The California Jewish Republican, like a hairless cat, is a bizarre, but fascinating aberration. I decided to sit down with two staunchly conservative Jews (my parents) to figure out how the hell this could have happened in the most liberal state in...
It was on November 6 at 10 PM that my internal air-raid sirens were silenced. Mitt Romney was (figuratively) dead, and the White House was safely back in Barack’s big hands, having mercifully euthanized the deranged exhibition that was the Republicans' latest Great White Hope. My parents reacted to the news the same way as when they heard about 9/11; abject horror and panicked phone calls to somebody on the other side of the country. Mom sat in front of the TV, glaring at me in contempt, my dad called me a communist and shouted shit like, “If we wanted to live in the Soviet Union, we would have never left!”
But it’s not as if I was parading my shit all over the place, popping champagne and pulling my nuts out. The emotional impact of another Obama victory really threw Mom, Dad, and the remaining fragments of the Tea Party into a frenzied depression. You could hear it in Karl Rove that night, but what the hell do my parents have in common with Karl Rove? Where did the Tea Party even find my family? They're a bunch of ex-Soviet immigrant Jews, all with master’s degrees and PhDs. Their lives are teaching, theater directing, science, painting; hell, one of them is a goddamn yoga instructor and animator. They all live in Ca-lib-fornia for Christ’s sake.
My own politics are based entirely on getting high, preferably in India, preferably with Jack White, which makes me the liberal black sheep of the family. I’m the recipient of endless chain emails all titled roughly “MAYBE THIS WILL CHANGE YOUR MIND!!1!1?!!” about Obama eating the wrong end of a hot dog first and pissing on an American flag made of money. I decided to sit down with my family to figure it out while I was in Los Angeles for Passover.
Naturally, I asked to have an actual tea party.
PART 1: “THIS IS SOME GOOD TEA”
VICE: What kind of tea is this?
Mom: Ceylon, it’s my favorite.
Have you been a member of the Tea Party since its inception in 2008/2009?
Dad: Yes, when they first started protesting Obama.
Have you heard of the Boston Tea Party from 1773?
Mom: They explained it on TV when the party was just getting popular, but I don’t remember.
Dad: I don’t know what that is.
OK, give me a word or two on the following people: Glenn Beck.
Dad: Honest and strong.
Dad: Conscientious and a decent human being.
Dad: Dishonest but funny.
Dad: Very respectable.
Why do you identify as a Tea Partier more than as a Republican?
Mom: I guess I’d say the Tea Party describes the unofficial part of the Republican Party, and it’s not afraid of being reelected or answering to constituents. It stands in the way of the official narrative of this country, and it’s a method we have to show that there are people who disagree with this regime, and that they won’t sit quietly at home but they’ll go and fight to prevent the principles that they feel are important, and to keep this country from turning into the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany.
You feel like America is turning into the Soviet Union?
Mom: Yes, and way too fast.
Dad: I wouldn’t necessarily agree, but we have to stay vigilant.
What can the Tea Party do to stop this?
Dad: I don’t think my party, in the shape that it’s in today, can do much to stop it. Maybe today’s young conservatives like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio can turn it around. Maybe they can explain to the people what might happen if the country continues on this path.
The fact that you just called two 40-plus-year-old men “young conservatives” is pretty strange. To segue, a majority of your party is made up of Christian fundamentalists. How do you fit in?
Mom: You know, I notice that for me personally, the Christian right is very gentle and nonaggressive; they have certain things in which they believe, but they don’t ever force their ideas on me or invade my life.
Do you feel like you are harbingers of socialism in America?
Mom: Yes, absolutely. We’ve been through hell, and I don’t want to see American turn into it.
PART 2: “IN SOVIET RUSSIA…”
How do you compare Soviet Russia and present-day America?
Mom: We were born in the Soviet Union while it was going through “developing socialism.” What I’m hearing now in this country echoes ideas I’ve been hearing from birth through adulthood, that there was this ideology saying that socialism was all about love and kindness and progress, that the entire world was bad and against us, and that we were winning in the face of opposition.
