Thank you to Julia Bendis for sharing this excerpt from her book, No Smiling Allowed: Growing up in Soviet Russia and other funny stories from a Jewish immigrant.
ABOUT NO SMILING ALLOWED: This book is a comedic take on life in the former Soviet Union, as an immigrant in America. Bendis has compiled many years of funny stories about her old-fashioned and traditional Russian parents, their understanding of how life works in the United States, their hilarious adventures, and her own younger generation’s view of what it was like to blend in as a weird-looking kid from Russia. The audiobook follows Julia and her family from their life in Riga, Latvia, which was part of the former Soviet Union, through their move to California and all the adventures in between. Who knew that assimilation in a new country could have so many hilarious twists and turns? “Grandma started running around with a metal pot, asking all the neighborhood kids to sit and pee in it. That’s a sight I will never forget. She was a tough Ukrainian Jew that survived the war, so no kid wanted to ask questions. They just sat on it and peed in that pot.”
A Soviet Childhood: Excerpt courtesy of Julia Bendis
My life began on a hot and humid day in June of 1976, in a big town called Dnepropetrovsk, which is in Ukraine. Try saying that name a few times! Everyone remembers what the weather was like on the day they were born, right? Obviously not a single person in my family remembers what type of day it was, I am only assuming that it was hot and humid since summers in Ukraine are equivalent to the summers in the south here in the states—stifling hot, suffocating and full of mosquitos. Of course there was no such thing as air conditioning back in Soviet Russia either. The only reason I was born in Ukraine and not in Riga, Latvia where we lived, was because my mom wanted to deliver me in her native land surrounded by family and friends. The phrase “it takes a village” comes to mind, and it’s very much how our life was back in Soviet Union. Between neighbors, friends and family we had a good village looking out for my brother and I, while both of my parents had to work.
I’d like to think that my thirteen years of life in Latvia was filled with the happiest of memories, although my parents and grandparents don’t quite share the same sentiment. After all, how happy can life be when you live in a Communist regime right? Government constantly looking over your shoulder, and forget about freedom of expression, press, religion or going to the bathroom with a closed door for that matter. You think I’m joking, but when Soviet people talk about communal bathrooms, they don’t mean typical public bathrooms we enjoy here in America, where toilets have doors for privacy, and toilet paper doesn’t rip your privates apart; I literally mean everyone can see everything you are doing, and you think twice about using toilet paper out of fear of what sand paper could do to your behind. Sometimes you got lucky and found a public bathroom with a door in it, but most times you were shit out of luck, literally. But for me, growing up in Soviet Union was filled with good memories. Sure, we didn’t have luxuries like fancy clothes, normal toilet paper that didn’t give you sores, or exotic fruit like bananas or fruit of any kind for that matter and forget having green vegetables. (I didn’t see a real banana ‘til I was in America). And don’t get me started on the censorship over what music you listened to or what movies you could watch; everyone besides high politicians lived in tiny apartments, some having to share a kitchen with a whole other family, as in actual communal apartments. Where was I going with this? Oh, yes, my beautiful life back home; If you really think about it, we were surrounded by a loving family, grandparents and cousins not to mention lifelong friends that made even the hardest of days seem brighter, which is really the only thing that a child needs in life.
I will talk more about this later, but life in Latvia was a tad better than in the rest of the Soviet Union. The Baltic States or Republics as they were known back then, which comprised of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia never wanted to be a part of Soviet Union, which of course didn’t stop Stalin from occupying all three countries and making them part of the Russian Empire. I think it’s in the Russian DNA: if we want something there is nothing in the world that will stop us from achieving it, whether it’s climbing the corporate ladder or invading foreign countries. To Russians especially it doesn’t really matter much what the task is, if it’s something they deeply desire and simply cannot live without, you bet it will happen! I think it’s also why Russian women are so good at getting what they want, especially as it pertains to our love life and settling down. I tell my sons to be careful dating Russian women, and to be even more careful dating the Jewish Russian ones. One minute you are happily single, enjoying the bachelor lifestyle and the next thing you are married with 2.5 kids, a house in the suburbs and a Volvo station wagon in the driveway. We rake you in with our charm and dry sense of humor, not to mention our skills in the bedroom, and by the time you realize what’s happening it’s too late because now you have a mortgage and kids’ college to pay for. But I digress…
My point here is this: Russians/Ukrainians/anyone from the former Soviet countries are the most hard working and skilled people you will ever meet. We literally invented the phrase ‘work ‘til you are dead’ because that has always been the reality of our culture, and why Soviet immigrants end up so successful in foreign lands, but rarely do they enjoy life. I honestly never thought that my parents would ever retire, and my dad probably never will because as he put it, ‘I don’t know what I will do with myself if I don’t work. The day I stop working is the day you should probably just bury me…’ Actually I think he said give me a day to relax and then kill me. Did I mention that we are also overly dramatic and a bit morbid?
