Russian Jewish Immigrants

1. Introduction
2. Position of Jews in Russia and historical conditions of their immigration
3. Russian Jews Immigrants in the USA
4. Conclusion
5. References
Jewish people may be called the people of wanderers because since ancient times they traveled round the world looking for happiness and intending to return to their native land but they could not always do so. The 20th century was not an exception from this rule.
Furthermore, last century was probably the most terrible period in Jewish history because it was marked by numerous tragic events that referred to the whole Jewish people all over the world. On mentioning Holocaust, every Jew as well as any other normal person would be shocked.
Quite shocking was the position of Jews in Russia and later in the Soviet Union. Even though the situation became better Russian Jews continued to leave this country and they also suffered significantly from Stalin’s repressions and Purges. Actually, this paper aims at revealing the main causes of Russian Jewish immigration and the position of Jews in Russia and Soviet Union. Also it would be quite interesting to analyze how the life of Jews has changed since they have moved to other countries of the world, particularly the USA and what attitude to Jews was there. Naturally, it would be appropriate in terms of this analysis take into consideration achievements of Jews in new ‘motherland’ and their contribution to the development of local culture, science, technology, etc.
Certainly, this research is extremely important, particularly now. In the contemporary world when the process of globalization overwhelmed practically al countries and all nations it is extremely important to realize how Jewish people manages to keep their national identity and culture, even despite the fact that gradually a significant part of Jewish immigrant is assimilated in local culture.
Position of Jews in Russia and historical conditions of their immigration
From the very beginning it should be pointed out that the position of Jews in Russia was extremely difficult. As soon as they came to this country they became foreigners that had different culture, traditions and religion. It is also noteworthy that the policy of anti-Semitism was an official policy of Russian Tsars. Particularly negative, the policy of Russian rulers was during the reign of Alexander III and Nicholas II, the last Tsar in Russian history.
Their reigning was characterized not only by an official policy of anti-Semitism but also such a terrible thing as ‘pogroms’ that were also only official state policy under Alexander III and his son, Nichols II. ‘Pogroms’ it is a particular Russian term that means ‘like thunder’ and it traditionally refers to “the sudden attack on the Jewish community resulting in death and destruction.” (Falk 1997:135).
Naturally, the question about the causes of such policy, which was so typical at the beginning of the 20th century, arises. The answer may be found in the history of Russia the ruling regime of this country, its traditions, aims and means of ruling. Traditionally, Russian tsar was not only the head of state but also the head of Russian church, consequently he tended to control all spheres of life of his citizens including religious.
Furthermore, Russia was a country with a strong monarch power. Moreover, Russian tsar “was the only and unquestionable leader of state and the church.” (Phillips 1998:211) even if he was insane like it was in the case of Ivan the Terrible. Luckily, Nicholas II was mentally healthy but it did not change his attitude and his policy in relation to Jews. It implied that the country should be as solid as possible and for this Russia needed one culture, one language, one religion.
Naturally, in such circumstances Jewish people could not be smoothly integrated in Russian society since they lived according their own traditions and moral and religious laws. Not surprisingly that often they were treated as enemies of faith and consequently the country at large.
As a result, Russian tsar at the beginning of the 20th century supported the maxim proclaimed by his father “Autocracy, Orthodoxy, Nationalism”. This maxim was cornerstone of Russian internal and external policy and one of its victims became Jews who were strangers for Russian people who had different way of life, different mentality, different religion.
In this context, the attitude of Russian people to Jews seemed to be natural. In the country where anti-Semitism is a state policy and is ideologically supported by all means that are at hand of the government than ‘pogroms’ are a natural reaction of people on state propaganda.
Quite remarkable is the fact that peaks of extremely negative relations and confrontation between Jews and the rest of the population of Russian empire, often resulting in ‘pogroms’, coincide with the most difficult periods in Russian history at the beginning of the 20th century. For instance, during the Japanese war and first Russian revolution of 1905 there were some cases of pogroms.
