Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah, Day 1
September 9, 1991
Brandeis University Conservative Egalitarian Service


... Came from a Different Culture ...

Drash by Janna Kaplan.

To speak here today is of course a great honor for which I thank you very much. My gratitude also goes to my husband Edward, our children Jeremy, Aaron, and Sima, and my parents, Emmanuel and Revekka, who are all here today, as well as to the whole community of this University. By the logic of my life, Brandeis has become, and is, the most special place for me, where I feel successful and happy, and it is from this perspective of a person who did make it to happiness and success that I am speaking to you today.

This year in June was 10 years since I left Russia, and after being a refusenik [i], overnight I became a refugee. Notice how similar these two words are, but for us refuseniks at that time the difference was close to that between life and death. HOPE was then my lifeline, or rather it was a firm belief that now I can be my real self, I can reach for my goals, personal and professional, and follow my understanding of what God wanted of me. How little did I know...

The first four or five years I remember as by far the most painful and miserable years of my whole life. I thought a lot about it, desperately trying to understand why, although I was young, and well educated, with good profession, ability to get along with people, and knowledge of the English language, getting good jobs and meeting good people, - why was I so profoundly unsuccessful in achieving my main goal: feeling good about myself in my professional and personal relationships. Now, from a distance, some memories faded, some became brighter and more meaningful, and are finally fitting in together and helping me to understand the logic of my life, the logic of emigration.

One of the memories, which visits me quite seldom now, but used to come almost daily as a powerful revelation, is about my very first days in the United States, at the University of Texas at Austin, where a secretary of the Personnel Department was filling out some papers for my first job. She got to a line which asked for NATIONALITY, and I proudly said JEWISH. At which time I noticed that she is putting down ISRAELI. I said, I am not Israeli; I am originally from the Soviet Union. She crossed out ISRAELI and wrote RUSSIAN instead. I protested again, I said, I am not Russian, I am really STATELESS now, I am a REFUGEE, I am of JEWISH nationality. She looked at me for a long time, it seemed, and sighed. Then, she crossed everything out, and wrote firmly: CAME FROM A DIFFERENT CULTURE. My first impulse after a slight shock was to protest further, but for some reason I did not. Then a powerful thought crossed my mind that maybe it was indeed the case that out of all my identities this is the one that to an average American means the most, and I would have to learn to live with it. The phrase stuck to me as a label, I could not get it out of my mind. On every step of my way I had numerous confirmations of that fact that indeed from a different culture I was, and not only as a Russian Jew, but, on top of it, as a REFUGEE. Which brings me to my main point today, which is that there was then, and still is now in the Jewish communities an idealized image of a Soviet Jewish refugee, which has only partial reality to it.

I came to this country at a time when very few people were getting out of Russia, the names of practically all refuseniks were known and a lot of publicity was accompanying every case, and every arrival. It was of course very exciting and flattering to speak at a lot of functions, be invited to homes, and so on, but rather soon, and painfully, I started to understand that I was expected to fit a certain image, I was expected to be and to perform in a much better and picturesque way than I naturally would, and at times I realized that I could not. I spoke well about the everyday struggle and heroism of the refuseniks, about the cause of Soviet Jewry; but I could not be silent about the other side of it, the enormous human cost of that jobless, semi-legal existence, the drinking, the breaking up of families, friendships and communities, addiction to western gifts and support packages, multiple signs of demoralization. 10 years ago that process was just steadily beginning, and I was trying to convey that understanding of it is just as important as acknowledging and admiring the heroism. But people did not want to hear about it. It just did not sell.

In my everyday life I also encountered failure after failure. At work, I had trouble adjusting to the intensity and pressure of an American workplace. My boss suddenly noticed that I could not be brilliant all the time, that I was tired too often and had memory and concentration problems. At times I would read an article - in my field! - seven or eight times, and not be able to tell what it was about. In my personal life, my relationships were not working, because a lot of things in American dating were just so weird... Making personal and other kinds of important decisions by myself was a difficult thing to learn. I did not have a conception of privacy and allowed people to intrude into areas of my life which should have remained intimate. I probably violated other people's privacy as well.

Discovering and implementing privacy was one of the greatest adjustments of my life. Saying the truth was the other, for in the Soviet Union people lead double life and we were systematically taught to lie and to pretend by the society and family alike. In America the society functions differently, and honesty is an essential, fundamental requirement for building a career or a relationship. Hiding problems was the Russian way of dealing with them, but it was only when I learned to acknowledge and face them that my life started to change. I was afraid of a lot of things, I made a lot of mistakes, I was hurt a lot, and probably hurt many people along the way. I did not know the legal system, the social structure, the race relations, the mentality; everything was so different, so unclear. I was getting more and more unhappy, angry, and bitter.

