Russian Bukvar for beginners – How I almost didn't learn Russian

Russian bukvhar from 1970sI wrote a bit last time about one of my ‘immigrant identity crisis’ vignettes that I shared at the Limmud retreat. But it started with an assignment, to bring an artifact, or object, from home about our Russian-Jewish heritage. When you and your childhood home are separated by over 3,000km, digging up an acceptable artifact – Was it interesting enough? Too trite? Russian enough? Too Jewish? Should it be something older? – is a challenge. There is a lot of running around from one end of the apartment to the other, and then there is the matter of getting it into your suitcase. In the end, I brought my old Russian alphabet primer, the Bukvar.

When I brought the bukvar to the retreat, I didn’t know much about it. (I still don’t). I didn’t know when my parents bought it, and whether it came with us when we left, or was mailed later by my grandparents. I didn’t know whether it was a rare book or one given to every Russian schoolchild, to be tossed away when no longer needed. I didn’t know how it had survived all the years in my parents’ basement, or why, just a week prior, I had dug it out of a box and dragged it back to Toronto.

But it fit in my suitcase, and it came with a story, and while I was telling that story, it became a symbol, and even the things I don’t know about it became, somehow, a part of that story.

The story I told was this one… About a child who didn’t want to learn her Russian alphabet. Who yelled, and screamed, and carried on, and refused to learn her letters. I used to know precisely which letter we stopped at (was it ?? Or ?? Or maybe all the way to ??) but by now, I only recall that we stopped partway through, and that marked the end of my Russian education. Over the years, it became a bit of a marker in my family, the thing that set us apart from other immigrant families, this lack of Russian in our home and in my and my brother’s lives. My parents would scoff and ask what need we had of Russian when it was there and we were here…

But that was much later. Before my mother completely gave up on me – that Bukvar did nothing for our relationship – I managed to mark up half the book with a pronunciation cheat sheet and some elegant scribbles.

Some time after the end of the Time of the Bukvar (how much later, I don’t know) the USSR collapsed. And some time after that, I took a beginner Russian course at my university and finally learned what that backwards R at the end of the alphabet meant. The course had its own bulky and far less colourful textbook. As for the Bukvar, I barely remembered its existence, and with my undergraduate language requirements completed, life went on.

Over the holidays this year, I started digging through some old boxes in my parents’ basement. Tucked among the old Russian storybooks, games and records, which my grandparents sent to us across the ocean (while we were sending back Levis jeans and American dollars), was my old Bukvar. The rest of the books went back in the box. The bukvar went into my suitcase and back to Toronto.

A week later, I found myself at the Limmud retreat, planning a conference for Russian Jews in Canada. The discussions were in a mix of Russian and English, the occasional Hebrew. I, more or less, kept up with the jokes and decisions.

A lot of stories were told at the retreat — a lot of family history, stories about World War II, about the Holocaust, about disappearances into the gulags and fear of neighbours, and the struggle to immigrate. I realized as I sat there that everyone’s story had something a little familiar, some piece of my own family.

When it was my turn to speak about my artefact, the Bukvar seemed a fitting symbol — one of the few Russian childhood items in my home, and the one that fit perfectly from my utter rejection of the language — and with it, a lack of extended family and knowledge of our heritage and family history — to researching and writing about Russian Jewry, and now, a full weekend of Russian-speaking conference planning. It was such an unexpected turn of events, and little in my life before the last few years would ever have predicted this moment.

© 2017 Lea Zeltserman