I had a strange, somewhat uncomfortable experience the other week. I happened to meet a certain woman. Like most people here, she was interested to know that I was English (“I’ve never seen one before,” she said, before taking hold of my shoulders and examining me from every angle, including looking in my ears).
We happened to be sitting at a dinner table at the time, and when I declined her kind offer of some bread and salami on the grounds that I can’t eat pork, she asked “what, English people don’t eat pork?” I explained that it’s not because I’m English, but because I’m Jewish, and that’s when the madness started.
“You’re Jewish? How interesting. You don’t look like a Jew.”
“How so?” I asked.
“Well…you’re pretty. Jews aren’t usually pretty.”
When pushed for justification, all she gave me was,
“Well…okay, maybe they’re not so ugly. But they’re not usually very attractive.They usually all look the same. Trust me, I know – I’ve worked with lots of Jewish people. They’re not so nice. You’re so much nicer, and so much prettier.”
The conversation went on in this vein for a while. Then (of course) she asked me if I had a boyfriend. When I answered that, no, I don’t she said:
“Well, great, you can find yourself a Russian boyfriend! But wait…are Jews allowed to date non-Jews?”
I explained that it really depends on the individual – some do and some don’t – but personally, I have no problem dating non-Jews. As a matter of fact, I’ve never gone out with a Jewish guy.
“Oh, good,” she said, “you don’t want to date a Jewish guy. Really. Much better not to. Find yourself a Russian.”
The strange thing about this conversation was that she seemed to think she was being really nice to me. I don’t think she was malicious – just ignorant, and I found that sad. She couldn’t see why her comments might be considered hurtful, or even accept that they weren’t the objective truth. She insisted on telling me about my own people, as if she knew best – she has, after all, worked with lots of Jewish people. I almost felt like a child being scolded at school.
I feel like I ought to add that this is the first such experience I’ve had in Samara (or indeed elsewhere). There is a sizeable Jewish community here, and although not all that many people know much about Judaism, in general, most are interested to learn and understand.
However, I often hear similar comments from well-educated people about other groups: muslims, homosexuals, black people and – most often of all – people from the North Caucasus. As with the lady from my anecdote, I think that deep down it doesn’t stem from malice, but rather, from a lack of understanding (cliche though it might sound) and a deeply troubled history.
I don’t yet know enough about the nature of this hostility to make a reasoned judgement. Nonetheless, I do find these kinds of comments very hard to stomach, and I frequently find myself in a position where I have to choose between keeping quiet on an issue that bothers me and risking alienating people I respect.
I don’t expect to be able to provide any answers yet; but I do have a lot of questions. To what extent are these attitudes prevalent? Or founded? Or mutual (people from the North Caucasus can be just as hostile to Russians as the other way round, it seems)? Maybe the nine months that I have left in Russia will shed some light on the issue. But then again, maybe not.