Born to Russian immigrant parents

Eve Arnold and Marilyn Monroe

Eve Arnold with Marilyn Monroe during the filming of 'The Misfits', 1960 Photograph: Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos

Twice in today’s obituaries the phrase “born to Russian immigrants” appeared. One was for screenwriter Frederica Sagor Maas, who was 111 years old (the third-oldest person in California) and who was “born in New York to Russian immigrants.”

The other was photographer Eve Arnold (only 99), who was “born Eve Cohen to Russian immigrant parents in Philadelphia.”

Every time I read that someone was “born to Russian immigrants” the voice of correction in my head shoots back, “Jewish. She was Jewish. Say it with me: Jewish.”

When did Russian become a euphemism for Jewish? It’s like when you read about someone being flamboyant, you know the writer means gay. My guess is that Eve Cohen’s parents didn’t leave Russia because they were Russian, but because they were Jews who were sick of anti-Semitism and were trying to get away from the Russians.

And I say that as the son of a Polish immigrant and grandson of Russian immigrants.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Born to Russian immigrant parents

  1. Heidi

    David, I feel the same (says the granddaughter of Jewish Polish and Russian grandparents).

  2. Ben Pincus

    I ran the gamut of self-identification phases. Living in Detroit, in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood until age 7, and even though I saw the Xmas lights every year, it was only much later that I recognized that unconsciously I had thought everyone was Jewish, even the people who went to church. Later we moved to a small Jewish neighborhood in an almost exclusively non-Jewish suburb and I learned to say, when asked, that my “background” was “Lithuanian, Austrian, Russian and Polish,” ignoring the fact that the questioner was really asking if I was, “Jewish.” In afternoon Hebrew school it was popular to ask the question, “Are you a Jewish-American or and American-Jew.” It was supposed to “make you think.” My understanding of grammar was sketchy at that point and I was merely confused. Still later, I began to say that, “This is America. If it ever really matters which word comes first, then America as we know it is over, and I will know what I am.” Of course this was just a way of avoiding the question and allowing others to decide my identity for me. After a time I learned to say I was Jewish, without too much of a queasy feeling, sometimes tentatively looking for reaction, sometimes with my chin out in the “you wanna make something of it?” pose. Then I realized that it was the “-ish” part that made me uncomfortable, like if something was kind of blue (apologies to Miles Davis), it was blue-ish, and I didn’t want to be so indefinite. Finally, it was at NYU School of Social Work’s required course on “Ethnocultural Issues” when the professor asked us to go around the circle (we almost always sit in a circle in social work school; it’s so much more inclusive) and say our ethnicity that I said, “My name is Sol. I’m a Jew.” The funny thing was, that out of 22 students, 16 were Jews of one sort or another, but we all self-identified differently. There was a Jew (me), a Jewish-American, American-Jew, an American-Israeli, and an American Lesbian (sic), Polish & Russian, and a Russian, all of whose mother’s were Jews. And the list goes on. My history and experiences with others lead me to believe that many Jews have identity ambivalence and there is a full spectrum of self-identification. Given the situation we can hardly fault the obituary writer for not being (you should pardon the expression) mre Catholic than the Pope.

  3. Given this identity diversity, you’re right. I just think it’s jarring to see someone named Cohen described as the daughter of Russian immigrants. On the other hand, I recently saw an obit for a man named Cohen, who was not a Jew and was an African American.

  4. Pingback: Vindicated | David Wrote This

  5. ingrid

    Why don’t we just lay it out on the table… when someone says “Jewish,” what they’re really saying is “sexy.” (I could make a very long list of both famous and not-as-famous-but-still-cool-so-thereby-“sexy”-famous, but why ?”

  6. ingrid

    I could also use closing parentheses, but why?

  7. Ben Pincus

    (beats me.

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