Decorating our lives: what’s in a tchotchke?


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Since coming to the U.S. in 1989, I’ve given considerable thought to my dual (or triple, if you include Jewish) identity on many occasions. I’ve thought about what it means to be an American citizen, but to always feel distinctly “other.” I’ve thought about what it’s like to be a Jew in America and where my obligations and loyalties lie. I’ve thought about the benefits and the pitfalls of having been raised in another culture until almost age nine. But whatever I’ve thought about in terms of my Russian heritage, I can promise you that my mind never turned to couches or rugs or matryeshkas (the Russian nesting dolls you see pictured above). That is, not until Lea Zeltserman provoked me to think about exactly that.

Growing up, I think we had all the typical Russian furniture and accoutrements. When we fled the country though, it wasn’t as though we could take any of it with us. However, we did take several enormous suitcases filled with all sorts of stuff like this (only ours was less fancy I think; the Target/Wal-Mart version if you will :-)).

I didn’t know it then, but it was all slated to be a source of income for us when we lived in Italy for three months awaiting our American visas which were granted via lottery. My father carted a ton of this stuff as well as non-perishable (I hope!) Russian foodstuffs like salami and caviar to open air markets every Sunday. But there was still a ton left after we got to the U.S. We dipped into it for years for the purposes of gift-giving to our American friends and relatives who of course found it all incredibly charming. The question is, did my family feel the same way?

While I don’t recall the antipathy that Lea described in her original post, we definitely didn’t go out of our way to Russian-ize our home and the more time passed, the more I think we got away from any kind of Slavic aesthtetic. Save for some dishes, bowls and food storage containers that stubbornly continue to exist in my mother’s kitchen, nothing remains. True, there are some books which my highly literate parents apparently couldn’t eschew. Russian movies are ubiqutous as well, but even these remnants are at the parental home which I don’t live in anymore. When I look around my townhouse, I see zero traces of anything Russian (or Jewish for that matter). I never gave it a second thought, but I think it makes me a bit sad. It’s as if I’ve completely sublimated my past and heritage without even realizing what I was doing.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve now spent much more of my life here than I ever did in the USSR. And they’ve been the formative years. I graduated high school and college here. I met my husband here (and I should note that he is as American as it gets) and now we’re expecting our first child here. My family never lived in the heavily Russian areas around Chicago (at least not intentionally) and I had few Russian friends growing up.

To some extent, I think all of these were conscious choices and, I think, emblematic of the constant push and pull of the immigrant experience. Your past will at times be reviled and willfully forgotten in favor of a perceived brighter future. But in some ways your adopted country will never feel 100% like home and your desire to belong will never truly be fulfilled. Thus my acceptance of Russian tchotchkes is destined to be about the same as my comfort with Pottery Barn throw pillows and Crate & Barrel china. Now that I’ve realized all this, I think I’ll try to add some touches from my former homeland to my decor. After all, it’s (partly) who I am :-)


  1. Anonymous July 15, 2011

    I’m third/fourth-generation Scandinavian American (depending on which side of the family you’re talking about), and my parents’ and grandparents’ houses always had Norwegian/Swedish/ Danish tchotchkes in it, long before Ikea became ubiquitous. Trivets with Norwegian inscriptions. “Welcome” (Velkommen) signs decorated with rosemaling. Norwegian sweaters. Swedish Dala horses. And anything with a Viking or “Uff da” on it. Growing up, I was baffled when friends of mine didn’t know where they came from, or did but didn’t have any sign of it in their home.

    I think the affinity for your family heritage — and the expression of it within your home — has everything to do with the reasons your family left and the length of time they’ve been in America. As for my own home, it’s light on tchotchkes, but there’s a Dala horse at my front door. Right by the Velkommen sign.

  2. Anna Tarkov July 15, 2011

    I think it also has a lot to do with the reasons people left. The USSR was the only home Russian Jews had, but it was hardly ideal, hence the gut-wrenching decision to leave. It’s not like a British or Japanese person coming to live in America, it’s a completely different set of feelings.

  3. Anonymous July 15, 2011

    Your feelings will probably change as you become a mom, too. (Congratulations, by the way.)

  4. Anonymous October 18, 2011

    Agreed! The key is, as you say, “to add some touches,” and not turn your home into a kitchy souvenir shop. I recently moved across the country with just two suitcases, but my matryoshkas, surprisingly, made their way into one of them. A gentle reminder of the complex identity :).

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