What are historical and cultural differences between Russian-Jewish immigrants and American Jews? After the fall of the Soviet Union, how was Russia similar to American culture? In what ways does Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan relate these Jewish cultural differences? How does Absurdistan portray Russian and American cultural differences and similarities after the fall of the Soviet Union? How would one also incorporate Ali Behdad's book A Forgetful Nation into an essay on Absurdistan addressing the above points?
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As online access to Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan is limited, below are a few ideas to help get you started.
During the reign of the Russian Empire, Russia held the world's largest population of Jews. Jews immigrated to Russia as early as the Babylonian conquest of Israel in 605 BCE. Despite oppression, the Russian-Jewish community thrived and developed Jewish Orthodoxy, the most culturally significant theology. Jewish persecution developed under Catherine II's reign and continued under Alexander III, who both developed policies restricting where Jews can live and what they can do. Jewish persecution was particularly dominant during the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union banned Hebrew from being taught in schools ("History of the Jews in Russia"). There is also a great deal of evidence that Joseph Stalin, Soviet Union dictator, targeted Jews during the Great Purge of 1934 to 1940, a political campaign Stalin orchestrated to eliminate any anti-Soviet Union sentiment. It is estimated that up to as much as 1.2 million Russian people were executed during the Great Purge ("Great Purge"). Since Jews were targeted by Stalin as being traitors to the Soviet Union, Russian Jews of course lived in fear of practicing their religion. As Jewish writer Gary Rosenblatt reported after his trip to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, under Communism, Russian Jews had to hide their identities. Rosenblatt quotes a Russian Jew he met on the trip as saying, "Jews were second rate, and we tried to live unnoticed. We knew nothing about our religion, and we didn't know each other" ("Russian Jewish Culture"). Rosenblatt also reports that the current Russian Jews have mixed feelings about what is called perestroika under Russia's post-Soviet Union regime. The word perestroika translates to "restructuring" and refers to all of the changes made to make Russia a capitalistic society ("Perestroika"). Rosenblatt reports that Russian Jews felt the new capitalist economy made things more financially difficult, but at the same time, perestroika has certainly given Russian Jews new-found freedom. In fact, Russia's current President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has taken an "official stand against antisemitism" ("History of the Jews in Russia"). As a result of Putin's stance, many programs have been developed to help promote Judaism. A local social service group called Chesed Avraham has created "warm houses," which are places where Jews, mostly elderly Jews, can gather to socialize and celebrate their religious traditions ("Russian Jewish Culture"). Chesed Avraham also provides a main center to offer daily "meals, medical aid and social programs" ("Russian Jewish Culture"). Hence, even though current Russian Jews feel financially distressed and though Russian antisemitism is still rampant, Russian Jews are certainly enjoying their new freedom. As Rosenblatt further quotes a Russian Jew as saying, under the new regime, Jews are now "like a family. We get together for the Jewish holidays, to hear lectures, to know more about Judaism" ("Russian Jewish Culture").
In contrast, while American Jews have certainly also experienced their share of antisemitism, the Jewish religion in America has never been oppressed to the point that Jews had to hide their religion. As a result, the Jewish religion in America has had a chance to flourish to the point that the Jewish religion is now quite diverse, with several different types of theologies including Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist among others. Based on a recent survey, 38% of American Jews identify themselves as Jewish Reformists. The Jewish reform movement started in Germany in the 1800s and essentially argues for the need to modernize Jewish traditions in order to better match Western culture. The next largest Jewish sect is Conservatism, with 33% of American Jews identifying themselves as Conservatives. Conservatism is a religious movement that started in the mid-1800s as a reaction against the reform movement, and they attempted to conserve some of the most sacred Jewish traditions rather than to modernize them. Third, 22% of American Jews identify themselves as Orthodox, which is based on the theology developed in Russia. Orthodox Jews believe in strict adherence to Jewish practices ("American Jews").
As you continue to analyze Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan, keep in mind the ways in which Misha and his father do and do not follow Judaism. In what way would you classify Misha as a Jew--is he Orthodox, Reformist, or something else? Are there differences in his Jewish behavior with respect to what he does and does not do while in St. Petersburg or Absurdistan in comparison to what he does and does not do while in New York? How do his actions either align with or fail to align with Jewish traditions and practices?
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