Note: I have decided to remain anonymous because due to the pandemic, I live at home and my family finding this article would create a more unsafe environment for me than I already have. If you are in a similar situation, however scared and heartbroken you feel, please know that you are not alone.
During my first semester at my university, a fellow Jewish student told me that I wasn’t like “other Russian Jews” that he had met in New York. When I asked what he meant, he simply remarked that I seemed more worldly and more progressive, that it was surprising I escaped my community’s “bubble” in the first place. Essentially, he assumed that I supported Trump based on stereotypes of my community.
As a first-generation American born to immigrants from the Soviet Union, I was already grappling with my identity. I constantly straddled the line between feeling too foreign with my American friends and too American within the Russian-Jewish community. I felt like an outsider in both spheres.
I grew up with the scents and sounds of Eastern Europe — stories of Lviv, Ukraine, Soviet cartoons, our fridge filled with Russian staples — but my Russian was shaky at best and I quickly grew disillusioned with New York and the homogeneity of my community. I thought that I could go to D.C. to figure out where exactly I fit. That conversation I had within my first few months there threw a wrench in my plan. I felt alienated and foreign again, with an added component: divisive political landscapes.
Every time I came home for breaks, I noticed changes in discourse from family friends and even members of my own family. Those who were formerly apathetic to politics had joined the Trump bandwagon, echoing rhetoric that was steeped in misinformation. I had always understood, while personally disagreeing, with the community’s relative economic conservatism, which emerged from hardships faced in the Soviet Union. However, I couldn’t understand the sudden jump to quasi-McCarthyism — conflating any remotely progressive economic or social policy with communism and life under the Soviet regime. I couldn’t understand the captivation with Trump’s cult of personality, since that kind of leader has not bode well for Jews in the past.
The more time went on, the more lost I became. I was heartbroken and scared at my community’s and my family’s blind devotion to Trump. I watched in horror as the president refused, multiple times, to unconditionally condemn white supremacists; as he continuously attempted to whitewash the darker parts of our history in favor of a glorified narrative; as he ignored science in favor of religious fundamentalism. It may sound petty that politics further splintered my conception of my identity, but I struggled with not being able to reconcile where I came from and my vision of a more equitable, just future.
That reconciliation soon came from an unpredictable place. Last fall, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testified in Trump’s impeachment hearing about the call between Trump and Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the president of Ukraine. Vindman is a Soviet Jewish immigrant, having left Ukraine in 1979. His opening speech at the hearing struck me and has been reverberating in my head ever since: “Dad, my sitting here today in the U.S. Capitol, talking to our elected officials, is proof that you made the right decision, 40 years ago, to leave the Soviet Union… in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry — I will be fine for telling the truth.”
He then mentioned that in Russia, testifying against public officials would have cost him his career, and testifying against the president would have cost him his life. In the United States, he claimed, he would be safe from all that. Little did he know, he would soon be fired from the National Security Council, forced to retire from the Army, and sent death threats. All because he sought to hold the president accountable for his “partisan play” that had the potential to harm national security.
In a recent interview with NBC’s Lester Holt in September 2020, Vindman was much less optimistic. He stated that Trump is “infatuated with the power of authoritarian leaders that can govern with impunity” and that he was forced to choose between his job and his values.
In Vindman’s act of telling the truth and standing by his values, I felt less alone. Yes, it’s dramatic and strange that I found comfort in the impeachment proceedings. But Vindman’s continual references to his background and his family made me realize that my heritage and my beliefs complement each other. In fact, the people and the culture that I come from made me who I am and continue to inform my deepest-held principles.
I believe in a free and independent press, reproductive rights, the right to protest without being brutalized, the right to tell the full truth of our nation’s history and speak truth to power, the right to a true democracy without voter suppression and gerrymandering. I believe in the progress that has been made since the Civil Rights Era, and that there is so much more to be done.
The spirit of my people is what entices me to question everything and to be critical of those in power and their rhetoric. As Vindman has stated, we cannot become complacent and give away our democracy. We must work to strengthen it and expand the civil liberties that our people crossed a continent and an ocean for.
This realization, however, will not answer the question of where exactly I fit within the New York Russian-Jewish enclave, the American Jewish community, or anywhere else. Maybe I will always balance between various identities, taking inspiration from each and creating my own. Maybe I will always think in Russian and speak in English, with some self-taught Hebrew thrown in the mix. I know that I will always stay true to my convictions, and I know I will always be proud of my identity as a Russian-American Jew. Despite what others may say, the two are not mutually exclusive.
Header photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images