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The Big Jewcy: Lea Zeltserman – Blogging The Soviet Jewish Experience

Who knows what’s pushing Soviet Jews’ hot factor now–some pin it on sexy Russian spies, others on the Shteyngarts and Beckermans cranking out volumes on the experience. Whatever it is, there is a major boom in media production surrounding the demographic. As a Jewkrainian whose art is tuned into the Soviet Jewish experience these days, it’s good to see that there’s a forum for efforts toward creating a voice for a population denied a cultural history in the old country, and largely without a narrative to fall back on in reflecting on a uniting experience.

Lea Zeltserman is one personality of note “blogging the Iron Curtain.” Her project, Soviet & Jewish is complete with interviews of Canadian immigrants part of the 1967-81 wave with an eye for the experience of the “regular folk.” In the same spirit as Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl, Zeltserman offers a much needed Zinn-like people’s history.

She’s a Big Jewcy partially because of that unceasing Soviet work ethic (a phrase that will probably be considered stereotypical if this group gets the recognition it now lacks), requesting that all interested parties keen on sharing their own immigration experience should contact her and graciously add to her workload.

Jewcy: What are the most recent developments? Key players?

Lea Zeltserman: Right now, I’m mostly working on a book proposal—outlining what the story is and how I want to tell it. I’m also doing some related personal writing on the side—about a trip I took to Rome with my parents to see where we’d lived, and such. And I’ve been busy interviewing people who immigrated through the 1970s.

In terms of key players, no big names, if that’s what you’re looking for. There was, at that time, a fairly prominent international movement, and a refusenik-activist struggle within the USSR. But my focus is really on ordinary people—the silent masses that just kept leaving the USSR, almost in the background as it were, of this greater movement. I have someone who was thrown into a military prison and then an insane asylum just to shut him up. And someone else who was on the periphery of the refusenik movement in Leningrad; he was born in a gulag, and then later, during this period, was ratted out to the KGB by a close friend. Now he’s a mild-mannered engineering professor. So people like that – some with more or less dramatic stories – but I think what’s amazing is how ordinary they were and yet how brave they were. It’s a very human story, to leave everything behind, with the knowledge that you can never go back.

Why has your Soviet Jewish heritage been so central in your work? What’s inspiring you?

It’s a pretty recent interest for me. Most of my life, I was really clueless. We started speaking English at home when I was in grade school, and my parents always had as many Canadian friends as Russian, so it really receded into the background in many ways. Not that I didn’t know where I was from or about my family—quite the opposite—but I just didn’t think about it. I didn’t really think of us as Immigrants, and it didn’t occur to me that moving across the world and leaving everything behind was a big deal.

Which of course it is. I went to Rome with my parents a few years ago, and they showed me where we’d lived while we were waiting for our Canadian papers, and where the HIAS offices had been, and such. I started to get an inkling of the gulf between our worlds. And from that, starting to understand how it shaped my childhood—not in the obvious immigrant-y ways, like food or language, but just in who my parents were, how they understood Judaism, and how different that was from the people I grew up around. They knew almost nothing about practicing Judaism when they came here. They came from a place where anti-Semitism was very much a live thing, that was so deep into the Soviet system—it continually stopped you from doing what you wanted—and they ended up in a place where things like Bar/Bat Mitzvahs have become an opportunity to show off a little.

And that’s branched out into other things, like the broader interactions between the existing, mainstream Jewish community, and the Soviet Jews. On some level, it was always a bit surprising when we started arriving here that we didn’t live in shtetls and weren’t going to fit into the typical immigrant mythology of the Lower East Side story. Soviet Jews gave up a lot to leave the USSR, but they were generally urban and educated, and knew nothing about Judaism.

Another thing was this idea of a vanished country—of being from a place that’s no longer on any map. It’s a notion that fascinates me, and it was at that point that I really started to learn more about the people I’d grown up around who’d also come over in the 1970s. They have some pretty dramatic stories, which you’d never know to meet them—the surface of their lives doesn’t hint at what they’d gone through.

I’m constantly amazed by the gulf between that world and our lives today. It was the central force driving international politics for decades and then, poof, it vanished. It gets harder to imagine and understand it. Not just because communism disappeared, but because of the way communication has changed, the borders have opened, and there are expat Russian communities everywhere. So that foreignness fascinates me—the sense of trying to grasp a world that’s already long gone.

How did you come to realize there was a niche for you as a writer there?

I think it’s mostly the same reasons that I’m inspired to keep at this. When I started interviewing people, I realized that their stories haven’t been told at all. If you talk about Russian Jews (and I don’t even know whether to call us Russian or Soviet Jews anymore), people tend to think of the wave that came after the Iron Curtain collapsed, and that was a very different group of people and circumstances. They weren’t fleeing in the same way, and it was much easier to get out.  And then, I also realized that most of the story from the 1970s (technically, from 1967 to 1981) had been forgotten. Or, people knew about the famous refuseniks—Natan Sharansky, of course—and something of the politics and the international movement. But the types of people I know—ordinary people, who still have dramatic stories to tell, had gotten lost over the years. Those are the stories I want to tell, and I think it hasn’t been talked about much.

I should point out that there has been some great work coming out in the last few years in this area. Gal Beckerman’s book When They Come For Us We’ll Be Gone, covers the more public story—the politics and the prominent figures in the movement, both in North America and in the USSR. And particularly, the significance of the movement for American Jewry. It’s an amazing book, and I think everyone should read it to understand the history of the Soviet Jewish movement. There’s a documentary called Refusenik—the director is Laura Bialis –and it also covers some of the same territory, and again, I can’t say enough good things about it. I actually did a mini-screening for our friends that I’d interviewed. And there’s fiction—most prominently right now, David Bezmozgis, whose novel The Free World, which came out this spring, is about a Soviet Jewish family awaiting their Canadian papers in Rome in 1978.

But there’s still lots to be told and it’s still an underrepresented area in Jewish—and North American Jewish—history.

Who’s your audience?

I think it’s a story that’ll interest North American Jews, both Russian/Soviet and not. I think we’re just beginning to understand the Soviet Union and Soviet Jews. Soviet Jews were often very alienated when they got here, and I’d like to think that my work will help explain who they were, and how they became that way a little.

It’s also very much an immigrant story—so many things are the same no matter where you come from. Leaving your homeland is leaving your homeland. So hopefully that’ll appeal to a broader audience.

But mostly I try not to think about that. It’s too easy to convince yourself that either no one is interested or everyone is. I try to focus more on the people I’m writing about—they’ve shared their lives with me and I feel obligated to do right by them.

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