Recently, I read in Novoye Ruskoye Slovo (New Russian Word), an American Russian-language newspaper, that, according to a pool of 2,000 Russian immigrants, the main reason given for immigration was the absolute lack of religious freedom. I came from a country where, until recently, any participation in religious activity was prosecuted, and other cultures were suppressed. This was especially true of one of the most hated religions, Judaism, and of Jewish culture.
It was here in the United States that I heard stories from graduates of Moscow and Leningrad universities about how they were being stopped near synagogues and threatened with expulsion from the school by KGB agents unless their religious activities were curtailed. This was followed up by a visit to the dean's office, where all future hopes of professional success were threatened.
My relative lost his medical position because his phone number was found in the notebook of a religious activist being prosecuted by the KGB.
One immigrant re-called that she was beaten a few times at school because she is a Jew. She was afraid to be present in the class when the book by the famous Russian writer Vladimir Korolenko, "Children from the Underground," was assigned because it talked about Jews in a negative way. She was afraid that her classmates would become hostile toward her.
When she turned 20, she felt pride in her Jewishness but never discussed that topic at her workplace. She still has those horrible, vivid memories of her childhood.
Dr. Olga Treshchan, who now lives in Danville, recalls that in the former Soviet Union she felt her Jewish heritage was a handicap, and felt she had to hide her religion. In 1977 she left for Israel, where she worked for 11 years as a pathologist. She remembers how her relatives there said, "What kind of a Jew are you? You don't know anything about Judaism!" She felt she was indeed one of them once she began learning about her Jewish traditions, history and religion. She was finally able to shed her feelings of inferiority and found self-respect.
Recently, the son of the famous Russian-Jewish comedian, Constantin Raikin, said that his father knew and respected Jewish traditions and holidays but did not pass them on to his children because "it wasn't the right time." To use a Russian phrase, "It's needless to talk about other Jews in Russia." Fear and the self-preservation instinct made Russian Jews change first and last names to sound more Russian. In such fear we left Russia, arriving here with the same apprehensions.
And how do we now live? If we return to these same 2,000 immigrants who did not have a chance to enjoy their Jewishness, what happened with our desires in the United States? We already have forgotten the feelings of joy while reading the novels by Solomon Marvich and Anatoly Riabakov about Jews in St. Petersburg and Belarus. We became free in our behavior, but how have we used this freedom?
I will tell you how. We were Jews only as a nationality, as a stamp on our passports. We stayed the same. We did not know Judaism as a religion and we still don't.
Here we get greetings on Jewish holidays from people of different religions. For them it is a norm because they gather in their churches and temples to share in their religious and ethical beliefs.
But we have yet to develop strong spiritual connections.
Our jobs and business connections keep us in touch with people, but these are not the same. The relationship between people in the workplace is temporary and does not bring people together on the basis of soul unity.
But there is a different kind of relationship that exists between people, a kinship that is not temporary and does not depend on our job position. It is a unifying bond based on spiritual congruity.
That unity is based on ethical, religious and cultural similarity. It is much stronger and can withstand centuries. It is so important to be united, so that we will never be alone in trouble and will have somebody at our side to share in happiness.
Given our need for community, coupled with the fact that most of us came to this country in search of religious freedom, it is sad to notice that very few new immigrants visit synagogues — even though there are so many to choose from. Nor do they belong to many Jewish organizations — although they welcome the money these groups provide to them.
Those who came here from the former Soviet Union may remember the discrimination, but they've forgotten about their lack of religious freedom. Participation in synagogue life and in Jewish organizations could provide them with the spiritual community that was so sadly lacking in their homeland — a community that might well decrease the isolation so many emigres experience.