An American moves to St. Petersburg, Russia—where Jews were once forbidden to live—and finds Jewishness has social currency, especially for dating
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.
In a new graphic column, Judah Loew and his famous homemade creature time-travel to the wilds of New York City, circa 2012