Last year, with each college campus I visited, the tour guide raved about the uniqueness of each brick that made up this or that structure, the new “green” innovations on campus, and the dining hall filled with organic and environmentally friendly food. What these guides also emphasized was the diversity that existed on their campus. Students from different backgrounds, races, and religions were all part of the melting pot that made the school distinct.
It was this word, diversity, which never failed to be included in the guide’s vocabulary. Somehow it had to be thrown in that the glowing building was also diverse. Don’t forget the grass. It was diverse too. The dining hall was obviously the epicenter of diversity, with food stands that served Mexican, Italian, Japanese, or any other ethnic food that could come to mind. So I wondered to myself where was my diversity? What would I, a Russian Jew from Brooklyn, be able to offer my college in terms of diversity?
Living on the Brandeis University campus now, I see that the life of a Russian is rather unique from those of other students. However varied the cuisines in the dining hall may be, there’s always a nostalgic grumble in my stomach that longs for a piece of black bread spread over with butter and a bowl of borscht along side it. So for most of the semester we suffer, deprived of that mouth-watering Russian food.
There is also an upside to our Russian genetics. Because we know the language, we use it to our advantage since most first-generation Russians on campus can speak the language rather fluently. As a result, the language acts as a magnet — the instant someone who knows Russian hears it spoken there is a unique impulse to reach out to the person and introduce themselves. It could be that two people have absolutely nothing in common, but because they share a language they share a strong bond, probably for the remainder of their college experience.
During a recent Shabbat dinner at Chabad, I was speaking in Russian with a friend and seconds later I heard someone near us chime in in Russian. The Chabad Rabbi had overhead us and joined in on the conversation. There was instantly a mutual attachment between the three of us. We wanted to know more about each other. More about where we came from, how we knew the language, and our current knowledge of Russia.
It is a liberating feeling to be able to communicate in another language. Sometimes the language allows for a sense of privacy among the rest of the English speaking campus, or a different cultural perspective. But mostly it makes me feel as though I am a true Russian. As though I am someone who has breathed, walked and lived in the motherland when in reality I have only been a part of it through an intermediary, my father.
Ryan Yuffe, 18, was born and raised in Brooklyn. He is a freshman studying at Brandeis University.
A Russian On Campus