In the first episode of “Russian Dolls,” a new Lifetime reality show set in Brooklyn and billed as a cross between “Jersey Shore” and the “Real Housewives” franchise, a 23-year-old bleached blonde spends a lot of time fretting about her new boyfriend, who drives a Maserati and lavishes her with gifts, but who is unfit to bring home to her parents. The problem?
“He’s Spanish and I’m Russian,” Diana Kosov explains. “In this community, if I date someone who’s not Russian, it’s a big deal.”
Later, her mother, Anna, shows up to prove the point.
“I would like you marrying Russian guy,” she tells her daughter as they make borscht. “We have same kultur. It’s very important, you understand?”
The astute viewer will notice that in both interludes, Kosov wears a large Star of David pendant above her dramatically pushed-up cleavage. In a recent phone interview, she said the message she heard was clear: “I’m looking for a Russian Jewish guy.”
But on the show, the word “Jewish” never enters the dialogue — not in an aside to the camera, not with Kosov’s mother and not, eventually, with boyfriend Paul, who gets the heave-ho.
“My parents, they came to America for a reason,” Kosov says earnestly.
“To look for Russians?” Paul retorts.
“Yeah,” Kosov replies, without elaboration.
The pattern repeats itself throughout “Russian Dolls,” which is centered in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, long a Jewish neighborhood and today dominated by Russian Jewish émigrés. Its characters, almost all of them Jewish, arrived in the largest historical movement of Jews in the postwar era — but aren’t explicitly introduced as Jews.
It’s tempting to chalk up the disconnect to the producers’ desire to expand their potential audience, or their attempt to head off criticism from the Brooklyn Jewish community, which circulated petitions last winter objecting to the program’s display of outrageous materialism.
But this show, as trashy and juvenile as any other reality TV, reveals a deeper sociological truth: These Soviet Jews, in some cases persecuted in their native country for being Jews, didn’t come to New York for the freedom to live as Jews — or, for that matter, to assimilate as Americans.
What “Russian Dolls” confirms is that 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its Jewish exiles have found in America a place where they can finally live freely as Russians.
“For most Russian Jews it’s so entangled,” said show creator Alina Dizik, about religious and national identity. “You really can’t separate one from the other, and most of us are so secular that a lot of the Jewish traditions get mixed up with the Russian traditions.”
She added that getting a reality show is proof that the Russian community has arrived. As the promo says, “The Russians aren’t coming, the Russians are here.” The goal was to broadcast some hallmarks of Russian-American life without diving into the details of the Cold War.
“We tried to explain as much as possible without being boring,” she said. “There’s no Russian history, but we explain what a banya [steam bath] is and what some of the customs are in terms of going out to eat, and family relationships.”
The Brighton Beach nightclub Michael Levitis runs with his wife, Marina, is called Rasputin and operates in high Moscow style, with a cabaret dinner show and a menu of shellfish and other nonkosher luxuries.
“To American people, especially outside of New York, if you came from Russia, you’re Russian,” Marina Levitis said on the phone. But, she added, “We don’t pretend to be Russian Russian. We don’t pretend to be anything other than what we are.”
She’s right: As with Kosov’s Star of David necklace, there are plenty of subtle clues that the Levitises are Jews. The show’s intro montage includes a wedding glamour shot in which Michael sports a velvet kippah, and the camera pans over a doorpost mezuzah. But the show doesn’t explain that they met as students at Jewish high schools and send their own children to a yeshiva elementary school. Instead it plays up their mini-oligarch habits. In an on-camera shopping spree, Marina tries on a $28,000 pair of 11-carat diamond bangles, noting approvingly, “Big and blingy and definitely Russian style.”
Meanwhile, Michael’s 56-year-old mother, Eva, reveals her long-dormant dream to be onstage and enters her Slavic belly-dancing act in a local talent show.
“I was in Russia engineer,” Eva tells Marina. “All my life I loved to sing and dance, but I never had a chance to do this in Russia.”
In New York, she does.
Reprinted from Tabletmag.com, a daily online magazine of news, ideas and culture. JTA distributed this article.
“Russian Dolls” airs at10:30 p.m. Thursdays on Lifetime TV.