The first rule of Russian club is you don’t use last names

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One of the interesting things about being pregnant is that I’m getting all kinds of new information.  In addition to people sending me (sometimes unsolicited) parenting advice, I’ve also been invited to join Russian parenting groups for Russian-speaking parents my age in the New York and Philadelphia areas on Facebook.

In these forums, people (mostly women) my age with perfect English and names just as Americanized as mine discuss what to do if your toddler is not eating kasha (try to guilt them) and where to find Russian versions of Disney cartoons online for free (BitTorrent.)

One of the other things that frequently comes up is the need for service providers, such as nannies, plumbers, people who install hardwood floors, lawyers, etc.  “Can someone recommend a plumber that works in Northern New Jersey? Tia!” a post will read, thanking the recommender in advance.And invariably, only hours later, the thread will be full of something that looks like this:

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If you’ve noticed the pattern, you are correct: NONE OF THESE PEOPLE HAVE LAST NAMES.

Every service professional anyone Russian recommends does not have a  last name, but, even in the age of internet transparency and websites and business licenses and that kind of thing,  they can always somehow magically be located by just a simple phone number.

You call them. “Allo,” a gruff voice will say, sounding like they are either in the bathroom or smoking in an underground opium den. “Is this Oleg?” you’ll ask timidly, because, again, you have no real way of knowing since…you only have their first name and phone number. “Yeah, it’s Oleg,” the voice will say, acting like you owe them something instead of the other way around.

“I heard from my friend/mother/cousin/accountant named Lilya that you do good plumbing work,” you’ll waver. “Maybe you can come look at my pipes?” The line will remain silent. “If you have some time? Maybe next week,” you beg, like it’s them that’s doing you the favor.

“Sure,” the man will say, and gruffly hang up. You haven’t given Oleg Nolastname your address,but you can bet your bippy he’ll be there, and be cheaper than Americans.

I’ve been trying to figure out why Russian professionals do things they way they do for several years now, and this latest forum trend has brought up the last name thing again for me. In the pre-Facebook era, when we asked for recommendations, we’d be handed a first name on a slip of paper. There was a guy who did our backsplash. I still have no idea what his last name is.  What if you want to recommend him to someone? You simply go by phone number, because Russian businesses also don’t have websites.

What do you do if there are two people with the same name, as invariably happens when you have a small immigrant community? You just switch the phone number.

My sneaking suspicion is that this is all done for tax purposes. As in, if you don’t have a last name that can be traced anywhere, you’re super-mysterious and  don’t pay taxes, hence passing the savings down to the average Russian.  Kinda like Voldemort. He doesn’t have a last name, and it takes 7 books to find him and kill him.

My second theory is that Stalin scared Russia so bad in the 1930s that no one  STILL wants to own up to the fact that they’re who they say they are. Since Facebook has essentially become Happy Stalin with a Flat UI, the urgency for anonymity is even more apparent.

My favorite theory, though, is that everyone wants to be a star. If you don’t have a last name, you are unique, the best of your kind.  Like Cher. “Oh, you know that Slava? Which Slava? THE Slava. Plumber Slava. Master of the pipes. Fixer of the leaky faucet. He’s the star of Northeast Philadelphia. SLAVA! SLAVA! SLAVA! The people want more (for much, much less than the Americans are charging.)”

How to be full-on Jewish half of the time

 

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Several glasses deep into a bottle of wine a couple months ago, my friend and I decided we needed more Jewish rituals in our lives. She has a toddler and wants to make sure he is steeped in Jewish tradition, but, also being ex-Soviet, is not sure how to go about doing it.

So, this past weekend, Mr. B and I hosted a Passover seder. We probably shouldn’t have, because people really only do seder the first two nights, I think.  I’m not 100% clear on seder rules. But, I had some time last Saturday and all of our friends were free, and it was marginally during the week of Passover, so, that’s when we decided to have the seder.

… 

Freedom

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This Monday, I was asked to deliver a toast at the first seder Mr. B’s family had. I am a terrible public speaker and enormously shy, even with people I know,  so I refused, and Mr. B’s grandfather gave a short toast to the health of the family.  But I have been thinking about what I would say for a Passover toast, and this is what I’ve come up with. … 

Book Review: Shush! Growing up Jewish Under Stalin

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Have you ever read any books that perfectly articulate how you see the world?  Books that you can show to your friends when you don’t feel like explaining your life view and say, “Here, read this, and you will understand me?”  Shush, A Memoir-Growing up Jewish under Stalin by Emil Draitser, is such a book for me.

There are a couple of books that really explain what being Russian/Jewish is all about:  From Lenin to Lennon, Sashenka, and  The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, which is written by one of the writers that I deeply look up to and plagiarize try to imitate in writing style, Gary Shteyngart.

