I wanted to take some time to write this piece as it’s a part of my introspective understanding of myself while I’m going through my 30 day dopamine detox. As I write this, it is Day 13 in my dopamine detox, and I believe I’ve reached what I want to coin as the philosophical introspective stage. But I’m going to write a whole post about my 30 day dopamine detox later. For now, I want to write about my own personal identity as a first generation American to a child of Soviet Jewish immigrants, in a time when the Soviet Union and everything about it, is now just a relic in the history books and is slowly but surely fading away into obscurity. To start off I want to briefly talk about the former USSR and my parents to give some context. The former USSR composed of 15 soviet republics, most of which now don’t speak Russian with the exception of Russia and some cities in the former republics. This is what 30 years of derussification will do to a region.
Both of my parents were born in Baku, Azerbaijan. They are both a sect of Jews which in English would be called Mountain Jews or Jews of the Caucasus. We are a small community that are descended from the Iranian Jews that can be traced all the way back to Canaan. We are the descendants of Jews that left after the first collapse of the Great Temple by the Babylonians.
With that being, said my father, I would not classify as a Soviet Jew despite this blog’s title. He relocated from Baku to Israel at the age of 5 and grew up in Israel, along with his whole family. For all intents and purposes, my father is an Israeli Jew, and I’ve always considered him as such given he doesn’t speak any Russian and his mother tongue is Hebrew. Despite this, he speaks 3 languages, Hebrew, Judeo-Tat, and English. I don’t have the best relationship with my father and never really took on his side. That is why to this day, I don’t speak Hebrew, nor did I ever have any interest to learn it. Had I hung out with his family members since I was a child, I most definitely would be multilingual and speak 3 languages. I don’t know much about my father’s history and there isn’t much to say. He didn’t want me to ever learn about his past. In fact I have my mother’s surname name instead of my father’s. I would’ve been Aaron Benyaminov had I taken my fathers name, which would translate to Aaron Benjamin in English.
My mother on the other hand, grew up in Soviet Baku, Azerbaijan. She learned Russian in school, and speaks 3 languages and can communicate in another 2. She with ease speaks, English, Russian, Judeo-Tat, and can understand Turkish and Azeri. Needless to say I unfortunately didn’t inherit my parents ability to be multilingual as I can only classify myself as bilingual and that’s stretching it, because I would rate my Russian as absolute shit despite grinding on it everyday and speaking with my family solely in Russian. My mom’s side of the family is very close knit and I grew up with my aunts, uncle, and cousins living not very far from each other. With my grandparents I was only able to communicate with them through Russian as they both didn’t speak English. As you can see so far, since I am closer to my mom’s side of the family I clearly took on their identity and culture.
My mom growing up, told me that despite what everyone says about the Soviet Union and how awful it was, for some reason it was never awful in Baku. Baku was and still is known as the Paris of the East, because of how well developed it was and because it was a very popular vacation destination for everyone from all the Soviet Union. There was religious suppression in public, but indoors, everyone practiced their faith freely. Jews never faced antisemitism and lived with Muslims in harmonious peace for 2000 years (as well as today), and even before the Soviet Union came and forced everyone to have a Soviet identity. She grew up celebrating Soviet holidays (New Years, March 8th, May 9th) along with traditional Jewish Holidays. Unlike my father who celebrated Jewish holidays only.
My parents met in the US and both came at different times through different means. My mom’s family immigrated to the US as refugees in the 90s due to war breaking out between Armenia and Azerbaijan. My dad immigrated to the US when he was 16, went back to serve in the IDF at 18, then got discharged and came back. They were introduced through a Rabbi and 2 years later I was born in 1996. They now had a child who they were going to raise in Brooklyn, NY, in a time when everyone who came from the Soviet Union identified as Russian simply because it was easier to tell Americans they were Russian because they spoke Russian than it was to tell them about their home country which Americans (even to this day still) had no clue about.
Growing Up in a Freshly Non-Soviet World
During my childhood, my mom and mom’s family raised me. I never saw my dad’s side of the family and have practically no memories of them, but they remember me. I am the baby on my dad’s side, but am the middle child on my mom’s side. All I knew growing up was that I was Jewish, and that I thought we were Russian because we spoke Russian at home. Russian was my first language and my mom was worried that I wouldn’t learn any English because I spoke only in Russian and only understood Russian. The same was for all of my cousins.
