Purim in Moscow

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Purim is one of those American Jewish experiences that most Russian Jews missed out on growing up in America. That’s what I always thought, at least, until Anat sent me an email that she was making a documentary about her experiences with purimspiels, Purim plays that retold the story of Esther,  in the Soviet Union.

Anat is an Israeli filmmaker who was born in Moscow. Her family was 9 when they left the Soviet Union. Before that in the late 1980s, they were part of a tight Jewish student group in Moscow, and somehow got the idea that they should be putting on these plays for friends, family and kids.

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I was thunderstruck by the idea that this happened. First, religion was completely verboten in the Soviet Union, and anyone caught in religious  situations would immediately go to jail. Granted, this was close to the fall of the Soviet Union, but still. Second, I didn’t realize there were Jews in the Soviet Union who knew anything about being Jewish, or about the story of Purim. Third, I have no idea how anyone was able to buy a camera, let alone keep the film for that long, in the Soviet Union.

The documentary Anat made about these secret spiels, interspersed with interviews with her parents and other participants now living in Israel, is touching, and, for me, reflects an entirely different universe from the Soviet Union I knew.

I watched it a couple times, still in disbelief, emotional.

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Here’s the trailer, and the whole documentary (~15 min) is available online for $1 if you’re interested.

 

 

The show-me state of self-promotion in realtime

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A couple months ago, Paul Ford, one of my favorite internets writers, tweeted that he was sick of self-promotion.

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There’s a reason over 150 people retweeted it, and it’s because we’re constantly deluged with announcements of other people’s success.

I’m no less guilty of it than anyone else. In the past month, I’ve announced at least three obnoxious things on Facebook and Twitter about how great I’m doing in my professional and personal life. Last week, I posted that I was excited to start a new job in two weeks (why not wait until I’ve actually started and done something useful?), and that I was 2/3 of the way through my MBA (why not just wait until I have the diploma in hand?)

Before,  I’ve written before how I’m losing weight, working on a novel, and getting an MBA.  None of these things are completed yet, but I’m still chattering about them. Why?

Countless friends have posted about their pregnancies as soon as they found out themselves, linked to races they’ve signed up for that are months away, and announced conferences they’re going to long before they happen. Kickstarters beg for money for half-finished projects (“Just had a great meeting about phase one, stay tuned,” they chirp), and “Coming to your city,” authors cry.

Then, there is a couple who made a wedding trailer. Yes, a trailer for their wedding.

Epic Save The Date {Bambo + Janice} from Major Diamond Productions on Vimeo.

What’s this obsession with updating people on how hard we’re working, how fast we’re growing human beings, and how often we travel, how many helicopters are going to take us to our nuptials? For businesses, it’s obvious. It’s advertising.

But what are we non-corporate entities advertising? I think it’s our success and our happiness. Humans can be quirky, but in the end we’re all wired the same: we all want to be standing next to the most popular guy in the room, even if we’re not the ones doing the talking.  In the age of social media, when connections are easier than ever, we want to signal as much as possible that people should pick us as friends, business partners, travel bloggers.

We all want to be doing great at work, at home, abroad. Every time we see someone doing even better, we feel worse. Why aren’t we doing as well? The grass is always greener on the other side, especially if that grass updates in five-second increments, with Five Stunning Photos.

It also seems  that it’s an inherently American thing to talk about what you’re doing without any thought to who’s reading and what they might be thinking.Of course, there is the history of the humble, quiet Puritan work ethic, backbreaking years of mindnumbing toil until we meet our maker. That got boring as soon as we realized we were the Beacon on the Hill, the country of Big Shoulders, and if we don’t pat ourselves on the back, who will? Capitalism ensures that the loudest and the best rise to the top, and being glued to our phones, combined with the 24-hour news cycle solidifies it.

Russian and Jewish social norms, like those of many other Indo-European cultures,  on the other hand, frown upon showing anything good going on in your life, lest someone cast the evil eye on you.  Jewish tradition prohibits baby showers until a baby is born. In Russian, there’s a word for messing up the good vibes going on in someone’s life by simply glancing at them with the evil eye of desire or hate, sglazit’.

“Don’t post that picture on Facebook. Kto-to sglazit‘,” Someone’s going to ruin your good luck by coveting what you have. When my aunt got back to Russia, she didn’t show anyone pictures of my parents house. Sglazyat. “Who needs that? Better keep it to yourself.”

This is, of course, wearing away, because I see hundreds of thousands of Russians using VKontakte, Russian Facebook and posting Instagrams of their amazing vacations in Turkey. And Jewish bar mitzvahs costing thousands of dollars. Oy.

So, where’s the middle ground between self-promotion, genuinely wanting to share good things going on in your life,  and worrying that God, or an angry mob of passive-aggressive comments,  is going to strike you down because you mentioned you might be taking a weekend trip to Atlantic City? I don’t know, but I’m working on figuring it out, and once I find out, you’ll be able to read about it right here ON MY BLOG.

The state of the Jewnion

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If you come to my home, it will be hard to tell that Jews habitate within. Sure, there is the kiddush cup from our wedding, sitting on a side shelf, or a menorah in the library, or the mezuzah tucked away in our front door. Our ketubah is lying around somewhere upstairs.  There is a vintage travel poster urging you to “Come Visit Palestine!” with a picture of Jaffa sprawled out near the sea. Hebrew letter Jewish? Or just hipster?

We’re just normal suburban Americans (right).

We are not extremely outwardly Jewish in our daily lives, if being Jewish means going to services, knowing anything about prayers, or not eating shellfish. And, according to a new poll by the  Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, because of us, the Jewish people of America are screwed.

The poll found that,

Two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue, one-fourth do not believe in God and one-third had a Christmas tree in their home last year.

The poll has just described the entire Northeast Philadelphia Russian population, and probably half of Israel. And yet, I’ve never met more a Jew more fervent than my atheist grandfather.

Of course, religious Jews are up in arms and Jewish organizations that rely on telling Jews that there are no more Jews are FRANTICALLY UPSET,

“It’s a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification,” said Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in New York.

But I’m angry, too. Are you saying that just because I don’t go to Friday night services, that you won’t count me as one of your people? I guess even crying at Prince of Egypt doesn’t count?

American Jewry has always had a stupid relationship with what it means to be Jewish that starts and ends by measuring how many times someone goes to a synagogue, which is like counting how many foodies there are by how many 4-star restaurants they go to. Maybe they’re eating at hole-in-the wall places you don’t know. Maybe they’re cooking at home.

That shit is hard to measure, but the Jewish community can’t be bothered to measure it, because that would mean actually thinking instead of panicking and trying to raise money from rich Jews who are also concerned about the Situation.

  • How many times you’ve been called a kike because you had an obviously  Jewish first name or last name in Russia
  • How many times you or family have been denied immigration to Israel by the Soviet government
  • How many restaurants you’ve gone to to find the perfect falafel
  • How many websites you’ve visited to find out when Hanukkah is this year
  • How many times you’ve teared up through Anne Frank
  • How much time you’ve spent thinking about Jews in the 1930s for your novel
  • The amount of time you spend on Yediot Ahronot and thinking about Israel
  • The ping of happiness when you see an international foods grocery section that has both matzah and Bissli.

None of these are measured in the survey, and yet all of them are my reality as a non-religious Jew who is as Jewish as you can be without knowing the difference between mincha and bracha.

Try these on for size, Pews and Jews, shut up,  and don’t come back until you start making sense again.

Russian Jewish Romance

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My internet friend Alina (and frequent commenter here) wrote a short story for a romance anthology (which you can buy now, here).  (Disclaimer: I got a copy to read for free). Here’s the press release:

They say “write what you know.”  And that’s just what author Alina Adams (born Alina Sivorinovsky in Odessa, USSR) did when asked to contribute a short story for the anthology “The Mammoth Book of ER Romance” (Running Press September 2013).

Instead of sticking to traditional, all-American characters like she had for her previous “New York Times” best-selling books, including “Oakdale Confidential” and “Jonathan’s Story,” Adams created possibly the first-ever romance featuring a Russian Jewish heroine, whose decisions – in life and in love – stem directly from her non-traditional background and upbringing.

Adams explains, “I wanted to do something different with my story, “To Look For You,” and feature a character unique to romantic fiction.  Like me, Alyssa Gordon was born in the USSR, grew up in America, and never felt like she belonged completely to either place.  Throw in being Jewish on top of that, and I’d never encountered a similar type of character while reading romance.  I figured I might as well be the first to create one and explore how being a Russian Jew in the States affects who you fall in love with.”

I personally will never admit that I read romance novels, but this story is at the intersection of Russian Jews, hypochondria, perfectionism, war, and men who are really, really clean, which is probably why Alina thought of me.  There were a couple of things I was always really curious about with regards to romance writing, so I asked her:

… 

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. …