Is it good for the Russian Jews?
Or, put another way, what are the good people of Peoria (or pick another unpretentious heartland town) to make of the bling and Botox and bottle-blondeness so garishly on display in Brighton Beach?
Those are the questions buzzing around Brooklyn’s Russian epicenter this week in the wake of last week’s debut of “Russian Dolls,” the new Lifetime TV reality show set in the glamorous nightclubs and opulent bathhouses of Brighton Beach.
Last November scores of community activists and elected officials sent a letter of protest to Lifetime complaining about advance reports indicating that the show would be a vodka-soaked copy of MTV’s stereotype-drenched “Jersey Shore.” They argued “Russian Dolls” would damage the reputation of the Russian-speaking community in the way that Italian-Americans feel Snooki and company have hurt their image.
Representatives of Lifetime subsequently played down the “Jersey Shore” comparisons that they had trumpeted in the casting calls; they stressed instead that “Russian Dolls” would be a more nuanced production focusing on intergenerational relations in the Russian-speaking community.
Yet after the Aug. 11 airing of the show’s first episode, many community activists and everyday Russians on the Brighton Beach boardwalk are again speaking out against the show. “Russian Dolls” chronicles the doings of a posse of (how shall we say?) bimboesque Russian-speaking women ranging in age from early 20s to mid-50s, whose main interests appear to be enjoying la dolce vita in clubs like Rasputin and treating themselves to frequent treatments of cosmetic surgery.
The protesters contend that the show’s first episode played into the worst stereotypes of the Russian community — of being relentlessly materialistic and hedonistic.
Yet others, including one of the creators of the show and several of its stars, are calling on the critics to lighten up. They contend that celebration of wealth and status is indeed part of the fabric of the community. And that while “Russian Dolls” may never be mentioned alongside “War and Peace,” it has brought the Russian-speaking community for the first time into the consciousness of mainstream America.
Alina Dizik, a freelance writer, who together with Elina Miller is half of a team of Russian-born Jewish women in their late 20s who immigrated to the U.S. as children, sold Lifetime on the concept of “a reality show about Russian-speaking immigrants”; today the two women serve as co-executive producers of the program.
“We are pleased with the end product,” Dizik said. “Not even those who are critical of the show argue that what we show in ‘Russian Dolls’ doesn’t happen in the community. They just say that is not all that happens. But this show is meant as entertainment and as a chance to get a glimpse into the lives of members of an immigrant community who are American without having yet become fully American.”
“If you want Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, watch the History Channel, but if you want good entertainment, check out ‘Russian Dolls,’” said Michael Levitis, the 34-year-old owner of Rasputin, Brighton Beach’s swankiest nightclub, where many of the show’s scenes take place. His 56-year-old mother, Eva, and 34-year-old wife Marina are among the main characters featured in the show.
“We are proud that the show has raised awareness of the community to the national and international level,” said Levitis, interviewed with his mother and wife in his ultra-modern Manhattan Beach mansion. “The publicity generated by the show will lead many non-Russians to check out what is going on in Brighton Beach, and that will be good for Rasputin and for many other businesses in the community.”
For her part, Eva Levitis — a bleached blonde with wavy hair who looks at least 20 years younger than her age, and who stood out in the first episode for winning a Baushka (grandma) talent contest in which she performed an undulating dance in a skimpy outfit — believes that she, her son and daughter-in-law can serve as “role models” for the community.
“My family started out on welfare when we first arrived here in 1988, but we worked very hard and climbed the corporate ladder, and now live an exciting life filled with colorful people,” she said. As for her sexy dance in “Russian Dolls,” Eva said, “In Russia, you were always being judged, but in America we are supposed to be free to express ourselves. That is what I am doing at this point in my life. I have absolutely nothing to hide.”
Ari Kagan, a Russian-language journalist and political activist, who narrowly lost a race for New York State Assembly in 2006, has a very different perspective.
Asked whether he considers the Levitis family (Michael Levitis was given three years probation and a $15,000 fine earlier this month after pleading guilty to lying to FBI agents about a matter concerning state Sen. Carl Kruger) to be role models for the community, Kagan responded, “Not even close.”
