Nerick Gavrielov was a frequent visitor to Berezka, a shop back in his hometown in Tajikistan—but he never went inside. “Only government officials could enter—it was a store for special people, and it sold imported products that you couldn’t buy anywhere else,” he said. “I would stand real up close and stare through the window, looking at what I could never have.”
When Gavrielov immigrated to New York in 1993, he dreamed of opening an Eastern European grocery that would be accessible to everyone. Following in the footsteps of his father, who had owned a store in Tajikistan—though much more modest than Berezka—Gavrielov opened his own delicatessen in 2006 on 108th Street, right in the center of Forest Hills, Queens, two short blocks down from the Jewish Center. The name was an obvious decision: Berezka #1 Deli in Forest Hills borrowed the name of the shop in Tajikistan (Russian for “birch tree”), as both vindication and tribute to the exclusive store from Gavrielov’s boyhood.
Berezka #1 Deli is always busy—especially on Friday afternoons before Shabbat, when the line for the register can run out the door. Gavrielov paces up and down his store’s single aisle in his black velvet loafers, shuffling items around into a meticulous order. He looks each person in the eye, he keeps his shoulders back, and he never minces his words, which appear before him at a relentless pace and with a heavy accent. The counters are crowded with piroshki (meat-filled hand pies) and sour cherry juice. The shelves overflow with roasted buckwheat kasha and nostalgia. The place is abuzz in Russian and Hebrew, with mothers buying khachapuri (Georgian cheese bread) and yahrzeit candles as their children are shoulder-deep in the ice-cream freezer. The walls are adorned with posters of Uncle Sam and Jewish blessings. And each morning, the grocery receives fresh boxes of the much sought after Borodinsky bread—a dry Russian sourdough made with rye, baked in an off-site brick oven. Gavrielov, stern but sweet, signaled to a customer behind me on a recent visit: “Bread here, you buy here.”
But what’s most eye-catching aren’t the products on the shelves or the signs on the walls—it’s what’s in the fridge: pork salami.
It’s difficult to imagine anything more “unkosher” than Ukrainian salo (slabs of cured pork fat) or Polish kabanos (smoked pork sausage links)—especially sitting right next to the dairy fridge, staring directly across the aisle from the sizable selection of Israeli snacks.
The story of how this Eastern European Jewish delicatessen came to sell both kosher Israeli snacks and pork is a story of Soviet Jewry, and what gets altered in translation in the messy process of immigration.
“There was a war in Tajikistan and I had to flee,” Gavrielov said, referring to Tajikistan’s civil war, which lasted for five years from 1992 through 1997. While the war’s informal origins date back to anti-Soviet protests in February 1990—when KGB forces killed over 25 demonstrators—the war was formalized with the Soviet Union’s fall and the political vacuum it created for the unexpected new state of Tajikistan, which declared independence from Russia in 1991.
But as with all countries whose borders are drawn by leaders far away (in this case, in Moscow), Tajikistan’s newly defined borders were a grave misrepresentation, prompting a civil war and the displacement of over 600,000 Tajiks within their own country, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. With Uzbekistan closing off its eastern border in1992 to Tajiks desperate to escape, over 150,000 Tajiks died as a result. Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon, who was elected in 1994—in the middle of the country’s civil war—continues to hold the position to this day. Human Rights Watch has noted that at the time of Rahmon’s victory, the “current conditions in Tajikistan [did] not permit free and democratic elections.”
Gavrielov didn’t share the name of his hometown when I asked: “It wasn’t a good place for Jews, and that’s all there is to it.” He didn’t hesitate, as if he’d said this line a thousand times before.
Gavrielov never intended to immigrate to the United States—he was headed for Israel. But when his sister settled in Queens a few months before his planned departure from the Soviet Union, he changed his course of action to be closer to family.
Jewish communities within the far-reaching Soviet Union were not without their differences in customs and traditions—and they brought those traditions with them when they emigrated.
Bukharan Jews, like Gavrielov, hail from Central Asian countries such as Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, former members of the USSR. Unlike their Ashkenazi Jewish neighbors to the northwest, Bukharan Jews identify as Mizrahi, a term that translates to “Eastern” in Hebrew.
Given their geographic location, Bukharan Jewish communities were influenced by their exchanges with Slavic, Arabian, and Persian cultures.
Currently, Queens holds the highest numbers of Bukharan Jews in the world, at an estimated 50,000 as of 2017, according to the Times of Israel. Once a thriving center of Jewish life that dates back to their exile from Babylon in 538 BCE, the region is now home to only 100 Jews.
A minority that was forced underground by its anti-religious political leadership, now thousands of miles from its origin, Bukharan Judaism thrives in Queens—so much so that residents often make the joke that the borough should be more aptly named “Queensistan.” According to the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, over 20% of the New York metropolitan area’s Jewish population speaks Russian.
