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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Rootless Cosmopolitans : : Literature of the Soviet-Jewish Diaspora

  • Author(s): Levantovskaya, Margarita
  • et al.

By the end of the twentieth century, Russian-speaking Jews solidified their reputation as emigrants and refugees - a people without a home. This was because the turn of the twenty-first century saw large waves of Jewish emigration out of the former Soviet Union. This emigration produced a new diaspora and new cultural identities shaped by Soviet history, the experience of relocation and contact with host-cultures, particularly Israel and the United States. Scholars, artists and policy-makers have had a difficult time fitting ex-Soviet Jews into existing identity categories. Consequently, Russian-speaking Jews came to be perceived within their new homelands as inauthentic Jews as a result of their cultural hybridity. Moreover, ex- Soviet Jews' lingering attachments to the former Soviet Union, ambivalence about putting down new roots, and reluctance to view their immigration to Israel as a return to their Promised Land, have compromised dominant theories of Jewish belonging. In this dissertation, I argue that Soviet Jews inspire "rootless cosmopolitanism," a theory of a de-essentialized and deterritorialized cultural identity. I derive this theory from the close textual analysis of contemporary literature about late-twentieth- century Soviet-Jewish emigration, which I contextualize within historical, anthropological and sociological studies on Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants. More specifically, I compare the fictional works published between 1990 and 2010 by a transnational group of authors that includes Dina Rubina and Liudmila Ulitskaia, who publish in Russian, and Gary Shteyngart and David Bezmozgis, who publish in English. I argue that these authors re-cast Jewish immigrants as rootless cosmopolitans, or members of a hybrid diaspora who manifest context-dependent strategies of self-fashioning. I show that, in this way, post-Soviet fiction portrays Jewish identity as an interpretive process, rather than inborn trait, and re-maps Jewish space, thus disrupting the dichotomy of homeland and exile that defines traditional models of Jewish diaspora. These interventions overlap with theories of diaspora beyond the Jewish context. Finally, I emphasize the applicability of "rootless cosmopolitanism" for other studies of transnational groups that confront issues of identity and location simultaneously

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