Q&A with Lea Zeltserman: Looking at Soviet-Jewish Immigration through Soviet-Jewish Food

Today Punctured Lines features a Q&A with Lea Zeltserman, a Toronto-based writer focusing on, among other things, Soviet-Jewish immigration and food. Lea is a contributor to The 100 Most Jewish Foods: A Highly Debatable List (Artisan, 2019) with her piece “The Secrets of Soviet Cuisine.” Her two most recent food-related pieces are “TweetYourShabbat is all about embracing diverse – and imperfect – Shabbat dinners” and “Where the Russian Grocery Store Means Abundance,” whereas her “Announcing the Soviet-Jewish Decade: A 2010s Top 10” is a round-up of books, plus a documentary and an album, about Soviet-Jewish culture. Lea answered our questions by email.

Punctured Lines: You publish a newsletter, The Soviet Samovar, “a monthly round-up of Russian-Jewish news, events and culture,” with the emphasis on (ex-)Soviet Jews in the North American diaspora. What motivated you to start this project? What audience(s) is it aimed at and what do you hope they get out of it?

Lea Zeltserman: When I first started writing about Russian-Jewish issues, there was nothing out there. We were all just starting to get online, starting to come into ourselves as a community. I was excited each time I saw an article about Russian Jews in the media, and I simultaneously realized that there are many things we ourselves don’t know about our history. The Soviet Samovar was a way to bring that together. By now, there’s so much great work coming out of the Russian-Jewish world that I can be more selective. It’s shifted into a more literary, culture and book-focused round-up.

A lot of my work is for broader North American audiences, but the newsletter is aimed at Russian Jews. Though of course everyone should subscribe! The content is for everyone, and articles featured are often published in mainstream publications. But when I’m writing my commentary, there’s a distinct sense of “we, Russian Jews and our experiences, and here’s what we think about the world and our place in it.” I don’t tiptoe around, or hold back if I think something is damaging to our community. Which is not to suggest that it’s a monthly rant. Not even close. There is lots of thoughtful, smart, insightful writing out there, which I’m always excited to feature. There’s much to be proud of in our accomplishments, and The Soviet Samovar is a way to bring that together, draw attention to one another, and hopefully, give us all something to think about – about our history and the people and events that shaped us.

PL: You write a lot about Soviet-Jewish food, specifically how it reflects Soviet-Jewish culture and history. As you say in your essay for Tablet Magazine, “Defining Soviet Jewish Cuisine,” “For most Jews, the first bite of pork is a transgressive, often formative, moment. But for Soviet Jews, pork-laden sosiski [PL: wieners/hot dogs] were an everyday food.” Why the focus on food – what can looking at what Soviet Jews ate and continue to eat tell us more broadly about Soviet-Jewish life, both in the former Soviet countries and in the diaspora? 

LZ: I’ve always been interested in food. When Tablet published their “100 Jewish Foods” feature online, I was surprised to see everyday Russian food on the list (borsch, cabbage rolls, rye bread, pickles, herring) associated instead with “Old World Russia.” This food might be “Old World” for many Jews whose Russianness lies several generations in the past, but for us, this is the food we grew up on. It’s our “now food.” This oversight is symbolic of the frozen-in-time understanding of Russian Jewry that habitually ignores the existence of the contemporary Russian-Jewish community. That really bothered me. So I wrote them, and they were great and very interested, and my article came out of that (and then was included in the 100 Jewish Foods book).

The sosiski, of course. They’re such a powerful image for Jews. For Russian Jews they’re real and nostalgic, and for North American Jews, they were something that was used dismissively toward Russian Jews to question our legitimacy. So yes, you start with jokes about sosiski and suddenly, there’s a whole story about who we are and what we overcame, why we stopped keeping kosher but still felt so strongly about our Jewish identity. And that happens over and over – you ask a few questions about our food and, because everything was so centralized and controlled, entire historical episodes, Jewish and not, come tumbling out.

Many Russian Jews don’t reflect on our food either. I’ve been so touched by the reactions to my writing and my talks on the subject. People really respond to hearing that this everyday “stuff” matters. That what their mothers and grandmothers do (or did) is relevant and weighty, and has significance to Jewish history and Jewish lives. Our dishes get at the story of our lives in a different way, especially for Soviet families, where getting and preparing food was such a major part of daily routine, never mind bigger moments like war, famines, the Shoah.