It also should be pointed out that at this period of time, i.e. at the beginning of the 20th century before the second Russian revolution, Jews lived basically in their own ethnic groups, mainly on the territory of Poland, Ukraine and some other regions of Russia though Poland was the country where the share of Jewish population was the highest in Europe. Such compact ethnic environment permitted Jews to keep their traditions and their national culture despite the fact that very often they were not perceived as nation at all.
The first hope for better life appeared for Jews after the second Russian revolution in 1917. However, this revolution was accompanied by bloodiest pogroms in Russian Jewish history. Still Bolsheviks came to power, Russian tsar and his family were executed the ruling regime had been completely changed. They proclaimed quite a democratic national policy that seemed to be quite attractive for all national minorities though a lot of Russian Jews were forced to leave the country because they were terrified by pogroms that either occurred or could be in the near future.
In order to understand Bolcheviks’ attitude to anti Semitism it would be enough to have a look at sayings of their leader Vladimir Lenin. So he estimated that “anti-Semitism was an attempt to divert the hatred of the workers and peasants from the exploiters toward the Jews.” (Philips 1998:275). So, he explains a deprived position of Jews from the point of view of class struggle and opposition between commanding classes of exploiters and classes of workers and peasants who were severely exploited in Russia.
At this respect, it is not surprising that “one of Lenin’s first state addresses was to mark the emancipation of Jews from tsarism.” (Falk 1997:107). At this period of time Jews were allowed to settle anywhere in Russia according to their will that was the first time in Russian history.
Moreover, Jews played quite an important role in the Central Committee of Bolsheviks government. They constituted a significant part of the Central Committee and this fact permitted to opponents of Bolsheviks and to anti-Semites to call Bolsheviks “a gang of marauding Jews” (Phillips 1998:345) that fully characterized the former regime as extremely anti-Semitic.
At first years of new regime, namely by 1930, the situations became a bit better for Russian Jews for anti-Semitism was reduced but not wholly. There were some campaigns that aimed at the improvement of general attitude to Jewish population of Russia and later of Soviet Union such as Yevslektia and others of that sort.
However, quite soon the situation began to deteriorate. During the years of industrialization, urbanization and collectivization many Jews moved from their traditional settlements and small towns to larger ones along with a variety of other nations. A great part of large cities was not acquainted with Jews intimately and that is why very often people “were perhaps more inclined to see [Jews] through tsarist era stereotypes like the parasitic “Christ-killer” (Falk 1997:278). Naturally, it did not improve everyday relations between representatives of different nations on one hand and Jews on the other.
As a result, anti-Semitism has got a new source for development in Russia that also made the situation for Jews unbearable and they could not remain within such a country as the USSR and looked for an opportunity to move in another more tolerant country.
The situation was also deteriorated by forced collectivization that was often presented, particularly in Nazi mass media, as “allegedly Jewish squads were deporting Slavic peasants” (Falk 1997:321), that was another source of inspiration of anti-Semitism not only in Russia but in the whole Europe.
However, officially, anti-Semitism was proclaimed as a phenomenon hostile to the Soviet Union and was formally forbidden. Such official position of the Soviet government attracted many Jews but in fact the position of Jews in the USSR remained very hard.
Furthermore, the general effect of such policy, enforced by rapid industrialization and urbanization, was quite negative for Jews and for their national identity. Another problem, Russian Jews faced was the lost of national identity and gradual assimilation in large cities where Jews acquired not only Russian language but Russian culture, lifestyle, etc.
After 1930s came probably the hardest challenge in Jewish history the Holocaust and the World War II. Many Russian Jews were physically destroyed but luckily a lot were rescued for they moved from their traditional territories in Poland and Ukraine to Russia. But after the World War many Russian Jews remained in Europe and they had chosen not to return to the USSR but to immigrate to the USA where the situation was obviously much better than in the country they used to live in.
During the period of the Cold War the situation did not change significantly. The attitude to Jews within Soviet society was if not negative than not very good though the position of the official government remained unchangeable. Officially, anti-Semitism was still a sort of taboo. It is quite remarkably that the USSR supported the idea of the creation of the Jewish country, i.e. Israel, and the return of Jews to their historical motherland.