From a very early age I remember being a hard worker and trying to be a good student. I purposely didn’t say that I was a good student because school never came easy for me, I hated everything about it except for the social aspect, of course. My brother always said that I had a gift of gab, and it only developed stronger and stronger over the years. I was, however, a big stickler for rules, and could not stand kids that slacked off or didn’t follow rules. Even as a kid it bothered me so much that I made sure to lecture everyone who broke the rules, pointing out that if they continued down that path, they would undoubtedly become losers living with their mothers. The problem with that argument is that most people in Russia and other Soviet countries ended up living with their mothers their entire life, so my point was moot. Not only would people live with their mothers, but also fathers, grandparents and sometimes aunts and uncles along with all of their children. You could say I was a tightly wound individual even as a child; I wouldn’t, but you could. Maybe it’s the communist culture or just who I am, but everything in my life had to make sense and more importantly everyone had to follow the rules and guidelines set in place. These rules and guidelines were mostly of my own doing, which is absurd for a child, and even more ridiculous when you see no other children being that anal and actually just being children and enjoying life.
In all of my forty-plus years on earth, I can honestly say that I have only enjoyed life about a handful of times. And it was no more than ten minutes at a time the most, mainly because I would start to panic that I’m forgetting something or missing an important event or God forbid, actually having a good time! I did not like change, and according to my mom, had a strict morning regimen even as young as three-years-old. When we got ready for the day, there was a constant and never-ending battle with my wardrobe. Apparently, I had to wear a particular outfit every day of the week, on my own accord of course, but the issue was that it also varied every day, and my poor mom could not keep up with my changing moods. For example, on Mondays I had to wear a dress with flowers on it so if I wasn’t given that particular dress I would throw a fit. We didn’t own a washing machine, in fact most people didn’t and had to wash clothes by hand and then let them hang to dry, which meant that people wore things more than once because the whole washing and drying process would take forever. I would cry and yell until I got the dress that I wanted. I refused to wear pants, because apparently in my little three-year-old mind no girl wears pants. Let’s just say I came out of my mother’s womb already filled with ideas of how life should be and who was going to be in charge and it was certainly not going to be my parents. I believe this psychotic routine was finally put to rest when my uncle came to visit; he observed the madness one morning and ended it with a threat to give me away if I didn’t stop being a little brat. You see my uncle Misha was the very definition of a tough Russian/Ukrainian guy; he served in the Russian army and was probably the only Jew in history to be physically and mentally feared by his fellow army comrades.
I believe his exact words were, (please read with a heavy Russian accent): “My little Yulia, you keep zis up and I personally give you new home in Siberia. No problem, very easy to do!” Russians love to say “no problem” because we can always find a solution to any problem, and I mean any. As soon as my Uncle left, I am fairly certain I found a new problem to throw a tantrum about.
Julia Bendis is a matchmaker, author, mother and relationship educator. Julia is a third generation matchmaker, who specializes in intimacy, dating and relationship coaching. She recently published a comedic book about life in the former Soviet Union, it is available in print and as an audiobook on Amazon Audible. ‘No Smiling Allowed: Growing up in Soviet Russia and other funny stories from a Jewish immigrant’ is a culmination of short stories about life in the USSR, moving to America and what it was like to navigate a completely foreign life, culture and language.
Julia was born in the former Soviet Union, Ukraine to be precise and lived in Latvia with her family. They immigrated to California in 1989 right before the collapse of Soviet Union. She decided to start her matchmaking and coaching business after matching people as a hobby her entire life. Matchmaking is literally in her blood; she watched her grandmother and mother set people up feeling that she too has a keen intuition for matchmaking and bringing people together.
Food, intimacy and human connections are the most important aspects of life and why Julia spends her life educating people about love, sex and how to date properly…
With each client, Julia gets to know them on a personal level, their needs, wants and desires for their future mate. After the initial meeting, Julia personally hand selects a potential match from her database, by meeting and recruiting new clientele, or through her large network of other matchmakers. When a potential client is not ready for dating, Julia focuses on coaching and guidance for their future. When she isn’t working (which seems to be all the time) she is meddling into her sons’ love lives, cooking for her loved ones and helping those in need. Julia’s passions have always been helping victims of human trafficking, those in abusive relationships and women’s rights. Recently with the invasion and war unfolding in Ukraine, Julia has been helping with translations, donations and helping the Ukrainian people in any way possible.