In terms of education, my dad wanted to send me to yeshiva to grow up to be a good Jewish boy who would study Torah and practice the faith unquestionably. I am now ironically reading Torah, but rather than being more religious, it is having the opposite effect on me and making me more atheist/agnostic. Though I am having wonderful theological conversations with religious Jews. My mom on the other hand, was totally against sending me to a yeshiva because despite being a Jew, my mom was not as radical as my father who was Jew only, and wanted to send me to a Russian school. Which is exactly what happened. I went to Russian day cares, pre-k’s, kindergarten, elementary school, and summer camps until I was 9, that was when money got tight and my mom couldn’t send me to Russian schools anymore and I went to public schools and started attending Jewish summer camps. By this point, my parents relationship was strained and they were no longer living together. It was on and off constantly, and I was tired of my father, so it further propelled me to stick with my mom’s side and I further went towards Soviet culture. This is not to say that we weren’t religious. My mom’s family was and still is VERY traditional, so much so that they had a random Rabbi they never met, come and circumcise me at 8 days old, with them all believing they were doing a mitzvah. I have my qualms against that, but I’m not going to go into it in this post.
I should mention though, that while I went to Russian schools and was thought Russian in school, I hated learning the language. I don’t know why, but I always got F’s in it. I didn’t truly start getting fluency in Russian up until 2-3 years ago when I started actively applying myself and well dating some girls who only spoke Russian for the most part. But growing up, my family always spoke with me in Russian and despite not being able to answer back, I was able to understand what they were saying to me.
Going to the Russian schools also was comfortable for me, because my classmates were just like me. Some were Jews, some weren’t. Most were Ukrainian. Some were Russian and Belorussian. And then you had Azeri’s like me who were called the dark kids because I had tan skin. But it didn’t matter. In all my time in the Russian schools, we were all happy and we all got along because we had this common identity, a Soviet identity. It didn’t matter where you were from, what ethnicity you were, what religion you practice, because all of our parents came from the USSR and we all for the most part had the same culture. The beginnings of ethnic division and rift didn’t start until the 2000s when the former republics began governing themselves and derussifying themselves. At the time we didn’t feel it as children. I grew up thinking I was Russian because my family spoke Russian.
Once I hit public school, I felt truly out of place. I was the one Russian speaking Jewish kid in a school filled with mostly Hispanics, Pakistanis, and Black kids. I felt like a true outsider and I didn’t really feel truly back with my group until I started High School where I was in a school with predominantly Russian Jewish kids (really they were Ukrainian Jewish kids, but we all spoke and understood Russian). By this point we had also moved from our shitty Midwood apartment into the Trump Village Towers in West Brighton, right next to Brighton Beach, Sheepshead Bay, and Manhattan Beach. Aka the Soviet Peninsula. I was now living in a Russian speaking neighborhood, where it was much easier to get what you wanted from workers by speaking Russian and you had a chance to utilize it more. So I started using more Russian (albeit was atrocious and incomprehensible) and was more and more assimilated to the Soviet culture, where again, it didn’t matter where you were from, because everyone celebrated the same holidays, and spoke the same language.
Where the Fragmentation Started and The Glass Dome Began to Crack
By 2014 I was 17 and finishing high school. I didn’t notice it yet, but there was a shift going on in the Soviet peninsula. What was predominantly Ukrainian Jews, was now starting to shift to being Georgians (some of which spoke Russian), and a few Uzbeks. The immigration waves were starting to change. The Soviet Jews came in 3 big waves, from the 70s to the 90s, where in the 2000s we had ethnic Ukrainians and a few ethnic Russians come to the Soviet Peninsula. But now, those kids that grew up in the 70s/80s/90s were now married and had children and they didn’t want to live in overpriced Brooklyn, in shit hole Brighton Beach (it’s a shit hole because we always have trash and bums everywhere). These adults, took the opportunity their parents gave them and made something of themselves, and with that, they all started to relocate to the suburbs of New Jersey or flat out make big moves to Miami. I at the time didn’t notice because I was still living in this Soviet bubble. The year 2014 is also an important marker because that was the year Ukraine ousted their corrupt puppet of a president and Putin annexed Crimea, and Brighton Beach fucking split right open. Being a predominantly Ukrainian neighborhood, all of sudden sides were taken, and there was the beginning of, “I’m not Russian, I’m Ukrainian.” The Jews from Ukraine, didn’t care as much because they left Ukraine due to the intense anti-semitism that they faced (basically the men told me they used to get into fights daily as kids and would be called “Jid”, “Jidyara”, and to fuck off back to Israel). Their home is America, and they are just Jews from Ukraine, not Ukrainian Jews. Even now with the war, some Jews feel bad yet at the same time say Ukraine deserves it because of the intense anti-semitism they faced. At 17 I had no idea what any of this meant. I was ignorant geographically and historically and thought Ukraine was Russia and there was no difference.
