Since I don’t expect that any of you frequent Russian language sites, I expropriated some pictures for your viewing pleasure. If you were invited to a typical soviet apartment in the late 70s – early 80s, chances are it would look something like this. My living room looked pretty similar and so did many other living rooms I visited. The only thing was that many of these only served as living rooms during the day. At night they were converted to bedrooms, where sometimes kids and parents slept and I am not limiting kids to any age here. Some people spent most of their lives sharing a room or two but in the morning you wouldn’t be able to tell. In my own case we had several rooms but we shared the apartment with 4 other families. And by “shared” I mean we had one toilet, one cold water faucet in the bathroom and one corner of the kitchen with a stove and later our own sink. But that’s a different story.
So consider yourself invited:
Day tours to Colonia available for purchase in Argentina from a variety of sources such as Buquebus include a round-trip on a ferry, a dinner, a tour and transportation around the city. There is not much of a tour (luckily our guide was fluent in English), dinner is average and the transportation is hardly necessary – the historic part of town is perfectly walkable and is close enough to the port. The big difference is the ferry: a newer ferry can make the trip across the river in one hour and the older one takes 3 hours. Since we bought our trip the night before, the faster, more expensive boat was sold out so we took the three-hour tour. My suggestion would be to get on the faster ferry if possible, forgo the dinner and the tour, and explore the town and find food on your own.
The ferry is nice and comfortable and due to a sell-out we were upgraded to the first class seats automatically and for free. Interestingly, at the passport control in both ports the Argentinian and Uruguayan border officials are sitting side-by-side, stamping your passport with both exit and entry stamps (no visa is required for the US citizens), so you don’t have to go through the procedure again upon arrival.
If you have a free day in your itinerary, I would highly recommend a trip to Colonia. There is something charming (I am pretty sure this is the first and likely the last time the word charming is used on this blog) about this town with old cobblestone streets leading to the river; with brightly painted ancient buildings; with a weird mix of trees lining the streets where palms, cacti, and aloes are just as common as European varieties; with numerous restaurants and souvenir shops; with antique cars parked on the streets just for looks, and even nicely preserved Soviet cars. Colonia beckons you to wonder around, explore, take photos, see the sunset, have a coffee at one of the outdoor tables near a restaurant, or just relax watching the boats on the river. On the day we visited Colonia the weather changed from overcast to rain to sunny and the following photos reflect that. Overall, it was probably the most enjoyable side-trip during our visit to Argentina.
According to the original Life Magazine article published in 1952 these photos were taken in the Cathedral of Holy Virgin Protection in New York. In Russian Easter is called “Pascha“; after the all-night vigil the believers declare “Christ is Risen!” and everyone responds “Indeed, He is risen!”.
Russian icon depicting the resurrection. (source)
The mid-1970’s, when 7-year-old me was roaming the mean streets of Odessa, was a great time to live there. Odessa’s Jewish population somewhat recovered from the devastation of the World War II and the pogroms and devastations before that and, while the Soviet Government had a firm grip on the emigration spigot, prospered as much as was allowed. Jewish actors, teachers, musicians, artists, restaurant singers, underground business owners, doctors, tailors, professors – Odessa’s Jewish population was having another one of its golden ages. Maybe I should say “Odessa’s adult Jewish population” because many kids like me didn’t know we were Jewish.
Recently I ran across a website where Jews of my generation were describing how they discovered that they belonged to the Tribe. Not one of them found out from their parents. It was always a neighbor or neighbor’s kids, some lady at the store, an angry classmate, an opponent in a fistfight, someone throwing an insult or a backhanded compliment; Jewish kids were last to know about the most important thing in their lives. And then I understood why we don’t always see eye-to-eye with the American Jews, the ones carried to a Rabbi on the 7th day to have parts of them snipped, and taught how to participate in the great world Jewish conspiracy from their early days. Unlike them, we made it to adulthood intact, without ever seeing a Rabbi or even knowing the word Rabbi, or anything about being Jewish or the conspiracy we were born to participate in. While they were able to proudly announce their Jewishness in more languages than one, our nationality was conveyed in a series of winks and tongue-clicks with an understanding look and a sad face.
Around that time every resident of Odessa worth his eggplant caviar recipe had to have an underground recording of so-called Odessa songs. These were the songs usually performed in restaurants or weddings, sometimes funny, sometimes stupid, but always entertaining and good for dancing. Some of those included faux Yiddish lyrics and even when the original Yiddish had some meaning they were copied from musician to musician so many times that they lost all or most of it in the process. My household of course had a tape like this and I played it enough times to remember all the words in Russian and Yiddish. Except I didn’t know it was Yiddish, just like I had no idea I was a Jew and many other things a 7-year old not supposed to know. I also didn’t know I couldn’t sing.
That didn’t prevent me from volunteering to perform in a school concert. The casting committee consisted of my first grade teacher with the last name Rosenberg* and the father of my classmate with the last name Schneider*. I went on to perform a hit “Rahilya, May You Croak, I Like You”.
It went something like this:
Rahilya, may you croak, I like you.
I can’t live without you, Rahilya!
Rahilya, we’ll get married, you’ll plump up
And we will live on the beach together.
And then the Yiddish part started. I dutifully repeated every word with an exceptionally joyful intonation, perfect projection and a smile on my face. At that moment I was Pesachke Burtstein reincarnated if I only knew who he was.
Afn boydem bakt zikh knishes,
They are making knishes in the attic
Funem tukhes shit zikh mel.
And flour is pouring out of the ass
Az der tote trent di mome,
When Papa is banging Mama
Kinder makhn zikh aleyn.
Kids are playing alone.
Rahilya, you are beautiful like Venus,
But you will grow a large belly
And if not, let the cholera take me
But let it take you first!
Rahilya, we will go to Yessen-tukhes**,
Where sun comes up between the blue mountains,
And if not, kish mir in tukhes***
But my patience has run out.
Tears filled my teacher’s eyes and streamed down her face. My classmate’s father, a gentlemen in what then seemed like his 70’s but probably in his 40’s, was shaking and crying like a baby. We didn’t have Kleenex then so they wiped their faces with newspapers and rags. I finished with an especially well-done kinder makhn zikh aleyn and triumphantly looked over my teary-eyed audience of two.
This is the original song I was performing that day from the infamous tape.
My parents were friends with my teacher, so she just called them that night and asked them to try and contain my singing talents at home.
My Mom still reminds me about this every once in a while.
I never found out why I wasn’t featured in the school concert.
I still remember the words to this and other songs from that tape but nowadays my only audience is the shower curtain.
I don’t remember how I found out I was Jewish but I don’t think it was from my parents.
And that’s how I was a Yiddish singer.
*Unmistakably Jewish names
**Play on word combination Yessentuki, a famous Soviet resort, and a Yiddish word tukhes (ass).
***Kiss my ass (yeah, I know lots of ass-words in this song)
Big thanks to my friend Yelena S. for her Yiddish expertise in preparation of this post.
This post is dedicated to the International Pickle Week – “A week so good – we made it last 10 days!”