‘We were Jewish there … here we’re Russian’

‘We were Jewish there … here we’re Russian’

Ukrainian-born Yelena Shmulenson uses the stage to portray conflicted Russian-American Jews. Marina Levitskaya

A play exploring the Russian-Jewish immigrant experience recently inaugurated Folksbiene.RU, a new initiative of the National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene in partnership with Genesis Philanthropy Group.

Developed by the Lost & Found Project, the play “Covers” used the personal experiences of members of the troupe to tell a story of first- and second-generation immigrants from countries in the former Soviet Union and their struggles to adapt to a new land and a culture that views their Jewish identity in dramatically different ways. “We look at it as more than a cultural project; for us, it’s truly an educational project,” said Ilia Salita, executive director of the Genesis Philanthropy Group North America, an organization that works to cement the Jewish identity of Russian-speaking immigrants and their children in the United States and Canada. “What we’re trying to support here is the use of theater to further our understanding of our history, our family history, and our people’s history.”

Salita believes that theater and other cultural venues hold special significance for Russians, and that theater – including Yiddish theater – makes up a part of their Jewish identity. (The Folksbiene has included Russian along with English supertitles in its productions for years.) Salita pointed out that many Jews in the Soviet Union expressed their Jewishness through culture. “Jewish culture was not one of the areas [where] the government kept strict control,” he said, and officials were more lenient when it came to fiction or theater narratives than they were with textbooks or newspapers. The result was a high percentage of Jewish writers, directors, and dramaturges.

“Covers” featured a cast of 10 led by the Ukrainian-born Yelena Shmulenson, an actress familiar to many from her roles in the films “The Good Shepherd” and “A Serious Man” and television’s “Boardwalk Empire.” Shmulenson, who learned Yiddish at YIVO’s intensive program, also has performed in several Folksbiene productions, along with her husband, Allen Lewis Rickman, and they played to sold-out houses in their comic revue “The Essence: A Yiddish Theatre Dim Sum” at the Fringe Festival last year.

Shmulenson immigrated to the United States with her family when she was 17. “I saw “Doroga” last year [and] I connected to all the stories,” she said of the first production of the Lost & Found Project. She believes that “Covers” is more an exploration of the present than the earlier play. “Our parents came and sacrificed their lives and their dreams,” she said. “Now their children realize that money isn’t everything, success isn’t everything.

“How do you hold onto a past that is not your own?”

For her, the play is all about identity. “We were Jewish over there, and the second we come here, we’re Russian.” Immigrants lose their language, their friends, their connection to the past, she said. “You lose who you used to be.” She has seen the same process among many of her friends, she added. They all worked hard to assimilate and then when they hit 30, they realize that they have lost something but don’t really understand what it is. One of the characters in “Covers” is deeply disturbed that her late grandfather’s Brooklyn apartment is about to be sold by her Israeli cousin. She feels that some important aspect of her identity is tied up with the apartment, although she can’t express what that might be.

Jews in America create their own identities and can change them at will. They can be observant Jews, they can be culinary Jews, they can be Buddhist Jews, they can be philanthropic Jews, or they can ignore the entire issue without anyone much caring. In Russia, however, Jews were a defined ethnic category, with the word stamped on their passports. There was a long history of discrimination. The result is often a confused and conflicted view among Russian immigrants of what it means to be Jewish. Russian Jewish immigrants may be acutely sensitive to hints of anti-Semitism without knowing much about Judaism or the history of the Jews. They are fierce defenders of the government of Israel while introducing pork stores to Rishon le Zion and resenting the incursions of the rabbinate into Israeli civil life.

Salita notes that Russian Jews have contributed so much to both Russian and world culture that Genesis wants to keep that identity strong. “We strongly believe that it” – strengthening Russian Jewish identity – “can only be done if people are educated about what it means to be Jewish,” he said. The organization funds many different programs, particularly for children and teens. Genesis works to educate young people about the Shoah in the Soviet Union, encourages inter-generational relationships, and designs educational programs at camp. The goal is to showcase and engage the Russian-speaking community.

With that end, Folksbiene.RU plans to stage community events and educational programming and The Lost & Found Project is taking “Doroga” on tour to encourage an exploration of Jewish identity.

“For Russian Jews, we don’t know what that means,” Shmulenson said.

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