Dad: They were basically telling us that everything is perfect, the government embraces you, feeds you, educates you, gives you a home, heals you, the government gives you everything, and, in turn, you give them the same. Money and personal responsibility don’t matter, the rich are tricksters and loathsome crooks who try to take from everyone everything, and the poor man is kind and good and wonderful. But looking around, I saw that the opposite was true, that we were all wretched and the rich were the ones succeeding.
Mom: Socialism, by itself, as an idea, is actually fantastic. But not once has it worked.
Dad: Here’s what works: if you consider yourself a victim then you’ll always find reasons for why you’re unlucky, but if you’re hardworking and responsible then you’ll struggle and pull yourself out of any bad situation, and you won’t despair and sit in a corner unhappy looking for someone or something to blame.
What was growing up Jewish in Russia like?
Mom: Well, religion had been outlawed for a long time, nobody went to synagogue, no religious holidays, we didn’t speak Yiddish or Hebrew, everyone’s culture was just Russian. But if it was in your passport that you were Jewish, if you had Jewish blood, you were in some serious trouble. As a kid on the schoolyard, you’d be bullied for being Jewish, and as you got older, universities and jobs would limit how many Jews they’d accept. You would have to prove yourself a hundred times more than any Russian. The Jews of Russia were like the blacks in America.
Did you have similar social classes in the Soviet Union?
Dad: Not quite. You’d finish university, start working, and your pay would be significantly less than workers' who never graduated. Doctors and scientists were destitute; all intelligencia made next no money. Our whole family, even you, was educated. When I had a choice between roofing and computer science, I went with what was more interesting than financially stable.
Mom: Economically there were few differences between the classes. Almost everyone shared a communal apartment with another family, used the same bathroom and toilet, same kitchen, workers and intellectuals both.
Dad: Yes, some had more money, but that didn’t matter. You could not simply buy things with your money. You would have to find someone who could sell you what you needed on top of having the money for it.
So everybody had a shit life.
Mom: Pretty much, except for very specific cases like someone belonging to the higher tiers of the party, someone with power had more places to purchase from, secret shops, a кармушка with better things. Even Olympic athletes would go outside the country, compete, be showered with praise and money, and when they came back, the government would just take everything. Sometimes, if you had favor, you could get things under the counter, but that was rare. Nobody really heeded the laws, which were designed for power and not for stability, so in order to get food, you had to skirt the law, in order to survive you had to do what needed to be done. Many immigrants who come here from Russia are still used to lying and cheating to get what they want or need, and still used to relying on the government. Inertia keeps them acting the same.
So what about even lower than intellectuals, like the homeless?
Mom: We didn’t have homeless.
Dad: Listen, very few negative facts about Russia got through to the surface, to the streets. Nobody wrote about them and nobody talked about them, so there existed this closed status. A long ago, they would just round up the homeless, drive them into the woods and leave them there. By the time I was growing up you could see many drunks lying around on the street, but they had homes. Babushki who lived alone and had nobody to care for them would die in their apartments and get carted away. A lot of children were born in really awful conditions in orphanages and nobody would see this.
Mom: During Chernobyl, nobody was told to evacuate, nobody was told that it was dangerous; we were told everything was fine; we had to find out through our friends and escape to Leningrad.
Were your parents against the regime?
Mom: Yes, always. My mother was very active in her dislike of the government, but quietly and behind closed doors. I remember her friends were against it too. From an early age I knew I couldn’t repeat much of what I had heard during what we called “kitchen conversations”.
Dad: My parents were never very political; they lived in the country on a dacha for many years before coming to Kiev.
Was it risky or dangerous to hold these kinds of opinions?
