In which I am immersed in Russian music but would have preferred herring

Last updated on March 5, 2024

I was at a wedding this past weekend. Both parties are Russian Jews, who left shortly after communism collapsed, and both have maintained a strong Russian (/Soviet) Jewish identity. Unfortunately, this did not translate into a dinner of herring and pickled tongue, but rather, into an evening of almost exclusively Russian music — actually more like a mishmash of Israeli/Russian/Soviet music — courtesy of the DJ and a male-female singer duo.

That’s right, Soviet. So unlike 70s rock from the West, almost no one under 40 was familiar with Soviet songs from the same era. Me, I couldn’t even have told you what’s contemporary and what’s not. It was like going on a field trip, maybe to something like the Ukrainian Village (a rite of passage for all school children in Edmonton), but the dress-up was real. And it wasn’t dress-up, so much as an awkward musical experience.

At best, I can direct you to this post from Vicki, about a Soviet bard, though it lacks the “we should kind of, maybe be in a loud club, but maybe not so public” vibe of the whole thing. Also missing in this example is the DJ, who arrived garbed in baggy leather pants, black shirt unbuttoned one button too many, leather vest and sunglasses. And he scowled a lot, of course.

I can’t really describe it much more, because when it comes to Russian Jewish music, the first thing I conjure up is more along the lines of Fiddler on the Roof. Terrible, I know. Especially given I like ranting about how we didn’t all come from the shtetl. But that’s the sound of nostalgia to me, not my mother singing along in Russian on a wedding dance floor at a hotel in Calgary. Though I’m sure if I wait long enough, I’ll get to feel nostalgic about that too.

So aside from being a complete fish out of water, mostly it all got me thinking about how we went from this to this to today (sorry, it’s hard to find photos of Russian Jews that don’t involve cross-Atlantic transit). Post-Soviet Russian-Jewish culture has developed into its own recognizable entity. Which is to say that, sure, the accents are still there, and yes, even some of the questionable fashions. But it’s not a world of beleaguered, confused people, with the poorly fitting clothing of necessity (and the 70s, have I mentioned the 70s). This is just who and what they’ve become.* It’s no longer choices made because people don’t know better or can’t afford better, but because they freely choose their music and styles and other markers of identity.

I thought too, how completely alien the scene would have been to our immigrant predecessors who fled during Tsarist times—what a completely different people we’ve turned out to be. That sepia-hued world, of crowded boats and Ellis Island quarantines and tenement blocks is nowhere to be found.

It all kind of makes you wonder how long before we become the mythologized and nostalgified Soviet/Russian Jewish ancestors from the Old Country. Though somehow, I can’t see “In Soviet Russia…” ever quite attaining the same connotations as “Back in the Old Country…”.

*Yes, I recognize the awkwardness around the they/we pronouns here. But since I grew up here in a mostly English-speaking home, I’m not really part of the contemporary Russian/Jewish culture, except occasionally eating the food. But it’s still where I came from, so, you know, it’s complicated.

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