Shopping list: Yahrzeit candles, Russian sourdough, kasha and Polish sausage


Nerick Gavrielov was a frequent visitor to Berezka, a store in his hometown in Tajikistan, but he never entered it. “Only government officials could enter – it was a store for special people and it sold imported goods that you couldn’t buy anywhere else,” he said. “I was standing very close and looking out the window, looking at what I could never have.”

When Gavrielov immigrated to New York in 1993, he dreamed of opening an Eastern European grocery store accessible to everyone. Following in the footsteps of his father, who owned a store in Tajikistan – although much smaller than Berezka – Gavrielov opened his own delicatessen in 2006 on 108th Street, right in the center of Forest Hills, Queens, two blocks houses of the Jewish Center. The name was an obvious decision: Berezka #1 Deli in Forest Hills borrowed the store’s name from Tajikistan (Russian for “birch”), both as vindication and homage to Gavrielov’s childhood exclusive store.

Berezka #1 Deli is always busy, especially on Friday afternoons before Shabbat, when the queue for the register can run out the door. Gavrielov paces the single aisle of his store in his black velvet loafers, shuffling items in meticulous order. He looks everyone in the eye, he keeps his shoulders back, and he never minces his words, which come before him at a relentless pace and with a heavy accent. The counters are filled with piroshki (meat-stuffed hand pies) and sour cherry juice. The shelves are overflowing with toasted buckwheat kasha and nostalgia. The place is buzzing in Russian and Hebrew, with mothers buying khachapuri (Georgian cheese bread) and yahrzeit candles while their children are dunked in the ice cream freezer. The walls are adorned with posters of Uncle Sam and Jewish blessings. And every morning, the grocery store receives fresh boxes of highly sought-after Borodinsky bread, a dry Russian sourdough made from rye, baked in an offsite brick oven. Gavrielov, stern but gentle, waved to a customer behind me on a recent visit: “Bread here, you buy here.”

But what attracts the most attention is not the products on the shelves or the posters on the walls, it’s what’s in the fridge: the pork salami.

It’s hard to imagine anything more “non-kosher” than Ukrainian salon (slabs of dried pork fat) or Polish kabanos (smoked pork sausage links) – especially sitting right next to the dairy fridge, looking directly across the aisle from the vast selection of Israeli snacks.

The story of how this Eastern European Jewish deli came to sell both kosher Israeli snacks and pork is a story of Soviet Jewry, and what is changed in the translation into the messy immigration process.

Since the end of the Cold War in 1989, more than one million Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants have settled in Israel and about 300,000 in the United States, the majority in New York.

“There was a war in Tajikistan and I had to flee,” Gavrielov said, referring to Tajikistan’s civil war, which lasted five years from 1992 to 1997. While the war’s informal origins date back to protests February 1990 anti-Soviet wars, when KGB forces killed more than 25 protesters – the war was formalized with the fall of the Soviet Union and the political vacuum it created for the unexpected new state of Tajikistan, which declared its independence from Russia in 1991.

But as with all countries whose borders are drawn by distant rulers (in this case, in Moscow), Tajikistan’s newly defined borders were a serious distortion, sparking a civil war and the displacement of more than 600,000 Tajiks abroad. inside their own country, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. With Uzbekistan closing its eastern border in 1992 to Tajiks desperate to flee, more than 150,000 Tajiks died. Tajikistan’s President, Emomali Rahmon, who was elected in 1994 amid the country’s civil war, continues to hold that post to this day. Human Rights Watch noted that at the time of Rahmon’s victory, “current conditions in Tajikistan [did] do not allow free and democratic elections.

Gavrielov didn’t share the name of his hometown when I asked, “It wasn’t a good place for Jews, and that’s it.” He didn’t hesitate, as if he’d said that phrase thousands of times before.

Gavrielov never intended to immigrate to the United States – he was headed for Israel. But when his sister moved to Queens a few months before his planned departure from the Soviet Union, he changed his course to be closer to his family.

Jewish communities within the vast Soviet Union were not without differences in customs and traditions – and they brought these traditions with them when they emigrated.

Bukhara Jews, like Gavrielov, hail from Central Asian countries such as Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, former members of the USSR. Unlike their Ashkenazi Jewish neighbors to the northwest, Bukhara’s Jews identify as Mizrahi, a term that translates to “Eastern” in Hebrew.

Given their geographical location, the Jewish communities of Bukhara were influenced by their exchanges with Slavic, Arab and Persian cultures.

Currently, Queens holds the largest number of Bukhara Jews in the world, estimated at 50,000 in 2017, according to The Times of Israel. Once a thriving center of Jewish life dating back to their exile from Babylon in 538 BCE, the area is now home to just 100 Jews.