But the fact that many Russian Jews preferred to leave the USSR, when they had such an opportunity, particularly during ‘Perestroika’ period and in late 1980s – early 1990s, is an evidence of those hardships the Jewish community had to pass through in the Soviet Union.
Thus, it is obvious that during the 20th century the position of Jews in Russia and later in the USSR was very difficult and sometimes even unbearable. The official ideology of anti-Semitism at the beginning of the century deep rooted a negative attitude to Jews among the population of the country and resulted in anti-Semitism in everyday life relations between Jews and representatives of other nations of the USSR even despite the official position of the state that was quite favorable for Jews as well as for other nations and national minorities.
However, Jews could not help from being negatively perceived by the population of the USSR as well as they had failed to avoid pogroms at the beginning of the century and Stalin’s purges during the Stalinism era in the Soviet Union. The natural way out Jews could look for was immigration and if they could they chose the United States as their new motherland, as a new Promised Land.
Russian Jewish immigrants in the USA
Now it is necessary to dwell upon the alternative that Jews had and compare whether the position of Jews in another country, i.e. in the US was different from their position in Russia and the USSR.
As it has been already mentioned, being deprived in Russia, Jewish population of this country had to move to the US and other countries of the world. Actually, it was in the entity of this people to wander. They absorbed it with their religion, culture and traditions. Actually, the US had obviously a number of significant advantages compared to the USSR.
First of all, it was a democratic country and in the 20th century it was well-developed and quickly progressing country. The state, as well as ordinary people, was basically tolerant in relation to other nations probably because a constituent part of American population was immigrants from different parts of the world.
At the same time, it would be a mistake to say that everything was ideal in the US for Russian Jewish immigrants. They also faced a number of problems in a new country that they had to solve. For instance, during the Great Depression the immigration legislation was quite severe and it was not so easy to move to the US though it was even more difficult for Russian Jews to leave the USSR at this period of time.
Anyway, Russian Jews arrived to the US and settled there. New York was one of the largest centers where Jewish population moved to and Briton Beach became the heart of Russian Jewish immigration. In general, “New York State is the location of both the oldest and largest Jewish community in North America.” (). In site of the fact that there were other centers of Jewish immigration in the USA but New York, and particularly Brooklyn, was the main one. It seems to be quite natural because this city is one of the largest ports and the first city the majority of Russian Jews arrived to was New York.
Furthermore, it was always easier to survive in a new country in a large city where there are a lot of opportunities for an immigrant to earn money for living.
So, it is quite natural that nowadays the majority of major Jewish organizations in the US maintain their offices in New York. Probably that is the reason why New York is considered to be a capital of Russian Jewish community in the US. It is an undeniable fact that it is a cultural center of Jews in the US and its Jewish community is the largest in the United States.
Despite the fact that Jews had started to immigrate to the US quite a long time ago, the 20th century had probably become the most important period for the Jewish immigration at large and Russian Jews immigrants in particular. It is quite a remarkable fact that at the end of 1870s there were only 40.000 Jews in the US while in over a forty year period from 1880 to 1920 more than a million Jews arrived to New York from Eastern Europe a significant part of these immigrants constituted Russian Jews who basically escaped from pogroms in 1905 and especially in 1917, when in a revolutionary country they felt themselves as if they were a kind of outcasts and could not live normally as a community within friendly society. On the contrary, the major part of Russian population during the second Russian revolution and the years of ‘War Communism’ was very hostile and blamed Jews in many of their own problems.
On contrast, in the US they wanted to find a tolerant nation that would accept them, their culture, religion, and their traditions. Actually, that is what in fact happened to Russian Jews in the US. They had managed to preserve their community and their national identity, along with their cultural and religious traditions.
So, at the beginning of the 20th century because of the problems in Europe and in Russia Jewish population of New York grew rapidly and counting both citizens of the US and newly arrived immigrants the Jewish community of New York exceeded 1,5 million people by 1920 a significant part of which was presented by Russian Jews.
