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Mother Russia

The new Lifetime reality show Russian Dolls portrays the Russian-American Jews of Brighton Beach as celebrating neither America nor their Judaism but the freedom to be stereotypically Russian

Allison Hoffman
August 11, 2011
Diana Kosov on Russian Dolls.(Giovanni Rufino/Lifetime Entertainment Services, LLC)
Diana Kosov on Russian Dolls.(Giovanni Rufino/Lifetime Entertainment Services, LLC)

In the first episode of Russian Dolls, a new Lifetime reality show set in Brooklyn and billed as a cross between Jersey Shore and the Real Housewives franchise, a 23-year-old bleached-blonde named Diana Kosov spends a lot of time fretting about her new boyfriend, Paul, who drives a Maserati and lavishes her with flowers and teddy bears but who is unfit to bring home to her parents. The problem? “He’s Spanish, and I’m Russian,” Kosov explains. “In this community, if I date someone who’s not Russian, it’s a big deal.” Later, her mother, Anna, shows up to prove the point. “I would like you marrying Russian guy,” she tells her daughter, as they practice making borscht. “We have same kultur. It’s very important, you understand?”

The astute viewer will notice that, in both of these interludes, Kosov is wearing a large Star of David pendant that dangles above her dramatically pushed-up cleavage. In a phone interview this week, she said the message she heard was clear: “I’m looking for a Russian Jewish guy.” But, on the show, the word Jewish never enters the dialogue—not in an aside to the camera, not with Kosov’s mother, and not, eventually, with Paul, who gets the heave-ho over a plate of tuna tartare. “My parents, they came to America for a reason,” Kosov says, earnestly. “To look for Russians?” Paul retorts. “Yeah,” Kosov replies, without elaboration.

The pattern repeats itself throughout Russian Dolls, which is centered in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, long a Jewish neighborhood and today dominated by Russian Jewish émigrés. Its characters, almost all of them Jewish, arrived in the largest historical movement of Jews in the postwar era—but aren’t explicitly introduced as Jews.

It’s tempting to chalk up the disconnect to the producers’ desire to expand their potential audience or, equally plausibly, to head off criticism from the Jewish community in Brooklyn, which circulated petitions last winter objecting to the program’s display of outrageous materialism. But it turns out this show, as trashy and juvenile as anything else in the reality genre, reveals a deeper sociological truth about its subjects: These Soviet Jews, singled out and in some cases persecuted in their native country for being Jews, didn’t come to New York for the freedom to live as Jews—or, for that matter, to assimilate as Americans in the tradition of their Eastern European predecessors. What Russian Dolls confirms is that, 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its Jewish exiles have found in America a place where they can finally live freely as Russians.

“For most Russian Jews it’s so entangled,” said Alina Dizik, one of the show’s creators, about religious and national identity. “You really can’t separate one from the other, and most of us are so secular that a lot of the Jewish traditions get mixed up with the Russian traditions.” She added that getting a reality show is proof that the Russian community has arrived—as the show’s promo says, in block letters, “The Russians aren’t coming, the Russians are here.” The goal was to broadcast some hallmarks of Russian-American life without getting too deeply into the heavy details of the Cold War. Later episodes include nods to Jewish life in Brighton, including a fashion show benefiting an Israeli charity, Dizik said, but the show starts at the beginning. “We tried to explain as much as possible without being boring,” she said. “There’s no Russian history, but we explain what a banya is, and what some of the customs are in terms of going out to eat, and family relationships.”

Which seems to suit the show’s stars just fine. “There are people who are anti-Semitic who will say, this one is only half-Russian,” explained Michael Levitis, one of the show’s main characters, in an interview this week. “The only person who makes this distinction is anti-Semites and Communists.”

The Brighton Beach nightclub Levitis runs with his wife, Marina, is called Rasputin and operates in high Moscow style, with a cabaret dinner show and a menu of shellfish and other trayf luxuries. (Levitis was sentenced this month to three years’ probation after pleading guilty to lying to FBI agents about his involvement in an alleged plan to bribe New York State Sen. Carl Kruger.) “To American people, especially outside of New York, if you came from Russia, you’re Russian,” Marina Levitis said on the phone. “They don’t care if you’re Jewish or Christian or ethnically Russian or not.” But, she added, “We don’t pretend to be Russian Russian. We don’t pretend to be anything other than what we are.”

She’s right: As with Kosov’s Star of David necklace, there are plenty of subtle clues that the Levitises are Jews. They are introduced on the show with a montage that includes a wedding glamour shot in which Michael sports a large velvet kippah, and the camera pans over a mezuzah nailed to their front doorpost. But the show doesn’t explain that they met as students at Jewish high schools and send their own children to a yeshiva elementary school. Instead, the show plays up their mini-oligarch habits. In an on-camera shopping spree, Marina tries on a $28,000 pair of 11-carat diamond bangles, noting approvingly, “Big and blingy and definitely Russian style.” Meanwhile, Michael’s 56-year-old mother, Eva, reveals her long-dormant dream to be onstage and enters her Slavic belly-dancing act in a local talent show.

“I was in Russia engineer,” Eva tells Marina. “All my life I loved to sing and dance, but I never had a chance to do this in Russia.” In New York, she does.

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.