I was eleven at the time I learnt I was Jewish. Once I went out of school building into the schoolyard and found more that half of the boys from my class. They gathered to give me a beating shouting ‘Jew! Jew!’ at me.
They went on shouting, and I was at complete loss. I was both frightened and shocked. Frightened because of physical threat. Shocked because I had no idea what it meant what they shouted. And I had no idea that I was Jewish.
Then a teacher appeared. She said something like ‘Shame on you, — all against a single boy…’ The boys ran away.
I went home. I said nothing to my parents about the incident. For some reason I knew I should not tell them. Maybe, it was because I still had to find out what it meant to be a Jew.
How come that I did not know? How come that the boys knew about me something that I did not?
I did not know because my parents did not tell me. My family was (and still is) a decent family of intellectuals (‘intelligensia’). Yet, it was not a good or accepted thing to talk about Jews or being Jewish in the child’s presence.
At this point I realize it becomes practically impossible to understand for a foreigner who knows that being Jewish includes a lot of specific practices, rites and rituals that are impossible to be unnoticed in daily life. But an ironic paradox is that in Soviet social environment it was possible to be Jewish … without being Jewish…
Under the Soviet official practice a person’s ethnic origins are entered into child’s birth certificate as ‘parents’ nationality’ As different from any country you would readily refer to, the Soviet practice had it that ‘nationality’ was something basically different from citizenship, — it was your ethnic origin. Now, what if you have two parents; say one Lithuanian, and one Armenian? Then at the age of 16, when you are getting your passport you can choose one of the two, as stated in your birth certificate, but no other. The entry stays with you all your life and is requested everywhere you apply for anything and fill out a form (college, job, etc.). Then undeclared ‘national’, i.e. ethnic quotas could be and were easily practiced. My German friends told me: ‘We had something like that in 1930s’. Centuries-old imperial practice: divide et impera, divide and rule.
In my passport issued in 1987 I had my ‘nationality’ entry. In modern Russia a new order was introduced, that it is up to the person to have the entry or not in their passport. Typically, no one insists on having it.
How did the boys know what I did not? They might have opened the last page of the class register where there was information about parents taken from the birth certificate.
What about my parents then? I realized, much later how tragically scared my father was. In 1949 he, a brave WWII veteran, had to flee from Moscow not to get into the mill of 1947-49 ‘anti-cosmopolitan campaign’. Guess who the ‘cosmopolitans’ were. You are right, Jews. After that he had a strong fright of being evidently Jewish. No discussion or even mentioning this forbidden topic.
What did it mean to me at that time and afterwards?
I learnt that whatever I do and whoever I am, I belong to a special group. It does not matter what you call it, special people or outcasts, — it can be both. It does not matter if you are aware of it or not, or what you think or practice. You belong to it regardless.
Something similar I discovered about Russian ‘intelligensia’. This word has in Russia two meanings. 1) It was and still is used as a broad formal term to describe both intellectuals, and white collars, and people with higher education. 2) It is used to describe thoughtful educated people combining social class with human virtue.
The Soviet ‘intelligensia’ in the second sense of the word was dissident, and in a sense, it had some features of being ‘Jewish’ regardless of its ethnical origin. It was sometimes socially, but mostly internally (spiritually) marginal in relation to the official establishment. It was always suspiciously looked at by the authorities. Once one entered this partly invisible cohort one started to belong to it regardless. And feel all the pressure of the environment, starting and ending with the state. The more so, the more the sense of being a critically minded intellectual one had.
So in my experience being Jewish had nothing to do with religion, it was more about social class, education and secular culture, since I discovered that I never know who of my friends turns out to be Jewish by origin, and who is just critically minded or well-educated. But there was a feeling that one you are critically minded or well educated something is ‘basically wrong’ with you and you can easily become a target — regardless.
Now I feel there is a more up-to-date and evident social group. Russians all over the huge pieces of former Soviet empire. Migrants all over Russia.
In early 90’s my girlfriend wanted to send her teenage daughter to a newly established Jewish society summer youth camp. The girl’s father was Jewish, and once the girl discovered it, she wanted to explore and play with her Jewishness, something that had been unthinkable of even a couple of years before. She was refused by the society on the grounds that her mother was not Jewish. I immediately recognized the practice – from the opposite side, but with a similar racial base. I remember my reaction using a wide array of pieces of Russian cultural heritage of obscenities, when my girlfriend could not hear, I was really indignant.
Now, even with social-ethnic tension growing there is little ideological suppression, and I doubt that my experience could be repeated in the same way. Yet, I would hate to think of anyone having an early shock because of being Russian or Armenian, or ‘black’ as ethnic groups from the Caucasus are called in this country. Having genetically embedded experience of being haunted or being ready to start fighting at any moment is not something I could wish a person of whatever origin.
Still, I think, experience of being Jewish could be useful. Any of us could discover themselves in circumstances when they are being threatened or mobbed, mistreated or suspected not because of what we do, but just so, for no specific reasons. I risk being blamed by orthodox thinkers for being too easy, but I sometimes feel so many of us could qualify for being Jewish.
You have doubts? I do not suggest you should rush to exploring them.