Just like there is a specific order for prayers in a synagogue, there is a defined set of rules for topics to be discussed weekly by the older generation as they stand waist deep in a pool under the warm Florida sun. In essence, the synagogue has moved outside and there are many advantages to this new version. For one, you don’t need to learn another language like Hebrew. Another is that you don’t have to dress up; actually, it’s the opposite, you undress and all that’s expected is shorts, T-shirt, sandals and towel. And last, and probably most important, everyone is an authority; in other words, everyone is their own rabbi.
Still, rules are rules, and they must be followed. This isn’t a free for all, but a civilized conversation of learned men.
First, you discuss your own ailments. Then you discuss your wife’s ailments. Then you sympathize, nodding and patting your compatriots on the shoulder as they discuss their ailments and that of their wife. What follows next is a vociferous and lively debate about whose ailments are worse. And woe to the simpleton who merely states his medical history as “I am scheduled for a bypass.” Such a person should not even be in the pool and may be uninvited from future pool gatherings unless they’re a newcomer and haven’t learned the ropes yet. Every statement about your medical history is like a legal argument to a judge and must be accompanied by extensive proof, citing names of doctors and medical charts; by the way, doctors presumes specialists such as cardiologists and surgeons, not primary care physicians.
The second topic is a full community list of funerals and celebrations: who passed away, whose birthday is it or whose anniversary is it and whether it’s a round figure or not. If it’s not a round figure, then it’s just dinner at their house (not as exciting), but if it’s a round figure like 70 or 80 for a birthday or 40 or 50 for an anniversary, that’s a whole mini conference in and of itself: where will it be held with pros and cons of each Russian restaurant and band, what food will be served and how much money to give as a present. This last one is crucial information because it’s shameful to bring $50 to a banquet where each place setting is $75 per person. You would become an outcast in the émigré community, your faux pas the talk of future banquets to which you are not invited. The only exception to these conventions is Americans who bring a bottle of wine no matter what restaurant they attend since they’re not privy (thank God) to all the minuscule details I’ve just described.
The third topic is a quick rundown of what stores have what sales. This is somewhat similar to a ticker for the stock market, but the prices of Amazon, Google, etc., are replaced by Walmart, Costco and the local supermarket. Naturally, the winner is the store with the biggest sale.
The last topic is an update on the professions of children and grandchildren slaving away in the frigid northern climes of Chicago, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. It is this most important topic that gives my grandfather the most consternation.
“So, what does your grandson do there in Boston?” – Kolya, one of his pool buddies, begins the inquiry.
“He is a professor” – my grandfather answers proudly.
Now granted a professor is not in the highest pantheon of émigré jobs like doctor, lawyer, or accountant since it’s less pragmatic, but given that Russians prize intellect, a professor is a solid answer; it’s a similar category to chess grandmaster.
“A professor of what?” – Kolya is clearly not satisfied with such a short answer.
Now the correct answer is something practical such as chemistry, biology, math, physics, Alas, my grandfather is out of luck.
“Russian literature,” – he replies.
At this point, the game is over. There’s a moment of sympathetic silence as each pool buddy contemplates why a sane person growing up in the United States would willingly teach the language and literature of a country they so ardently sought to escape.
When I left academia, I made the explanation even more confusing for my grandfather.
“He is a pre-sales engineer in the language industry,” – he would begin to explain the nature of my work.
“What does that mean?” – again nosy Kolya would interfere. “What does he actually do?”
“He talks a lot,” – my grandfather starts to explain as best as he can. “Says lots of impressive technical stuff and someone else sells something or other.”
You can just imagine what effect that has.
As I progressed in my career, the descriptions became even more abstract.
“Now he is head of solution architects” – my grandfather relates my promotion.
“And that means…” – the indomitable Kolya chips in.
“It means someone has a problem and he figures out a solution and then draws a nice diagram with circles and rectangles to explain the solution. That’s the architecture part.”
“And for this you left Russia?” – Petya adds his voice to the dissenters.
Again, my grandfather is stumped.
I start preparing him like you’d roleplay with a candidate who is running for Senate.
“Tell them that I train models for machine translation. It’s a very hot field at the intersection of linguistics and computer science. There’s even math too.”
Naturally, this is lost in translation when he narrates to his pool buddies.
“He works with models,” – my grandfather begins.
“Wow!” – now Kolya is impressed, probably thinking that I’m a Hollywood mogul. “Maybe I can help him?”
Petya too is keen to join the discussion, “I can explain to him what to do with his models if he does not know…”
“No, he works with linguistic models,” – my grandfather admits and his stock plummets more rapidly than the market on Black Tuesday.
Behind the scenes we have another training session to prepare for next week.
“I work in artificial intelligence,” – I begin my lecture.
“No,” – he interrupts. “I can’t tell them that. They’ll think that you don’t have enough intelligence of your own. I’ll just tell them that you’re a professor…”
Alex Yanishevsky was born in the Soviet Union and emigrated to the US with his family at age seven. He attended Brandeis University for Art History with a minor in Russian Literature. Alex obtained a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages from Brown University and taught Russian language and literature at Bates and Holy Cross. He has been working in the translation industry for over 15 years. His translations of modern Russian authors were published by Hermitage Press; the book is called Times of Turmoil – https://hclib.bibliocommons.