NY festival celebrates Russian Jewish immigrants as the ‘drivers’ of American culture

NEW YORK — At the time it seemed like a simple enough idea. Photographers Alina and Jeff Bliumis set up shop on the boardwalk of Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, a Russian-Jewish enclave. As people walked by they were asked if they’d like to stop for a photo. If they said yes, they were asked to stand under one of three signs they felt most clearly identified them: Russian, American or Jewish.

Nearly 2,000 portraits and eight years later the Bliumises published “From Selfie to Groupie,” a collection that delves into the variety and intricacy of Jewish-American identity. They started their project on the boardwalk, and then expanded it to the wider Jewish-American community in New York before going on to include Philadelphia, Miami, Sonoma Valley and St. Paul.

“The question of identity is not only about a nationality or a place. It’s liquid. It depends on your situation. Your identity changes every single minute and I realized it’s a privilege to be all the things you want to be. In Russia it wasn’t — it isn’t — always a choice to say who you are,” said Alina Bliumis, who comes from a long line of Russian-Jewish photographers.

That ability to move back and forth from “old country” to new and vice-versa was at the heart of the daylong Festival of Contemporary Russian Jewish American Culture held on March 5, featuring scholars, writers and visual artists.

“Many Americans don’t have the full historical context of how much Russian-Jewish influence there is on their life. The story here is how a hyphenated identity is always a very fertile ground for making a culture-rich community. But, over some 25 years we’ve lost sight of the vibrancy and the richness within the Russian-Jewish community,” said Ilia Salita, president and CEO of Genesis Philanthropy Group, which develops and strengthens Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews worldwide.

Jeff and Alina Bliumis, the photographers behind 'From Selfie to Groupie.' (Lily Idov)

The American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) and the Center for Jewish History (CJH) co-hosted the Sunday event, which was sponsored by the Louis P. Singer Chair in Jewish History at the University of Colorado in Boulder, the Genesis Philanthropy Group, and the scholarly journal East European Jewish Affairs.

While Russian Jews are no more homogeneous than American or French Jews, there is a shared experience of life in the Soviet Union. So the festival was an opportunity for Salita to showcase how young Russian Jews who immigrated to the US in the 1980s and 1990s drive American literature and art. He hoped it would both invigorate the American Jewish community while contributing to American culture more broadly.

Salita, who emigrated from Russia in 1991, considers the immigration of Russian-speaking Jews to be a demographic blessing for Israel, the US and Western Jewry as a whole.

In 2013, between 750,000 and 1 million Jewish-identifying Americans were either immigrants from the former Soviet Union or children of immigrants. Of those, more than 220,000 live in the five boroughs of New York City, according to the American Jewish Committee.

Subjects posing under the signs that best identify them in Alina and Jeff Bliumis's book, 'From Selfie to Groupie.' (Courtesy)

More broadly, the festival highlighted hot button issues running through the US, said Anna Katsnelson, an adjunct assistant professor in the Harriman Institute at Columbia University.

“Literature, arts, culture makes us more empathetic. It’s especially important now when we are living in an era of anti-intellectualism and art and educational institutes are under threat,” Katsnelson said.

Ilia Salita, president and CEO of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, which helps Russian-speaking Jews around the globe. (Courtesy)

“At a time when US-Russian relations are at a low we have not seen since the cold war, in a year when immigrants and refugees are under attack, when Jewish cemeteries and community centers are under attack in a way we haven’t seen since World War II, it is incredibly important to have this day. It is why we need culture as an anecdote to hate,” said Katsnelson.

Katsnelson stressed that the most recent wave of Russian-speaking Jewish immigration to North America, between the 1970s and 1990s, “incubated a rich panoply of talented artists, filmmakers, musicians, and writers — all of whom conveyed cultural capital from the Soviet Union to the West.”

For example, Russian and American cultural influences abound in graphic novelist Anya Ulinich’s work, Katsnelson said. The images in both Petropolis and Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel channel Russian folk art, wood block prints and poster art as well as American comic books.

Gary Shteyngart’s 'Super Sad True Love Story' is going to be adapted for television by Ben Stiller. (photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe/JTA)

A special edition of the journal East European Jewish Affairs “The New Wave of Russian Jewish American Culture” was presented at the event. The issue focuses on the various modes of artistic composition in which Russian-speaking Jewish Americans have played leading roles in the last 20 years — including art, film, literature, and music — with a focus on Russian-speaking Jewish American women.

“I want people to leave here today knowing what immigrants contribute to American culture. I think we have an obligation to recognize the role immigrants played and continue to play in culture,” said Dr. David Shneer, co-editor in chief of East European Jewish Affairs and the Louis P. Singer Chair in Jewish History at the University of Colorado.

Covers of Alina and Jeff Bliumis's book, 'From Selfie to Groupie,' and a special edition of East European Jewish Affairs, at the festival. (Cathryn J. Prince/Times of Israel)

Russian-Jewish American literature is in vogue right now, said Shneer, from Sana Krasikov’s “The Patriots” to Gary Shteyngart’s “Absurdistan” to Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s novel “Panic in a Suitcase.” But because each writer came to the US during different time periods, their work speaks to the different ways writers and photographers processed their experience.

Also attending the festival were poet Polina Barskova, who writes in Russian and teaches at Hampshire College; Eugene Yelchin, who wrote “Breaking Stalin’s Nose” and “Arcady’s Goal;” and Yuliya Levit, the photographer whose Speak Memory project explores stories of Russian-speaking Jewish WWII survivors.

The night before the festival, Anna Shternshis, co-editor in chief of East European Jewish Affairs, hosted book launch party to celebrate the publication of “When Sonia Met Boris: An Oral History of Jewish Life Under Stalin.”

‘We are a society of immigrants’

The festival was held just a few blocks from Union Square, at the CJH. The center received three bomb threats in three days the previous week as part of the recent wave of anti-Semitic incidents spreading across the country.

For Rachel Lithgow, executive director of the AJHS, holding the festival was, in some ways, a small act of resistance.

“We are a society of immigrants,” she said. “Given the landscape in our country, the rise of anti-immigrant rhetoric and anti-Semitism, we need more of these events and more people coming to them. We can’t shrink a way from this.”

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