The bridge between Russian-Jewish relations is paved with rail drinks.
By Vicki Boykis
Often, when I am at one Jewish gathering or another, people ask me where I’m from. These kinds of questions have been particularly loud lately, with Obama’s visit to Russia, which ended with him being ejected out of the country in a cannon.
Usually, they ask me because I’m wearing my “Ask me about my post-Soviet Jewish Troubles” button. “Oh, so gledd yu esked mi,” I reply perkily, dusting it off. “Ai em from Ruhsha. Mai famili eemigrated ven de Soviet Union kollapsed een 1991.”
“Oh, how was that,” the unsuspecting party usually asks sympathetically, associating Russia with refuseniks, Natan Sharansky and vodka made of 50% rubbing alcohol.
“It was pretty bad,” I say, conveniently omitting the fact that I was only five years old and the most stress I faced when leaving Russia was spilling airline food onto myself one hour into our trans-Atlantic flight.
“You know, I hear people are immigrating back to Russia. Things are getting better there for Jews,” they usually say, pointing their rail drink at me. (Side note: why do Jewish events always have rail drinks? Why not spring for the Grey Goose every once in a while? More fun + more hora!)
I stop to think about this. Can Russians and Jews live together, forsaking a 500-plus year history of Russians murdering Jews periodically in a number of rather creative ways? Sure. My mom and dad do. My dad is Russian, my mom is a Russian Jew. They threaten to periodically kill each other in a number of creative ways, but nothing rivaling the forced army conscription of the 1820s or Stalin’s clever and mischievous Doctor’s Plot, which thankfully never came to fruition as Stalin’s heart created a plot against itself and killed him. Besides, my mom never threatens to learn Hebrew, move to til the Holy Land and found the Histadrut. So, they coexist, if not peacefully.
But, while there is a growing Jewish community in Russia and the former Soviet republics (just ask the Chabad operating in Moscow or Tanya at jewlicious.ru, who worked at Hillel in Kiev), I can’t help but think that everything is bad news (Russian black) bears for Jews still there. The strongest evidence yet? Russians dressing up monkeys as Jews in a Moscow circus. I mean, the costumes are cute. But couldn’t they have at least chosen giraffes? Emil Draitser, who has written extensively about his childhood growing up Jewish in Stalin’s Russia, explains,
“An American assumes you are a good guy,” he said. “You have to work hard to actually prove you are a bastard. In Russia, it is the opposite. They assume you are a bastard.”
The same is doubly true if you are Jewish.
So what do I say to the rail-drink-sipper? “Sure, things are better. But I wouldn’t want to move back any more than I want to drink the generic vodka available staring me in the face. Bring on the Grey Goose, bro.” I take a quick Russian sip, slam it on the bar, watch and hope.