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Soviet Unions

An American moves to St. Petersburg, Russia—where Jews were once forbidden to live—and finds Jewishness has social currency, especially for dating

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A party at Bar 812 in St. Petersburg on Aug. 20, 2011. (Courtesy of Bar 812)

The lounge was made to feel completely underground—red curtains obscured all natural light, and candles flickered. Russian waitresses with onyx eye make-up and black wigs posed as belly dancers straight out of The Arabian Nights.

To find the place, we had to turn on a few side streets, go down a discreet staircase next to an apartment complex, and press a button beside an unmarked black door. Three short rings later, we were greeted and quickly ushered inside by a round Russian man with a shiny bald head.

“It’s exclusive,” Dasha whispered to me as we traipsed down the stairs. “They don’t want to bother with just anybody.”

Dasha, Anastasia, and Nastia, native Russians in their twenties, made the orders: pomegranate hookah, tea with milk, tea with lemon, chocolate-covered almonds, and fruit beer. Dasha, an icy blonde, and I sat next to each other at the low table while the other two women sat across from us smoking gold-tapered cigarettes.

We began with talk about the stinginess of Dasha’s recent ex. “A Russian woman should only have to pay for her candy and stockings,” Anastasia, draped in fur, informed me. As the newcomer, having just moved here from New York on a fellowship, I had Russian romance lessons to learn. We continued with necessary nastiness about his new girlfriend. “In this day and age, if a Russian woman isn’t beautiful by 30, she’s just stupid,” Nastia, very tall with black hair, said, making the case that plastic surgery solves everything. Dasha had new prospects: an Italian diplomat and a Finnish entrepreneur. “We look for foreigners,” Dasha explained.

Soon the conversation turned to me. I mentioned a few disastrous dates I’d been on since arriving and then made the typical four-single-women-at-a-lounge conclusion: “Men are impossible.” Anastasia and Nastia murmured their agreement, blowing smoke rings.

“Except Jewish men,” Dasha interrupted. The three of us looked at her. She crossed and uncrossed her legs and signaled to the waitress for another drink. “The best men are Jewish.”

I turned to Dasha. “You’re Jewish?” I asked. She smiled, fiddling with the diamond cross around her neck. “Of course I am Jew,” she said. “Jewish men are stylish and important men. And they are the most generous. You must date Jewish men.” Anastasia and Nastia nodded seriously, as though Dasha were imparting the secret to successful dating.

I leaned back and took a deep drag off the pomegranate hookah. I was in St. Petersburg—a city that 100 years ago had forbidden Jews’ residency. The only exceptions had been Jews who openly converted to the Russian Orthodox Church, or Jewish merchants with connections. In rare cases, Jews who had served in the czar’s army for 25 years were permitted to live in the city.

When Daniel Chwolson, a great early 20th-century intellectual in St. Petersburg, was once asked why he had converted to Russian Orthodoxy from Judaism, he answered: “Out of conviction.”

“Out of what conviction?” he was asked. His answer: “Out of the conviction that it is better to be a professor in St. Petersburg then a melamed [Hebrew schoolteacher] in Shklop.”

Now, in a trendy lounge, a young Jewish Russian woman was flaunting her Jewishness and her trysts with Jewish men like it was a fabulous accessory, akin to her black fur coat.

***

When thousands of Russian immigrants began flooding Israel in the 1990s, the joke was that for the first time in history, people were trying to alter their official papers to say that they were Jewish. Since my move to St. Petersburg this fall, I’ve been taken aback by a similar trend: Everyone I meet is excited to have their metaphorical Jewish papers. Jewishness has a new social currency—especially when it comes to dating.

Before my move, my sole association with Russian Jewry, like so many American Ashkenazi Jews, was that of my lineage. Unless I was discussing the refusenik movement of the 1970s or taking the occasional subway ride to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, Russian Jewry was the family photographs on my living-room walls.

In one, my great-grandfather, a Hasidic rabbi from a shtetl outside of Minsk, Belarus, looks out sternly from an oil portrait above our piano. In another, my grandfather and great-aunt, from the same shtetl, gaze with somber eyes in faded black and white. On a table in our foyer is another black-and-white photograph of another great-aunt, a classic babushka.

