Russians don’t speak highly of Brighton Beach, the enclave in Southern Brooklyn where I spent many of my formative years. The neighborhood’s critics disparage it with a degree of shame or superiority, or even irony, as was the case in my family. Moscow-born author Lara Vapnyar encapsulated this widespread sentiment when she titled her contribution to the 2008 “Brooklyn Was Mine” anthology, simply and pointedly, “I Hate Brighton Beach.”
Perhaps nothing better describes this phenomenon than the scene that follows: I was at a Russian music festival a few years back, standing around a campfire with some Boston Russians. One of them asked me where in New York I lived, and when I told him the honest-to-goodness truth, that “ya zhivu na Braitonye,” the response was uproarious laughter. Obligatory jeers followed that were all-too familiar — but then, how could they not be? I crack the same ones all the time.
Little Odessa, Little Russia by the Sea — call it what you will, both are misnomers. Brighton is not quite Odessa, Russia or New York, but some confused amalgam of everything in between — a refusenik Disneyland with bygone Soviet tropes thrown in for good measure. Michael Idov put it best in a New York magazine article: that Brighton is a “double-blind guess — a Jewish immigrant’s idea of what an American’s idea of Russia may be.” And for those who fled the oppressive former Soviet Union for New York, it’s a little piece of the old country — one they never think to miss, until nostalgia strikes.
Brighton Beach Avenue, with its litter-strewn streets, clamorous overhead trains and famously bad service at shops and cafes, is a popular target of ridicule, particularly among assimilated immigrants. But even the harshest critics end up here, on a random smoldering Saturday in July, say, to sample domashniy, or homemade, Eastern European delicacies, with their decadent aromas and startlingly low prices.
Only Southern Brooklyn can satisfy that nagging pang of longing for a good old-fashioned day at the banya, the steam bath, complete with rounds of vodka and hearty venik-lashings, with bundles of birch or oak. Even the Brighton-specific brand of bad service is all part of the experience, because when nostalgia is commodified, authenticity is everything.
Neighborhood kids who grew up in Southern Brooklyn are much less likely to disdain Brighton than the immigrants who came here as adults and who regard it as a cultural abomination.
Though I didn’t grow up in Brooklyn, I spent a great deal of my time there, and I moved to Brighton when I was 14. Later my family embarked on a series of moves, with stints in Manhattan and in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst, but today most of my immediate family is back in the Brighton vicinity. My friends were immigrants and the children of immigrants, and our summers consisted of late-night jaunts on the boardwalk and illicit bonfires on abandoned city beaches.
We spoke in English, cursed in Russian, loitered the streets of Union Square and stumbled home to generous plates of borscht ladled lovingly by our Jewish grandmothers. The city was our playground, and Brighton was our front yard — its cartoonish residents, clad in furs and track suits, served to emphasize our already profoundly bicultural upbringing, like the Soviet silverware in our kitchens, or the Russian cartoons we grew up watching alongside reruns of “Rugrats” or “Dexter’s Laboratory.”
Some of us were refusenik children; others, children of the ‘90s’ so-called “sausage immigrants” (a somewhat derogatory term, referring to those who were criticized for immigrating for financial benefit). All were unabashedly proud Brooklynites who regarded Little Odessa with the kind of tacit endearment one reserves for an embarrassing old uncle.
Then we grew up. School was finished, jobs were to be had, apartments to be found and rent to be made. While many stuck around Southern Brooklyn, the rest took to Ditmas Park and Prospect Heights and Crown Heights, gentrifying parts of the city our families warned us against for various politically incorrect reasons.
My apartment search had as much to do with finding a decent place to live as it did with making my parents happy, and I was acutely aware of a grander significance to the whole ordeal, a trans-generational diasporic hoopla to which I pretended not to subscribe. My parents were overjoyed the day I signed my first lease in a neighborhood they deemed acceptable — in part because I was maturing into a self-sufficient young woman, sure, but more significantly, because it was a symbol that my family had made it. My sister and I had finished American universities and settled in all-American neighborhoods. If this wasn’t the most characteristic realization of the American Dream, then what was?
Of course, not everyone shares this sentiment. My friend Avital Chizhik, a 22-year-old journalist and writer for Ha’aretz, moved to Brighton a year ago, after a brief stint in Manhattan’s Modern Orthodox community of Washington Heights. Though she is American-born, her parents are Soviet immigrants, and their feelings about Brighton couldn’t be more different from each other.
“There’s a certain feeling of home here; it’s strange,” she said when asked what drew her to the area. “My childhood was spent listening to my parents bemoan the ghetto that is South Brooklyn, the very place they refused to raise their children in, and here I am, years later, moving back into the thick of it and loving it… As a kid, I had resented the language and culture, and then, after an American Joint Distribution Committee mission to Kharkiv, a Russian lit course and, most importantly, a group of Russian friends, I returned to it.”
Apparently, she’s not alone.
“I’ve found a growing number of young Russian American Jews who are choosing to live here… I continue to be shocked when I go to Russian Jewish events, to meet people who are waxing nostalgic about things they never even knew,” she said. “It’s like a language of its own, this Soviet culture, which you feel you need to be fluent in.”
And though not all may be fluent, that doesn’t stop many from trying, with often astounding results. The proliferation of community organizations like RJeneration, GenR at the JCC in Manhattan, the youth group Russian American Jewish Experience and Ezra World, which organizes Taglit-Birthright trips for young people from the United States, Germany and the FSU; events like Limmud FSU; not-for-profit organizations like the Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations and Genesis Philanthropy Group; as well as dramatic productions like “Doroga” (“Road”) and “Covers” by Folksbiene’s Lost & Found Project theater troupe — all are testament to the fact that the Russian-Jewish community is thriving, whether or not Brighton is at its crux.
To this day, my grandmother can’t wrap her brain around the fact that I would rather live in a closet in Park Slope than stay at home with my family in Brighton, land of cheap produce and fresh shashliks, the kabobs of my childhood. But much like the rest of New York, Brighton is changing. The neighboring Pakistani and Mexican enclaves continue to grow, encroaching on the older Russian immigrant populace that, however hypocritically, doesn’t take kindly to foreigners. One time, I saw a woman in a burqa at a local supermarket and was shocked by a mother’s explanation to her child that the lady was merely “dressed for Halloween.” Suffice to say, the cultural contrast between the different ethnic minorities is stark.
Even so, the heart of Brighton Beach remains ethnically homogenous, and will for a long time to come. The area is too far from the city to attract the type of urban gentrification that swept over Williamsburg and Greenpoint, and its residents prefer to keep it that way. And though I’m happy to no longer call Brighton home, every once in awhile, on warm nights when I know the air on the beach is pleasant, when I get an oddly specific craving for Plombir ice cream, or miss the sounds of old ladies gossiping about torrid affairs in their native Russian, I’ll stop by for a visit. I’ll visit, and remember exactly why Brighton is so unique in the first place: not because it is wholly Russian or Soviet or American, but because it is all those things, and none of those things, all at once.
Samantha Shokin is an essayist living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, the Village Voice and Tablet. Find her on Twitter @SamShokin, and on samshokin.com