Arts and Culture | World

A son of refuseniks chronicles the slow dissolve of Russia’s Jews

Professor Maxim Shrayer, Slavic and Eastern Languages and Literatures photographed in his office in Lyons Hall for a future issue of Chronicle.

BROOKLINE, Mass. (JTA) — When Maxim Shrayer traveled to Moscow for a five-day visit at the end of October 2016, his itinerary included a trip to the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center.

Shrayer, who emigrated from Russia to the U.S. with his refusenik activist parents 30 years ago, is an acclaimed scholar of Jewish-Russian literature and culture as well as an award-winning writer on the Jewish-Russian emigre experience (“Waiting for America: A Story of Emigration” and “Leaving Russia) and of a work of short fiction (“Yom Kippur in Amsterdam”).

He took a cab to the museum, where he delivered a literary paper at the Moscow International Conference on Combating Anti-Semitism organized by the Russian Jewish Congress, the World Jewish Congress and the city of Moscow.

But the next day, on the advice of his longtime friend, the prominent filmmaker Oleg Dorman, who still lives in Moscow, Shrayer returned to the museum. This time he took a tram.

As the No. 19 tram approached the stop for the museum, which opened in 2012, a pre-recorded voice announced the stop as the Palace of Culture of MIIT, Museum and Tolerance Center. As Dorman had warned him, the word “Jewish” was left out of the museum’s name.

The mystifying omission was unsettling. Was the word Jewish dropped deliberately? Was it a linguistic nuance, Shrayer wondered, or did it have larger and more worrisome meaning?

Shrayer discusses the mystery — along with the history of the No. 19 tram and the evolution of the Jewish neighborhood it passes through — in an early chapter of “With or Without You: The Prospect for Jews in Today’s Russia” (Academic Studies Press). Shrayer’s book adds to his reputation as a go-to scholar and commentator on Jewish-Russian life and culture.

Visitors to the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow viewing one of the many sculptures depicting the history of Jewish life in Russia, May 21, 2013. (Courtesy of the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center)

In November, Shrayer, a professor of Russian, English and Jewish Studies at Boston College, where he co-founded the university’s Jewish studies center, was named director of the new Project on Russian and Eurasian Jewry at Harvard University’s Davis Center, in partnership with the Genesis Foundation.

Until now, Shrayer has shied away from probing one question that for him has been ever-present: Why do Jews stay in Russia? Had the time come to write an elegy for Russian Jewry?

For Shrayer, even contemplating the question has been a source of emotional conflict.

He used the trip to the Moscow conference as a jumping-off point for a kind of fact-finding mission, probing the subject in a series of interviews with Jewish friends, new acquaintances and leaders of Russia’s Jewish community.

The result is a slim, engaging and elegant read that goes beneath the surface to reveal a multi-layered portrait of Jewish life in Russia today. Those he interviewed include Berel Lazar, who the government recognizes as the chief rabbi of Russia; Anna Bokshitskaya, a journalist and executive director of the Russian Jewish Congress; and even a couple of (non-Jewish) Russian expat clowns now living in the U.S. who entertain their Russian audiences with Jewish-inflected shtick.

On a recent afternoon, Shrayer sat down with JTA at a favorite cafe in this suburb near Boston, home to a large Jewish population, where he lives with his American-born wife, Karen Lasser, a physician, and their two school-age daughters, Mira and Tatiana. Shrayer’s parents, David Shrayer-Petrov and Emilia Shrayer, both literary lights in Russian literature, live nearby. Parents and son have collaborated on several books, including the most recent, “Dinner With Stalin,” a collection of stories by David Shrayer-Petrov.