My mother, when asked to identify herself, would say, “What can I tell you — I’m just a lady from Poland." This, despite the fact that she left Poland, post-war, at 12, and spent the next 66 years of her life in New York. And, of course, when she finally went back to visit Poland, she was seen as the Jew from America. Identities are by their very nature, fluid and relative. How we describe ourselves versus how others perceive us is always up for grabs.
Alina and Jeff Bliumis, New-York based artists who emigrated from the former Soviet Union as teenagers, tackle these shifting concepts of association and disparity, kinship and foreignness, in a new book of photographs and essays exploring the intricacy of the Jewish-American identity, “From Selfie to Groupie,” (Genesis Philanthropy Group). Although the terms “Selfie” and “Groupie” have specific meaning in today’s culture, the Bliumises, in true immigrant fashion, have taken the words literally. Many selfies equal a groupie in their equation, and it’s the groups in which people place their “selfs” that interest these artists.
“When I moved from Minsk, Belarus, to New York 20 years ago, I noticed a certain ‘identity crisis’ within the Russian-Jewish community in the United States,” Alina Bliumis said. Americans often consider members of this community to be Russian, Russians consider them to be Americans, and some Jewish Americans are not quite sure how to relate to this subset of their own community, still struggling to fit into the larger Jewish-American context. The question of how people define their own identity compelled us to undertake our anthropological inquiry into Brooklyn's Russian-Jewish immigrant population –- we wanted to hear from people firsthand.”
The pair began their photographic survey in 2007 in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, home to a large Jewish, Russian-speaking population. Each of the 52 subjects was asked to pose on the boardwalk, the ocean as background, and self-define using any of three placards, “Jewish,” “Russian” and “American.” The resulting photographs, both black-and-white and color, offer a proud, moving and sometimes humorous testament to the loyalties and histories of this immigrant community.
Some choices spurred controversy. The Bliumises related the story of two subjects: The first, a senior citizen called Alex, chose the “American” sign to self-describe, even though he barely spoke English. As he said, “I live here now…so I am an American.” The second group, two other elderly men, chose all three signs to describe themselves, stating that “We are Jewish, we fought in the Russian army… and we have American passports…” Alex was so offended by the second group’s choices that the three men almost came to blows. One man’s pride is another man’s slur.
The essays that accompany and complement the photographs are themselves worth the price of literary admission. In particular, a piece by Russian émigré and author Anya Ulinich, in which she describes her own sometimes prickly response to the question of Russian, Jewish, American identity, touches on many of the issues conjured up by these clearly foreign, yet determinedly American new citizens.
During 2012-2014, the photographers expanded the project, placing interactive stations at Jewish-related exhibitions and public events, such as Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History, the New York and St. Paul JCCs and various Limmud conferences. As Jeff Bliumis explained, “We next became interested in the question: Considering that Russian-speaking Jewish Americans are looking to fit into the Jewish-American community at large, what does it mean to be Jewish-American today?”
In this second phase, 1,870 subjects took part (including, coincidentally, Jewish Week editor and publisher Gary Rosenblatt). This time, the subjects, now posed against a photographic mural of the boardwalk and ocean, were completely independent both of the artists’ presence and of any limit on their descriptors. Unsurprisingly, considering the venues, “Jewish” was the most common label but other results responses ranged from “Gluten-free” to “Tribe of Naphtali” to the very detailed “Jewish-Southern, African, African-American, Sephardic, Orthodox, L(G)BT, Foodie, Teacher, Son.” While some of the adult subjects described themselves professionally: “Accountant,” “Decoy Maker,” “Artist,” “Entrepreneur” and even “Temple President,” it was the children who gave freest rein to their ambitions: “Future President of U.S.A.,” “Pickle Man,” “Fireman” and “Princess” to name just a few. In the book, modestly dressed “Orthodox Jewish Women” are placed alongside equally modest “Proud Jewish American Lesbian Feminists” and a “Cultural Jew” stands across the page from “Preparing to Convert.”
One of my favorites was Lev, encircled by his wife and two daughters, who labeled himself simply “Lucky Guy” and says, “I am surrounded by the beauty, optimism and joy that is… my family. I consider that pretty lucky.” For me, that’s the final word.
Gloria Kestenbaum is a corporate communications consultant and freelance writer.