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Jun 19 2012

Embracing My Fellow Russians of Brighton Beach

By at 3:59 pm

brighton beach vacationIf my life had followed the statistically expected trajectory, after leaving the Soviet Union in 1976, my family would have settled in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, home of the United States’ largest Russian-Jewish community. (It’s also very possible that I might have gone to Stuyvesant High School and thus met my husband about 15 years earlier. When, we both agree, I wouldn’t have given him the time of day. But, that’s another story for another time.)

We didn’t, though. We ended up in San Francisco, CA, instead. I stayed in California until the last week of 1994, whereupon I finally packed up and relocated to New York City. But, to Manhattan, not Brooklyn.

For over a decade, I never so much as stepped foot in Brooklyn, much less Brighton Beach. I heard of it, of course. My parents had friends there, some distant family.

And what I heard told me that it was just like the Russian-Jewish community in San Francisco, mostly lots of hard-working physics and chemistry PhDs, classical musicians turned computer programmers, and real-estate agents who made Asian Tiger Moms look like de-clawed kittens, amongst a smattering of experts in welfare fraud who lived in Section 8 housing and drove to the grocery store in their BMWs while wearing fur coats–to cash in monthly allotments of food stamps. Only more so.

In Brooklyn, I gathered, Russian Jews kept more to their own neighborhoods (San Francisco’s population was too small for that), shopped in their own stores, frequented their own nightclubs, raised US-born kids who, nevertheless, spoke English with Russian accents, and mocked the Americans they lived amongst as being too ignorant and soft (especially on issues like foreign policy and the threat of domestic socialism).

That… wasn’t for me.

It especially wasn’t for me once I’d married my African-American husband.

Political correctness hasn’t quite made its way down to Brighton Beach yet, and the racial attitudes of some of its citizens can best be described as… unenlightened.

I am not someone who asks, or goes looking for, trouble. So I was happy to stay on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

But, then, an unexpected thing happened. My parents decided they wanted to see more of their grandchildren. And rather than bunking with us each time they visited (my father loves his grandchildren in small and preferably silent doses), they thought it might be easier for them to get a place of their own. The location they chose for this pied de terre was Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.

They liked it there. It reminded them of home.

For over a year, I was reluctant to visit. I expected… well, I told you above what I expected.

I finally did, though. And… uh… I fell in love with place.

For one thing, it’s gorgeous. Right on the water, a block away from the beach, with a view of the ocean. For another, it’s much cheaper than Manhattan. And the stores all sell food that I like… and don’t know where to get in Manhattan. Pelmeni and perogi and shashlik and brinza and beef tongue and sauerkraut and red caviar in a metal can and giant bags of sunflower seeds (semechki)!

I was slightly worried about how my kids, who, as we’ve determined earlier, are a long way from bilingual, would get along there. But, as it turns out, kids on a playground are kids on a playground. They got with the program pretty fast.

I was more worried about how my husband would be accepted there. And yes, there are still some issues. For instance, when he goes grocery shopping he has to take my oldest son with him–to read the store signs and make sure he’s buying the right things.

But, on the other hand, the lady at the liquor store on the corner now sees him coming and gets his favorite brand of vodka ready. No English required.

And if the neighbors at my parents’ place have any problem with his presence overall, they’re at least Americanized enough to keep it to themselves. (Though we do make certain he has his complex ID with him at all times. Like I said, no sense asking for trouble.)

Just in case, my husband also tries to wear his MIT jacket and ring whenever possible. If there’s one thing he’s learned about Russian Jews, it’s that Engineer trumps any racial issues.

And here is an added bonus I never expected: My husband grew up in a very traditional family and community, lots of strict discipline, mandatory respect towards your elders, education first and foremost.

He loves the way parents and kids interact in Brighton Beach. Every dad who yells at his child for dropping garbage in the street, every grandmother who suffers no qualms about correcting the behavior of someone else’s child, every pre-teen on the beach being forced to work on a page of math problems, or a toddler smacked on the bottom for interrupting an adult conversation–that’s home to him. That’s how things should be. That’s a lot more familiar than what he sees on the Upper West Side.

Which is why, this year, the two of us, neither of whom grew up using the word summer as a verb, along with our three kids (the oldest of whom will most certainly be studying for his high-school admissions tests just like the natives), are summering in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.

I’ll keep you posted how it goes.


Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on Kveller are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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