soviet-jewish identity

by anzya

This is a great little doco created by Vlada Bilyak about Soviet-Jewish identity in North America. It’s made really simply but I was pretty moved by it. It’s  in two parts, mostly from interviews over skype.*

It made me think about how the binary distinction between Ashkenazi and Sephardi, for one, can belie the multiple, varied identities of Jewish people in a community. And how borders can be created within local Jewish communities which shut out and alienate Jews whose background and experiences don’t match the perceived norm.

There are also a lot of Soviet Jews in Melbourne too. I remember that in the 90s when, there were a lot of Jews immigrating to Australia from the FSU, Russian kids at my Jewish high-school were teased because of their accents and clothes, and I have to say I even heard some pretty offensive comments about whether Soviet Jews are really Jewish or not (the insinuation being that they’re pretending to be Jews to access the Jewish schools, etc, in the community).

In Melbourne, I feel, there is a perceived authentic way of being Jewish (which in Australia is pretty similar to the North American version, though we don’t have “lox”… ). That is,  a “traditional” observance of the religion which involves, basically: going to shul 2-3 times a year, having Friday night dinners, seders and the high holidays with your family, eating Matzah on Pesach and fasting on Yom Kippur. It’s also about dropping a Yiddish word or two into conversation, probably being a steadfast Zionist, having mostly Jewish friends and, yeah, though I’m not sure about the sweatpants thing, there was also a kind of uniform way Jewish girls tended to dress when I was growing up which involved having long, regularly straightened hair…

For me, coming from a fairly secular family (though I went to a Jewish school growing up), and not doing a lot of those things I listed above, nor feeling really at home in the pretty insular Jewish community here, I’ve often thought about what it is that makes me Jewish, what defines me as Jewish, why I want to be Jewish. Anyway, I haven’t answered all of those yet: it’s complex. But I definitely identified and sympathised with a lot of the feelings that were expressed in this doco.

So, I think it’s really important to be aware of the issues and sentiments raised in this doco, and to continue challenge any attempts to homogenise or appropriate what being Jewish means.

*Vlada is hoping to continue to work on and expand this project and anyone interested in sharing their own Soviet-Jewish story with her is welcome to contact her at