Thursday, December 9, 2010

Menora, Matryoshka, and Me

It seemed I was destined to live in diasporas. In Russia, it was a Jewish diaspora. In New York, it became more of a Russian one. I thought it funny that Americans perceived me as a Russian – perhaps because of my blondish hair. However, in Russia, I looked anything but. Ethnically, I didn’t blend. Amongst Slavonic faces, I stuck out like a sore thumb.

Growing up in my hometown of Kazan, a bicultural mêlée of Russian and Tatar, I looked very different from the Slavic girls in my class. I had a straight nose while theirs were roundish and upturned. My eyes were too big, and my hair back then was black, while their braids were of various shades of blond. If anything, I passed for a Tatar because of my dark mane, even though my eyes weren’t almond-shaped. On the streets, the old grandmas with Asian facial features addressed me by the Tatar’s endearing “kizim” – daughter. My two best childhood friends were Tatars too, so I knew enough vocabulary to be able to answer back. The Jewish community in Kazan was tiny: about 6,000 Ashkenazi in a city with a population over a million. It was barely acknowledged, if at all. In school, we learned about Russian history and traditions, broached some Tatar topics, and never touched upon Judaic subjects. Back then, I felt a very strong connection to my Semitic roots. I feared my nation was becoming extinct, so I wanted to be Jewish with all the good and bad that came with it in a country where my people were not a particularly welcomed ethnic minority. Coming to New York, I looked forward to embracing Judaica.

It didn’t happen. In America, being Jewish meant being of Jewish faith, and raised in a Communist country, I remained a devout atheist. Going through the available Judaic sects – Hasidic, conservative, reformed – I realized I didn’t belong anywhere. And they didn’t recognize me as one of their own either. Being tagged as a Russian, I felt offended. I tried to argue that I was still Jewish even if I didn’t speak a word of Hebrew and didn’t pray, even on high holidays. Eventually, I accepted the fact that I sort of fell somewhere in between the two diasporas – a curious place where a menorah and a Matryoshka met. The Soviet emigration of the end of the last century created a new branch of diaspora and a new nationality: the Russian Jew.

About 10 years ago, I took a train from Manhattan to Brighton Beach, home to New York’s largest Russian community. On the way, I became aware of strange phenomena: my fellow Russian Jews no longer accosted me in their native language! The elderly émigré ladies laboriously pulled their accented English sentences together to ask me for directions instead of stating their questions in the easy Russian chatter. When I answered in their native tongue, they were surprised. I walked into a store – which by the way, sold both the painted wooden dolls and the Chanukah candelabras – and looked at myself in the mirror, wondering what part of me had changed so drastically. I couldn’t tell, but it seemed that I no longer belonged to any diaspora. Yet, I wouldn’t quite call myself an American either.

Luckily, I can always pass for a New Yorker. And I no longer care that I couldn’t find the right ethnic niche, because I found my home. I love and blend into this humongous diverse metropolis, in which any liberal-minded person can easily belong. There are about a half a dozen menorahs and a bunch of Matryoshkas in my mother’s house. There’s one of each in mine. I don’t think I’ve given any of my American friends a menorah for their birthdays, but I’ve certainly given many Matryoshkas, which is why I am now down to only one.


  1. Really interesting. I learn something new everyday one this blog. :)

  2. Lina, I don't think you just pass for a New Yorker. You are a New Yorker now! I love the story of the Russian Jewish ladies on the train not recognizing you as part of their diaspora. It must be because of how you view yourself. When you started to feel that you belonged to New York itself, and not just one of its ethnic tribes, that's how others began to see you too.

  3. What a fascinating background you have, Lina, and how well you tell it.

  4. Absolutely fascinating, Lina. What about your Turkish roots? How does that play in both worlds?