The dead giveaway at Traktir, the most popular Russian restaurant in Los Angeles, is the menu item wedged between the “Cured pork fat garnished with garlic” and “4 Oz black caviar served with dollar size blinis”: “Fish patty made from ground carp and white fish.”
Ding! You can blare Alla Pugacheva from mounted flat screens and serve plates of salted lard, but you can’t sneak gefilte fish by me. Not that it’s a secret, exactly: Traktir sits on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Crescent Heights in West Hollywood, the historic neighborhood of LA’s estimated 60,000 Russian-speaking Jews. Run by Rina Atroshenko, a Ukrainian Jew who grew up here, and her husband, Oleg, Traktir is only a few blocks away from the Chabad Russian Synagogue, and from Plummer Park, which is known for what Yelp reviewer and possible German General Staff officer Heather H. describes as “Hordes of Russians playing chess and cards.” Next to Traktir is the Royal Gourmet Deli, which sells fresh loaves from the beloved Stolichnaya Bakery. Across the way is a tiny, blank storefront with a nameless green awning and a private security guard. “Hookers,” says Daniil.
A key grip on TV soaps, Daniil is my fixer for the night. He starts by ordering us a plate of herring on dark toast, which he calls “Russian sushi,” and potatoes with mayonnaise, which is listed under “Salads.” I try to order a dry martini, but the waiter tells me “Bez smesiteley”—no mixers. OK, then.
Daniil’s been an American for over 90% of his life, but like a lot of second-generation Russian Americans, he dresses in black, thinks people who smile too much are idiots, and mostly hangs with other Russians. And like some other Russian American Jews here I know, his children were baptized in a Russian Orthodox Church in Hollywood. Russianness has always been more salient for Daniil than either his Jewish or American identities, to say nothing of Ukrainian.
When I ask if he thinks of himself as 100% Russian, he says “I want to. It feels strange that I don’t.” How American does he feel? “Not at all.” And Jewish?
“My grandmother winced a bit at the baptizing,” he says as plates of potato dumplings, chicken with mushroom sauce, and more vodka arrive. “But she understood it was a tribute to my grandfather. When we buried him here a few years ago it was in a coffin with a giant cross on it. That, she didn’t like either,” he smirks. “But he paid for it.”
These days, Daniil dotes on his 78-year-old Jewish grandmother, who lives down the street, and he calls his paternal grandparents in Kyiv every morning. Over our first carafe of vodka, he tells me about the day in 1993 when four generations of his family boarded a flight from Kyiv, bound for West Hollywood. He was only 3 but remembers it vividly: His 8-year-old brother, his 27-year-old father and Jewish mother, his grandfather and Jewish grandmother, and his Jewish great-grandparents, all on one plane. Relatives in LA arranged for the tickets and visas, and for the eight of them to rent a one-bedroom apartment together on La Brea Avenue.
Multiple generations crammed into such a small space, an arrangement that lasted for four years, was not uncommon in the Soviet Union, either. But it was a step down for Daniil’s grandfather, who until then was the chief operating officer of the firm that made the USSR’s government-issued hazmat suits. Only seven years earlier, Daniil says, he was part of the emergency response team at Chernobyl.
I wait until the third carafe to ask about Daniil’s grandparents in Ukraine, and the aunts, uncles, and cousins who are still there too. What happens if there’s a war? This time, are you the one in charge of prepping flights and visas and finding apartments?
“There’s no plan for anything,” he says. “Nobody’s worried about it. Do you really think there’s going to be a war?” I say I have no idea.
“I don’t think so,” Daniil offers. “All this panic and war talk, this is what Americans always do. I don’t think a single American should die doing anything over there.” In any case, he explains, one of the cousins is connected, and an aunt—who survived a group machine-gunning in the 1970s—is rich, so they should be fine.
War or no war, how would he feel if Russia eventually absorbed Ukraine, and the latter ceased to exist as an independent state?
“Honestly, I don’t give a shit,” Daniil answers. “Maybe that sounds weird, but it was barely a country by the time we left. When I was born there was no such thing. And it’s so damn corrupt—I mean it’s the same here too, but it’s even worse over there. I was there visiting family during the Orange Revolution, and it’s just crazy. You should talk to my dad, by the way. ‘What America needs is a great leader like Putin,’ that’s the kind of thing you’ll get from him. And he’s born and raised in Kyiv.”
We toast to family, and spend the rest of the night talking about our wives, who it turns out are both mad at us for being here instead of at home. We toast to them, over who knows how many more vodka shots.
The next day I’m back on Santa Monica Boulevard, this time at the Chabad Russian Immigrant Program & Synagogue, which shares a building with the Russian Jewish Community Center and faces the Voda Spa, a banya. Rabbi Velvel Tsikmin, who has the frame of a bodybuilder, is mid-prayer, his arms bursting through tefillin. When he’s done he quickly changes into a black jacket, black Lacoste cap, black jeans, and black leather shoes, and in a thick accent invites me to sit down.
Tsikmin says he’d hardly heard of the Torah until 1991, when he was 26, and one of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s emissaries arrived in Odessa. He came here in 1993, the same year as Daniil, when he says the neighborhood was entirely Russian. “There were no doctors who weren’t Russian,” he recalls.
After 2000, the U.S. government stopped its refugee program for Soviet Jews. Since then, the supply of new arrivals has dried up, even though there are plenty more Jews in the countries of the former Soviet Union who might be glad to emigrate, especially in the face of a possible war.
In the absence of new ex-Soviet Jewish immigrants, LA’s version of Odessa has since become a hip, shockingly expensive area studded with Section 8 housing. The old Russian Jewish neighborhood now only seems Russian-themed. I ask Tsikmin the same questions I asked Daniil the night before.
“There’s no barrier to immigration for Jews who want to leave Russia or Ukraine anymore. It’s easy to go to Israel; America is a little harder, but the ones who are there have chosen to stay there. Maybe there are financial reasons, or they just don’t want to change countries” he says. “Of course, people worry about war.”
Would anyone here care if Ukraine fell? “There’s no difference between Ukrainian and Russian Jews,” he explains. “Russians and Ukrainians feel different from each other, but not Russian and Ukrainian Jews. They’re the same. Bukharan and Ashkenazi yes, there is a difference, but Russians and Ukrainians, no.”
“The Rebbe said we must be partners with governments, friendly with governments, in order to help people,” he says. “So Zelensky, Putin, it doesn’t matter. And they let us help people there. But no politics. If you get involved in politics, Putin will crush you.”
Jeremy Stern is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine.