Refusenik Documentary Screening Part 2: The Rescuers and the Rescued

*This is the second in a series. Missed my earlier posts? Catch up here: Refusenik Documentary Screening Part 1: Defining Moments

Refusenik Documentary PosterI was talking recently about the Refusenik documentary and my Edmonton screening to a couple of people, both Canadian Jews here in Toronto. The Soviet-Jewry cause had been a monumental issue for Canadian and American Jews, and one of the women I spoke to (S.) remembered protesting and marching when she was younger; today, she’s actively involved with local Jewish organizations. She was really surprised that these parts of the story—her efforts—weren’t well-known to the group. But then, I wonder how much of their (I should say our) lives were known to her, and others like her, marching in the streets of the world? I tried to explain that people who came over then didn’t necessarily get involved with organized Jewish life here, so they wouldn’t have known about how the community had organized around this cause, or about things like the Freedom Seders. She was genuinely puzzled.

“Why not?” she asked me. Point-blank like that, I felt a little uncomfortable. So I didn’t say anything about how many people felt unwelcomed by the Canadian Jewish community. Especially many people I know, who weren’t activists or refuseniks, and so had no connections to North America.

What I did explain is that many Soviet Jews barely keep up any Jewish traditions and that their understanding of what it means to be Jewish is so different. They simply aren’t interested in actively being involved with the community.

Again the “why?”

I explained that often, the motivation to leave the USSR was not so much to actively practice Judaism, as it was to be left alone as Jews. That is, it was less about going to synagogue and more about not being denied opportunities as adults, or not being beaten on the playground as children. So many times in interviews, people have said to me, “I hit a wall. I hit a wall and that’s when I began to think about it.”

It was a brief conversation, but very revealing of the gulf between the two groups, despite their once-common cause. It certainly left me wondering how much we can bridge cultures and worlds, even when united towards the same goal.

It also got me thinking of contemporary protests, like the G20, which riveted Toronto and probably many Canadians, in June. What do we know about the people on whose behalf we so often protest? We don’t really understand lives across the world. Which doesn’t mean we should stop protesting if it’s warranted. Just that, even when you fight on someone’s behalf, you can still understand so little of them.

Another response though, to this question of being engaged in communal or organized Jewish life, comes by way of Emil Draister, whose memoir Shush! Growing Up Jewish Under Stalin chronicles his life in post-WWII Soviet Russia. In an interview with Vicki Boykis, a blogger who frequently writes about being an immigrant in the US, he says:

Growing up in the USSR made you abhor any kind of social activity. Most of it was “voluntarily-compulsive,” that is, you can refuse to go to a Saturday volunteer cleaning of the courtyard of your government setting, but you better not. You’d be considered “politically inactive” and, therefore, suspect of having weak moral fiber.

American Jews find it normal to be active in their community for such activism is based on the underlying Protestant culture of the country adopted by the Jews. Russian Jews grew up in a culture that embraced the precepts of Christian Orthodoxy, in which not immediate deeds, mere contemplation of God’s designs, is considered pleasing to God’s heart. Don’t take me wrong: such values give birth to such attractive human qualities, as kindness, naturalness, good disposition to others, etc.…This hypothesis about the roots of the differences between American and Russian Jews belongs to Russian-trained sociologist Sam Kliger. I tend to concur with him.

We also tend to glorify past movements, like the civil rights movement or the protests against the Vietnam War. It’s funny to hear about it from the other side, from the people who were affected on the other side of the world, and didn’t always know about it.

This all got me thinking about this business of protesting for people, and the notion of “rescue.” Despite growing up with the knowledge that my family had come from, had escaped, a totalitarian state, and despite that we technically arrived in Canada as refugees, I’m still thrown when I hear talk about “rescuing” the Soviet Jews. I’d never thought of myself, or my family, as being in need of rescuing. It wasn’t until I started reading more about the struggle on our behalf here in North America, and particularly watching Refusenik, that I encountered the term and the general sense of urgency that surrounded our emigration.

I’m torn. I know of a number of people who genuinely had terrible life experiences, well beyond the norm—people who were imprisoned, sent to the gulag, to solitary confinement, to insane asylums, and so forth. So yes, rescue is an appropriate term. But. But. The term rubs me the wrong way—there is something inherently paternalistic about it that I can’t quite wrap my head around. When I watch a movie like Refusenik, and see protesters with signs screaming for the release of Soviet Jews, and see words like “save” or “rescue,” I have trouble connecting that to myself and my life. Never mind, of course, that that very life is possible largely because of these efforts.

Would I feel this way if I’d spent more of my life in the USSR, if I felt slightly less Canadian than I do? If I want it to, the Soviet Union is nothing more than a detail on my passport. So perhaps my reaction to being “rescued” is nothing more than a luxury. Food for thought.

© 2017 Lea Zeltserman