EXIT VISA: The Emigration of the Soviet Jews by Paul Panish

EXIT VISA: The Emigration of the Soviet Jews

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Though it is framed narratively, and semi-fictionalized--a sometimes-tangled knot of individual stories--Panish's interview-backed examination of the lives of Soviet Jewish ÉmigrÉs, from first decision to leave through attempts at adjustment, is abrim with less than obvious sociological aspects. Apart from the amazing story of one young man trained in underground Hasidic yeshivas in Russia in the Sixties--about which little has previously been written--the primary focus is on two young families, the Gorelskys of Odessa and the Levins of Leningrad, who face not only the official pariah-hood of Jews turning their back on Soviet society, but also the extraordinary, often desperate opposition engendered within affected families. Since permission to emigrate must be explicitly granted by all close relatives (but such permission is deeply compromising to the careers of the individuals remaining), families are often bitterly axed down the middle, never to be rejoined. There follow smaller pressures and harassments--the crating of goods, the obnoxiousness of customs. Then, with the first of the West that the ÉmigrÉ sees, Vienna, comes ""window shock""--the bewildering overload of consumer choice--as well as the tug of war between SOKHNUT, the Israeli resettlement agency, and HIAS, which offers places for Jews in America. Pitiful allowances doom nearly all Soviet Jews to shared slums at the next stop on the journey, Rome. When finally America is reached (New York, for more than half the ÉmigrÉs--and not always by choice), there are small shocks like doggy bags pulled out in a restaurant (""When the rabbi had insisted that they be his guests for dinner, Alexandr and Zoya had naturally assumed that he could afford it. Now it seemed that the rabbi couldn't even afford to feed his own family""). And massive cultural shocks: having dumped their Russian accomplishments for the sake of an exit visa, what could they hope for, in the US, except ""a bigger and better version of what they once had""? The getting of goods, a task that in the Soviet Union involved pull and wiles and therefore self-esteem, is removed immediately as a goal, Panish shows, leaving large psychic holes. While the disorientation and cultural nowhere-ness is in some ways no different from that faced by other immigrants, the jump across such large political antitheses makes for a special limbo for a people as spiritual as the Russians. It's the part of their situation that Americans, perhaps self-congratulatory, know least about--and thus the most valuable part of Panish's clumsy but persuasive book.

Pub Date: Aug. 13th, 1981
Publisher: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan