Russian-speaking Jews find a place of their own at American University

Club members meet pre-COVID to cook Makaroni Po-Flotski. (Photo courtesy of Katherine Kaplan.)

Kholodets is a dish that Katherine Kaplan savors. It’s meat and vegetables cooked in broth that turns to gelatin when it cools. It’s popular in Russia and Kaplan figures most Americans have never heard of it.

“There’s some Russian foods that are quite strange for a casual passerby. People stare and be like, ‘Oh, that’s disgusting,’” Kaplan said. But to her, it’s just another part of her Russian culture. And that lack of a frame of reference often makes Kaplan feel like an outsider.

Kaplan, a senior at American University, is a first-generation American. Her parents immigrated from the former Soviet Union. Growing up in Tenafly, N.J., she was surrounded by Russian-Jewish immigrant families like her own. But in college, she felt out of place. American University’s Hillel student center was welcoming, Kaplan said. But she was unfamiliar with many of the songs and rituals the other students at Hillel knew so well when they gathered for Shabbat.

Kaplan wanted a place to socialize with Jews just like her, and she found it.

Russian-Speaking Jews at American University is a club for anyone interested in Russian-Jewish history, language and food. It’s a place where students can celebrate their shared heritage as children of Jewish immigrants from the former U.S.S.R. Hillel provides funds for events.

“It’s hard to explain certain elements of Russian culture. We have a certain sense of humor about things. We have different songs that we sing,” Kaplan said. “In Russian culture, it’s more about food and bringing everyone together and talking. So we just wanted to create a familiar feeling so we wouldn’t feel like outsiders.”

Some 30 students meet once or twice a month. Events are in English so anyone can participate. Food is a central part of the club. Gathered over Zoom, the group cooks traditional meals. One favorite is Makaroni Po-Flotski, a Russian pasta dish.

The club also hosts speakers who talk about their experiences as Russian-speaking immigrants. Their most recent guest was retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a key witness in ex-President Donald Trump’s first impeachment.

The club was co-founded in 2018 by Lawrence Oberemok and Ksenia Novikova, now seniors. Novikova said that growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., she didn’t fit in with the broader Jewish community.

“I speak Russian at home,” Novikova said. “I eat Russian food at home. I watched movies from the former Soviet Union. There are these specific, unique things that I couldn’t really relate to other people about. And while the American Jewish community has been very supportive and welcoming and open to learning more about our community, it’s also really beautiful for us to have a space where we can talk about these unique things in our cultures.”

Jason Benkendorf, AU Hillel’s executive director and the club’s adviser, says he’s learned a lot from attending club events.

“I often don’t understand some of the points of reference, or the jokes, because that’s not my personal story,” Benkendorf said. “But seeing the students react with laughter, with joy to some of these points of reference that wouldn’t emerge in a different Jewish space is really wonderful.”

That doesn’t mean all first-generation Russian Jewish Americans have the same background, Novikova said. Zoya Binyaminov, of Queens, described herself as a “minority within a minority group.” She is a Russian-speaking Mizrachi Jew from a family of Bukharan Jews who immigrated from Uzbekistan in the 1990s.

Binyaminov said her experience differs from other club members. She is the first woman in her family to get a driver’s license and first to go away to college. When she came to Washington, it was hard to find others with her points of reference, or even to find Russian food.

“I was longing for a community here in D.C., and Hillel at American University is great, but it’s very Ashkenazi Jew focused,” Binyaminov said. “[The club] was such a great opportunity to feel close to my culture and my community and have people to understand when I reference certain people or foods. I guess that’s why I joined [the club], because of the community.”

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