Author Archives: Ellen Litman

Ellen Litman

About Ellen Litman

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 Times First 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 House, American Odysseys: Writing by New Americans, Dossier, Triquarterly, Ploughshares, and other publications. Born in Moscow, she teaches writing at the University of Connecticut and lives in Mansfield.

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

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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.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on March 24, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Searching for My People

ellen-litmanMy first job out of college was at a large insurance company in Baltimore. I was a computer programmer there, and in addition to my entry-level salary, I was entitled for five days of vacation, ten sick days, a handful of standard federal holidays and on top of that, two floating ones. Those floating holidays – they were just freebies, really. They could be picked at random, used for anything. At least that’s what I thought.

I started the job in July and now it was autumn. Rosh Hashana was approaching, to be followed closely by Yom Kippur.

“You’re taking the floating holidays?” asked my co-worker Ami. It was more of a statement than a question. Maybe even an order. Ami grew up in Israel, married an American, and now, in her fifties, had three daughters close to my age. At the office she was famous for speaking her mind. Even the upper management feared her sharp tongue.

But she was kind to me. I was a fellow Jew, a fellow immigrant. Maybe she saw a bit of herself in me. Maybe she saw one of her daughters. My family and I came from Russia three years before. They were in Pittsburgh now, while I was here in Baltimore, living on my own for the first time in my life. Ami must have felt sorry for me, a young girl, all alone. We were supposed to have things in common, she and I. A worldview, a set of values, a sense of shared history. I didn’t know it yet, but I was about to disappoint her in a dozen different ways.

I shook my head and told her no. I wouldn’t be using my floating holidays. Why should I? I thought. What would I do with myself – all alone in my small apartment? I’d never observed Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur before, and I wasn’t planning to start now.

Ami stared at me for a moment. “You poor girl,” she said. “You don’t even know who you are.”

I should have felt chastened, I guess; but instead I was furious. Having grown up in the Soviet Union, I had no religion and didn’t feel a need for one. But that didn’t make me any less of a Jew. Back in Russia, it was my ethnicity, my nationality, a line in my Soviet passport, a way of life. It was in my last name (decidedly un-Russian) and in my facial features. “Just so you know,” a college classmate once told me, unprompted, “I have no problem with Jewish people.” This was a variation on the “some of my best friends are Jews” line and a dead giveaway that something was afoot. “He’s such a Jew,” another college classmate said in passing, referring to a particularly unappealing professor.

So yes, I knew exactly who I was and where I stood, even if the only time I stepped into a synagogue in Russia was to purchase a year’s supply of matza. (You couldn’t get it anywhere else.) I had good friends, also Jewish, and we’d long ago learned what to expect: colleges we couldn’t apply to, professions we couldn’t pursue. We shared a certain sense of humor, a certain kind of sadness. We’d learned to recognize others like ourselves. “Our people,” we called them.

Here in America being Jewish meant something else entirely. I didn’t quite know what it meant. Bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs? Hebrew schools? High holidays? Days after arriving in Pittsburgh my family and I were taken to a synagogue for Yom Kippur. I remember feeling jet-lagged, disoriented, bereft of my old life, and desperate for something to believe in, somewhere to belong. But the synagogue was huge, and inside there were rows upon rows of well-dressed people, who all seemed to know one another and who had no time for us. I sat up on the balcony listening to the Hebrew words I didn’t understand and I wanted the whole thing to be meaningful. But nothing felt familiar. There were no miracles that day, no sudden sense of coming home.

In the years to come, I would keep searching. Not for a new identity, but for that elusive feeling of belonging. Who were “my people” now? I’d find them in all sorts of likely and unlikely places. At software companies where I worked. In writing classes I took at night and later in grad school. Some of these people would be Jewish, but not all.

I still don’t attend a synagogue or observe holidays, though. Does it make me a bad Jew? Perhaps. But it doesn’t mean I don’t know who I am.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on March 20, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy