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.)”

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.

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:

… 

Why do Eastern European women love leather and fur?

While Mr. B and I were in New Orleans, it was cold. Super-cold. Cold enough that we hadn’t planned for it. Isn’t the South always supposed to be perma-warm like that spot on the floor that always gets the sun?

Long story short, we had to buy clothes on vacation.

First things first. Oh, the irony:

Then, for five seconds, this was an option:

Until I realized I had become every woman I see at the Russian store. And I became terrified.

Why do Russian women love fur? What is it that brings out the fur coats, the fur collars, the leather?  And why do American women hate them?

I’m guessing it has something to do with this:

Although I’m too lazy to research. So I’m crowd-sourcing.

 Also, I did find this: