It is hard to talk to my baby in Russian

moscow mime

There is a meme going around the internet that is a picture with two eggs on it. The first, on the left, is a whole egg, round and white and smooth. The second, on the right, is the egg smashed into tiny bits and pieces. The whole egg is your brain before kids, and the right egg is your brain after kids.

I’ve found this to be accurate. Before I thought about all kinds of esoteric things, like the Kurdish oil region in Iraq, random blogs I used to read three years ago (what happened to Gubbi of Arabia?) , people I hate online, and losing weight.

Now, my thoughts usually go in this sequence: I’m glad baby is fed. Wait, do we have enough formula? I need to order more on Amazon. While I’m at it, I need to buy more diapers. Is she still size three? Maybe I should buy some in size four just in case she fits those? She’s been growing so fast. Oh, that’s right, she has her four-month checkup this Friday. I need to make sure she’s ok because she didn’t handle the vaccinations well last time. Her check-up is at 1:45, which means we have to start getting ready to leave the house at 12. We’ll need to pack the diaper bag. Oh, right, wipes. I think I’m low. I guess I should buy some of those too. Essentially, my brain loops around in an endless cycle of worry.

Then I get worried that I’m not spending enough time thinking about Mr. B. We used to be two married people with common interests and interesting conversations. Now we still have interesting conversations, but they’re mostly about the size of the baby’s cheeks.  When will we be a team again?

When my brain is not looping around the baby and Mr. B, it’s looping around work. I’m working three days a week now, which means I need to get everything done and squared away before I’m unreachable with the baby for two days a week. Which means my brain loops around work projects, and then, since they’re tied to staying home with the baby, it goes right back to the baby.

For some reason, my drive to and from work breaks the loops. I listen to music or audiobooks, and I feel a little bit like my old self again.  Yesterday, I thought about the California water crisis and avocados. But, as usual, no matter how far away my thoughts start, they always come back to my daughter.  Avocados are a recommended first food because they are soft and mild in flavor, and the baby will be able to start solids soon.

In order to save my sanity,  I’ve been trying to get further and further away from babies on my commute.  Two weeks ago,  for example,  I was thinking about  about Ben-Zion Ben Yehuda.

When Ben-Zion Ben Yehuda was born to his parents  in British Mandate, the first sounds he heard from his adoring parents were most likely in Hebrew. This may not have been remarkable, except for the fact that Ben-Zion, who later called himself Itamar, was the first native-born modern Hebrew speaker in the world. His father, Eliezer, a Zionist from Belarus,  was almost singlehandedly responsible for reviving Hebrew from a dead holy tongue where God be blessed this and God be praised that, to a living, breathing language full of refrigerators, telephones, and swear words.

Ben Yehuda the elder  spoke Yiddish, French, German, and Russian. But,  he believed that the only way Jews around the world could develop a single identity was to have a single language.

In order to raise a fluent Hebrew speaker in a country that was full of intellectuals from Germany, British soldiers, Arabic-speaking Bedouins, and Romanian refugees, Ben Yehuda imposed very strict rules on Itamar’s upbringing. In his autobiography, Itamar describes an incident where his mother forgot herself and started singing a lullaby to him in her native Russian. Ben Yehuda overheard her, come in shouting, and caused a great scandal. Friends had to pantomime around Yiddish in intellectual discussions, all newspapers were translated or banned in the household, and New words were invented to encompass modern every-day life. Yiddish and Russian, the language both of Itamar’s parents had grown up with, were persona non-gratis.

I thought about Itamar’s mother, Hemda, and how hard it was for her. To start with, her original, real Russian name was Paula. Ben Yehuda made her Hebraize it. Her whole identity was wiped out in an instant.  Then , there was the matter of the lullaby. I can just imagine her, hopped up on post-natal hormones, sitting in the filthy, undeveloped swamp that was British Mandate Palestine, trying to offer her screaming baby, and herself a bit of comfort in a song from her childhood. Maybe it was Ryabina. Maybe it was Oi, to ne vecher. Whatever it was, she couldn’t sing it because her husband had a Vision.

I thought about everything she gave up, and as usual, my thoughts circled back to my new tiny family because I speak to my baby in my first language, Russian, instead of my native language, English because I want her to know her roots, her culture, her people.   But,  good God is it hard to talk to my baby in Russian.

When I was in college,  I decided that I would marry a Russian speaker, and from that moment, I, like Ben Yehuda, had a Vision for my baby. My baby would not grow up monolingual.  She would not be described in biographies as “of Russian extraction,” or “having Jewish roots,” a vague way of abstracting away a person’s culture, of dissociating them from their family. My baby would not be plain American.

Moscow. Strong Cyrillic

I had a lot of grand plans for my baby.

As soon as I became pregnant, my husband and I would start speaking to each other only in Russian.

But then I actually became pregnant, and even saying, “я беременая”, instead of “I’m pregnant,” felt false and fake. The former felt like I was speaking from the mouth of a 60-year-old woman, or some show on tv, like I was putting on an act, like I was distanced from myself, like a puppet in a play. The latter felt like I was really saying what I felt.

I am Russian and Jewish to my very core, in my values, my beliefs, my sense of humor, my pride of my culture.  But I was five years old when I left and all of my Russian is my family’s Russian, not my own thoughts and ideas. My Russian is a shallow barrel of utility words that I’m constantly scraping the bottom of in an effort to explain myself, a pool that doesn’t include any of slang, cultural references,  or silly words I can make up myself.

My Russian is children’s books I was read when I was four, words for food that are untranslatable like kalbasa and kotleti, my parents murmuring to each other downstairs on Saturday mornings when I am warm and comfortable under the covers.

My English, on the other hand,  is a vast ocean that I have explored on my own. It’s my entire adolescence, my youth, my college experiences. It’s all of the slang I learned in AOL chatrooms, all of the nicknames my friends and I made up for each other. It’s the Babysitters Club Series, Shakespeare, Lev Grossman, any, every book I’ve ever read under the blankets late at night. It’s the language my husband and I lavish each other with endearing nicknames in. It’s this blog.

So when I became pregnant, I couldn’t bring myself to speak in Russian to my husband. And on the day my daughter was born, I lay in the hospital bed at 7 in the morning, three hours after her delivery. “Are you tired,” my husband asked me in Russian. “Yes, I’m tired,” I said in Russian back to him, cotton in my mouth.  We were starting this thing, but I was resisting it with my entire being.

Street life

Later, when they brought her in, I asked her, “Eva, how are you,” in Russian, and it felt, again, like a completely different person, a cheerful and fake paper doll, talking to my baby, instead of the real me. I almost cried from frustration, because I had just had my first baby, and I couldn’t tell her my emotions in the language that I felt them.

Every day, I almost gave up. I almost switched to English. Mr. B didn’t even talk to her in Russian at all for the first week. I tried to police him, to remind him to switch, but eventually I realized if I did that, I was just being a hypocrite, because I didn’t want to speak Russian, either.  I wanted to call her “kitten,” and “my baby,” and tell her about my understanding of the world, make up stories for her, do all the things I had been dreaming about when I was pregnant.

For a writer not to be able to tell stories in the language they are most comfortable in is sheer torture.

Every day, I would ask her if she was hungry, if she was thirsty, why she was crying, all in Russian, and I just felt like a fraud, because there was no emotion attached to those words. It got to the point where I didn’t even want to talk to her, so I would go for hours at a time of being mute,  just changing her diaper, feeding her, watching her, waiting for her to fall asleep so I didn’t feel the guilt of not saying anything. Nighttime, when you’re not supposed to talk to the baby anyway so they understand that it’s time for sleep, was my favorite time. I felt like a hollow robot.

Relatives continued to come and heap praise on her in Russian, making up cutesy nicknames for her, singing songs that I didn’t know, making up handclapping games that I couldn’t replicate because I had never been to Russian kindergarten or daycare, even.  I started reading books to her because that way I didn’t have to make up the words- they were there for me. We read Konek Gorbunok, the first couple pages of A Young Doctor’s Notebook,

Malye_Korely 3.19, Arkhangelsk, Russia

I can’t say when it started to get better for sure, but probably sometime around six or seven weeks old, I started feeling less like I was forcing cold, jagged letters through my mouth and more like I was actually talking and saying things I want to say.  Eventually, I was able to come up with some Russian nicknames for her, which I started using, although the number of English nicknames I have for her is 11. The number of Russian nicknames is 2.

I also started making up songs that semi-rhymed because I couldn’t think of words that rhymed quickly enough. Slowly, those songs turned into rhyming ones that made sense. I kept Russian TV on in the background, Russian radio on in the background, Russian music on in the background, everything Russian on in the background all the time until I started having some dreams in Russian.

The only thing that helped was constantly forcing myself, and Mr. B to speak Russian to her. We still speak English to each other, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

Today, speaking English to her feels strange and foreign. But Russian, somedays, is just as unnatural. And so here I am in a land of in-betweens, unable to be truly affectionate with my baby, but unable to bring myself to deny her of a second language that will open an entire universe to her, as well as a much better connection to her family.

So, I’m still speaking Russian to my baby. It is the hardest thing ever, to speak Russian to my baby. I feel like Hemda-Paula, stripped of myself.  But, I think of Itamar Ben Yehuda, and I still do it, in the hopes that I will get somewhere, and that her first word will be Mama, not Mom, and that by losing a part of myself, I will be able to give that part to her to keep.


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



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:

Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 9.28.19 PM


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.)”


Purim in Moscow

Pur 4

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.

pur 2

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.

purim 1

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


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

Screen Shot 2014-04-29 at 6.48.54 AM

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.


Russian Jewish Romance


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: