Interview: Vlada Bilyak on young, Soviet identity in the US
I spend a lot of time thinking about Jewish identity: what it means to be Jewish, what kinds of obligations I have because I identify as a Jew (if any), and what kinds of factors moderate or mediate the ways in which Jewishness and Judaism can be understood. Because of this, I really enjoyed watching Vlada Bilyak’s documentary about Jewish identity for young people from the former Soviet Union. Vlada interviews friends, peers, and family, editing her footage to produce a commentary on Jewish authenticity and the present-day negotiations of young Soviet immigrants with dominant North American Jewish themes and practices.
You can check out Vlada’s film in full online (part 1, above, and part 2). I was thrilled to have a chance to talk to her this week about her inspiration for the documentary and what she’s been thinking about since.
Q: What was the original motivation for your film?
Vlada Bilyak (VB): The subject matter of the video was something I’d been thinking about for a little while, that I hadn’t started exploring. I was trying to examine my own Jewish identity as a Soviet Jew who immigrated to Canada from the former Soviet Union as a kid: how my positionality influenced my Jewishness and Jewish identity. I wanted to figure out if the feelings and experiences that I had were unique to me or if there were actual patterns with people my age who had similar backgrounds. It was, in a lot of ways, a very selfish project.
A lot of it was borne out of studying in a course called “Diaspora and Feminisms in a Jewish Context,” studying marginalized Jewish identities within greater Jewish communities. A lot of that course was focused on Jewish women of colour and queer Jews and, while I don’t belong to either of those groups, I identified with the feeling of marginalization within dominant Jewish culture.
Q: And do you think that you found patterns?
VB: I definitely think that I did. I feel really good about having had the opportunity to talk to people and breathe a sigh of relief at hearing others say things that had been on my mind. There were obviously lots of differences, too. There were differences in where that identity has taken people. Some people completely rejected Judaism for themselves, having grown up with Jewish practice, observance, and actual organized Judaism not being a part of their lives. They are totally fine with their completely secular lives and identities. Others swung the other way. One person was ba’al teshuvah, which made her parents really uncomfortable. I think I fit somewhere in between those two. I think that my connection with Judaism now, and the ways that I think of myself as a Jew and am interested in Jewishness for myself are influenced by my identity as a Soviet Jew, and the way that I grew up and the way that my family interacted with Jews.
Q: Where are you now in terms of what it means to be a Jew, or to be authentically Jewish?
VB: Looking back on the video, and especially things my mom says in the video – my mom plays an interesting role – completely unintentionally, by the way, she plays a contrast. I think she inadvertently did this, it’s not explicitly part of her own politics, but she identified how classist the superficial markers of Jewish identity that I associated with Jewish authenticity were. When she talks about putting on a pair of sweatpants and you’re Jewish, sending your kids to camp and you’re Jewish – well, not everybody can do that.
Something else that she says is “Vlada, it’s all in your head’ and I don’t think that it is. I don’t think that my association of these things with Jewish authenticity is uncommon. I think even beyond that, for example, people going to services at a shul is something that people associate with being authentically Jewish and a good Jew, and that’s a really exclusive thing. Not everybody can pay for High Holiday tickets, not everybody can go to shul every week. I’m talking about how a lot of those things are classist, and that’s not the only thing you can talk about, but for me, looking back, when my mom said that, it really pointed out to me how that can’t be true. I do not believe that that is what Judaism is about. I don’t believe that being Jewish is a privilege for those that have enough money to be Jewish, or those with certain identities.
What my mom pointed out is not just classism – it’s also about sexism, racism, able-ism that is totally wrapped up in notions of authentic Judaism. For myself, I think that people should focus on challenging those notions, rejecting those notions, creating their own ideas about what it means to be Jewish. Taking back that power for themselves, defining that for themselves and with the other people around them. Rejecting these oppressive and exclusive ideas.
Q: What do you think that Judaism could mean or should mean, then?
VB: Firstly, I don’t think that there should be an authoritative figure that decides or determines what is Jewish to someone or what isn’t, or how people live Jewishly. I think that is up to people to define for themselves, or should be. I can only really speak for myself: for me, all of these feelings of inauthenticity, that I was somehow fake, and these fears of being discovered were really tied to my Soviet Jewish identity and how that played out. The fact that I grew up in a really secular household, the fact that I didn’t grow up with all of those markers that I talk about in the documentary, and the fact that I identified as an atheist – all of those things filled me with such dread, and taking all that into account, how could there be a way that I identified as Jewish, taking on that identity for myself.
Over the past four or five years now, I’ve been thinking about myself and my Jewishness as being tied to history – I’m actually quite insignificant in the span of everything; there were tons of individuals before me that survived and resisted violence and oppression. One of the things that the documentary made me realize is that I don’t have to look so far back to find that – I can look as far back as my own mom. I think that something my mom makes clear to me in the documentary is that to reject all of that struggle and resistance that came before me, to deny that that existed is a problem. Instead, I want to take power from it, and identify with it, and learn from it, and have that history inform who I am and my politics and things that I want Jewishly today.
Q: Could you describe an experience that’s been meaningful for you as a Jew? Either in the context of Jewish life or outside of Jewish life but that’s impacted you as a Jew?
VB: Two things: One is that in the past year and a bit I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in a radical Jewish community with folks here; having pretty regular Shabbes dinners on Friday nights, which has been really, really nice. I don’t think that I realized how much I appreciated those dinners until I entered an environment where I didn’t have them. Then I realized how much I actually missed them. I think that those Shabbes dinners mean something different for everyone who’s there. For other people, they may mean a lot religiously. For me, it’s about having community, feeling comfortable, feeling like you have space to relax and unwind, feeling like you have space to talk about Jewish stuff that you don’t have space to talk about during the week with people who want to hear what you have to say.
Something else is that since creating this documentary, I’ve been getting responses from people, and having the opportunity to connect with people in different places around the world who have related with my experiences and validate my experiences. I’ve realized through this project that this isn’t a unique thing that I’m going through, that it’s quite common, but that’s doesn’t mean that I don’t still feel isolated in this. Having people contact me, and want to get involved in the project, share thoughts about it – and these are people who overwhelmingly are not actually Soviet Jews themselves, and a lot of them aren’t even Jewish – that’s been really nice, and it makes me feel less isolated and more enthusiastic about engaging in these kinds of conversations and this kind of research and these kinds of projects. It makes me want to continue working on all of this.
Q: Any last thoughts?
VB: If anybody’s interested in getting in touch with me, either being interviewed or having a chat or sharing their thoughts, I would love that. I’m also keeping a compilation of various things that I find that are interesting to me – images, quotations, anything relating to Soviet Jewish history, culture, immigration on a website.