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Grigory Pasko: Encounters with Modern Racism in the Real Russia

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Thy tongue – thine enemy

Grigory Pasko, journalist

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For starters, a joke. A man comes to a rabbi:
“Rebbe, I’m a Jew, but I don’t know the language or the customs or the history of my people. Where should I start in order to become a real Jew?”
The rabbi replies:
“On Friday evening, drink a glass of good wine.”
“That’s all?”
“For starters… that’s enough.”

And now, a story. This happened not so long ago. At the start of the winter I was changing the rubber on the car. Also standing in the queue for the tire shop was the «zhigul» [a «Zhiguli», the ubiquitous Russian car known as a «Lada» abroad–Trans.] of a young person – a typical Muscovite: insolent, with a beer belly, a blabbermouth…He, looking at the Tadjiks, or maybe it was Moldovans, toiling in the tire shop, produced a monologue of approximately such a content:


“Yeah, no, wherever you look, there’s these black-asses everywhere…They’re like the Jews already: that whole kahal’s in the movieindustry, and in politics … Sticking their noses into everything. Yeah,no, they’re all over the place, the balbesy [dumb-asses]… Don’t knowhow $to do nuthin’. Only thing you can trust ’em with is a broom.”

“Checkthis out, so my friends and I here, we wuz talkin’, over at thefootball game, you know, «¡Olé! ¡Olé!» we wuz shoutin’, had ourselves afew beers, but to get home – everywhere on a «privateer» [a private carwhose owner earns money by working as an informal taxi, a ubiquitousphenomenon in Russia–Trans.] – «blacks» [racial labels are a bitconfusing in Russia: «causasians» does not mean «whites», it meansolive-skinned, dark-haired people from the Caucasus, who arederogatorily called «black», along with Central Asians, Moldovans,etc.–Trans.]. And they don’t know the city [to be fair, many «white»taxi drivers don’t either–Trans.]. Boy, that was a real khokhma[laugh]! Had to explain how to go. Nishtyak [no sweat], we made itback, I guess… Good thing we didn’t run into any musor [cops].”

I interrupted the blabbermouth with the phrase:

“You , I see, you don’t like all non-Russians?”

“What’s to like about ’em?”

“And yet here you are speaking Jewish languages yourself…”

His eyes bugged out in amazement.  AndI, as best I could, explained to him that the word «kahal» in Hebrewmeans “crowd”; «balbesy» – comes from balebosim – that’s how Jewsironically called a married young person living as a dependent of hiswife’s parents. The word «balagur» – also not Russian. It derives frombalegoleh, which in Hebrew means – a cabbie, a person who sells waterfrom a cart. The figurative meaning – a coarse and uncouth peasant. Ole- in Hebrew – rising or simply forward. So Muscovite and other footballfans, when they shout «¡Olé, olé, olé! Go, Russia», are in actualityusing not the Russian language. The word “khokhma”, which has acquiredin the Russian language the meaning of “a joke”, derives from theHebrew word for “wisdom”.

And even the word «nishtyak», which Russian zeks and denizens have sofallen in love with, has Jewish roots: nisht in Yiddish means«nothing». And the widely spread in Russia word «musor» – this is nomore and no less than ancient Hebrew – «admonition, indication». That’show they were calling criminal investigation employees even back intsarist Russia. In modern Jewish, muser – is an informant.

Then I really got him with a phrase about how the hero of Russianfolk epics, the legendary Sadko, bears a Jewish name. For Sadko — thisis a Slavic form of the name Sadok, related to the word «tzaddik» («arighteous and just man»).

The blabbermouth shut up. Then he crawled back into his auto andfrom there looked at me silently and malevolently. As if though I hadliterally snatched something sacred and dear away from him.

There are many in Russia like this Muscovite. Their shortcoming -not insolence and a beer belly, no. Their misfortune – a lack of educationin elementary questions. For example, in questions of history. Fromhere, by the way, comes their notion that the Soviet Union all byitself, without anybody’s help, defeated fascist Germany. And if youask any schoolchild whose son Ivan the Terrible was and in what year heruled the country, far from every one will answer. At best, they’llremember the comedic film «Ivan Vasilievich changes profession». ThisIlliteracy is also being cultivated by the power, the higherrepresentatives of which are convinced that Stalin was an «effectivemanager»…

I could continue with the examples. But they aren’t the point. Thepoint is that in contemporary Russia, the state is cultivating an asyet not based on anything sense of superiority of Russians over otherpeoples – be it Tadjiks or Jews. We’ve already gone through all thisbefore in our history… And no good ever came of this haughtiness.Because you should be proud not of missiles and power, but of yourmind. And if you shout «¡Olé, Russia!», then it wouldn’t be a bad ideato learn the history of both «¡Olé!» and Russia.

…If my fellow countryman – the statistical average Russian – hadlistened to the advice of the rebbe, or of an Orthodox clergyman, todrink a glass of wine for starters, I think that that’s right where hiscomprehension of the science of being Russian would end.

Photo: Muscovite skinkhedy – another fine Russian word. (Source)

P.S. The author picked up his modest knowledge of Jewish words from the”Pocket Jewish Encyclopedia” (“Карманная еврейская энциклопедия»,«Feniks» publishing house, Rostov-on-Don, 2001). [Translator’s note:The translator, who does not know Yiddish or Hebrew, does not take anyresponsibility for the accuracy of the translations of the Jewish wordsin this article!]