Once upon a time, hearing Yiddish on the street corners of the Lower East Side was as ubiquitous as a chocolate egg cream. Not any more.
“Russian is becoming the Yiddish of now. Russian is the global lingua franca of the Jewish Diaspora,” said Dr. David Shneer, the Louis P. Singer Chair in Jewish History, at University of Colorado, Boulder.
In 1900 more than 5 million Jews lived within the borders of the Russian empire. Today, in 2017, there are four times as many Russian-speaking Jews living outside the former Soviet Union than within.
Russian-speakers account for 20% of US Jews, 25% of Canadian Jews, 18% of Israeli Jews and 80% of German Jews, said Shneer. That means Jews in the Diaspora are far more likely to speak Russian than Yiddish.
But while the shared language has changed, the reason for it has not — it’s a way to connect with Judaism, while keeping certain memories of the old country alive.
“They want to speak Russian with their children because they want to pass on ties with the old country, it’s a language they associate with their Judaism,” Shneer said.
For these immigrants, the Russian language links them to Judaism, particularly where in the US, Germany, and Israel they might not be seen as Jewish enough. They are not native Yiddish speakers, and while some might use Yiddish words, most don’t keep kosher and rarely attend synagogue or join a Jewish organization.
That last point is important, said Dr. Anna Shternshis, the Al and Malka Green Associate Professor of Yiddish and Diaspora Studies at the University of Toronto.
“Whether they landed in the US, Germany, Israel or elsewhere, a key feature of the Russian-speaking Jewish community is the idea that Jews can stay Jewish without being religious. But for them the Russian language is the language of Russian-Jewish culture,” she said.
Shternshis said Russian-speaking Jews also teach their children Russian for reasons that have nothing to do with Judaism.
Of the nearly 60,000 Russian-speaking Jews who live in Canada, most are fluent in both Russian and Hebrew. That’s because most spent about 10 years in Israel before moving to North America.
But parents stress Russian over Hebrew because it is seen as being more useful, allowing for more social mobility, said Shternshis.
Russian-speaking Jews left the former Soviet Union in three waves. The first wave came during the late 1970s at the height of détente. Most who left had an Israeli visa, and while some did go to Israel, the majority came to the US via Vienna and Rome. During the second wave, in 1980, after the Red Army invaded Afghanistan and the Americans boycotted the Olympics, the door slammed shut. The third wave then came those after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
It’s a migration that has radically impacted the social, cultural and political make up of many countries — particularly the United States, Israel and Germany, according to the 2016 book “The New Jewish Diaspora: Russian-speaking immigrants in the United States, Israel and Germany.”
“It definitely is a mark of Jewishness,” said Dr. Rebecca A. Kobrin, Russell and Bettina Knapp associate professor of American Jewish History at Columbia University.
“Most of the people who emigrated from Russia and Ukraine are Jewish and so speaking Russian marks them. That’s how they think of themselves. There is the joke ‘In Russia we are Jewish and in America we are Russian.’ It speaks to the notion that Russian is a language that binds them,” she said. In each wave different political and cultural influences shaped the way they related to the new world.
While Shneer said it’s too early to determine how impactful the most recent wave of emigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union will be on American culture, he doesn’t think it will have the same kind of impact that Yiddish-speaking Jews had 100 years ago. This is mostly because the context is different, both in the societies from which they were leaving and to which they were arriving.
Much of the reason Yiddish made such an impression on American culture is because Yiddish speakers were involved in vaudeville, television, literature and movies, Kobrin said.
“They’d use comical [Yiddish] words and then they’re entered into the vernacular,” she said. “If Gary Shteyngart is multiplied, than we’ll start to have borrowed Russian words.”