Naturally, the question arises: how did they live in the US at large and in New York in particular. By the way, the latter may be considered as a mirror of life of the whole Jewish community in the US.
So, basically, Russian Jewish immigrants worked either in the needle trades or tobacco industry. Very often new Russian Jewish immigrants worked in companies established by other Jews, basically of German origin. At the same time, it should be pointed out that Russian Jews were often less qualified than Jews from western European countries.
Probably due to this fact, or to the influence of Russian revolution Yiddish culture in New York was rich and diverse. The leading Yiddish theater district in the world developed along Second Avenue in Manhattan. Russian Jews published their own newspapers and magazines. One of the most famous Russian Hew s immigrants, Sholem Aleichem, perhaps the greatest Yiddish writer of all time, died in New York in 1916. His funeral was one of the largest public Jewish events in New York Jewish history. Relief from summer heat led to the development of the "Borscht Belt" in Sullivan, Ulster and Orange Counties in upstate New York. A number of Jewish organizations and Americanization agencies also established summer camps for urban Jewish youth beginning with the Educational Alliance's program, Surprise Lake Camp, in Cold Spring, New York in Putnam County in 1902. Jewish summer camping remained popular among New York Russian Jews during the course of the entire 20th century. Boxing and baseball were also very popular among Jewish men.
Religious life among New York Russian Jews also became more diverse as East European Jews immigrated to America. Already in 1887, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) was founded in New York City as a traditional alternative to the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College established in 1875 in Cincinnati. JTS was reorganized in 1902 with the help of New York's German Jewish elite and became the fountainhead of the emerging Conservative movement in American Judaism. Headed by Solomon Schechter, JTS spawned the United Synagogue of America in 1913. In 1915, the Etz Chaim Yeshivah founded in 1886 and the Isaac Elhanan Theological Seminary founded in 1897 merged and formed the basis for the development of Yeshiva University, the vanguard of modern Jewish orthodoxy in the United States.
In many ways, as it has already been mentioned, New York City has served as the "capital" of the larger American Jewish community throughout the 20th century. However, as early as 1859, New York City Jewish leaders organized the Board of Delegates of American Israelites, the first major Jewish defense organization in the United States. The American Jewish Committee, initially representing the interests of powerful uptown German Jews, was organized in New York City in 1906. Its founders, including Louis Marshall and Oscar Straus, also helped create the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee ("The Joint") to help Jews displaced by fighting on the eastern front during the First World War. In 1918, the American Jewish Congress has organized as an alternative to the Committee and also focused some of its efforts on the plight of Russian and Polish Jews in Europe after the war. A 1908 attempt to reorganize the New York Jewish community as a "Kehillah" lasted for 14 years and was succeeded by the Jewish Federation in conjunction with the United Jewish Appeal.
Jews also played an increasingly significant role in the general cultural life of New York as the 20th century progressed. Many of New York's leading entertainers, writers, artists and art patrons were of Jewish origin, particularly after 1920. Jews influenced significantly American culture, including music due to work of such people as Irvin Berlin and George Gershwin. The Guggenheim family supported the arts in New York. Jews also played a significant role in literature. Indeed, American intellectualism was often closely associated with the New York Jewish community.
Anti-semitism in New York began to intensify in the 1870s in the wake of Jim Crow legislation and other "constitutional" expressions of racism in the United States. Even leading New York Jewish families such as the Seligmanns found themselves excluded from posh resorts in Saratoga Springs, New York. In 1908, an "official" New York City Kehillah, headed by Judah L. Magnes, was formed in response to inflated police charges that over 50% of crimes in New York City were committed by Jews. The Kehillah included a "Bureau of Social Morals," among its many agencies. In 1913, the Anti-Defamation League was organized in New York in response to the lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia. At a local level, particularly in New York City, Jewish-Irish relations were often tense and "blood libel" charges briefly surfaced in Massena, New York, in 1927.