Russian society was deeply anti-Semitic when those photographs were taken. Pogroms were government issued. There was little to eat. I am reminded of a Yiddish shtetl song my mother, a Yiddish translator by profession, once taught me: Zuntik bulbes, montik bulbes, 
Dinstik uhn mitvoch bulbes, 
Donershtik uhn fraytik bulbes. 
Ober shabbes in a noveneh a bulbeh kuggele 
Zuntik vayter bulbes. (Translation: Sunday potatoes, Monday potatoes, Wednesday potatoes, Thursday and Friday potatoes. But on the Sabbath for a change a potato pudding.) Between this and the lyrics to Fiddler on the Roof’s “Anatevka”—overworked, underpaid—my stereotype of Russian Jewry was complete.

As I prepared to move, I thought about how my Belarusian grandfather had come to New York City 80 years ago in order to learn English and make a life for himself and his family. And as I began to study rudimentary Russian, I couldn’t shake the lingering and lovely thought that this was my grandfather’s childhood alphabet. Learning simple greetings and the words for “black tea” connected me to him and his lost world, both of which I longed to understand.

The next time I met Dasha, over wine in a fashionable, factory-style café above an art gallery called the Loft, I pried her about the comments she made at the club. She waved to various artists drinking at different tables and then turned back to me. “It’s simple. If you don’t like a man, I tell you it’s because he is not Jew,” she said in her accented English.

“But your past boyfriends weren’t Jewish,” I said.

“But they should be,” she said. “My father is the most remarkable, generous man, and that is because he is Jew.” She smiled at a Spanish painter whose exhibit was on display at the Loft. He approached, air-kissed, and they exchanged pleasantries in Russian, but she shook her head as soon as his back was turned.

“Such an arrogant, annoying man,” she said. I dug into my carrot cake, but then couldn’t resist asking: “Not a Jew?”

Dasha’s St. Petersburg is far removed from pogroms, her Judaism has nothing to do with shtetls, matzoh balls, and potato blintzes. She avoids potatoes to maintain her figure. Yom Tov and Shabbat, she says, don’t figure into her identity. She insists it’s all about the men.

But it’s clear to me that that’s just a line. Her enthusiasm for Jewish men is about something far more sweeping: newly acquired excitement at the concept of a religious identity. After 70 years of repression by the Soviet Union and hundreds of years of anti-Semitism, to be able to freely express Jewishness is exciting and intriguing.

***

Judaism is experiencing an active revival across St. Petersburg. There is a Reform synagogue, built in 2007, and the Grand Choral Synagogue, built in 1893, is now run by an American-born Chabad rabbi. There is a Jewish Community Center and a Jewish senior citizen center. There are organizations dedicated to educating Jewish youth. There is a St. Petersburg Hillel, which hosts weekly Shabbat dinners. Many of these organizations receive funding from American Jewish organizations and philanthropists.

After Saturday dinner at a weekend retreat this fall for young Jews at a St. Petersburg hotel, a young woman approached me. “Tonight,” she informed me, “we are all going to leave and go to a Jewish Halloween party. We’ll stay at the club all night and come back here in the morning.” We got into her car and cranked up “I Love You Like a Love Song” as we sped through the winding avenues of St. Petersburg.

The club was subterranean and the waitresses there were dressed up as cats, vampires, and butterflies, serving Bloody Marys. Fake cobwebs dangled from the archways. A woman dressed in a skintight silver jumpsuit belly-danced in the middle of the floor, while men dressed as robots performed a light show behind her.

The theme was Halloween. This I could tell. I wasn’t sure where the Jewish aspect came in until the round of introductions began.

“Naomi is the daughter of a rabbi!” a friend screamed over the pounding music, referring to me.

“I didn’t know a rabbi’s daughter could dance!” said a Georgian boy I’d just met.

“I just started taking classes with a rabbi!” a girl with a cat mask chimed in.

“Welcome to Jewish Peter!” her boyfriend said.

We l’chaimed to shots of vodka with cherry juice.

The place was packed. A rhythm developed immediately: dance until covered in sweat, dash outside to the freezing temperatures, smoke a cigarette, and dash back in. I was told repeatedly that everyone young and everyone Jewish in St. Petersburg was there.

“WHO ORGANIZED THIS PARTY?” I yelled, over techno music.

“Kreme! This is a Kreme party!” said someone in a mask.

“WHAT’S KREME?”

“They throw four parties a year! Best parties!”

I coated my throat with vodka and spiced honey. I turned back to my dance partners. “WHO IS THE HEAD OF KREME?”

I vaguely heard Sasha, a nickname for Alexander.

Alexander and I met for lunch at Golden Café, one of three kosher restaurants in St. Petersburg. The walls were made of white brick, and the food was classic Russian fare: borscht, spicy Georgian chicken, shredded cabbage and carrot salad, and endless cups of black tea. The only notable Jewish features were photographs on the wall that resembled the ones in my home and the three visibly Orthodox businessmen eating lunch at the table next to ours.

