American Jewish History 90.3 (2002) 339-341
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In this engaging book, Betty N. Hoffman seeks to understand barriers separating recent Russian Jewish immigrants from Jews whose ancestors came to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. Using the city of Hartford, Connecticut, as her focus, she asks, "How had these two halves of the same original population developed independently and what were the dynamics that created the tensions I was seeing between their descendants: the American Jewish hosts and the Soviet Jewish newcomers?" (pp. xiv-xv). To answer this question, Hoffman traces the trajectories of the two groups in their respective countries to discern how historical forces forged distinct ethnicities for American Jews in Hartford and Russian Jews in the Soviet Union before and after immigration. These different historical realities, Hoffman asserts, set the stage for conflict when they came together in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. While this argument is unconvincing, Jewish Hearts is a good synthesis of literatures on twentieth-century Jewish history in Russia/the former Soviet Union and the United States, and a useful introduction to [End Page 339] perspectives on ethnicity and identity in the process of migration. Hoffman's oral histories of some of Hartford's Russian immigrants are a major strength of the book. These gripping, urgent, stories, some of which have an epic quality, make for a good read.
In the first few chapters, Hoffman summarizes the history of Jews in the Pale of Settlement, the development of Hartford's Eastern European Jewish immigrant community a century ago, and Soviet Jewish history. This is a daunting task, and the results are commendable. Her general outline of this complex period, however, lacks nuance, and she makes some important factual mistakes. For example, Hoffman more than once characterizes the shtetl as a "small traditional village" (pp. 4 and 235). A shtetl was in fact a town which typically had a population of several thousands, and in which Jews thrived economically and played a vital economic role for generations. Jews who lived in small villages were in the minority. And while it may be true that at the end of the nineteenth century many Jews "survived under marginal economic conditions if not abject poverty" (p. 4), this was a time of crisis of such magnitude that it precipitated mass migration. These are small but critical errors that perpetuate the myth of the Eastern European Jew as backward and economically isolated.
Hoffman's detailed analysis of interactions, missteps, and faulty assumptions between American Jewish volunteers and the newcomers they want to "help" is one of the most fascinating and pertinent parts of the book. This is the heart of her argument about tensions between American Jews and Russian immigrants, but it more specifically addresses the more limited relations of aid and charity. When Hoffman discusses the conflict between Russian immigrants and their American Jewish hosts, she focuses on those American Jews who work closely with immigrants and their frustration that their charges do not affiliate with and become active in synagogues. The volunteers devoted to helping immigrants acclimate are arguably particularly invested in fostering this distinct kind of religious Jewishness, but Hoffman implies that active synagogue affiliation is the most important manifestation of Jewish ethnicity. Even as she refers to the infinite possibilities of American Jewishness—from secularism, to identification with Jewish intellectual tradition or leftist politics, to religious expression and institutional identification—these shades of expression do not influence her portrayal of specific intergroup interactions.
Hoffman generalizes about Russian and American Jews from her study of one small city, and some broader context is required to validate her conclusions. In support of the general applicability of her findings, Hoffman's concise and valuable description of Russian immigrant [End Page 340] ethnicity in the United States closely resembles in its broad contours that of the...