By Diana Bruk
Being a Russian-American immigrant is like being the child of bitterly divorced parents. Everyone is always asking you to choose a side. Throughout my childhood, both Russians and Americans used to incessantly ask, “Are you Russian or American?” “Do you love Russia or America more?” And when I innocently and honestly answered, “Both,” the response provoked only perplexed brow-furrowing and suspicious eye-squinting from my interrogators.
My early identity crisis, brought on by this dichotomy, was furthered by the fact that my mother was Orthodox Christian and my father Jewish, meaning, practically, that my mother was a mystical agnostic and my father a belligerent atheist. Despite the lack of any real religious feeling, these hollow terms were bandied around frequently and were a particular source of conflict around the holidays.
As an only child, I spent my early years ensconced in the enchanted luminescence of the television set. I was completely inculcated into a love of the Christmas season by movies like A Christmas Story, Home Alone, and The Santa Clause, in addition to Christmas episodes of virtually any television show. Christmas to me represented the pure heart of my adopted country: the pristine gleam of glass ornaments, the kitchens flooded with light and family chatter, the arguments that would always end in a heart-to-heart on a playground under fluffy snow that clung to strands of hair and never melted. They provided an escape into a home that was so different from my apartment, which was ruled by narrow hallways and darkness and heavy silence punctured only by my parents’ arguments. But I loved Christmas most of all because all of its beliefs—Santa visiting while you’re asleep, elves making toys in an invisible kingdom—were by their very nature impossible to see, and were therefore safe from ever being taken away.
Convinced as I was of its magical ability to heal familial strife, I tried to recreate a “real American Christmas” every year, to catastrophic results.
A trip to the supermarket to pick up a pine tree would inevitably incur a biblical battle. My father would pace back and forth derisively, tormented by his own desire to buy a tree, before ordering us back into the car because he had decided we were “too Jewish.” On the ride home, my father would be wearing his permanent scowl as my mother, who was usually a remarkably kind and sunny woman, flared up with anti-Semitism, complaining of how the Jews killed both Christ and the Royal Imperial Family. Then, guilted by my hysterical crying, my father would jerk the car around and buy the largest, most expensive tree in the lot. Back home, my father took revenge upon the tree by dragging “her” up the stairs by the roots like an angry caveman, leaving a trail of needle tears along her arduous path to the living room. After hanging the lights and ornaments, my mother and I would place an appeasement menorah at the base, which never made it past its first candle. I’d lie under the tree for hours, squinting my eyes so as to let the colorful twinkling lights and dark spaces between the boughs blend together, making it seem as though it were a secret portal into some magical, unreachable realm.
I was not allowed to leave cookies out for Santa, because my mother thought it was a stupid tradition that would invite infestations of roaches and rats.
My attempts to cook a “real American Christmas dinner,” were also continuously foiled. No matter how vigilant I was, beets would find their way into every salad, my ban on herring and onion was never observed, and the turkey, no matter how I basted it, stubbornly tasted Russian. I was not allowed to leave cookies out for Santa, because my mother thought it was a stupid tradition that would invite infestations of roaches and rats. The worst moment, however, would come when it was time to open the gifts, as that was when the skies darkened over my father’s head in the manner of the Old Testament. I learned, after those first few Christmases, never to buy anything fragile.
I started to resent Chanukkah and New Years Eve because they seemed to be in direct competition with my most magical holiday. The one time my father’s estranged family stiffly tried to organize a Chanukkah party, my eight-year-old self made the mistake of announcing to the whole table that I didn’t like Chanukkah because it overshadowed Christmas. My father flew into a rage at home that night, knocking down tables and yelling and slamming doors. In his thick Russian accent, burning with spite, words like “cookies,” “reindeer” and “Santa” sounded positively satanic. While I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom I could hear his thunderous footsteps in the hall. He swung open the bathroom door and yelled, “Are you Jewish or Russian? Are you Jewish or Russian?” Pressed up against the tile wall, toothpaste foaming down my chin, my eight-year-old self desperately yelled, “I’M JEWSHUN!” As if the word Jewish needs any more neutralizing.
Outside of my identity-confused household, I was made even more aware of how strange I was at my private Greek-Orthodox elementary school. I was very unpopular, being the only non-Greek in a class full of eighteen first-generation Americans, most of whom were related to one another. My classmates would approach me only to ask what their names were in Russian, and I, knowing they sounded almost exactly the same, would respond instead with a made-up subterranean babble that they thought was Russian: “GlobadiGLOObah, mamanFITZmickah!” I chanted, to the delight of my unknowing audience. Nobody was actually mean to me, I was just generally treated with a sort of detached veneration, like a gifted cave troll.
One day in December, the unthinkable happened: Ricky, one of the most popular girls in the class, invited me to come over her house to, as Americans say, “hang out.” I was stunned, elated, terrified. Odd as it sounds, while I had poured over every nook and cranny of American houses on television, I had never been in a real one myself. I’d only been to Russian apartments, all of which looked unnervingly similar to ours, with their creaky hardwood floors, large hissing radiators, black-barred windows, sloppily painted white walls, dark narrow hallways, and sharp corners. The living room was always a wild terrarium of tropical plants and the furniture, which was a replica of ours, was a sort of Versailles kitsch that made everything look like something cheap trying to look expensive.
The candy drawer. That was it, I thought. This is America: coffee tables, carpeted floors, and candy drawers.