Within a few miles of Gavrielov’s store are multiple Bukharan synagogues (Orthodox), a Bukharan Jewish center, multiple Bukharan restaurants, and a yeshiva funded by Israeli Bukharan diamond tycoon Lev Leviev. Their Mizrahi identity remains most apparent in the Bukharan synagogue, which is separate from Ashkenazi and Sephardic ones.
“But all Jews care about the same things,” Gavrielov reminded me. “We all just want to be together … and we want a fish on the table for dinner on Fridays.”
Angela Natnova, 17, works behind the counter at Berezka #1 Deli. Her mother, who immigrated to the U.S. from Russia in the 1990s, was friends with Gavrielov and helped get Natnova the job. Living five minutes away in a Russian-speaking neighborhood, Natnova described how “hard it is for [immigrants] to learn the language and switch to all the customs … It’s very different here than it was there.”
Glancing back at the door to check if any new customers entered, she continued: “Everyone who shops here speaks Russian, and the majority of customers are Jewish.”
I still didn’t know what to make of the pork salami. Natnova just shrugged her shoulders. “I mean, I’m Jewish but I’m not religious at all,” she said, “so I don’t have any problem.”
After all, even in Israel, Russian immigrant communities continue to sell pork in their groceries.
“The Soviet understanding of Judaism is that it’s an ethnicity and a culture, and has nothing to do with religion,” Olga Litvak, the Laurie B. and Eric M. Roth Professor of Modern European Jewish History at Cornell University, later told me, explaining how the Soviet Union’s communist leadership transformed what it meant to be Jewish. “The one thing the Soviet Union drummed into [Jews’] heads is that they are profoundly modern … and keeping kosher, for example, isn’t modern because it involves someone telling you what you can and can’t do.”
Heavily influenced by the politics of its speakers, the Russian language—Gavrielov’s native tongue—doesn’t even have its own world for religion, which underlines the depth to which Russia looks on the practice unfavorably. Rather, the term Russian-speakers most commonly use to describe the phenomenon is the English equivalent of “clericalism.” But the exact and lesser-used Russian translation for religion, религия, (pronounced religya) is a borrowed term from Latin.
“Jewishness for Soviets is very secular,” said Litvak. The reasons are historical; in a Soviet world where “religion is bad and culture is good,” she said, Jewishness adapts itself to fit that mold.
Following Soviet Jews’ immigration and the collapse of the USSR, these secular sentiments have continued to prevail among Soviet Jews. From Forest Hills to Brighton Beach—in neighborhoods where the storefronts are adorned with Cyrillic signs and Berezka isn’t the only Jewish deli to sell pork—Soviet Jews remain alienated from the American Jewish experience.
“Immigrants are created at their destination,” said Litvak, “not at their departure.”
A customer named Irene, who requested to withhold her last name for privacy concerns, placed an order with Natnova that included vobla, a salty dried fish typically eaten with beer, and thinly sliced Hungarian salami.
“You have to realize that most of us here came from the Soviet Union—where there was hunger, where there was ‘equality,’ which was certainly not ‘equality,’” said Irene, using air quotes. She left Georgia with her parents when she was 19 and first immigrated to Israel, where she went to medical school and became a pharmacist, before the family relocated to New York for her father’s work.
As Natnova handed the cold cuts over the counter, Irene described how this purchase would have been impossible for her mother in Georgia. “Food is how we stay connected to our culture, to our traditions,” Irene continued. “Any nostalgia you might have for food, you can satisfy it here.”
Ariel Khavasov, 17, is the son of Bukharan Jewish immigrants from Uzbekistan. Food, he told me, is his inheritance: “Food is how we keep our culture. Most cultures have their own style of cooking, but ours is a mix of a lot of stuff.”
When I asked him about the Bukharan community in Forest Hills, his face lit up. “You’re around your own people a lot, it’s amazing,” he said. “That’s the beauty of America—you can immigrate here and you can continue speaking the same language of where you came from. There are people I know in my community who have never even needed to learn English.”
Without hesitating, Khavasov continued, “Bukharan Jews put a lot of emphasis on family. We will work ourselves to the bone for our family. My dad works 12-hour shifts every day, for the family. The personal unit comes second, and the family unit comes first.”
Berezka #1 Deli isn’t American or Israeli—it isn’t trying to be anything that it’s not. Berezka is where Bulgarian cow cheese exists next to The Laughing Cow, where the poster of Uncle Sam hangs next to a poster of a rabbi, where you wonder if the Chanel bags around you were purchased from the corner hustle next door or the brand store in midtown. For Soviet Jews, it’s the best of where they came from, it’s home: where everyone speaks the same language and eats the same foods.
Odeya Rosenband is a student at Cornell University.