A minority that was driven underground by its anti-religious political leaders, now thousands of miles from its origin, Bukhara Judaism thrives in Queens, so much so that locals often joke that the borough should be more aptly named “Queenistan”. According to the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, more than 20% of the Jewish population in the New York metropolitan area speaks Russian.

Within a few miles of Gavrielov’s store are several Bukhara (Orthodox) synagogues, a Bukhara Jewish center, several Bukhara restaurants, and a yeshiva funded by Israeli Bukhara diamond magnate Lev Leviev. Their Mizrahi identity remains most apparent in the Bukhara synagogue, which is separate from Ashkenazim and Sephardim.

“But all Jews care about the same things,” Gavrielov reminded me. “We all want to be together…and we want a fish on the table for Friday dinner.”

Angela Natnova, 17, works behind the counter at Berezka #1 Deli. His mother, who immigrated to the United States from Russia in the 1990s, was friends with Gavrielov and helped Natnova get the job. Living five minutes away in a Russian-speaking neighborhood, Natnova described how “it is difficult for [immigrants] learn the language and go through all the customs… It’s very different here than there.

Immigrants are created at their destination, not at their departure.

Glancing at the door to check if any new customers have entered, she continued, “Everyone who shops here speaks Russian, and the majority of the customers are Jewish.”

I still didn’t know what to do with pork salami. Natnova just shrugged. “I mean, I’m Jewish but I’m not religious at all,” she said, “so I have no problem.”

After all, even in Israel, Russian immigrant communities continue to sell pork in their grocery stores.

“The Soviet understanding of Judaism is that it is an ethnicity and a culture, and has nothing to do with religion,” Olga Litvak, professor Laurie B. and Eric, told me later. M. Roth of Modern European Jewish History at Cornell University, discussing how the communist leadership of the Soviet Union transformed what it meant to be Jewish. “The only thing the Soviet Union insisted on [Jews’] heads is that they’re profoundly modern… and keeping kosher, for example, isn’t modern because it involves someone telling you what you can and can’t do.

Heavily influenced by the politics of its speakers, the Russian language – Gavrielov’s mother tongue – does not even have a world of its own for religion, underlining the depth with which Russia views the practice unfavorably. Rather, the term Russian speakers most commonly use to describe the phenomenon is the English equivalent of “clericalism.” But the exact Russian translation and less used for religion, религия, (pronounced religiona) is a term borrowed from Latin.

“Jewishness for Soviets is very secular,” Litvak said. The reasons are historical; in a Soviet world where “religion is bad and culture is good,” she says, Jewishness fits that mold.

After the immigration of Soviet Jews and the collapse of the USSR, these secular sentiments continued to prevail among Soviet Jews. From Forest Hills to Brighton Beach, to neighborhoods where windows are adorned with Cyrillic signs and where Berezka is not the only Jewish grocery store selling pork, Soviet Jews remain alienated from the American Jewish experience.

“Immigrants are created at their destination,” Litvak said, “not at their departure.”

A customer named Irene, who asked not to disclose her last name for privacy reasons, placed an order with Natnova which included voice, a salted dried fish usually eaten with beer and thinly sliced ​​Hungarian salami.

“You have to realize that most of us here come from the Soviet Union – where there was hunger, where there was ‘equality’, which certainly wasn’t ‘equality’,” said Irene, using quotes. She left Georgia with her parents when she was 19 and first immigrated to Israel, where she went to medical school and became a pharmacist, before the family moved to New York for the his father’s job.

As Natnova returned the deli meats to the counter, Irene described how that purchase would have been impossible for her mother in Georgia. “Food is how we stay connected to our culture, our traditions,” Irene continued. “Any nostalgia you might have for food, you can satisfy it here.”

Ariel Khavasov, 17, is the son of Jewish immigrants from Bukhara from Uzbekistan. Food, he told me, is his legacy: “Food is how we keep our culture. Most cultures have their own style of cooking, but ours is a mix of many things.

When I asked her about the Bukhara community in Forest Hills, her face lit up. “You’re often surrounded by your own people, it’s amazing,” he said. “That’s the beauty of America – you can immigrate here and you can still speak the same language where you come from. There are people I know in my community who never even needed to learn English.

Without hesitation, Khavasov continued: “Jews in Bukhara value family very much. We will work hard for our family. My dad works 12-hour shifts every day, for the family. The personal unit comes second, and the family unit comes first.

Berezka #1 Deli is neither American nor Israeli – he’s not trying to be something he’s not. Berezka is where Bulgarian cow cheese exists next to The Laughing Cow, where the Uncle Sam poster hangs next to a poster of a rabbi, where you wonder if Chanel bags that surround you were purchased around the corner next door or at the brand’s store in downtown. For Soviet Jews, it’s the best place they come from, it’s home: where everyone speaks the same language and eats the same food.

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