As time went on, more and more people that grew up in my neighborhood were slowly but surely leaving, and an influx of more Georgians, Uzbeks, and Ukrainians began to flow into Brighton Beach. All searching for a better life, just like the previous waves of immigrants have done so. Once I entered college, I found myself naturally gravitating towards Russian speakers than any other group. To me I cared more about if you spoke Russian than I did if you were a Jew or not. At this point, a lot of Jews that were raised secular, started to become more Jew first and everyone else second. The world that I grew up with was no longer what I remember it as. College was a blur and I was in my own bubble again studying for the LSAT. I didn’t care about geopolitics, or whatever the hell was going on in the world because I was striving to be successful and to make my mom proud. Around the same time, I picked up Judo and started training with Georgians and learned more about the USSR and their culture. I also learned that Georgia had a war with Russia in 2008, and tensions were very high. Georgians refused to speak Russian and they still hate Russia to this day. My scope broadened and I was starting to learn true history. I also learned to fear Georgians and never wanted to get on their bad side despite always training with them lol.
By the time I graduated college, Brighton Beach had a lot more Ukrainian coat of arms bumper stickers and more Ukrainians were in the neighborhood that I never noticed. I still didn’t quite know what the coat of arms meant or symbolized but I was seeing it practically everywhere. Brighton and Sheepshead still had Cyrillic signs everywhere, but there were also now Georgian and Uzbek businesses popping up. I didn’t mind because I loved eating xachipurri and fresh halal food, but it was now ever more evident that things were changing. Younger generation of kids that were in high school now barely spoke Russian if at all understood it. Basically, you never notice how much things change when you’re in the middle of it, absorbing it in the present. It’s not until you look back and realize, oh shit things are not the same as they were before.
To me the change didn’t matter because I still thought it was normal, while it was strange to see the Soviet Peninsula go from a predominantly Jewish area to now mix of Christian and Muslim I took it in stride because I still thought I was going to live here for the rest of my life. I continued to live life and after a pandemic and a shut down or two, I was also now back to dating.
I’ve gone on dates before, but I mostly “dated” (read hooked up with) American girls that weren’t Russian speaking, nor had any ties to the USSR. It was in 2021 when I started dating girls that barely spoke English and it forced me to get my Russian up. I thoroughly enjoyed dating Russian speaking women, because I learned through my experiences that I can only really bond with Russian speakers through dating, precisely because of my upbringing. That and also because I always found slavic girls attractive due to their light complexion (I’m a huge sucker for blue eyes) and they always found me attractive because of my Caucasian features and personality. Some of my most intimate moments with exes have been when we were speaking in Russian and because we shared that similar Soviet culture and upbringing, albeit they were from literal Russia and Ukraine, so they had far more Soviet culture than I did.
In fact, I believe that the reason I have such an attachment to the Russian language is precisely because that is the language that I use to express my emotions, intimacy, and love for someone. Saying “I love you” in English, and then saying “Ya tebya lyublyu” (Я тебя люблю) in Russian have two very different weights for me. The former is like nothing for me, they feel like empty words, that hold no meaning. But the latter are very near and dear to me, they have a huge surge of emotion for me because they are in my mother tongue and they are how I can express my intimacy via language. Every time I’ve expressed love to the women I was seeing, it was always in Russian because that is the tongue I use to express my heart. That is the best was I can put it into words (in English 🙂 ). Another example is when I start getting very comfortable with someone, I will start saying Russian terms with them, such as “davai” (давай) when we’re saying good bye or “kak dela?” (как дела?) when just asking how everything is.
