Oct 30 2014
The author and her not-husband.
Well, for one thing, I don’t know him.
But, from now on, whenever anyone asks me yet again why I married my African-American husband instead of a fellow Soviet-born Jew, I will hand them Shteyngart’s recently released memoir, “Little Failure.” For in it, he has done a pitch-perfect job of putting on display everything I absolutely, positively cannot stand in a man.
To whit, the following are things that, in the history of humanity, have only ever happened to Gary Shteyngart, and then solely for the purpose of vexing him:
1. Russia is cold
3. Attending Jewish Day School on financial aid Read the rest of this entry →
Jun 26 2014
NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio recently kicked off Russian Heritage Month by proclaiming that, “it’s about time government and municipal agency forms and documents be translated into Russian.” He added that NYC is the ultimate city of immigrants and that Russian immigrants keep the city strong.
When my family and I emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1977, I was 7 years old and didn’t speak a word of English. No, that’s not true. I knew two words: “apple,” because it was on the first page of my English alphabet book, and “the,” because, for the life of me, no one could explain what it meant. And no one around me could pronounce it correctly.
In 1977, it was believed that the best way to learn a new language was through complete immersion. I was put into second grade, into a class where I was the only kid who spoke Russian. (I was one of just two Russian-speaking students in the entire school.) Read the rest of this entry →
May 1 2014
Exactly 50 years ago, on May 1, 1964, in New York City, a group of activists put together the first “Free Soviet Jewry” rally. I wasn’t born yet (I’m not being coy; I’m 44, for anyone who’s interested), but it was the ongoing, untiring effort of that movement that led to my parents and I immigrating to the US from Odessa in 1977, and the rest of our family coming over throughout the 1980s.
Once in America, I participated in numerous protests myself. As I wrote for Kveller earlier, though I enjoyed myself at the time, as a parent I am loathe to let my kids be used as photogenic political symbols before they are old enough to decide for themselves whether or not this is a cause they want to be associated with. On the other hand, I do want to convey to my children just how important the work of those demonstrators 50 years ago was. And not just for the obvious reasons.
Ultimately, I ended up in the United States due to the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which was the work of the government. But the government was pressured into passing the amendment due to the “Free Soviet Jewry” movement. Read the rest of this entry →
Apr 18 2014
Because I work in the media, I never believe a word anyone says or writes. (I know full well there is no such thing as an unbiased journalist, or an editor without an agenda.) Because I was born in Ukraine (then a part of the Soviet Union), I most especially never believe a word anyone says or writes coming out of that particular region of the world.
That’s why, when friends began emailing me the USA Today article, soon backed up (or maybe merely copy and pasted) by other outlets, that claimed Jews in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk “emerging from a synagogue say they were handed leaflets that ordered the city’s Jews to provide a list of property they own and pay a registration fee or else have their citizenship revoked, face deportation and see their assets confiscated,” I refused to leap immediately into panic mode.
Within hours, another source, in The New Republic, claimed that while the leaflets may have been real, they were not issued by the local government, but by their opponents in order to deliberately smear the pro-Russian side of the Crimea conflict. Read the rest of this entry →
Feb 27 2014
Last month I had one of those “I have no idea what to expect because I went to public school” moments. The occasion was my son’s “siddur play”–an apparent rite of passage for every first grade child in Jewish day school. For the weeks leading up to the big event, my son had been practicing his line for the play and belting out songs in the bathtub. He excitedly talked about stage presence (“we have to say our line very loud”) and choreography (“this is the part when we all stand up”). And while the theater major in me could relate, the public school student in me could not.
On the big day, after dropping my son off with his class (actors need their prep-time, you know) my husband, parents, and I filed into the schools beit midrash (study hall/multi-purpose room) with cameras at the ready. What followed was 40 minutes of pure sweetness. Through words, songs, prayers, and props the class told the story of how much they have learned since those first timid days at the start of the year, and how they were now ready to receive their very own siddurim (prayer books). It didn’t matter that I only understood about 70 percent of the all-Hebrew performance. Their pride was palpable.