Anti-semitism also contributed to the general rise in xenophobia following the end of World War I resulting in immigration restrictions which severely cut new Jewish settlement in the United States. With the rise of Hitler, however, a small but culturally significant group of German Jews began to settle in New York, particularly in the Washington Heights section of New York City. A German language newspaper, Aufbau, recorded the everyday life of this immigrant community, from its office on Broadway. Many of the new German Jewish immigrants were distinguished in the Arts and Sciences. Both Henry Kissinger and Ruth Westheimer were among the German Jewish children displaced by Nazism who founded new homes in New York.
Following World War II, two forces reshaped the New York Jewish community. Suburbanization resulted in a national redistribution of the American Jewish population. In New York, fewer than 100,000 Jews lived in all the suburbs of New York City in 1940. By 1960, the Jewish population of Westchester County was approximately 135,000 with another 270,000 Jews in Rockland County on the west side of the Hudson River and over 330,000 in Long Island's Nassau County. Upstate Jewish communities experienced similar spatial redistributions of population after World War II. Moreover, several hundred thousand New York Jews, including Russian Jews, relocated throughout the country, particularly in southern California and Florida creating a vast New York Jewish diaspora in many parts of the United States.
Expansion into the suburbs resulted in widescale construction of new synagogues and Jewish Community Centers. Jewish life in the suburbs, however, accelerated the process of assimilation and by the early 1960s, demographers correctly predicted soaring rates of mix marriage. By 1990, the rate of mixed marriage exceeded 42% nationally but was lower in many of New York's more intensely Jewish neighborhoods.
A second major development in the post-War period involved the transplanting of a number of highly traditional Jewish religious communities from Europe to the United States. The largest Orthodox group, the Satmar Hasidim, settled in Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and later founded a town, Kiryas Joel, in Orange County near Monroe, NY. In 1955, Rabbi Y. Twersky founded New Square in Rockland County for his followers. A large Orthodox community also developed in nearby Monsey. Meanwhile, the Chabad Lubavitch movement rooted itself in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn and several other Hasidic groups, including the Belzers helped transform Borough Park into the most populous Jewish neighborhood in the United States. Non-religious Jewish immigrants including thousands of Russian Jews and Israelis settled in Brooklyn and Queens beginning in the 1970s, a period which also saw the revival of Jewish life in Manhattan's Upper West Side.
By the end of the twentieth century, New York Jewish life was a curious mix of continuing acculturation, upstate decline and revitalization. Charitable giving to Jewish causes and full day Jewish education were both on the rise. Renewed immigration and high fertility rates among the ultra-Orthodox had largely checked demography losses, and the Jewish population in New York essentially mirrored the general demography of the state as a whole. In 1998, Charles Schumer was elected United States Senator, continuing the tradition of Jewish political activism in New York which included Herbert H. Lehman and Jacob K. Javitz, as well as Congressional representatives Lucius N. Littauer, Meyer London, Bella Abzug and, most recently, Gerald Nadel. Both Abe Beam and Ed Koch have served as Mayor of New York City and several Jewish New Yorkers have served as Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States including Benjamin N. Cardozo and Arthur Goldberg. In 1993, Ruth Bader Ginzburg, a New Yorker, was the first American Jewish woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court.
In every dimension, New York will most likely continue to function as the vital center of the American Jewish community during the 21st century. With one-third or more of all American Jews, an expanding education system and a strong tradition of philanthrophy, New York remains the outstanding Jewish community of the entire Jewish Diaspora. Its continued success is critical to the well being of the Jewish people for years to come.
1. Kasinitz, P et al. (Ed.). Becoming New Yorkers: Ethnographies of the New Second Generation. New York: Touchstone, 1999.
2. Falk, G. Russian Jews Immigrants in the USA. New York: Touchstone, 1997.
3. Falk, G. Jewish Immigration. New York: Touchstone, 1999.
4. Phillips, G. History of the Jews in Russia and the Soviet Union. New York: NEW Publishers, 1998.
5. Sussman, J. New York Jewish History. New York: Binghamton, 2001.

Our services