Dating my Ukrainian ex is when I got a look at understanding the point of view of the Ukrainians and how even her own country was going through an identity resurgence. She herself was from eastern Ukraine and she told me despite the country’s attempt at pushing Ukrainian as their language, she and all of her city still chose to speak in Russian not only because they liked Russian better, but also because they were right on the border with Russia. They shared more in common with Russians than they did with Ukrainians. Even my friends from western Ukraine will say that eastern Ukrainians “know” Ukrainian, but they don’t really know it. I was now introduced into the world of eastern European politics and history.
Dating my Russian ex was another interesting period, because in truth, I didn’t feel a difference when dating a Russian or Ukrainian, same as they wouldn’t see a difference between dating a Georgian and an Azerbaijani (at least I think so). But for both, they didn’t care at all about religious affiliation and I could see they were like me where the common bond was the Russian language. Especially with my Russian ex who was impressed at my ability to read, write, and speak in the language (which in it self shocked me because I told her I think I’m shit lol). But even when dating her, I still expressed my love to her in Russian and she reciprocated as well in Russian.
Between my two exes I went to Binghamton for grad school and the craving for being with Russian speakers was at an all time high. Yes I’m an American. Yes I was born and raised here. But I also grew up with a Soviet culture, and not being able to walk outside and just speak Russian with a stranger was killing me. I at this point felt I had more in common with Russian American kids than I ever would with American kids. This was heavily enhanced because I could just see how ignorant Americans of the world and global history and cultures, never caring to learn about the great world. Many times I would be asked what my background was and after telling them I’m Azerbaijani, I was also met with confused looks and blank stares. Not back home and not with Russian speakers, they all just knew what I was even if at first glance they couldn’t tell.
The final blow to the glass dome was on February 24, 2022 when Putin decided to rage an all out war on Ukraine and send young Russians to die for his imperialistic regime and kill thousands of Ukrainians. I oppose the war, it never needed to happen. And on that day, there was no more Soviet culture. Everyone in the Soviet Peninsula openly stated their ethnicity, with some Ukrainians saying they refuse to speak Russian. There was no more of a Soviet identity where everyone spoke Russian. 30 years after the collapse, and the Great Soviet Experiment is over. What was once a powerhouse of a country and where everyone had a common cultural identity (unfortunately it didn’t stop racism or antisemitism) was officially gone in my eyes. I still feel an instant connection to Russian speakers, but I now knew that there is no longer going to be unity or cohesiveness.
Homesick For A Place I’m Not Sure Exists Anymore
With my upcoming move to Texas, the thought of leaving my home, the place where I grew up, my family, friends, and everything that made me the person I am today has definitely had an impact on me. But I realized recently that everything that I will miss when I leave, has been steadily going away. I know that I haven’t moved away yet, but a core part of my identity that I grew up with having, has slowly but surely been diminishing to the point where I’m now left with just I’m a Russian speaking Azerbaijani Jew that lives in the United States. In a way it’s a pseudo identity crisis, because I realized in this life, you are given two identities. One that you have no control over and cannot change, such as your skin color, your ethnic background, your religious affiliation (though this can be argued though, but I’m skeptical to meet willing converts), disabilities. The other is one that you have control over (such as your interests, hobbies, who you are as a person). The former is one we are given at birth, nothing we can do about it. The latter is you constructing yourself, analogous to man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the marble and the sculptor. In a sense, my old “Soviet” identity is now gone. Not to say I was ever a Soviet citizen, but the premise is the community that I identified with, I viewed as Soviet, analogous to Russian at times as well.
With the move to Texas coming up, I realized that I will be going to a place where there is no longer Russian speakers everywhere, and it feels like I’ll be exploring a whole new world. In my eyes, I see Texas as the real America. It is on the border with Mexico and it is the bridge between the United States and the rest of the American continent. I joked with my mom saying, I’ll pick up a third language and finally push for fluency in Spanish since practically everyone in Texas speaks Spanish and it’ll be interesting and cool to be multilingual.
With the end of a old identity of being a child of soviet immigrants, comes a new one that I get to forge for myself. I’m excited as much as I am scared about it. But the Russian language and memories of growing up with Russian speaking friends will always be with me. The nostalgia will always be there, and I’m happy that I got to experience growing up in that community. But now, it’s on to forging ahead and navigating with the new unknown and live this new adventure. Who knows, maybe I’ll end up in Latin America some day as some gringo Judio that speaks Russian.