“They are giving ammunition to the destructive myth that women in our community are calculating creatures who are only about nightclubs, bling and Botox,” Kagan said. “No doubt the show will be good for business at Rasputin, but at the cost of degrading the entire community.”
Also criticizing “Russian Dolls” is Leah Moses, a reporter and commentator for Russian Advertising, a popular Russian-language weekly based in Brighton Beach. She pointed to the curious absence of the word “Jew” in the first episode of “Russian Dolls,” and to the tendency of all of the main characters to refer to themselves only as “Russian” even though most are clearly Jewish. During the first episode, 23-year-old Diana Kosov, who wears a Star of David around her neck, breaks up with her Latino boyfriend, despite her expressed affection for him and his Maserati, after informing him she would only consider marrying a “Russian.”
According to Moses, “In that scene, everyone understands that Diana means she cannot allow herself to marry a non-Jew, but she uses the code word ‘Russian’ in place of ‘Jew’ or ‘Russian Jew’.”
Arguing that as the percentage of Jews in the Russian-speaking community in South Brooklyn has receded from over 80 percent to 60 percent or less in recent years, even prominent Russian Jews have become more inclined to speak publicly of the community as “Russian-speaking” rather than “Russian Jewish.” (An influx of ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Uzbeks and others accounts for the drop-off.)
Moses observed, “We are seeing an ongoing de-Judaization of this community, and what we see in ‘Russian Dolls’ confirms that it has become politically incorrect to use the word ‘Jew’ in many situations.”
Asked about the issue, Dizik countered, “The reality is that for most Russian-speaking Jews, it is hard to disentangle their Russian-ness from their Jewishness.” Dizik said she does not believe that Lifetime pressured Kosov to refer to herself as “Russian” rather than as “Jewish” during the breakup scene, and said she is confident that Jewish themes will be explored in later episodes of the show.
Two Russian-speaking rabbis who work together in the high-powered Brighton-based Russian American Jewish Experience (RAJE), a group that provides outreach programs to young secular Russian Jews, have very different takes on the meaning of “Russian Dolls.”
Rabbi Moshe Soloway, who works as a public relations professional but counsels young people on Judaism and Jewish identity at RAJE and other community programs, said, “I see reality shows in general, and this one in particular, as destructive of the Judaic concept of Tzelem Elohim [human beings being created in the image of God]. Instead of showing people conducting themselves with dignity and self-respect, this program is all about how decadent you can behave and how much bling you can buy. They call it ‘reality’ television, but it actually distorts reality; making people seem more debased than they are in real life.”
Yet Rabbi Mordecai Tokarsky, president of RAJE, said that overall he had a favorable response to the first episode of “Russian Dolls.” “Any reality show is obviously exaggerated and cannot be taken too seriously,” he said. “Still, it was good that the producers showed the guts to stand up against intermarriage. Yes, Diana called herself ‘Russian’ instead of ‘Jewish’; but the basic concept that one should marry inside one’s own community was upheld.” Rabbi Tokarsky added. “To compare ‘Russian Dolls’ to ‘Jersey Shore’ is like comparing animal life to plant life. ‘Russian Dolls’ is much better.”
Others in the community had the opposite impression. “‘Jersey Shore’ may be an incredibly idiotic show, but at least its characters have the excuse of being young and stupid to explain their behavior,” said Inga Kotlovsky, 45, of Forest Hills, Queens, who works in advertising. “The ‘Russian Dolls’ characters range from their 20s to their 50s, but in my opinion they are even more repellent than the ‘Jersey Shore’ kids. It upsets me deeply that this awful show is going to reinforce all of the ugliest and most inaccurate stereotypes of the community to which I belong.”
Mattvei Shargarodsky, a manager at the Brighton Beach Bazaar food store, who is in late middle age, was more sanguine about the authenticity of “Russian Dolls.”
“I don’t have a problem with a show that presents women in our community as being beautiful and dressing up to go to Rasputin and show off their beauty,” he said. “It is also quite true that a lot of people in our community are interested in making money and acquiring possessions. Some people prefer not to acknowledge that, but that’s the way it is in this community and in many others as well.”