Russian Roots

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12 Aug 2009

I grew up with vastly conflicting images of Russia. It was the place my maternal grandfather fled to avoid conscription into the Czar’s army. A czar whom my paternal great-grandparents mourned because, my grandfather once told me, “they looked to him as a father.”

Russia was a place of poverty and hunger. “Les gayn mein pulke!” was one of those childhood phrases repeated by my mother and her sisters like the punchline to a joke they knew and I didn’t. I assumed it was what kids shouted to each other in the Old Country when they played tag. The real story I learned in adulthood. “Let go of my thigh!” my grandfather hissed when someone tried to grab the chicken leg he was eating.

Russia was also a place of great delicacy. My paternal grandfather’s only memory of his mother was that she owned a “great silver samovar” and drank her tea through a sugar cube held between her front teeth.

Russia was dangerous — Cossacks threatened to kill babies (Great Uncle Izzy) with their bayonets. And Russia was magnificent — the Hermitage, all that gorgeous (and of course confiscated) art. Russia was romantic — Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner in the movie classic Anastasia. And Russia was tragic – the true story of the Romanovs.

When my husband and I visited Russia last summer I wasn’t sure what to expect. I read Land of the Firebird, Suzanne Massie’s cultural history of Russia. I learned the Cyrillic alphabet so I could get us around on the Moscow subway and read the street signs. I studied our itinerary, packed minimal clothes and maximal rolls of travel toilet paper. Just in case. And then off we went to this faraway foreign land.

Only it wasn’t so foreign. Day after day I was struck by how familiar this faraway country felt. Riding the subway, walking through Red Square, buying pickles in a market, I saw face after face that reminded me of friends and relatives back home. The woman making blinis had the long sloped nose of a writer buddy of mine. The nurse who cared for dying soldiers in the Great Patriotic War (WWII to us) looked exactly like my husband’s Aunt Gerry, right down to her smile.

I saw people who could have shared ancestors with several of my friends and glimpsed other someones who shared my grandfather’s full mouth, my daughter’s dark eyes.

The touchpoints went well beyond physical features of strangers. Part of our tour included a home visit with an elderly Russian woman. She was delightful, eager to learn about us and just as eager to answer our questions about her life. It was eerie to walk into her tiny apartment and feel completely at home. We recognized the tablecloth and her housecoat. The tchotchkes arranged in her breakfront had their counterparts in an apartment in Brooklyn, that of my husband’s elderly Polish cousins. I don’t remember the Russian words for the foods she served us but growing up we called them kichel, kreplach and thumbprint cookies. I hadn’t thought I was going on a “roots” kind of trip but everywhere I turned I stumbled across branches of a family tree I had never considered mine to claim.

One day on the boat the crew taught us a Russian dance and lullaby. The steps came so easily to me. Why shouldn’t they? I had danced similar patterns at summer camp. Only we called it Israeli dancing. Violetta, one of our program directors, taught us the “lullaby every Russian mother sings to her child.” Looli looli looooo li she began. Looli looli loooo li we repeated. Inside my head it was my mother’s voice singing to me, Ah loo loo loo-loo baybeee. A loo-loo loo-loo baybee. The cadences were identical, the final notes of each mother’s rendition ended on the same note. I was on a boat on the Volga in 2008 and could have just as well been in the one room house with the dirt floor and thatched roof my grandfather left behind when he came to America.

But the strangest connection occurred one evening at dinner. One of our tablemates wanted more of the delicious dark bread that we had been served; all that was left in the basket was rye. “Dark bread,” she said pointing to the basket. “Dark bread.” The waitress had no idea what she meant. Speaking loudly and slowly does not a translation make.

“Chornea!” I said without even thinking. How many times had my mother sung to me “Dark Eyes” the Russian song that begins something like “Ah char charnea.” The waitress smiled and moments later returned with a basket full of pumpernickel. Everyone at the table thought I was a genius. I knew better. The Russian part of me I never thought to claim had instead just staked a claim to me.

© Debra Darvick 2008. Debra Darvick’s most recent work is This Jewish Life: Stories of Discovery, Connection and Joy. The book may be ordered on or by calling the publisher at 800.880.8642. To read personal reflections, musing on the writing life, excerpts from her novel and book reviews, check out Debra’s new blog at

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.