Group Distinctiveness and Ethnic Identity Among 1.5 and Second-generation Russian-speaking Jewish Immigrants in Germany and the U.S.
Topics: Main Topic: Identity and Community, Jewish Identity, Russian-Speaking Jews, Family and Household
Abstract: This study investigates the ethnic identity of the 1.5 and second-generation of Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants to Germany and the U.S. in the most recent wave of immigration. Between 1989 and the mid-2000s, approximately 320,000 Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants departed the (former) Soviet Union for the U.S. and an additional 220,000 moved to Germany. The 1.5 and second-generations have successfully integrated into mainstream institutions, like schools and the workforce, but not the co-ethnic Jewish community in each country. Moreover, Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants are subject to a number of critiques, most prominently, of having a ‘thin culture’ that relies on abstract forms of ethnic expression and lacks in frequent and concrete forms of identification (Gitelman 1998). The study asks several questions: how the 1.5 and second-generation see themselves as a distinctive social group? Where do they locate social boundaries between themselves and others? How do they maintain them? Close family ties lie at the center of the group’s ethnic identity. Russian-speaking cultures offer an alternative, and in the mind of the 1.5 and second-generation, superior approach to relating to family and friends, where, for example, being an unmarried adult does not contradict living at home or where youths and adults can socialize in the same setting. Their understandings and practices of family often run counter to the expectations of the mainstream in both Germany and the U.S. of what it means to be an independent adult. The organization and expectation of social relations among these immigrants reflect not only their different national origins, but their constitution as a distinctive moral community. Different foods and language use support these immigrants’ sense of group distinctiveness and reinforce the centrality of family as a shared ethnic practice. Immigration has endowed family practices with the capacity to impart a sense of distinctiveness to the 1.5 and second-generation by changing the context in which close family ties are practiced. Transported across national borders these practices now contrast with prevailing understandings of family and serve as a cultural resource. Moreover, Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants have benefited, both culturally and economically, from state policies that granted them refugee status and enabled them to cross national borders as families and avoid years of separation other immigrants often must endure. The distinctiveness of Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants’ family practices is relative to those of the receiving country’s mainstream, but not those of other immigrant groups. As a result, a sense of group difference and belonging anchored in these practices may be challenging to impart to the third generation, who are removed from the immigration experience. Nevertheless, the 1.5 and second-generation experience their family relationships, obligations and expectations as anything but ‘thin’. They inform consequential decisions, are encountered regularly, and offer meaning to their lives as individuals, children and members of an immigrant and ethnic group. This study draws on in-depth interviews in New York City and multiple locations in Germany with 93 Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants who arrived at the age of 13 or younger or were born in the U.S. or Germany. Despite the different history and structure of Jewish communities in the U.S. and Germany, 1.5 and second-generation Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants’ experience in each country have much in common with one another, a finding that emerged as a result of the study’s comparative design.