(This isn’t exactly the next installment in my memories of Isaac Asimov. It’s just additional detail on some points that I wanted to make quite clear. I’ll get to Part Next soon.)

When I wrote that Isaac and his family were “Russian Jews,” rather than just Russians, I thought of trying to explain why it was appropriate. It was a digression, though, and although I love to digress, I felt I was doing too much of it in that piece. The thing is, in Russia in the time Isaac was still there — I don’t know if it has changed since — Russian Jews, like all Russians, carried internal passports, and theirs invariably declared their Jewishness.

In the days when I was doing a lot of traveling, my best friend in the USSR was Professor Yuli Kagarlitsky, a Moscow academic, theater expert and science-fiction fan, the author of the first (and, for a long time, the only) critical work on science fiction published there, Shto Eta Fantastika? (translation: What is Science Fiction?). He showed me his passport, and that’s how he was identified.

Yuli’s wife, and the mother of their son, Boris, was not Jewish, and therefore Yuli, with a certain amount of trouble, managed to get the baby’s passport issued to describe him simply as Russian, in order to make his life a little easier when he grew up. (In the event, Boris didn’t make it all that easy for himself. He got politically active as an opponent of the Soviet system and spent a couple of years in Lefortovo Prison as a result. (But when he got out, the world was changing, he ran for office and, with the help of my manual on the subject, Practical Politics, got elected to the Moscow city council (and how’s that for a digression?).))

But all that’s another story.

Anyway, being Jewish in the big cities was somewhat less troublesome than being Jewish out in the villages, as you know if you’ve ever seen Fiddler on the Roof (and if you haven’t, what’s the matter with you?). And the place where the Asimovs came from was somewhere in between.

* * *

While I’m on the subject of Jewishness, Isaac didn’t practice the religion, didn’t join many Jewish organizations and from time to time collected large tonnages of reproach for not helping to support Jewish causes. I remember one incident he mentioned, all but the name of the other person. (This is a pity, because the name is the point of the story. I’ll have to make one up — say, “Brewster Adamson.”). Anyway, old Brewster very publicly and harshly reproached Isaac for not joining more Jewish organizations and working for more Jewish goals, suggesting that Isaac owed other Jews an apology for turning away from the culture of his people,. Isaac got uncharacteristically angry and, also quite publicly, told the man that “Isaac Asimov” didn’t need to apologize to “Brewster Adamson” for turning his back on his Jewishness.

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  1. David Goldfarb says:

    I remember reading about this last incident somewhere in Asimov’s writings. As I recall it, he said, “If I wanted to hide my Jewishness, the very first thing I would do would be to change my name to ‘Brewster Adamson’.”

  2. revista Males Herbes says:

    ¡Bravo, great story!

    Didn’t know about this “internal passport” issue in the soviet Russia…

  3. Robert Nowall says:

    I can tell you Asimov himself used different names on the several occasions he wrote about this—though he himself made them up to protect the guilty and himself, I presume from malicious lawsuit. My references aren’t at hand, but the names I recall are “Jackson Davenport” and “Jefferson Scanlon.” Both the point and the story were good ones.

  4. qiihoskeh says:

    If this was in Boston, a definite LOL.
    And a 3-parenthesis digression isn’t bad!

  5. mostlyDigital says:

    My public school, P.S.99 in the Midwood section of Brooklyn (NY) has been renamed “The Isaac Asimov School for Science and Literature”. The neighborhood in the past few decades has become populated by Russian Jews. I can only imagine that this is the reason for the name change because while Dr. Asimov did live in Brooklyn his home was not in my old neighborhood.

  6. Ross Presser says:

    One quick way to explain the “Russian Jew” qualifier is that the word “Russian” modifies “Jew,” not the reverse. At least that’s how it ends up in American Jewish culture.

  7. Michael Parker says:

    Perhaps I don’t have the most Jewish name but my family, especially on my father’s side, were Russian Jews. I am American through and through, and Jewish.

    Like Asimov, while not religious by any means, it is my culture and ethnicity, and I’m proud of it. Does that mean that I must call myself an American Jew and devote myself to Jewish causes?

    I know Asimov’s work inspired me and his personal history connected with me on another level. And for me, that was good enough.

  8. Tom Tetzlaff says:

    David Goldfarb gets the gold star.

    Chapter 6 of “I. Asimov” (Doubleday [of COURSE] 1994), the author gives it as ‘Jefferson Scanlon.”

    ‘Harlan Ellison’ isn’t all that Jewish-sounding a name, now that I think on it…

  9. Doug K says:

    I used to work with a Russian Jew and she certainly did have that internal passport, though my sense of it was that there wasn’t a choice about carrying it, it was imposed by society. She left Russia with her parents in the late 80s. Her father’s Russian passport and war medals were confiscated as part of the deal. He’d fought for Russia in WW II so this was heartbreaking for him, but it was still better than facing the antisemitism in Russia.

  10. Anton Sherwood says:

    “imposed by society”? Peer pressure and that sort of thing?

  11. E Harris says:

    The official recording of Jewishness in government ID in the USSR likely helped to prevent their assimilation and thus helped to preserve them as a distinct people. That may not have been the intent, but compared with Imperial Russia, Jews were not treated badly, at least no worse than Russians in general.

    There was little discrimination against Jews at the top. Many of the top party officials from the earliest days were Jewish, and many others had Jewish wives.