Valentine’s Day is a holiday sometimes tinged with controversy along the secular-religious American Jewish divide. Many people are familiar with the conundrum: should we as Jews celebrate a holiday that has its roots in a Roman priest trying to celebrate Christianity in light of adversity? The holiday has also caused a lot of angst in my Russian-Jewish immigrant household, namely because my parents thought it was ridiculous to spend money on Valentine’s Day cards.
Most Russian Jews that came to the U.S. in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union were without any financial security. They had been engineers and mathematicians in the Soviet Union and were often stuck engineering nothing more than McDonald’s Happy Meals until they found their way back into their professions. And even then they were scared it could all be taken away again.
Meanwhile, Russian Jewish immigrant kids desperately wanted to fit in. We had second- and third-hand clothes passed down from JCCs. We also had first-hand knowledge about how American school kids could be mercilessly mean.
The two viewpoints came to a head when I begged my mother to buy me Valentine’s cards and candy to hand out in school. You know the type. Mass-market produced paper cards that are perforated and sealed into envelopes, perhaps with a message for a recipient. When you traded them, you bought the highest-valued commodity available to an elementary schooler: coolness.
“Can you buy me some cards,” I asked my mom one day after school in third grade. My voice was filled with hope.
“Why do you need them?” she looked up from chopping carrots for the borscht she was making, another very uncool thing to do. All my friends ate foods like lasagna at home.
“I need to give them to other kids.”
“You want me to buy you cards that you don’t keep?” she asked, puzzled.
The unasked question was, “what kind of freier-sucker-spends hard-earned money on something they then give away?”
“Pleaaaaaaase? Everyone has one. Danielle and Megan already promised they’d give me cards and I have to give everyone something nice.”
“If everyone jumped off a bridge … ” she began.
“Yes, I’d jump off,” I howled. I was ready.
She paused. I could see her thinking. “I know!” she exclaimed brightly. “Why don’t you try making them! You already have construction paper.”
“I can’t draw or cut anything! Mom, all the kids already think I’m not cool. Please, please, please buy me the cards,” I begged.
I saw her sigh. What ridiculous American traditions would she have to deal with next in the name of coolness?
The next day she took me to the pharmacy and I lovingly picked out a set of “Beauty and the Beast” cards. I’d won this round. But Halloween wasn’t that far away.
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.
Valentine's Day and the Coolness Factor