I also think about it as a parent, and what I want my children to know of their heritage. Kugel, brisket, and knishes aren’t our recent history. I don’t want them thinking that’s their food, or wondering why their food isn’t legitimately Jewish. Our stock list of Jewish food needs a shaking up and I strongly believe that our Soviet-era food, from all the republics, has a rightful place on that list. As for why are we still eating it? That’s something I’m still exploring, that intimate relationship between comfort and familiarity, how it fits into immigration and being refugees, all mixed up with the worst parts of the USSR. It reflects all the complexity and contradictions of our heritage, which we, quite literally, fill our bellies with every day. It’s part of our identity. It would be a betrayal to sweep it away and replace it with knishes and bagels (well, maybe the bagels).

Food is a little scrap of the past that I can touch and taste. I’ll never hear the sounds of the train station from which my paternal grandmother escaped the coming Nazis when she evacuated from Zhitomir. But a pot of soup, I can make an attempt at.

PL: The discussion of Soviet-Jewish pork consumption brings up something else you’ve written about, namely, the often stark differences between (ex-)Soviet and North American Jews. These differences exist not only in terms of food, but more generally: as you point out, they manifest themselves in terms of attitudes toward Soviet-Jewish immigration (“Why Russian Jews Don’t Want to Hear About Being Saved”), experiences of the Holocaust (“On #FirstSurvivor and the Russian-Jewish Holocaust experience”), and more playfully, treasured customs like New Year trees (“O Yolka Tree, O Yolka Tree”). Can you talk about what you see as the main differences between the two communities and also what, if anything, can be done to bring them closer together – or whether this is necessary?

LZ: Hmm, that’s a great question. And an unexpectedly difficult one. I’m going to start with the second question. Which is that, I don’t know anymore what will “work.” As time passes, we naturally become more integrated. Even myself, as an example – I grew up in the mainstream Canadian Jewish community, but always feeling like an outsider. My kids will feel less that way, I imagine. There are more writers now in Jewish media who straddle both worlds and bring a Soviet perspective as the norm – look at someone like Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt at the Forward. But, I still get comments about going back where I came from in response to my work. There are still separate Limmud conferences, as one major example of communal non-integration. If you go to Jewish events, at least in Toronto, there’s rarely anything Russian/Soviet – you have to go to the Russian-Jewish events for that. That’s not always about exclusion though. Those types of communal spaces and events are important for Russian Jews too. It’s a space for us to talk among ourselves, to share experiences and find commonalities (and stop explaining ourselves). There are programs like the J-Academy camp in Toronto, which build Russian-Jewish culture and identity. There’s tremendous value in that separation, too.

On the flip side, there are great examples of “cross-cultural moments,” like Yiddish Glory, spearheaded by Anna Shternshis and Psoy Korolenko, which has been rightfully recognized all over the world and brought legitimacy to our experiences, especially in the Holocaust. (Yad Vashem has a special focus on the Holocaust on Soviet territories, for example; writers like Izabella Tabarovsky have done a lot of work in bringing that history to broader audiences.) I think that it’s partly because Yiddish Glory taps into the Holocaust and yiddishkeit and nostalgia. And to be clear, it’s an amazing project and I talk it up at every opportunity – I’m thrilled it’s received the acclaim it has. But I do think its popularity in the wider Jewish community is partially tied into the reasons above. Hopefully though, these types of projects will start to bridge that gap. It’s changing, but slowly.

There’s increasing interest in Soviet Jews and our experiences. My “Soviet-Jewish Decade” series generated strong interest from a Russian and non-Russian Jewish audience. At the same time, I still see frequent reminders that we’re not part of the mainstream. Minor things like headlines about “old world borsch,” as if we’re not eating that in the here and now. It’s disconcerting to see your everyday discussed as if it’s some relic left behind, belonging to impoverished shtetl immigrants. Other examples are more blatant and angering, but I don’t want to get into a list of outrages here. We remain an afterthought; not part of a broader understanding of what the Jewish community is. We don’t fit tidily into existing narratives of Jewishness. Occasionally, I’ll see a writer who isn’t a Russian Jew mention us as a matter of course in articles about the American-Jewish community. And standout examples like Rokhl Kafrissen, whose Tablet column on Yiddish culture and history regularly includes Soviet Jewry as a “normal” topic. I suspect that this feeling exists across other minority groups within the Jewish community too.

To the first part of your question, I think our differences are muting over time. But we’re still seen as an Other, someone to be remembered or included, but not a group that’s inherently part of the North American-Jewish world. And we’re still referenced as a means to an end, part of the narrative that the Soviet Jewry movement enabled US Jewry to grow, which, well, no one wants their suffering to be someone else’s stage of development. Anecdotally, I’ve talked to many Russian Jews who feel that they’re looked down upon and seen as inferior. Highly successful people in their careers and lives, and yet, this feeling persists. And culturally, there are genuine differences. Language, obviously. Food, history, family stories. Anekdoty [PL: jokes] – those never fully translate. Our fundamental definition of Jewish identity is still different, though that’s several articles in itself.

PL: As a writer one of whose major topics is Soviet-Jewish immigration, do you find yourself connecting with other diaspora writers?

LZ: Absolutely! I’m still amazed at finding all these people, and the many, many points of connection among our experiences. I never had that growing up. Though I mostly felt very Canadian, there were always gaps and differences that I tried to ignore – or often took as a sign there was something wrong with me or my family. I’m still exploring that and still finding a lot of meaning in those connections and the realization that my experiences weren’t alone.

I read a lot of other immigrant writing and I often share it online and find those pieces that I can relate to. But in terms of what I’d consider my writing circle, it tends to be Russian-Jewish online, and more generally friends and other writers in my physical life.

PL: How do you relate to feminist ideas and navigate the gap between the different gender expectations in Canadian vs. Russian cultures? Do you see any shift of Russian gender norms in the diaspora?

LZ: I’ve been fortunate in that regard. I grew up in a city that didn’t have a large Russian community, and we didn’t have a lot of family around. So I was generally shielded from the worst parts of Russian misogyny, and had more of that stereotypical Soviet intellectual experience where everyone was expected to function at a high level, to be well-read, successful in school, go to university and so forth. Most of the gender issues I encounter are more broadly Canadian issues, and will be familiar to anyone in the US.

I get irate when people cheer about how feminist the USSR was, or talk it up on March 8, in particular. And that’s where my food work comes in – the more I delve into food, and read about Russian households and kitchens and labor, I see more clearly how deeply gendered the roles were. Russian women started working and got to “lean in” that much sooner. In fact, I’m working on a personal essay right now about my grandmothers and Russian food, so I’m full of facts and stories about just how hard they worked on keeping their families alive. (Though, to be fair, my grandfathers did too.)

There’s a great book that came out last year, called Seasoned Socialism: Gender and Food in Late Soviet Everyday Life, edited by Anastasia Lakhtikova, Angela Brintlinger and Irina Glushchenko, with a foreword from Darra Goldstein. It’s a fantastic book, and it talks about food through the lens of literature, film, and popular Soviet culture, so it ticks all the boxes for me.

I’m not sure I can speak to how the broader community has changed. I’m sorry to disappoint but I don’t have direct, personal experience with it, and I think the people I interact with the most are a self-selecting group. With gender issues, I’m just more tuned into, and concerned about, Canada than the Russian community specifically.

PL: Lastly, what are some of your favorite Soviet-Russian-Jewish dishes? If our readers want to find out more about this cuisine – and/or make it themselves – where would you recommend they look?

LZ: Top of my list are tinned sprats, pelmeni [PL: meat dumplings], and grechnevaya kasha [PL: buckwheat] fried up with butter. And then soups – kharcho, solyanka, shchi and rassolnik are all in our basic rotation. My loyalty to mayonnaise as a life essential, I’ve learned, is very Russian, so I have to include that.

For basics, start with Anya von Bremzen and Darra Goldstein. von Bremzen’s Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook, is a go-to in our household, along with Darra Goldstein’s books, A Taste of Russia: A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality, The Georgian Feast: The Vibrant Culture and Savory Food of the Republic of Georgia, and her newest, Beyond the North Wind: Russia in Recipes and Lore. That’ll give you a thorough grounding in Russian/Soviet cuisine.

And Bonnie Frumkin Morales’ Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking (with Deena Prichep) is a great book and Soviet food explainer. She speaks to a North American audience in a highly accessible way. (Morales has a restaurant and now small shop in Portland – a growing, mini- empire, which I desperately want to visit.) In the UK, there’s Alissa Timoshkina’s Salt and Time: Recipes from a Modern Russian Kitchen, which has just been nominated for an IACP cookbook award. Both of these are more “nashi,” representing the immigrant, diaspora generation. Morales was born in the US, and Timoshkina left her native Siberia for the UK as a teen.

And of course, I’d be remiss if I don’t plug my own work – in addition to my article in Tablet, I recently published a piece on Soviet history as reflected in the Russian grocery store, in Heated. I’ve given several talks on defining Soviet-Jewish food and I’m speaking at a few upcoming conferences this spring.

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