As we interviewed Alla and Vera about their lives in the Soviet Union, one fact loomed large—being Jewish was a handicap. Despite all the rhetoric of the Soviet Union claiming the equality of all peoples, the theory did not translate into practice. As most readers no doubt know, once passports were introduced into the Soviet Union in December 1932, Jews in all of the republics had to register as Jews, not as Russians, Ukrainians, Moldovans, Lithuanians, etc.
While Jews had to proclaim their Jewishness on the internal passport, the Soviet Union closed most synagogues, banned rabbinical training, and rendered it all but impossible to observe Shabbat and holidays. But what do you think would have happened had the Soviet Union not forced Jews to identify as “Jews?” Would they have assimilated even more rapidly into the local populations? Would anyone have noticed the Jews had disappeared into the communist masses?
From Lenin to Stalin to Khrushchev to Andropov to Chernenko to Brezhnev, Jews were the object of disdain. Did Soviet leaders inherit from their tsarist predecessors the need for a ready scapegoat should there be a governmental crisis?
Here in the US, Russian Jews often disappeared into the American masses, their Judaism nostalgically savored in a favorite dish or by remembering a charming anecdote of the “old country.” Intermarriage and assimilation were not mandated by the US government; they were the outgrowth of apathy.
Both Vera and Alla reacted to the anti-Semitism surrounding them with defiance. Alla demonstrated the defiance of the unbowed—the more the Soviet government reviled her religion, the more important it became to salvage whatever she could. Vera denied any spiritual identity; yet, she retained her Jewish soul in the form of an inner advisor, Isya, whom she described as a little old Jewish man. Yet, Judaism was alive in her in other ways. Upon seeing Leslie's star of David necklace, she greeted Leslie with the words, “svoi chelovek,” "one of us."
Their imposed identity as Jews kept Soviet Jews outside of the mainstream of the Russian and Soviet world to some extent. They were given the message they didn't belong. But where exactly did they belong? This was the struggle for Vera, Alla, and so many Soviet Jews.
It's lucky for all of us that the USSR failed in eradicating Jewish memory, Jewish culture and Jewish practice. Dare we say, Jewish luck?