Soviet Jews in San Francisco

Since the late 1960s, more than one-and-a-quarter million Jews have emigrated from the former Soviet Union. Israel has absorbed the majority of them, but between 400,000 and 500,000 Soviet Jews immigrated to the United States as well. About 40,000 of them came to the San Francisco Bay Area, making this one of the major centers of Soviet Jewish settlement in North America.

Approximately half of these immigrants arrived in the Bay Area between the early 1970s and 1981, when Soviet authorities temporarily halted the outflow. Later, during perestroika (1987–1991) and then after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, large-scale emigration of Jews from the former Soviet republics resumed, though the influx has slowed greatly in the last several years.

The Russian Émigré Project, sponsored by Jewish Family and Children’s Services, assisted Ira Nowinski as he photographed a cross-section of this immigrant group at home, at work, in community settings, and at public events. Most of the photographs date from the mid-1980s and as such they are very much a product of that particular historical moment when the Soviet Union was still intact and emigration was, temporarily, severely constrained.

Political, religious, and cultural repression, anti-Semitism, and economic instability were among the factors driving this mass exodus from what a century ago was the world’s largest and most dynamic center of Jewish life. In 1900 there were more than five million Jews in the Tsarist Russian empire, most of them in the western provinces comprising the former Pale of Jewish Settlement (in present-day Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Lithuania, and Moldova). Today, there may be no more than a half million Jews remaining within the former Soviet republics.

For Russian Jews, the revolutions of 1917 signaled a liberation of sorts, one that came at a price, however. Limits on geographical and occupational mobility that prevailed during Tsarist rule were lifted, even as increasingly harsh restrictions on religious practice and cultural expression were imposed under the rule of both Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin.

During World War II, hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jewish soldiers fought heroically on the battlefront, while more than a million Jewish civilians—victims of the Holocaust—lost their lives at the hands of the Nazi occupiers. After the war, all remaining Jewish cultural institutions were closed, and leading Jewish intellectuals were executed at Stalin’s orders. These traumatic experiences and subsequent repressions under Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev took their toll.

The Israeli victory during the June 1967 war catalyzed a revival in religious and national consciousness among Soviet Jews, which in turn unleashed a movement for free emigration to Israel. This movement had many supporters among the ranks of human rights activists in the Soviet Union, and it was also sustained by organizations in Israel, Western Europe, and North America. (One of the most active of these groups was the Bay Area Council on Soviet Jewry.) Ultimately, the movement on behalf of Soviet Jewry met with singularly successful results.

In the Soviet Union, Jews were officially classified as a nationality but Soviet authorities strongly discouraged the observance of religious rituals and practices. As a result, many Soviet Jews were unfamiliar with Jewish holidays and with such fundamental rites of passage as berit milah (ritual circumcision of newborn males), or bar and bat mitzvah (the introduction of young Jews into adulthood).

The Judaism that Soviet Jewish immigrants encounter here is a quintessentially American phenomenon. Conditions of freedom make it possible for Russian Jews to explore the many modes of religious expression that are available to them in their new environment. Passover Seders, Hanukkah celebrations, bar mitzvahs, and religious weddings are examples of religious rites and ceremonies that in the Soviet Union could be held only in private, to the extent that they took place there at all. Introduction to these religious observances is part and parcel of the Americanization of this immigrant group.

When one speaks of “waves of immigration” the individual experience tends to fall by the wayside. One of Nowinski’s most significant—and moving—contributions is that his photographs attach faces, names, and everyday contexts to a historical process. Arrangements were made for him to photograph a cross-section of the immigrant population. He ushers us into their kitchens and their places of work. We observe the activities in which they participate at synagogues and community centers. We are guests at their holiday meals and at family celebrations. We even visit the graves of their loved ones. And in the process of photographing Soviet Jewish immigrants in their homes, businesses, and public places, Ira Nowinski has captured some unforgettable faces through his camera’s lens—further evidence (if such were required) of this contemporary photographer’s mastery of his art.

Zachary M. Baker


Victory Day assembly, Jewish Community Center, San Francisco, 1984. The Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany (Den’ pobedy, in Russian) is observed on May 9th and it remains one of the most important and solemn holidays in the former Soviet republics. For Jews of the wartime generation Victory Day has extraordinary resonance: on the one hand, hundreds of thousands of Jews served in the Soviet Army during World War II; on the other hand, more than one million Soviet Jewish civilians lost their lives during the Nazi occupation.

A little girl, Milana Vulis, looks through the window into a courtyard at the Jewish Community Center, San Francisco, Passover 1984.

A devoted reader of Novaia zhizn’ (New Life) sits in the lobby of the Jewish Community Center, San Francisco, Passover, 1984.

From left to right: Rachael Rayzberg, Berta Brofman, and Leah Litash freshen up after a program at the L’Chaim Senior Center, San Francisco, mid-1980s.

Yakov Veksler and his wife strategize over dominoes, at the L’Chaim Senior Center, San Francisco, mid-1980s.

Arthur Feldman at his bar mitzvah, Congregation Chevra Thilim, San Francisco, 1984. Adherents of Judaism assume the ethical and ritual obligations of adulthood at age thirteen through a religious ceremony known as bar mitzvah (for males) and bat mitzvah (for females). (“Mitzvah” means “commandment.”) The Feldman family emigrated from Odessa during the 1970s. The Soviet government imposed serious obstacles to the public expression of religiosity. In America, Jewish immigrant families from the former Soviet Union were able to join synagogues and offer their children a Jewish education.

The assembled guests celebrate the bar mitzvah of Arthur Feldman, in the basement of Congregation Chevra Thilim, San Francisco, 1984. At age thirteen Jewish males (and increasingly, since the 1940s, Jewish females as well) assume the ritual and ethical obligations of adulthood.

A janitor cleans up after the Sunday afternoon bar mitzvah party for Arthur Feldman, in the basement of Congregation Chevra Thilim, San Francisco, 1984. Arthur Feldman and his family emigrated from Odessa.

Plates atop a table at a communal Passover Seder, San Francisco, mid-1980s. At the festive Seder meal, Jews read the Haggadah, which relates their ancient ancestors’ Exodus from Egypt. The Seder plates include unleavened bread (matzo), parsley, horseradish (denoting the bitterness of slavery), haroset (chopped apples, nuts, and wine, symbolizing the mortar used by the Hebrew slaves), salt water (representing their tears), and hard-boiled eggs (evoking the ancient Temple sacrifices). A Hebrew-Russian-English Haggadah, intended as an “integration tool” for Russian Jewish immigrants, was used at this communal Seder.

The Jewish cemetery in Colma, mid-1980s. Leon Rader made these tombstone etchings. He learned this technique in his native city of Odessa.