In America

by Marinka on March 30, 2011

When my parents and I came to America, our first apartment was a studio.

I don’t know if people outside of New York City know from a studio, but it is a one-room apartment. Not a one bedroom. A one room. We had a bathroom, a kitchen, a dining area that fit a table, snugly, and a room. I slept on one side of the room and my parents’ bed was on the other. No doors separated the dining area from the sleeping area, but we did put up some bookshelves.

If that wasn’t enough, on my 10th birthday, my parents got me a dog. A Basset Hound. His name was Barbos. Because, I’m guessing, they couldn’t get a goat.

During the day, I attended an Yeshiva, where I studied Hebrew and The Old Testament. I had friends who were fascinated with my flight from the Soviet Union, with my immigrant status, and who may have, with some mild encouragement from me, confused me with Anne Frank.

“The Communist Party was very bad to my family,” I told them over lunch. “It is now too painful to say more.”

I was invited into my friends’ homes after school to play in their sunny living rooms, to do my homework in their bedrooms that they did not share with their siblings, to say nothing of their parents, to eat in their dining rooms, with formal settings.

Their homes were giant in comparison to our studio but I didn’t even think to be jealous. Because I loved being home, in the tiny apartment, with my parents and Barbos. I was comfortable.

And then one day in January, Lisa, the bravest of the girls asked if she could come over to my house, to see where I lived.

I panicked.

“It’s not big,” I said, trying to think on my feet, forgetting that I wasn’t good at that kind of thing. It was unthinkable that she and I would do our homework on the dining room table while my mother cooked in the kitchen. Only to have dinner on that very same table.

Would we then move to the other room and do our homework on the floor–between my parents’ bed and my own?

I knew that we lived differently, and although I loved our apartment and my family, I didn’t want anyone else to see it.

“I don’t care,” Lisa said. “I want to see it.”

I invited Lisa over.
She came in and looked around.
“I told you it was small,” I apologized.
“It’s okay,” she said and smiled. I’m pretty sure that this was the tiniest place she had ever visited.

And then she froze.

Because between my parents’ bed and my own, stood the New Year’s Tree. Which in America is known as a Christmas tree.

It’s interesting to think about what Lisa, a devout student at the Yeshiva, with a gold Star of David dangling from her neck, must have thought on seeing what is widely considered a tribute to Jesus Christ in our livingroom. Bedroom. Livingbedroom.

I did some fast broken-English talking, explaining that in Russia the New Year’s tree is put up to celebrate the New Year and not to commemorate any religious occasion, but it was too late.

Because sometimes a cigar is so much more than a cigar.

And this one dwarfed whatever anxiety I may have had about our tiny studio.

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I’m very excited to be a guest contributor at Alphamom today. Please visit me there and learn how to handle your child’s first sleepover!

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{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Vicki
Twitter:
March 30, 2011 at 9:51 am

Ah, the komunalka AND the New Year Tree. No matter how many posts I write about the tree, I get asked about it EVERY year. That’s why my mom now lights up a Jew Brick next to our New Year Tree.

http://picplz.com/user/vikachu/pic/3xn0/

Sorry you didn’t have one at your disposal back then.

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Marinka March 30, 2011 at 9:52 am

I love the Jew Brick! And it shines so brightly with the blood of Christian children!

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Sophie@Fabrications March 30, 2011 at 3:09 pm

What-in moses’ name-is-that?

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Amelia March 30, 2011 at 3:52 pm

I now want a Jew Brick, and I’m an atheist. I think it’ll liven up the joint.

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the mama bird diaries
Twitter:
March 30, 2011 at 9:52 am

I still get stressed when people come to my house.
And the bonus of a studio, so much less to clean.

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Lynn MacDonald (All Fooked Up)
Twitter:
March 30, 2011 at 9:56 am

Wow…i lived in a studio in NYC by MYSELF and it was perfect. I can’t imagine…i also can’t imagine you at Yeshiva but i can totally visualize the whole Christmas Tree thing.

That must have been hilarious. When i married my husband and we had a tree, all the Jews i knew wanted to decorate it. The forbidden fruit…like that damn apple that Eve was hanging with.