Mom: It was much more dangerous to have these opinions while Stalin was in power, but by my time it was not as bad. Once a bust of Stalin was being transported to a primary school, a couple teachers and a couple kids tied this bust to the outside of the car with ropes, and they had to wind plenty of rope around the neck to keep it from falling. Apparently, somebody was offended. That night everyone that was in the car, the teachers, the children, they were taken away and not heard from after.
Why do you think the Soviet Union collapsed?
Mom: I really don’t know, honestly.
Dad: It was such a colossus on weak legs, it had to go at some point. I mean, nothing actually worked; it only looked like it did. People didn’t put in much effort at their jobs, not much was being produced or manufactured, and what was, it was in poor condition. On paper we were doing fine, but we clearly weren’t. Even our economy was mostly invented.
Mom: When Gorbachev came to office he was the first and only to loosen the restrictions. He openly said that what was going on was wrong. I remember to this day how shocking it was to hear this from the head of state. None of us worked that day; we just sat at our radios and TVs, trying not to miss a word.
Dad: It was in the air, the discontent; everyone knew it by then. It was time for a change I suppose.
PART 3: “USA JOHNNY BLUE JEANS”
How did you end up moving to America?
Mom: Around the fall of the Soviet Union, America was accepting Jewish refugees, and there were many Jewish groups in America that helped us. We came in 1992, and I remember an organization asked me, “What was so difficult about being Jewish in Russia? You have a Russian nationality, face, name, what problems could you have had?” and I told them “It’s BECAUSE I must write that I am Russian and not Jewish, that I must keep quiet about who I am out of fear. I want to live somewhere where I don’t have to hide my identity!”
Did you get help when you first came here?
Mom: Well, as refugees there was some aid and insurance provided for us.
Dad: But only briefly, so we could start our lives, we weren’t looking for a handout.
Mom: We knew a family who gave us furniture, and a place to live at first. Also Jewish sponsors helped us with money when we needed it. I remember we tried to return the money when we got on our feet, and they told us they didn’t want it, they told us to pay it forward to another family in need. Wonderful.
As immigrants, what’s your outlook on immigration today?
Dad: When I hear things like “let’s naturalize all illegal immigrants” I think that is just crazy. Besides illegals there are also legal immigrants who stood in line and went through all the rules, these are people who respect this country. Here we have people who jumped the line and flaunt the laws, they should not be rewarded but punished. What does this say to everyone else? Not everyone who comes here was struggling like us, very few are. And they bring with them some twenty relatives also illegally from the one person that’s here, and it’s not normal.
Mom: I think a bigger problem is that since nobody checks who comes into this country, it is no problem for terrorists to come in on the same path as illegals, and they do.
Would you agree with a policy where any relative of an American citizen is allowed to come in like we did?
Mom: You know, I have some problems with this. So many illegals bring such distant relatives who they barely know, and I don’t think it’s fair on our economy. Maybe we should exclude those who are not close to the citizen, a real relative like a wife or child can come. [Note: we came here by virtue of the author’s third cousin twice removed, our only relative in the States, and we brought four generations in one go.]
Who got your first vote in America?
Dad: We had to wait until 2000 to vote, and that was for Bush.
Mom: I mostly ignored politics here, honestly. But as soon as Obama hustled his way to power, as soon as he started talking, it was like an old memory from the past was awoken in me. His mannerisms, his speeches, his ideas more and more reminded me of what I had heard in the Soviet Union. I had left my home to live in a different world, and this idea of socialism preached by the ruling power in America today is so similar to what we escaped from. A big difference is that you can still criticize and disagree, thankfully, but that’s today, what happens tomorrow?
What do you think lead to the economic collapse of 2008?
Mom: Government spending, mostly.
Do you think the housing bubble burst had any effect?
Mom: Some, but we were trying to expand our budget with bad ideas, and too strict regulations on our finances. If you try to tell the economy what to do, it doesn’t work. Actually, this spending is what caused the housing bubble to burst in the first place, it’s like a row of dominoes.
Do you believe in global warming?
Dad: Human caused? Bunch of dogshit, excuse me.
