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Quotas: On Being Jewish in Pre-Revolutionary Russia and Soviet Russia

Thursday, March 20, 2014| Permalink
Earlier this week, Ellen Litman wrote about Jewish holidays, her identity, and a search for feelings of belonging. Her new book, Mannequin Girl: A Novel, is now available. She has been blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I keep thinking about a scene from one of my favorite childhood novels, The Road Disappears Into the Distance by Alexandra Brushtein. The novel, set in pre-Revolutionary Russia, is about a young Jewish girl, Sashenka Yanovskaya. In the scene in question, nine-year-old Sashenka is sitting the entrance exams at the Institute for Young Ladies. Each girl is asked to read a short passage from a textbook and to diagram a simple sentence. Sashenka, who is waiting her turn, is relieved to find the questions so easy. One by one the girls are called to the front of the class, but not Sashenka. A recess is announced, at which point only seven girls remain. Each one is a Jew.

After the break, these girls – Sashenka included – are subjected to a rather different exam: complex passages from the classical works of literature, follow-up questions that test their knowledge of geography and history. The girls perform admirably; they’ve been prepared well. But Sashenka doesn’t understand why they are being singled out. Later, as she is leaving the Institute lobby, she is accosted by an acquaintance, a daughter of non-Jewish family friends. “None of you Yids will be admitted,” the girl says to her.

In this dramatic manner, the heroine of Alexandra Brushtein’s novel learns what it means to be a Jew in the Russia of 1894. I read Brushtein’s book, in 1986, almost a hundred years later. Growing up in the Soviet Russia, I had done my own share of learning, though it had been more gradual. Some name-calling out in the streets or in the classroom. Some hints of the troubles during the Stalin’s times. Most of all, though, it was my parents’ insistence that I had to study twice as hard as my peers, because I would be judged twice as strictly.

In pre-Revolutionary Russia, quotas for Jews were a law. But in the Soviet Russia they were more insidious. We were all supposed to be equal, weren’t we? All those nationalities. All those republics. Our songs celebrated the friendship of the people, and there was always some regional folk dancing on TV.

My parents knew better, of course. And so did my teachers. My sixth-grade literature teacher read to us The Road Disappears Into the Distance in short installments, whenever we had a bit of time left at the end of the class. She was a great teacher; she could make you fall in love with a book. But when I told her I wanted to be a writer – a journalist maybe? – she said no, it couldn’t be done. She was Jewish, like me and my parents, and she knew what she was talking about.

Colleges had quotas – that’s what it all came down to. Good colleges and mediocre colleges alike. A few were safe bets, like the Institute of Auto Industry or the Institute of Petrochemical Engineering. Some never accepted Jews at all. There was nothing official, no laws you could point toward. You had to rely on hearsay and common knowledge. A neighbor my father met while walking our dog said they never accepted Jews at the well-known institute where he worked. “They all have poor vision,” he said, by way of explanation.

In the summer of 1990, I was sitting the entrance exams at the Moscow Institute of Electronics and Mathematics. I’d studied hard. I’d had tutors. My lovely physics tutor used to point out all the Jewish physicists in my textbook. He was convinced I would succeed. But my math tutor, who actually taught at the Institute, said the outcome would depend on the Party directives they were about to receive. On the day of my physics exam, I sat in a large classroom and waited for my name to be called. More than a hundred years had passed since the events of The Road Disappears Into the Distance, and I wasn’t sure whether anything has changed at all.

Ellen Litman is the author of Mannequin Girl: A Novel and the story collection The Last Chicken in America, a finalist for the Los Angeles TimesFirst Fiction Award and for the Young Lions Fiction Award. She has been the recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award, and her work has appeared in Best New American Voices, Best of Tin HouseAmerican Odysseys: Writing by New Americans, Dossier, TriquarterlyPloughshares, and other publications. Born in Moscow, she teaches writing at the University of Connecticut and lives in Mansfield.

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