Clearly, as you can see from this picture, I needed a "shrink", and I did not even know what it was. A lot of things a good counseling could have straighten out. But there was no counseling available for us, we were not supposed to need it, we were supposed to be so strong, so special... I could not live up to that image, I wanted out. Having been a refusenik, I however learned well not only how to suffer, but how to fight for my life. I quit my job, my relationships and commitments in Texas, and decided to start completely anew elsewhere. What I wanted by then was very simple: I was in search of a community, a good job, and a Jewish husband. An old jeweler friend of mine, Mr. Aaron Kruger, told me once then, as I was choosing between several job offers I got: "Honey, if you want to shoot ducks, you ought to go where the ducks are. Go to Brandeis." So, here I am.

It was not of cause all that simple, and Mr. Kruger did not live to see me rebuilding my life, although he always believed I would. My son Aaron is now named in his honor. I, however, had another opportunity to re-live the pain and the agony of absorption when my parents came here from Russia three years ago. Not much has changed. And the thing to remember here is that refuseniks among this new, vast wave of Soviet Jewish immigration were only a few. The overwhelming majority of the people did not have those years to prepare themselves for emigration, to learn about another culture, and to learn the language. Most American Jews are still getting upset discovering Russian Jews to be manipulative, aggressive, lacking Jewishness or pretentiously Jewish, lying, and hiding their real self. These features, however, are common in refugees, Russian Jewish or other; they are normal, and should have been expected.

Even I, myself having gone through the process, more often than not get impatient and angry with my own parents for features which I know takes sometimes years to correct. Proper counseling should have been developed long time ago to deal with tremendous psychological problems, family problems, intergenerational problems, especially where teenagers and elderly, those most vulnerable groups of people are involved; and yet, for the whole Boston area absorbing many thousands of Russian Jews a year ago there was not a single available Russian language and refugee-oriented counseling service run not by formerly Russian, immigrant psychiatrists (who are not successful here because of improper training, memories refugees carry of the political abuse of psychiatry, breach of confidence, and the like).

Scholarships can be created for the college students from the immigrant families to get them into those professions with the obligation to serve the community for certain number of years. Now that Brandeis is pursuing a special goal of attracting Soviet immigrant students, we should keep in mind that many if not all of them and their families have gone or are going now through experiences similar to what I have just described. And while teaching, advising, or counseling them, we should, maybe, devote just a little extra effort to the understanding of what they are going through. It can truly make a difference, and that difference may very well be that between failure and success. There are many other things to do and ways to do them. The Hornstein Program Seminar on the problems of resettlement held here at Brandeis last year came up with a lot of excellent recommendations, I just hope they can all be implemented.

In the meantime the main thing is to acknowledge to ourselves that the false image of the Russian Jewish Refugees as heroes strengthened and elevated by their sufferings, is wrong. It was useful for a while in the seventies, when the refuseniks were very few, and idealization of that kind helped to attract people and raise funds; but it was wrong then, and it is counterproductive now. Suffering and pain strengthen, purify and make martyrs out of only very few and chosen individuals; in the majority of the people it brings out the worst. And it takes an enormous amount of effort to straighten out, to change for the better, to get on one's feet, to repair relationships, and that work is hard as hell, and it never ends. Emigration can ruin lives, as it often does, and the more realistically we see the whole picture, the more we can help, the better we shall understand.

American Jewish life greatly depends on images. I read over these years a great amount of writings on American Jewry and its institutions, observed different communities and congregations, and realized that the major sources of inspiration and energy for the American Jewry are rather external: the Holocaust, which most American Jews did not live through; Israel, where they are not living; and now Soviet and Ethiopian Jewry, which they are not. I cannot speak on the Holocaust and Israel, and by no means do I want to discredit the refuseniks whose heroic lives inspire us, or to diminish the human value of all Soviet Jews, who made the difficult decision to emigrate. But I am against idealizing anything or anybody, and in the case of Soviet Jews it is my deep conviction that unless we understand the basic elements of the mentality of refugees, prepare ourselves and our institutions to deal with difficulties other then just financial, health, apartment or job hunting, but difficulties of mentality, behavior, family and personal problems, our help is not going to be as productive and a lot of effort will be wasted. It is a difficult, often ungracious and dirty work, but someone has to do it. As it is said in Leviticus, "...the stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you. And you shall love him as yourself. For you too were strangers in the land of Egypt..." (19:33,34).

Thank you, and Shana Tova.


i. Refuseniks in the Soviet Union were Jews who, because of state sponsored anti-Semitism, declared their desire to emigrate to Israel but were denied permission to leave by the state. Consequently, they were treated as enemies, deprived of jobs, sources of livelihood, and basic human rights. Severe persecutions affected adults and children alike. Refuseniks created a vibrant underground Jewish culture in Russia, in the late sixties, seventies, and eighties, which included an elaborate system of Jewish education, religious education and practices, arts, literature, music, and community life. Most of the refuseniks were finally given permissions to emigrate in the early 1990s.