A couple of blogs ago I mentioned our Russian friend Dr. Anatoliy. Whenever we’d visit him and his wife, Olga, may their memories be for a blessing, they would do their best to get us to eat as much as possible. I’m not talking about offering us another helping of this or that Russian delicacy, and I’m not even talking about insisting that we have seconds and thirds of every last item, plus a handful of cookies with chai (tea) at the end. I’m talking about Olga plopping it down on your plate with a scowl after you’ve politely refused a few times. After services on Saturday, I was confronted by three or four Olgas (including a male version) around the little table in the very crowded room where we enjoyed Oneg Shabbat. One lady offered me salad, which I wasn’t really interested in, and politely refused three or four times, until she grimaced, grabbed me plate and plopped down a big spoonful. A minute later someone handed the older gentleman my plate, so he could some different kind of salad, and then a little old lady pulled a baggie out of her purse and extracted a poppy-seed cookie, which she hovered over until I ate the whole thing—which turned out to be surprisingly good, despite its less-than-appetizing presentation.
So, you may have noticed that I post lots of pictures of food on my blog and FB page. There’s lots of eating here, especially among my Jewish family, where this aggressive version of “What, you don’t like?” gets played out. My hosts said it’s a Jewish thing, but this version is definitely a Russian Jewish thing.
I’ve also discovered that internal temperatures are kept hot and stuffy everywhere. Room temperature in Moscow has got to be in the low 80s. At the hotel, I kept setting my thermostat lower and lower and it never fazed the sauna-like temperature of my room. The classroom where I’m teaching feels like the tropical greenhouse at the Albuquerque Botanical Gardens. I crack a window for a refreshing draft, and some soon hops up to close it. This isn’t a Jewish thing in particular, but seems to be typically Russian. In fact, the tourist book in the hotel mentioned it, advising outsiders not to dress too warmly despite the cold winter weather, because when you go inside, “Room temperature in Russia isn’t exactly room temperature.”
I have a theory. The Jewish anxiety that you’re not eating enough—even if you’re pleasantly plump and rosy-cheeked—might date back to the years of pogroms and deprivation that started in the 1880s and only slowly wound down in the lifetime of my own generation. For any Russian Jew my age or older, it’s a live memory. You might be plump now, but eat, eat; you don’t know what’s coming next. Perhaps the heat thing is related. It’s been warm throughout my whole visit (warmer than Albuquerque at a few points!), but who knows how cold it can get around here, and how long it can stay cold? So get really warm while you can. You can say “No thank you” to 80-degree internal temperatures, but someone’s going to heap it on your plate anyway.
So, beneath the surface that seemed surprisingly positive to me when I arrived, there’s a lot of anxiety, especially among the older, survivor generations, the Jewish ones in particular. And I wonder if the younger set aren’t a little too intent on having fun. There’s a rather sensual vibe out on the streets, and I can pick up some desperation behind it. Perhaps it’s my protected and provincial over-reaction, but I don’t think so. I wonder if the anxiety for life’s basic, and not-so-basic comforts can be redirected to a spiritual awakening. Underneath the anxiety there’s a deep sense of soul, a Jewish soul trying to re-emerge.
This afternoon, as my class regathered from a break, Uri, one of our students, broke out his clarinet for a couple of songs. When he was done and we all settled down, I got up and reminded the class that I’d said I felt that Russia was my homeland because both of my grandfathers were born here. It’s the land of my fathers, I said, but I didn’t really feel like I arrived at home until Uri played his clarinet.