Given the anti-immigrant atmosphere propelled by the current administration, it is understandable as to why so many refused to be interviewed. Most aggressively rejected the notion of being interviewed. The few who accepted had a poor comprehension of the English language. Specialized persons were particularly determined not to be put on the mic. This project failed to comprehend the paranoia of the Soviet generations. You must recall these are people one generation away from mass arbitrary slaughter they have reason to be paranoid. Most people I attempted to interview lacked fluency in the English language, the few that remained were too concerned with who I was and why I was interviewing them to offer anything of substance. Below is an interview with Ella, a former hairdresser. She is the only interviewee I managed to get on record that’s even partially comprehensible. Largely, her lack of English vocabulary served as a barrier in my attempts to interview her. The interview is poor in substance and quality, but the barricades I faced in acquiring information from people with interesting histories is perhaps even more telling of their experiences than what they were willing to say.
Houses of Worship: Waylaid
The first thing I saw when I got off the F train was the stained glass.
The first thing I noticed about Brighton Beach is just how difficult it is to blend in. I felt nervous asking people for directions, so I wandered around beneath the train overpass, trying to find my way to the St. Petersburg bookstore. I got directions from a friendly CVS employee and wander h.
According to the sign, masses were given every day, in Polish, English, Russian, and Spanish.
I slipped inside.
The church ceiling was white, and the stained glass windows seemed to glow. The pews were brown, well-worn, and polished, and it was a friendly, lonely place, for the next service wouldn’t be until 5 pm.
There was another man there, whose job was to inspect the tabernacle. We exchanged brief pleasantries, and I asked where the pastor was.
“He’s gone for the next couple of weeks,” he said.
So I sat in the back of the pews for a while and let the silence fill me.
After a while, I left and walked down Ocean Parkway to Brighton Beach Avenue. The instructions said to turn left and walk. After two minutes of walking, I found the first place I had been looking for St. Petersburg bookstore.
St. Petersburg bookstore is a cozy, pale-walled place. The front of the store is filled with colorful clothing and antiques. The books began a few feet in. I could recognize Dostoevsky and Pushkin—they were translated into English—but the rest of the books were in Cyrillic, and the only thing I knew about Cyrillic was that H was N.
The voices were hushed, and in Russian, and I asked a few questions, and found out that one of the employees, who asked not to be named, was from Moldova, and recommended I read Pushkin.
“Do they have an English section?” asked a woman.
“Yeah,” I said. “They’ve got a pretty kick-ass Harry Potter section.”
We walked over there, and I introduced myself, and I interviewed her.
Her name is Samantha Shokin, and she writes for the Forward and the times of Israel. Her work has been quoted in Voices of New York, and the first piece of hers I found was My Brighton Beach, written in 2014.
Russians don’t speak highly of Brighton Beach, she writes, 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. She also speaks of what it was like growing up in Brighton as a kid, wandering around Union Square and returning home to the borscht lovingly prepared by her grandmother. She also writes about why she moved away—as a symbol that she had made it, had assimilated into America—and why others stayed behind.
“There’s a certain feeling of home here; it’s strange,” said Avital Chizhik, a journalist and writer for Ha’aretz. “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.”
Ms. Shokin no longer lives in Brighton Beach, but I’ll visit, she writes, 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.
After that, I wandered for a while, trying to find a place to sit. It took about an hour of wrong turns, but I wound up in a park, and I sat down to read. There were a group of older men playing chess, and a few families taking their kids to the playground. I sat down, opened a book I had brought with me, and began to read.
After a few minutes, an old man from the chess tables came up to me. His eyebrows were long and thick, like paintbrushes, and his lower teeth were gone.
“You from around here?” he asked. His enunciation was clear, though his accent was thick.
“No,” I said. “I’m from the city.”
He sat down next to me.
“You didn’t expect that I speak English,” he said. I replied that I was surprised, and he said that he didn’t often get a chance to practice his English. I told him that I was a student and asked to interview him.
He introduced himself as Eddie. He came to New York fleeing the Soviet Union. He lived in Trump Village.
He wanted to get up, so I turned off my recorder and we walked to a different bench. He wanted me to look up an aria from a Pichovsky opera, and he was sad when I couldn’t find it. He used to play the viola and violin in Moscow, and he talked about the wood stains the instruments would leave on his neck. He hadn’t played in a long while, he explained, because when one plays the viola for a living, it is just that, a job. He mentioned that he’d also spent a while in Italy and in Spain, and he regaled me with stories of Rome’s beauty. We spoke of Michelangelo, and he mentioned, again, the engravings that he did. He asked if I played chess. I told him I learned when I was a child, but never played in earnest. He nodded, told me that playing chess was something to do
We talked for a good forty-five minutes after I had turned off the recorder. I thanked him for his time, and he told me to be good.
As I left, I cursed myself for not asking him about religion. There are ten synagogues dotting Brighton, and the Russian-Jewish community is thriving. To quote Ms. Shokin:
“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.”
Ms. Shokin then directed me to another article she’d written, called My Year as an Accidental Jewish Madricha.
What happens, she wrote, when you take a group of first and second-generation Russian-speaking Jews — representing a multitude of countries, immigration waves, religious affiliations, socioeconomic backgrounds, and education levels — put them on a plane and send them thousands of miles away from anything remotely resembling home?
At the launch of this program, that’s what I sought to find out. And now, a year later, I’m still discovering the possibilities.
Discovering St. Petersburg and the revival of Jewish life in Russia reignited her interest in Jewish subjects, but the most rewarding part of it all has been watching my peers embrace and redefine their RSJ identity in a global context, month after month, trip after trip.
They didn’t just travel to St. Petersburg, however.
Rather than rehash RSJ narratives in the former Soviet Union, our overseas experiences had a different goal from the outset: to foster a sense of “Jewish peoplehood” by building bridges between foreign cultures. On our recent RSJ trip to China, participants connected with local Jewish expats and paid a moving visit to the Jewish Refugee Museum in Shanghai. Eyes lit up as we made our way through the museum space, poring over the Russian-language relics on display. Local accounts of life under Communism resonated on a visceral level, echoing themes from stories of our own parents and grandparents. Somehow, discovering this little-known chapter of our collective history brought many of my RSJ peers closer to their identity than ever before.
The thing about the RSJ community that some people struggle to understand is that, while many, if not most, of us are unaffiliated secular Jews, we identify Jewishly down to our very core. What I’ve learned through these trips is that beyond connecting on a Jewish level, even the most assimilated RSJs rejoice in the unspoken “Russianisms” that make up our cultural tapestry. When together on a bus, something magical happens. Old song lyrics are recalled. Old Russian jokes are retold. There is a remarkable familiarity that manifests between perfect strangers within minutes of meeting one another — and then, of course, there’s the trip itself.
It would be stupid to say that my trip to Brighton Beach was a joy. It was a lot more than that. It was beautiful, and sad, and confusing. The language barrier was painfully felt. I was out of my comfort zone, and I’d like to say I handled myself with grace, but I would be lying. I couldn’t believe my luck that I’d met Samantha and Eddie, and I felt blessed that Samantha told me where to find her story, and that Eddie told me his.
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Scarlett, Carla. “Russia Beyond the Headlines inside INYT.” Issuu. Russia Beyond the Headlones, 18 Nov. 2014. Web. 10 May 2017. <https://issuu.com/rbth/docs/2014_11_nt_all/8>.
“Brighton Beach History.” Our Brooklyn. Brooklyn Public Library, n.d. Web. 12 May 2017. <https://www.bklynlibrary.org/ourbrooklyn/brightonbeach/>.
“Bureau of Labor Statistics.” Inflation Calculator. Alioth LLC, n.d. Web. 12 May 2017. <http://www.in2013dollars.com/1868-dollars-in-2015>. Source: The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ annual Consumer Price Index (CPI), established in 1913. Inflation data from 1665 to 1912 is sourced from a historical study conducted by political science professor Robert Sahr at Oregon State University.
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Lewine, Edward. “From Brighton Beach to America; The Wave of Immigrants Began 25 Years Ago. Soon Russian Filled the Streets. Now, the Tide Is Ebbing.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 Mar. 1999. Web. 15 May 2017.
Shokin, Samantha, Eric Cortellessa, Raphael Ahren and Alexander Fulbright, Ap, Melanie Lidman, Stuart Winer and Times of Israel Staff, Shimon Sheves, Brachie Sprung, Talli Rosenbaum, Adam Etzion, Rachel Sharansky Danziger, Lou Sandler, Bonnie Levine, Rachael Risby-Raz, Liat Goldfarb, and David Metzler. “My Year as an Accidental Russian Jewish Madricha.” The Times of Israel. The Times of Israel, 03 Mar. 2016. Web. 15 May 2017.
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Shokin, Samantha. “The Peculiar Lure of Brighton Beach.” Showcasing the Best of the Community and Ethnic Media. Voices of New York, 25 Apr. 2014. Web. 15 May 2017.