Alexander—who, like many Russians I interviewed, declined to give his last name—discussed house music and mash-ups and explained his fascination with the obscure Gabrielite sect of Judaism. Then Alexander told me about his method for planning Kreme parties, something he began doing, along with two girls, five years ago. They are never on Shabbat or Yom Tov. “Not too many big, popular places give us Saturday night,” he said.

Alexander started Kreme, he said, because he asked himself, “What’s the best party I go to? A party where I walk into a bar and know everybody.” One goal is to “show Jewish youth a lot of different clubbing in the city.” Kreme rarely repeats locations. Parties are typically thrown on holidays like Hanukkah and Purim, but not on Passover because you can’t drink beer.

I mentioned Tel Aviv’s great nightlife, assuming he’d agree, but Alexander shook his head. “My girlfriend and I couldn’t find one kosher restaurant in Tel Aviv,” he said.

***

On another day, at Terminal Bar, located on the stylish Ulitsa Rubinsteina, a street filled with jazz bars, Thai food, and English pubs, I ordered a Prosecco and watched the bearded Russian next to me read the newspaper and drink Hennessy on the rocks while he chain smoked.

I was there to interview Sid, one of the three Jewish men who opened Terminal in 2010, now hugely popular. Sid emerged from the back, wild-haired and wild-eyed. I asked him how he was doing. “I haven’t seen myself for a few days,” he said. “But my friends say I’m doing good.”

He poured himself a glass of Bushmill and lit a cigarette. “This is a bar for your grand-daddy,” he said in English. “A bar where he shouts at the bartender.” Sid affected a cranky old man voice. “ ‘What? Red wine, white, what’s the difference?’ This is the kind of bar for someone who gets up and says, ‘Should I kill myself today or should I drink? Well, I should probably have a drink.’ ” Sid told me that he had nothing against young people, but frankly, “I don’t need no puke in my corner, no drugs in my toilet, and I’d prefer no screwing on my piano.”

I approached the Jewish questions delicately. “So, the three of you are all Jewish, yes?”

“All Jews,” he answered. “My grandmom was Jewish, my mom was Jewish. We don’t serve kosher food or kosher drinks, but we’ll never make it secret.”

Then Sid added, “Actually, for a while I wanted to put the Star of David on the entrance sign of our bar. When I asked a rabbi about it, he said, ‘Sid, don’t worry, they’ll put it there for you.’”

***

Several nights later, I find myself at the Grand Choral Synagogue—enormous and pink—with dozens of other young Jews. The dinner, hosted by Chabad, is interrupted every few minutes with toasts.

“Have another shot!” my tablemates encourage. This is the closest I’ve come in St. Petersburg an American college fraternity.

The toasts are cheerful and unruly. “To the unity of Jews in Sukkot all around the world!” “To the Jews who are not able to celebrate!” “To the iPhone 4S! S-stands for Sukkot!” “To kasha, which doesn’t make you fat!” “To my shlamaziel of a son-in-law, who doesn’t deserve my daughter but produces such beautiful grandchildren!”

“To this beautiful night!” is the next toast.

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Dick Cheney says:

It is very nice to see American Jews returning back to Russia and experiencing how Jewish life has evolved into what is now — for too long were the two communities separated. It is not the Russia of your grandfather, for sure, and I don’t think you would find that in Minsk either, but it is still Jewish.

I am a Jew born in Leningrad right at the brink of the breakup of the SU, and moved to NYC in 1998. I would love to hear more about your experiences in SPb, not just the wild nights and barhopping.

Check your facts. There is a huge and beautiful synagogue in St. Petersburg built about 100 years ago.

MethanP says:

A wonderful article. I hope this lasts.
FYI: My maternal Great Grandfather spent 25 years in the Czars army stationed the whole while in St. Petersburg. The day he was mustered out the entire Jewish family was schlepped back to Warsaw Poland, then part of Russia. They left so my Grandfather wouldn’t be drafted.

Mel Tillman says:

My parents were both born in Czaristt Russia, the Ukraine to be more explicit. They were among the last Eastern European Stetl Jews admitted before the Red Scare immigration laws were enforced, around 1924. After the WW2 a friend of my father’s wanted to return to their home town to see if anyone was left. They never went and as it turns out nobody was left and their Tevya-like village was gone. When I asked my father why he wouldn’t go back he said “because I never had a good day there”. God Bless America.

I love Russia. I visited Saint Petersburg before the odd elections in which Zhirinnovsky’s “new nationalism” began to cling like old mold to the souls of some Russians. Today the city is somewhat different with an exciting music scene.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eHip5SkXDLw

I was born in Saint Peterburg and moved to US in 1994. I don’t remember too many bars with jewish girls and boys. I only remember the sinagogue and hebrew schools that started to apppear/ so my parrents enrolled me in one. Times change, I see.

Suzy Lenkowsky says:

My grandfather was born in Britchon (?) Russia as written on his passport application.I’m trying to find out more but I’m 62 and there’s no one left with much info.
I hope Naomi has more substantive experiences while there than the one she wrote about.If it’s not any deeper than that ….what a waste. I found the level of superficiality appalling and these “adult” women she was with have all the depth of your average twelve year old.

Leonard Feinman says:

This was a well written story that many of us identify with. It sounds like a place, off the beaten track, that I would love to see for myself.

Ephraim says:

This is sort of sad, yet encouiraging:

“I mentioned Tel Aviv’s great nightlife, assuming he’d agree, but Alexander shook his head. “My girlfriend and I couldn’t find one kosher restaurant in Tel Aviv,” he said.”

It’s sad that they couldn’t find kosher food in Tel Aviv, but encouraging that they were upset about it.

But seriously: is it really easier to find kosher food in St. Petersburg than it is in Tel Aviv? There’s something wrong with that, if it really is true.

I have to admit, though, that partying and drinking all night is an interesting way to get in touch with one’s Yiddishkeit.

But you have to start somewhere, I suppose. Perhaps it will lead to something more.

Marty Janner says:

Most interesting article! Especially the issue of Jewish Men, which in today’s America, may not be a criteria for relationships!It is factual that after the fall the Soviet Union, during which many men of our faith escalated to holders of great wealth,legitimately or otherwise! This, perhaps is the attraction!

It is most rewarding to find a city, where Jews were excluded, is now vibrant, with a Jewish scene.

My grandfather left Proskurov for Pennsylvania in 1907. The rest of the family emigrated in 1910 and arrived on Thanksgiving Day. I’ve never had a desire to go there.
Terrible government then and still!

Hershl says:

I loved this story. I hope that you will share more of your adventures of Russia with us.

well, Russians, like most former soviet union countries follow fads. It seems that being “a Jew” is the new fad and will pass eventually. They say this claim with no knowledge of what Judaism actually is or about or how one becomes “a Jew”. Stereotypes are alive and well with former Soviet union-ites!

Hello Naomi
I am enjoying your fresh and lively writing.Look forward to more. Former travel-writer,(84) after triple-bypass surgery last year, I plan to start travelling again..
Paris in Springtime the first stop hopefully.
Best Sylvia

JamesPhiladelphia says:
JamesPhiladelphia says:

Attention Israeli bashers including self hatred Jews like Tom Friedman , Netanyauh is coming next month to the AIPAC meeting. Big speech. Let that money coming for many more standing ovations??. Shame on left neofascists haters of Israel.

http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4185589,00.html

JamesPhiladelphia says:

The not so secret of Mossad chief visit to Washington to discuss upcoming defensive attack on Iran…..

http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4183495,00.html

Rabbi Tony Jutner says:

This gives me hope that a mass migration of Jews from the zionist entity could find a new home in Russia

jacob arnon says:

“This gives me hope that a mass migration of Jews from the zionist entity could find a new home in Russia.”

So that the Cossacks will use them as target practice again. This is what Herr Jutner would love to see.

jacob arnon says:

Is Tony Jutner related to Chief of Staff for the Waffen-SS Hans Jüttner? His family must have dropped a t along the way.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_J%C3%BCttner

Author catched what she wanted. Why she did go only to bars? And called atention only on toasts? Why she didn’t go to culture center and education programs where a lot of “not that type” jewish girls – cause it not so interesting for form of newspaper. When I was in world jews congress – i tell u – russian jews the only one from whole world who didn’t drink every night.Instead of tear down stereotypes – she speculates on it.

Jayman says:

Sounds like an opportunity to bring large numbers of converts into Judaism.

Edward Williams says:

What a great article! My wife and I will be in St.Petersburg on a cruise in August. If possible, I would love to meet Naomi. We are very interested in visiting the Jewish sights in the area. Does anyone give tours are that geared to Jewish interests. Please advise and thanks again for the wonderful article.

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Soviet Unions

An American moves to St. Petersburg, Russia—where Jews were once forbidden to live—and finds Jewishness has social currency, especially for dating