The neighborhood we lived in, Bay Ridge, was quiet, middle-class, and family oriented, complete with a main street of small family businesses, tranquil lanes disturbed only by the shoveling of snow and cheerful greetings to relatives across the road, and rows of large, picturesque houses resting peacefully under entwining trees. It was in one such house that Ricky lived. A house where the dog began to bark excitedly as she opened the door, where her mother (who had one of those American mother bodies that seemed too skinny from too much yoga) greeted me with a wide smile and asked me to stay for dinner (a remarkable concept to me: my parents and I individually took food from the fridge and ate in our respective rooms). The floors were carpeted in soft, soundless material that I could comfortably imagine sleeping on. There was a coffee table (the height of decadence! A table just for coffee!), on which rested a glass vase filled with fresh flowers and stacks of glossy, untouched magazines. This was a house where dishes were always kept in cupboards, where steak knives nestled together in a wooden block, where garlic gloves were chicly hung in a net above the sink. This was a house where no one ever turned off the lights, even if everyone had left the room. And what impressed me most, for whatever reason, was when Ricky casually asked me if I wanted something from the candy drawer. The candy drawer. That was it, I thought. This is America: coffee tables, carpeted floors, and candy drawers.
I never told my parents about my visit to Ricky’s house. I knew they wouldn’t understand. But from that moment on, I began to distance myself from them. I stopped arguing with them about the Christmas tree, stopped trying to explain why it was important that they come to the school Christmas pageant. Our apartment existed in a stalemate: my father and his scowl, my mother and her sewing, me and my furious scribbling. I would spend hours on the bus imagining myself joining the families in TV shows. I was the long-lost cousin who appears on 7th Heaven at the end of season 3, I was the rebellious New Yorker who dates Shawn in Boy Meets World. When my father, in a rare moment of self-expression, told me that we’d left Russia because kids used to break chairs over his head for being Jewish, because he couldn’t get into some university even though he had the highest grades in his class because Jews couldn’t go, I listened to him, but I listened the way I had to the same stories told by sad old men sitting at bus stops. This didn’t apply to me, I thought. I was an American. My mother once, completely out of the blue, looked up from her sewing and said, “Dina [my Russian name], what language do you think in, English or Russian?”
“English, of course,” I responded in Russian, and she looked back at me with such loss in her eyes, as though she would no longer be able to read my thoughts.
I didn’t realize, at the time, how many sacrifices my parents made for my private school and our dark little apartment on a tree-entwined lane. How my father, a musician, worked at a job that he hated and came home stinking of gasoline. How my mother, a singer, struggled with English so much that stepping outside the apartment filled her with visible terror. I remember how my father, his facial features spread into a victorious grin, came home with an enormous box once, and I, excited, exclaimed, “Wow, it’s a computer!” My father’s features immediately fell.
“No, it’s a typewriter,” he said, and shlumped away, the shuffle of his slippers whispering failure. Once, when he bought me a pink bicycle for Christmas and then tried to ride it himself, his butt sinking into the seat, his hairy knees knocking against the handlebars, his hands shakily clutching its silver pom poms, I realized, with a sinking feeling, that my father had never been on a bicycle before. This was their America: typewriters, and private toilets, and little pink bicycles they could teach their daughter to ride.
I also didn’t realize until I visited Russia a few times as a teenager, and then lived there as an adult, that there was so much about Russia that I intimately, inexorably loved in a way that reverberated in my sternum, that Americans would never understand. They could appreciate the architecture of the churches or enjoy the taste of caviar with a polite nod, but it would never inhabit them. They could never understand why I was filled with a wave of tenderness at the smell of asphalt in St. Petersburg on a hot summer day, the steely scent of metro stations, the dusty smell of crumbling stone in old buildings, the unique blend of fresh ezhevika mixed with the inky newspaper in which it’s wrapped, or the overpowering scent of exhaust fumes that I would affectionately choke on while crossing the bridge over the salty water of the Neva canal. If I close my eyes and really focus, I can almost smell it, but it’s a torturous endeavor. I can feel the smell perched somewhere on some sensory precipice, and can almost reach it, but not quite.
My father once threw an enormous stuffed Santa Claus out the window in a rage before running into the dead of night to reclaim it from the slushy street.
As the years passed my parents adopted the holiday season more and more, although the battles never ceased. My father once threw an enormous stuffed Santa Claus out the window in a rage before running into the dead of night to reclaim it from the slushy street. When I was twelve my mother told me there was no Santa Claus, which I cried over, and then consciously ignored. The whole beauty of the story was that you couldn’t prove that it wasn’t true, and so it was yours to keep forever; that’s the meaning of faith, I thought. That’s the invincible sanctuary of imagination.
She did, however, give me the best present of all that year: a Christmas Village, complete with a brick factory with a snow-packed roof and little windows out of which warm light congealed like melted butter. My parents would let me keep it on all night, and I would lie awake under its golden glow, staring at it, imagining the profiles of elves drinking cocoa, and Santa petting reindeer, and Mrs. Clause wrapping a blanket over his uncovered feet, in an enchanted kingdom where no one ever turned off the lights.
Diana Bruk was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and emigrated to New York at the age of five. She studied creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, and received a Masters in Comparative Literature from the University of Oxford. Her work has been published in Salon, VICE, Ladygunn, and more.