You don’t need to clean for me…i wouldn’t for you.

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dragoncita March 30, 2011 at 10:23 am

Your blog is the best blog. I read it to cleanse my mind after (foolishly) reading poorly written, stupid blogs. Thank you!

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Stasha
Twitter:
March 30, 2011 at 12:01 pm

My first apartment was a studio and was half the size of the Winnebago on my neighbors driveway. Was on the large side too! Loved it.
The leader of my homeland was a wise man and like Hugh Hefner made up rules to make everybody get along( with him mostly) We celebrate New year with a tree and Ded Moroz brings gifts. Must have worked, because until I went abroad I never once in my life got asked about my religious beliefs. Or not, since after he died the war broke out. Mr. Hefner consider yourself warned.

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awesome dude March 30, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Rabbis are right, assimilated Jews should have problems.

One of the problems you have is some lack of memory.

We admired this breed of dogs in Rome, Italy and it was our first big purchase in the new land.

And speaking about being a kid from the poor family….. you might not notice it but you were such in any of the schools you went to later. Did not seem to affect you much.

But it is always healthy to be deprived of something in the early years.

Most of the Russian nobility ended up driving cabs in Paris in the twenties anyhow

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Marinka March 30, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Oh no, I remember very well. You and mama admired Basset Hounds and it was indeed your first big purchase. For my birthday. I recall wanting a Baby Alive.

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Joie March 30, 2011 at 5:21 pm

I will consider converting just so I can get a Jew Brick.

And Awesome Dude, my mom used to tell me when I was little that I was actually a Princess that was sent to her in hopes that she will teach me the “ways” of the poor. And that one day, after I had learned how to live like a commoner, I would be sent back to my country to rule.

I apparently have not yet learned the ways because I am 30 and I think a check just bounced.

Damn it.

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thatgirlblogs March 30, 2011 at 1:15 pm

well, I just want to give that little-kid you a hug and say it’s OK!

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alexandra
Twitter:
March 30, 2011 at 1:29 pm

I love these stories, Marinka.

I could read a book full of them.

It’s the community of immigrants feeling of it all.

We all started with so little…I just love these stories.

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Yuliya
Twitter:
March 30, 2011 at 1:29 pm

Your parents let your friends come over? Liberals!
Mine wouldn’t even let the imaginary ones come to our house!

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Phoenix Rising
Twitter:
March 30, 2011 at 3:44 pm

I always wanted to live in a tiny studio apartment. It was because I wanted to be an actress and felt that the only way to really appreciate the art form was to struggle. Now, I’ve got 5 people in a 1-bathroom and I’m about to struggle my hands around someone’s neck if they don’t get out of my way….

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Cool Dad
Twitter:
March 30, 2011 at 4:13 pm

When we first moved to NYC, it was Cool Mum, myself, and 1.5 y/o Cool Baby in a 200 sq-ft studio. So cool to read about your family sticking it out. Humble beginnings are awesome.

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Lady Jennie March 30, 2011 at 4:27 pm

Oh shoot! Busted!

Cool that you studied Hebrew though. My husband spent a lot of time studying the Hebrew and Greek roots for various Scriptures.

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anna see March 30, 2011 at 5:11 pm

great story! did lisa ever come back???

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Keyona
Twitter:
March 30, 2011 at 7:01 pm

That was the best. Oh the stories I have from our tiny apartment. Thanks for sharing.

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Amy
Twitter:
March 30, 2011 at 7:16 pm

Now I need a Jew brick. How could I have lived my entirelife without one?
My dad used to tell me stories about how he and his brother grew up sharing a bed till my uncle went off to serve in WW11 and I figure that is how it felt to you in your lovely studio with your parents. It was home and you were free. Happy way to grow up, no?

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christy March 30, 2011 at 7:22 pm

I love your stories – I really hope you’re turning them into a book! And if you don’t think quickly on your feet? Well then, there’s simply no hope for me.

Also, I now want a New Year’s tree of my own!

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subWOW
Twitter:
March 30, 2011 at 9:41 pm

THAT Jew Brick is brilliant!

I slept in my parents’ bedroom till I was almost out of high school and I did not realize that we were poor until just recently when I was telling a co-worker our sleeping arrangement. It’s awesome that you loved your tiny studio even though you were shown the fancy big mansions. That shows what kind of person you are!

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annie March 30, 2011 at 11:15 pm

I love this post. I can just picture you as little and being pissy about your new dog. I adore you!

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Erin I'm Gonna Kill Him
Twitter:
March 30, 2011 at 11:48 pm

Not to make you feel like you immigrated to the US in the 1800s and were sitting around reading by the light of lamp burning whale blubber, but have you been to the Tenement Museum? I love it. I used to go a few times a year.

This poem by Adrienne Rich made me first love immigrant stories.

http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/adrienne_rich/11756

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The Flying Chalupa
Twitter:
March 31, 2011 at 1:06 am

The Tenement Museum rocks! I used to pretend I was dying of typhoid there. Great place.

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Jill
Twitter:
March 31, 2011 at 12:45 am

Such a powerful story. Your history is amazing.

Ok … I have to ask. What is a Jew Brick?

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The Flying Chalupa
Twitter:
March 31, 2011 at 1:08 am

I like seeing the serious side of you, Marinka. A little window into the little window of the studio of your childhood.

ps – Okay, birthday girl, here’s something I’m doing for myself: I’m going to BlogHer. But this week, I ditched grocery shopping and went and got a coffee. Exciting, huh? And happy birthday! It’s officially Thursday on east coast time.

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dusty earth mother March 31, 2011 at 12:51 pm

Chalup, you’re going to BlogHer? Me too! We must meet, don’t you think? Oh, and I got a pedicure. Yesterday. In honor of Marinka’s birthday.

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Ilana
Twitter:
March 31, 2011 at 9:35 am

If I am honest with myself, I would LOVE to have a Christmas tree. Yet I cannot. Jewish guilt is a powerful thing.

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dusty earth mother March 31, 2011 at 12:53 pm

I think I must own a Jew Brick. I promise you, even though I am Christian, I will not douse it with my children’s blood.

By the way, fantastic story. And Happy Birthday, right? Or was it yesterday? (I got the pedicure. No more socks and sandals for this broad.)

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A Mommy in the City
Twitter:
March 31, 2011 at 4:10 pm

Great story! I love that you can appreciate a good NYC sized apartment! Did Lisa ever come back to visit after seeing the tree?

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Stephanie Smirnov
Twitter:
March 31, 2011 at 10:36 pm

I was a lapsed Episcopalian and now I’m lapsed Russian Orthodox. May not have Jewish guilt but I’ve failed and disapponted people in not one but two branches of Christianity. So that’s worth something.

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holly April 1, 2011 at 12:34 am

We had a “Hannukah bush” once. Every time the doorbell rang, it got thrown in the coat closet. It sure was fun having a tree, and there were more gifts that year than ever before. But it never happened again. My mom got tired of hiding it. Me? Couldn’t do that to my kids but I love Christmas. We are big Christmas light gazers every year. Dyker Heights, parts of the Bronx and Queens, the tree at Rockefeller Plaza. Nothing wrong with that.

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By Word of Mouth
Twitter:
April 1, 2011 at 12:28 pm

Bought my girlfriends 6 yr old a Hannukah bush, technically a white Christmas tree that my kids covered in blue lights, dreidels and jewish candy. She loved it. Her Dad said it was against everything he held dear and threw it out. Three months later he walked out on his wife and 3 kids under 6, he had a girlfriend and then had a baby … love a man with priorities.
Makes me want to hit him with the Jew Brick.

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Cindy S April 1, 2011 at 12:52 pm

In my first apartment I could fry an egg, scoop kitty litter or take a sh*t all within three steps or fewer.

Awesome.

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anymommy April 3, 2011 at 3:59 pm

I love your stories. And the Jew Brick comment was priceless.

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Oldman May 18, 2011 at 9:50 am

One room! Luxury! My family lived in a one room first floor of a two story outhouse.

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