Russian/Soviet Jewry


The following list was curated by Lea Zeltserman. Lea Zeltserman is a writer and editor living in Toronto, Canada. Born in Soviet Russia, she was just a toddler when her family emigrated in 1979. Her work has appeared in The Forward, Saveur, and the Walrus, among others. Zeltserman is currently researching stories of Soviet Jewish immigrants of the 1970's. She publishes a monthly newsletter on Soviet/Russian Jewish issues called “The Soviet Samovar.” You can subscribe and learn more about her work at, or follow her on Twitter ( @zeltserman).




When They Come For Us, We'll Be Gone - Comprehensive and superbly written, When They Come For Us, We'll Be Gone, traces the movement from the earliest days in the 1960s to the Soviet collapse. Its strength lies in Beckerman's ability to weave together both the American and Soviet sides of the story; he interviewed most of the key players in the struggle, giving us both a historical and political overview with a strong sense of the individual people involved. When They Come for Us was named the Jewish Book of the Year at the 2010 National Jewish Book Awards. Read Lea's interview with Gal here.

Through Soviet-Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust - While on a trip to Moscow, David Shneer stumbled on the open secret that sparked this book—the photojournalists who covered WWII in the USSR were almost exclusively Jewish. Through Soviet-Jewish Eyes explores issues such as why photography was so attractive to Jews and how this unique group dealt with a war that turned out to have a particularly Jewish slant. In Shneer's telling, photography becomes the lens through which we see how the Holocaust unfolded in Soviet territories and how it was presented to the population during and after the war. What we learn is a side of the the Holocaust story that most North Americans have never known about, even though, as it turns out some of our most iconic Shoah photos were first seen "through Soviet Jews eyes."

Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 - Few people know that in the early days of the communist regime, a Jewish Yiddish culture was actively encouraged by the Soviet authorities, whether it was converting shtetl synagogues into Yiddish theatres or distributing 'Red Hagaddahs'—all designed to create a socialist-minded, rather than religious, Jewish population. This is the history that Yiddish studies professor Anna Shternshis uncovers in a series of over 200 interviews, to trace the transformation of Jewish life from Tsarist shtetl to Soviet-style urban assimilation. If you've ever wondered why Soviet Jews see no conflict between eating pork and being Jewish, this book will go a long way to explaining how the Soviet Jewish identity came about.

The Soviet Jewish Americans - This is a great introduction to 25 years of Soviet Jewish immigration to the US, from the small early wave of the 1970s through to the post-collapse mass migration. History professor Annelise Orleck interviews a broad cross-section of Soviet Jews, creating a comprehensive picture of their experiences in the USSR, reasons for leaving and the culture clashes and other challenges they faced once they arrived in the US. In between, she includes historical context and psychological studies to give a broad answer to the question "Who are the Soviet Jews?".

The Jews of Silence: A Personal Report on Soviet Jewry - First published in 1966, after a reporting trip behind the Iron Curtain for an Israeli paper, this is Elie Wiesel's call to action on the plight of Soviet Jews. A largely anecdotal account, Weisel talks both of the slow, spiritual starvation of Judaism and of his surprise at the many efforts he witnessed to keep Jewish culture and history alive (including an illegal underground translation of Night which he was shown). While the urgency sounds dated to contemporary ears, The Jews of Silence is particularly significant for its impact as the rallying cry which turned American Jewish attention to the Soviet situation.

The Road: Stories, Journalism and Essays - Vasily Grossman, dubbed the "Tolstoy of the USSR" by Martin Amis, was a Soviet writer and journalist. This book brings together his journalism and essays (along with some fiction) for an English-speaking audience. Originally an engineer, Grossman gained fame as a war correspondent with the Red Army newspaper. The Road includes a report from Treblinka (one of the first from any camp), and letters he wrote to his mother after learning of her death during the Holocaust.



Shush! Growing Up Jewish Under Stalin - A memoir of childhood in post-war Odessa, Draitser's account is driven by his own realization that decades after immigrating to the US, he still instinctively lowered his voice whenever he said the word "Jewish." In fact, Draitser's parents named him Samuil but he changed it to Emil to hide his Jewishness. The eyes of a child give Draitser the excuse to ask questions about the world that adults tend to have absorbed as normal and stopped questioning. Shush is at once a window into the details of everyday Soviet life—the routines of school and family—and of the very particular and lasting impact of being Jewish during the Stalin era. His is a world that’s now forgotten and disappeared, but is still carried around in the memories of so many Soviet Jewish immigrants in North America.

Where We Buried The Sun: One Woman's Gulag Story - In 1951, 18-year-old Alla Reyf joined the ranks of Soviet citizens whose lives were transformed—never for the better—by a nighttime knock on the door. Written decades later in Canada, Where We Buried the Sun relates Tumanov's time in the Soviet gulag system. After 15 months of solitary confinement in Moscow's Lefertovo prison, she was sentenced to 25 years in the gulag. Tumanov was one of the lucky ones—two of her fellow arrestees, also teenagers, were executed. It is at once a chilling and moving read. (Full disclosure: Alla and her husband are close family friends.)

No Words to Say Goodbye - Published in the early days of the fourth wave of immigration, this is a child's diary of her family's journey to the US. Kopelnitsky was just nine when the Chernobyl disaster struck only 200km away from her town. After nearly dying of illness caused by radiation fallout, her parents applied to leave Soviet Ukraine; her diary documents their journey from Vienna all the way to New York. In typical, childlike fashion, she holds nothing back in describing the upheavals, tensions and drama in the family—the endless waiting in immigration offices, fights between her parents and teenage brother, their dingy first accommodations in New York. No Words to Say Goodbye offers an unusual ‘in the moment’ glimpse at a generation who are now beginning to look back on those childhood immigration experiences and finding their voices as Soviet-Jewish American culture makers.