Like a good Russian (Jew), my dad really enjoys playing chess and though he doesn’t do it as my mom’s dad did, outside in the park with subfreezing temperatures, he’s updated the tradition and plays online with the fireplace or central heat blazing. When you register for the site you have to declare your country loyalty. And my dad, who collected us and ran out of the Soviet Union when they had barely pushed the door open (1989), proudly plays under the stars and stripes. It’s always fun for him to see who he’s matched against, oftentimes players from African or South American countries. He says that the Brazilians are pretty good. On the site there’s also a chat feature that allows him and his opponent to parley. Usually, my dad disables the chat to avoid any dialogue that could taint the friendly round (my dad doesn’t bet). But a few days ago he forgot to do so. That day he was paired for the first time with an opponent under the Russian flag. Amused by the coincidence, my dad played and won. Before he could pass to the next player, however, his old comrade wrote: “You’re still a fu*%#*^ stupid American!” Taken aback by the display of Anti-Americanism, but amused by the irony of the situation, my dad changed his keyboard language to Russian and wrote back in perfect Russian everything that he thought of the comment.
Every funny story has a serious side, and this one is my family’s and my relationship to Russians and Russianness. I am no expert on the history of Soviet Jewry, and am really just beginning to look back and think about the experiences of my great-grandparents, grandparents and parents. Man, they had it rough. Confinement to designated living areas prior to World War II, 80% of Belarus’s Jews killed during the Holocaust (including great grandparents and my great aunts and uncles), and the post-war virtual elimination of my forebears’ Yiddish language, Jewish culture and religion. My parents could only study in certain schools and work certain jobs because they were Jewish. When the opportunity presented itself in the late 80s, my parents brought my brother and me to the US so that we would not grow up as second class citizens.
Now, here, I often struggle with my identity. On the one hand I do not feel particularly Jewish: I do not practice, I have little knowledge of Jewish tradition, I am not Zionist like some of my Russian Jewish or Jewish friends (I have mixed feelings about Israel’s war in Gaza). But on the other hand, how can I identify with a people that hated and probably still hates to a large degree my people? Then there’s the language issue. I don’t have a Russian Jewish language. My parents are the last to somewhat understand Yiddish. I speak Russian, sort of. And to complicate things further, it says “Belarus” on my passport, a country that became independent when I was learning English in a US kindergarten. I suppose I should think of my identities as additive, not that I’m not any of them completely, but as the addition of all of the parts. After all, if there’s anything we’re good at in America is hyphenating. Everyone is XXXX-American something or other. I guess I’m hyphenated too.
Now, if only we would start also being welcoming to all of the hyphens and not only the ones supported by lobbies like the American Jewish one. My family came as refugees and had access to welfare and assistance to establish ourselves in the new country. This is not the case for millions of immigrants already in the US or trying to get here. Having an identity crisis, when I am here and comfortable, is a luxury that I appreciate.