Russian Jewish girl problems: We have many problems that American Jewish girls just don’t understand — so many, that there’s even a website devoted to them.
There are the health ones: “If you sit on something cold, you risk infertility!” If you are Eastern European, your mom yelled at you every time you sat on a bench, or anywhere else for that matter, during the winter. This may have no basis in science, but to this day you will not find a single Russian girl that sits down outside past October.
There are culturally embarrassing ones: “At one point in your life, you had a carpet hanging on your wall” is a favorite expression. Inexplicably, almost all Russian apartments had, as a sign of prestige, carpets hanging up in the living room. Some anthropologists say this habit goes back to the time of the Mongol invasion in Russia. Some say it was just because shoddily-built Russian communal housing was incredibly cold.
And there are the big, annoying geopolitical ones: “Having to explain to your American friends that just because you’re from an former Soviet country, you’re not Russian.” This was always personally one of my biggest problems. The issue stems from the fact that Russian Jews consider their Jewishness to be an ethnic and genetic determination rather than a religious denomination. So, even if you’re an atheist, as many ex-Soviets are, you are still fully Jewish. I’m not sure where this belief stems from, but I’m betting that the fact that all Soviet passports had the mandatory ‘Nationality’ line that displayed your Jewishness for the whole Politburo to see has something to do with it.
It’s not that we’re against Jewish religious traditions. In fact, we incorporate them in our own way. I was once at a Passover seder, where we were all keenly curious as to whether vodka was an acceptable Passover beverage. But we’re also aware that 80 years without Jewish traditions has left us rootless in this arena. So the way we define Jewishness is the way our persecutors defined it: by our faces, our last names, and the innate belief that we are genetically linked by a very fragile ladder of DNA to the traditions of our ancestors.
Whenever someone asks me what I am, the complexity of the answer always depends on who they are. If they’re American, I’m from Russia, about four hours away from Moscow, and no. I’m not going to teach you the swear words. If they’re Jewish, I’m Jewish, born in Russia, and no, I don’t belong to a Conservative or Reform synagogue, but yes, I still ate a pomegranate on Tu B’Shvat. If they’re Russian Jews, I’m Jewish on my mom’s side, who is from Belarus, and Russian on my dad’s, who is from Yaroslavl, and no, I don’t know your cousin Boris from Moscow and no I don’t know any single girls for him. Which is another Russian Jewish girl problem altogether.
Vicki Boykis, 25, works in Philadelphia and is pursuing an MBA from Temple University. Her roots are in Belarussia and Russia. She immigrated from Yaroslavl in 1991 along with her family.