My son could hardly contain his excitement. He sung loudly, delivered his line as if he was on a Broadway stage, and closed his eyes, leaned his head back, and swayed with great passion when the class sang the Shema. At the conclusion of the play, when his name was called and he was handed a beautiful leather-bound siddur with his name printed in gold, it was as if he gained inches before my eyes. For a child who seems to be straddling the line between “little kid” and “big boy” (scared by the Lego Movie, but fearless during his first time on a snowboard), I watched him take a definitive step toward the latter. Read the rest of this entry →
Jan 2 2014
Xiomara and Isleidy wiped tears from their eyes, Stacy’s sniffles quickly deteriorated into sobs, and even the boys tried valiantly not to cry. My tough inner city sophomores were viscerally affected by Elie Wiesel’s heartbreaking Holocaust memoir, Night, which we just finished reading. I was about to become a waterfall myself when Stacy blurted out, “Miss, when you gonna blow your hair out?” causing everyone to laugh and lifting the somber mood.
The subject of my hair was a recurring one in class; the girls desperately wanted my wild curls tamed into smooth tresses. They repeatedly offered hairdressers’ numbers, then frustrated by my inaction, took matters into their own hands. One morning, at 7:30 a.m., Xiomara, Isleidy, and Stacy marched into my class while I was getting ready for the day and ambushed me with a flat iron. I almost gave in, since the attack was so well orchestrated, but ultimately hid in the closet until they put the weapon away. When asked why I resisted, I responded with girl power clichés like “Be yourself!” and “Rock what you’ve got,” but because I never meaningfully addressed the issue, the nagging continued.
But now, inspired by my students’ connection to Night, I was ready to dive into history, identity, and why I refuse to straighten my hair. Read the rest of this entry →
Dec 18 2013
Last weekend, I took my three kids, ages 14, 10, and almost 7, to a performance of African acrobats. It’s a terrific show, and I highly recommend it if you’re in the NYC area before January 5th. It’s totally not Mother Africa’s fault that, in the middle of it, I was thrown into an existential crises (I am prone to those).
Here’s the thing: I am a Soviet-born Jew. My husband is African-American. Our kids are Jewish African-Americans who sometimes speak Russian. At our house, I’m in charge of the Jewish and Russian part, and my husband is in charge of the African-American part. So you’d think we’d have everything covered.
I thought we had everything covered.
Until I sat in a theater on 42nd Street watching a troupe of amazing acrobats and it occurred to me that my kids know nothing about their African heritage.
Not their African-American heritage; their African one. Read the rest of this entry →
Jun 24 2013
My oldest son graduated from the 8th grade last week. His father and I picked this particular school for its academic rigor. By the time his nine years there were up, my son had visited England, passed Algebra 2, read Virgil (in Latin), played Katherine in a full staging of Shakespeare’s Henry V, and drawn a map of Europe freehand, including mountain ranges and bodies of water, with only the latitude and longitude as guidelines.
We were ecstatic about his education and how well it prepared him for the future.
Though the school is ostensibly non-denominational, their crest does feature a cross. When my son inquired about it, he was informed that the cross represents all religions. (He thus proceeded to refer to it as The Cross of All Religions for the past several years. It was funny the first time. Not so much the 74th.) Read the rest of this entry →
Mar 12 2013
Hello and welcome to another exciting episode of: Alina Tries to Make Her Kids Speak Russian. (To learn why I want them to speak Russian, read my previous post here.)
I thought I’d found the answer when I discovered JAR-Ptitsa: Judaism Through the Arts (the J.A.R. stands for Jewish American Russian and the word jarptitsa in Russian means firebird; clever, no?). All three of my kids are very artistically oriented, so I figured this was perfect! They’ll do the stuff they love, they’ll speak Russian, they’ll meet other kids who also speak Russian, and they’ll even learn about Judaism along the way. What could be better? How could this fail?
I’ll tell you how. Read the rest of this entry →
Feb 13 2013
My parents and I immigrated to the United States from the then-Soviet Union in 1977. My father is a staunch anti-Communist. He is also a very cryptic, closed off man (teddy bear rescues aside). As a result, my brother and I are in agreement that, should he turn out to actually have been a Soviet sleeper agent for all of this time, we’d be surprised–but not too surprised.
When FX announced their new series, “The Americans” for Wednesday nights at 10, I knew I had to give it a shot. For two reasons. One) It was about a pair of Communist agents living undercover in the States, pretending to be a couple of perfectly normal, Mom and apple pie loving, suburban citizens. And Two) It was set in the 1980s. Read the rest of this entry →