They all have slightly different takes on growing up Jewish in the Soviet Union.  This one is the closest to what my grandpa has so far told me of life back then. It also explains several questions people often have about Russian Jews:  Why are we not religious?  Why don’t we have Russian names?  How were we mercilessly targeted by the Soviet authorities?  And how are Russian Jews different from Russians?

This book explores all of those themes, particularly the dichotomy of “us” and “them.”  The overarching theme of this book is how Emil (nee Samuil) Draitser grew up imbued with Soviet propaganda and a constant fear of  anti-Semitism that distanced him from his Jewish relatives.  He only discovered the positive aspects of being Jewish after he immigrated to America when he was 37.  He first noticed and started exploring this topic when an academic friend of his mentioned that he spoke at a lower volume whenever he said the word “Jew.”

This piece of information is hardly surprising to anyone growing up in the Soviet Union and even Russia today.  As a Jew, you were constantly put on alert and denigrated in ways that are hard to imagine living in America.  “The Jewish problem” was mulled over both by Soviet officials and the common drunkard at bars.

As Draitser writes, it was so bad that he was constantly looking over his shoulder and disassociated with any Jews in his family, changing his name from Samuil to Emil to seem more Russian.  This was a common phenomenon.  In this same way, my grandfather Zalman became Evgeniy and my grandmother Sarra became Soniya.  Their last name of Gorivodsky was still suspect, but not as bad as, say, Rabinovich, who is the archetypal but of all Russian jokes against Jews.

It’s so bad that even I, brought up mostly in America, still have a stigma about saying the word Jewish to non-Jewish Russians.  For example, if I’m meeting someone Russian I don’t know, I’ll never bring up that I’m Jewish unless it’s mentioned.  I’m not embarrassed to be Jewish in America, but with Russians, it always seems different.  Like I’m afraid they’re going to pogrom me in five minutes. Or offer me a deal on an illegal Chinese cell phone at the very least.

There is always the mentality among Russian Jews that anyone seen doing anything distinctly Jewish is a sucker. Obviously this has faded with life in America, but I was surprised while reading this book at how many of these feelings are still active in me and how they have been developed over several generations.

Even if you’re not a Russian-born Jew raised on dranniki (latkes), pogroms, and Mikhoels, I think you’ll enjoy this book to get a perspective at a unique time in history (Odessa during Stalinism) and someone who maps out very well how he finally reconciles his identity. Draitser really strives and succeeds in recreating the Odessa of his childhood for you and along the way traces the steps of how he is slowly indoctrinated into a Soviet viewpoint, and how he slowly , with help from his family, regains his Jewish heritage. [Insert pithy post-WWII Yiddish phrase here to end the review.]

The First DC Jewish Tweetup!

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Frustrated by the sense of isolation from the Jewish community in Washington DC and also because I was jealous of the Tel Aviv Beer-Up, I decided to see if there was interest in having a Jewish tweetup around here.  @Awapy felt exactly the same, and, being in marketing, went to work. Whereas I had the vision, she created a bunch of press releases and tirelessly reached out to Jewish organizations.  She was the Weizmann to my Herzl.

@Awapy decided to put the hashtag on her back…in case anyone got lost.

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Hooray, it’s some ladies from @the RAC, one of whom is @KatyComeTrue.

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And @aimster215.  She regaled us with her tales of Tokyo.

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Oh my.  It’s Mr. B and @Awapy.  Mr. B is not on Twitter.  Yet.   We’ll grind him down.  Eventually.

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And then @HeebinDc and his friend, Kel-Kel came by.   She’s not on Twitter, either.  Yet.

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@Awapy and @16thstreetj.  He had free swag, so we liked him right away.

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And then @JulieMinevich showed up.  She is a social media goddess.  I tried to ger her to tell me her trade secrets, but then got distracted.  With a rum and Coke.

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And then, all of a sudden, @BuberZionist showed up.  He’s a pretty nice guy. We didn’t talk a lot about politics, surprisingly.  Also, by this time, I was well into my first drink.

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@Awapy seems to be in a lot of these pictures.  Hmmm.  But here’s @jfoodgeek, the craziest Arjewtinian I’ve met (also the only one) and @RobinYasinow, who has her own business.  I asked her a ton of questions about it.  I hope I didn’t scare her.

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Yay.  It’s @chavalahh, who has a sweet editorial gig.  And a lady whose name I completely forget (Susan,I think) who is not on Twitter, but everyone told her she should be.

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And then there’s @peelapom.  She incorporates elements of paganism and Wiccan tradition into Judaism.  She is cool.

dsc01457We look like we’re having a pretty ok time.

dsc01452Oh yeah, then there was that.  It says We Love Jewlicious.  But not because we’re suckups or anything.