The latest in a series of interviews with members of the Metrowest Jewish community
Daniel Barenboym was born in Moscow in 1974. His wife, Anna, was born in St. Petersburg in 1976. They have lived in Wayland for the past eight years and have three children: Joseph (8), Eliana (7), and Leeva (1). After many years as an entrepreneur in the technology field, Daniel came up with the idea of ZNAKA.com, a user-driven, online community for parents, where they can find and rate local activities and businesses, and create or join parent groups. Daniel has also contributed much of his time to volunteering in the Boston area’s Russian Jewish community. In this thought-provoking interview, Daniel discusses life for Russian Jews, both in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) and in America, and speaks candidly about what he sees as the sometimes uneasy relationship between the Russian Jewish community and the larger American Jewish population in general.
Please tell us about your early experiences in America.
I was 15 when we left Russia, and after four months of immigration travels that took us through Austria and Italy, I arrived in New York at JFK Airport. The very first memory I remember of America is the size of the cars on the road. They seemed to be disproportionately large, and to this day I am not a big fan of older muscle cars that so many Americans seem to love and collect.
Upon arrival we moved to Framingham because our sponsoring family was here and were at that time our only relatives in America. Right away we were introduced to Myrna Winter as the volunteer who would help us through our settlement process. After 24 years, Myrna, [who is today JFS’s New American Programs Coordinator], is still our closest friend and is considered by all of us as a member of our family. My dad still calls her his second wife. This was our first introduction to the idea of volunteerism and has left a big impact on me and shaped my involvement for the years to come.
It was a misguided belief of many American Jews that all Russian Jews upon arrival would seek out the Jewish community and Jewish faith and let go of the generations of acquired life wisdom and simply merge into the American Jewish society. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Our family, like many others, was in the process of rebuilding our lives — learning the language, getting education, finding and keeping jobs. There was simply no time to dedicate to another task of learning Judaism and going to synagogues. Some might say it’s just an excuse, and maybe there is truth to that, but one must look from our point of view. Aside from the jobs, learning the language, understanding the massive cultural differences of our new country, helping your children do homework when you yourself don’t understand the words that are written down and in general feeling that you don’t yet fit in, you don’t want to take upon yourself a task of learning your religion after generations of being banned from practicing it in the old country.
However, despite our non-participation in the official Jewish establishment, we Russian Jews did consider ourselves very Jewish. Over the generations in the Former Soviet Union, we came to see our Jewish heritage in a different light than the American Jews. We see ourselves as being of a Jewish ethnicity where Judaism is our religion which we choose to either practice or not, as in you are born a Jew and will remain a Jew for your entire life, even if for some reason you choose to change your religion (which is not a common practice). And so we kept learning and slowly becoming more and more familiar with our surroundings, learning to communicate to others and each other.
One way to ease the process was to connect to other Russian Jewish families in the area. After all, friendship and sitting around the table, good food and a bottle or two of the Russian vodka is also a part of our heritage. So most of our friends were Russian Jewish immigrants just like us.
What were your own or your family’s experiences with discrimination against Jews in Russia?
Considering that I was only 15 when I left, I’m afraid I won’t have as much to say on this subject as someone who is older and had more experience with the Russian apparatus. However, even at 15, I managed to learn that being a Jew in Russia is not welcome. I was one of only two Jewish students at my school, and while most of my friends never questioned my ethnicity to my face, I heard from my teachers on the subject. For example, my chemistry teacher in front of 30 students in the classroom said that I must be dumb because I am a Jew. Or every time we went to the Moscow Central Synagogue for Rosh Hashanah we knew that there would be men with sticks and chains waiting for people on subways and in neighborhoods surrounding the celebration. Or there were the university officials who told my brother that if they again would find out that he went to a synagogue he would be expelled.
How did you celebrate your heritage in such a dangerous environment?
We connect in a number of different ways. Our kids play with other Jewish kids, take classes [at the Thursday-evening Russian Youth Enrichment Cultural Center] at JFS, go to events at the Center Makor [a community center in Brighton offering cultural and educational opportunities for Russian Jewish families]. My kids are young, and we plan to enroll them in Jewish education school hopefully next year. We celebrate Jewish holidays, but in the Russian way — at home behind the table with extended and immediate family present. We explain to them what the holiday is about and how it affects them.
A recent survey conducted by Limmud FSU found that of the 218 members surveyed, most of whom were between the ages of 21 and 35, more than half “don’t yet feel part of the American Jewish community.” From your experience and observations, why do you think there is this sense of distinction — or some might say division?
Now, after 24 years in America, I feel that [my family has] had plenty of time to adjust and become a bigger part of the Jewish community. Many Russian Jews have joined synagogues, volunteer organizations, political movements, etc. However, even now it seems that the American Jewish establishment is not satisfied with our progress of assimilation. There seem to be a number of items that are in question.
One is donation participation. This has been a sticking point for many. But I want to give you an example of my own family. We are a family of four, my parents and me and my brother. Within two years of our arrival, my mother started her own business in our house where she did manicures, pedicures, and other salon-type services. While she had her business, she was making a good living for a single-operator business. However, because she worked for herself for 20 years, she did not accumulate much in the Social Security savings. My father had also worked as a cab driver and borrowed money to invest in a cab medallion [license] in Boston. After working for 20 years for about 12 to 16 hours a day, and multiple operations on his back, he has also retired. Not much Social Security as well. So it is no wonder that they are unable to give much to any charity. Their goal for the work they put in for the 20 years was to bring me and my brother to adulthood and support us in any way possible.
It is different for me and my brother and many other young adults who got their education here in America and feel their financial future to be more stable and secure. We do our best to give back. We do give to charitable causes. I participate in a range of volunteering opportunities such as being the chairman of the Russian Services Committee at CJP. For years I was on the board of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), and I also organized a number of events that raised money for Israel and other causes. Currently I am also a member of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and plan to expand my involvement in these organizations once my business venture allows this.
Another reason might not be so pleasant to hear. For years, the Russian community has been treated by the American Jewish establishment as the little brother who does not know any better. I quite often hear that the Russians simply don’t get it, don’t understand the American society, aren’t willing to learn from their American brothers on what’s right and what’s wrong. Does the American Jewish establishment really believe that it has nothing to learn from us, that we have nothing to contribute other than to assimilate and do as we are being told? What group would accept this kind of approach?
Separate the desire to emigrate from the Former Soviet Union from the sense of past accomplishment. If you ask most Russian Jews, you might be surprised to hear that they are very proud of where they came from, what they know, and what they can contribute. We have a very rich history and incredible ability to learn, understand, and accomplish. So it is offensive to many when they get a feeling that they are being asked to forget everything they know and just learn to do it another way. Until we learn to treat each other with mutual and equal respect, I don’t believe much can be accomplished in the way of collaboration. And if no collaboration is possible, the American Jewish establishment will just have to wait it out for a couple of generations, when our kids and their kids will become American and remember their past history on the same level of an average American Jew.
We have at least for the next two generations our own language, and with that language comes our attachment to things like humor, literature, arts, and culture in general. The Russian Jewish community is a separate community in many ways. And it’s perfectly fine.
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