BY DEBORAH MOON
If a laughter- and fact-packed phone interview is any indication, participants at this year’s virtual Weekend in Quest are in for a treat in a program to explore “How the Soviet Jew Was Made” (see below).
The weekend’s scholar-in-residence Sasha Senderovich comes by his knowledge of the subject through both his personal and educational history. He was born in the Soviet Union, came to the United States as an exchange student at age 15 and moved here when his family immigrated when he was 16. His interest in literature and culture, not necessarily Russian or Jewish, began when he was a comparative lit major in college. He has taught courses about Russian Jews for more than a decade, currently at the University of Washington.
“Getting sort of unsettled as a teenager can make you into a cynical but funny person,” he says, adding “My talks and teaching are usually entertaining.”
His humor will be particularly apparent in the first lecture on jokes by and about Soviet Jews. Sasha says that in the later Soviet years, the Soviet Jew in jokes became “a cipher for the different sort of failures of the Soviet experiment. Soviet jokes from the 1970s and ’80s were often about commodity shortages.”
He shares one joke he calls a perfect example of that: A long line of people are in line in the middle of the night because a rumor has gone around that there will be meat at the butcher shop in the morning. About midnight, the butcher comes out and says the party called and there won’t be enough meat for everyone, so the Jews should all go home. Then at 7 am, the butcher comes out and says the party called and no meat is coming. Those still in line complain “Why did the Jews find out first? Why did they get to go home early?”
The final talk of the weekend, which focuses on American Jews’ views of Soviet Jews and vise versa, will not be a lecture. “I will talk about writing by some American Jewish writers during the Cold War and then by some contemporary writers who emigrated from the Soviet Union as children.”
Sasha already has a connection with Portland. Bob, Jack and Dan Heims and Joan Heims Whitcher are cousins he met for the first time last June in a lull between pandemic waves. The four are the grandchildren of Misha Zugman, the older brother of Sacha’s great-grandmother, Mira Zugman. Misha and one brother emigrated in the 1910s and ended up in Portland, while the other six siblings remained in what would later become part of the Soviet Union. The different branches of the family lost all contact during the Soviet years but re-established contact in the 1980s, before Sasha’s family immigrated to Boston in the 1990s.
“So, I have this strange connection to Portland, because this is where, in some alternative life, some version of me might have been born,” he says.
WEEKEND IN QUEST 2022
How the Soviet Jew Was Made: Literature, Culture, Humor
Sponsored by the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education
Hammer & Pickle: How Soviet Jews Joked – and Were Joked About
Rooted and Rootless: History, Memory and Cultural Mythology
Scenes of Encounter: How American Jews Imagined Soviet Jews – and Vice Versa
Sasha Senderovich is an assistant professor in the department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, and a faculty member at the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, at the University of Washington, Seattle. His field of study is Soviet Jewish culture. His first book, How the Soviet Jew Was Made: Culture and Mobility after the Revolution, will be published in July.
WHEN/WHERE: March 5-6, 2022, on Zoom
COST: $18 per household