewish part of the equation. In this formulation, the pre-Soviet Jew lived and breathed the Mishnah and Gemara, sometimes only putting aside the ancient texts (and his leatherworking tools) to catch up on his Jabotinsky or some other favorite Zionist.
Studies committed to such a mode of thinking attempt to reconstitute the Jew shorn of the Soviet associations, as if the seventy-plus years during which the USSR existed were but an unmemorable interlude and the Soviet Jew could now be fully reunited with his elemental Jewishness. Senderovich cites scholarship that aims to highlight how much of Judaic heritage is preserved in works of Russian Jewish literature. I am reminded of the fastidious manner in which my father would watch the end credits of Hollywood movies after we moved to Queens from Leningrad in the late 1970s: “Weisberg, Jew. Levy, Jew. Greene, maybe Jew?”
Of course, such an approach is understandable after emigrating from a country where your identity often aroused suspicion. But in art and scholarship, an inability to abandon the assumptions of the past prevents us from making fresh discoveries. Forty years after my wave of Soviet emigrants arrived on American shores, it is encouraging to see a fellow immigrant adopt a more sophisticated approach to the subject, as Senderovich (born in Ufa, Russia, in 1981) does in his brilliant new study.
In tracing Jews’ departure from the “unique ecosystem” of the shtetl and immersion in the Soviet metropolis, where “public transit networks and electric grids proliferated,” his book balances the Soviet Jewish equation, denying neither the “Jewish” nor the “Soviet.” Instead he negotiates the push and pull of Soviet ideology and practice on the Jewish inhabitants of the nascent state and the emergence of an entirely unique cultural figure, part glasses-on-nose (over)thinker, part aspiring muscular Soviet worker.