Dad: The ones who talk about global warming the most are the ones I trust the least. So much of the evidence about global warming has been fabricated, and if you look at the science nobody can really say for sure about global warming, there’s no consensus among scientists about global warming.
Actually, if you take a look, there is literally no debate in the scientific community about the reality of manmade global warming.
Dad: I disagree. Based off of my sources and studies I’ve read, there is no consensus at all.
What are your sources?
Dad: I’ve heard this on Fox frequently, and when I looked it up I found these studies. From what I know, no consensus, and that guy… that guy who’s always championing it… he won the Nobel…
Al Gore, he was our vice president for eight years and the guy on the ballot in 2000 you didn’t vote for.
Dad: Right, he’s as much of a scientist as I am a ballerina.
Burn. Alright, how about Iraq? Were we justified in invading even though we found no WMDs?
Dad: Sure, we got some incorrect information, we went over there found out it was wrong, so I get what you’re saying; that maybe in the future we go to war again on misinformation. But look-
Mom: Iraq was an enemy of America, they made no attempts to hide it, and Saddam Hussein and all those Muslim countries over there are very anti-America and unpredictable. They are not decent, they do not do what they say, and the country is uncivilized, wild. The people live in very hard circumstances and they have nothing to lose, so saying “Oh, it’s nothing” could end up much more serious than if we invest our time into finding out and it really is nothing.
What about healthcare, do you think our country has an obligation to make sure everyone can get it?
Mom: Well, I suppose yes.
Dad: Those who cannot help themselves, the elderly or disabled, they should be helped, yes.
What do you think of our current system compared to Obamacare.
Mom: We went from a bad situation to a nightmare. Obamacare is Obama’s clumsy disaster. We surely need change, but not the kind Obama can bring.
What should we do when people don’t have insurance and need medical care?
Dad: Now we’re talking about personal responsibility. You ask me, should a country take care of their sick? Each person, unless they’ve gone insane, should be responsible for their actions and their consequences. If they think they should have insurance, then they should get it. If not, they have to take responsibility. A healthy man? If he thinks he doesn’t need insurance then he should put aside some money so that if something happens he can pay for it, and if he doesn’t then he’ll have medical debt and be responsible for that.
What if he can’t pay the debt? More than 60% of bankruptcies are caused by medical bills.
Dad: If a person wants to pay off a debt, they make an effort and pay it off or suffer the consequences. Mom: Maybe part of our taxes should go into a personal fund we can tap into in case we need health care, so if you pay taxes you’d be eligible to use that money, like social security.
And you don’t see a parallel to socialized medicine?
Dad: You don’t understand.
Do you feel like Obama has fulfilled his transparency promise?
Mom: God no! When he delivered this massive tome on Obamacare he told everyone they had to vote on it before they could read it, he gave no time to see what was in it and then he weaseled it through with scare tactics, and with all the regulations, there couldn’t possibly be a way for it to work. When the government sets prices and tries to control the economy, everything falls apart. Remember when it took him two weeks to stop sympathizing with the Libya terrorists?
Do you remember when Mitt Romney said the same thing at the debates and it was corrected by the moderator, that Obama had called it an act of terror the following day?
Mom: Yeah, I remember when the moderator, a known liar, chimed in. She wasn’t supposed to do that, she was supposed to ask questions, not throw in asides. She did it anyway because her favorite boy Obama was on stage, and afterwards it turned out that both the moderator and Obama had lied.
Okay, I just pulled up a transcript from Obama’s speech the day after the attack where he refers to this act, and those like it as an “act of terror”. Take a look.
Mom: Jules, you can show me whatever you want, but it doesn’t change the facts.
Dad: I’ll have to take a look at that later.
Who's your favorite president?
Both: [in unison] Reagan.
If you met Ronald Reagan at a party and he passed you a joint, would you indulge?
Mom: [laughing] No, definitely not.
Dad: I’m going to go have a cigarette.