Brooklyn’s babushkas keep spirits up despite beauty pageant’s COVID cancellation
Annual ‘Your Highness Grandmother’ event on hiatus until it’s safe for spunky Russian-speaking grandmothers to strut their stuff again on stage
The most talented and extroverted of babushkas won’t be strutting their stuff across the stage in Brooklyn this coming October. For the first time in two decades, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the lamented cancellation of the annual “Your Highness Grandmother Pageant.”
“We wait every year for this. It makes our life more nice,” 83-year-old Anna Malkina Shumaeva told The Times of Israel. The friendly competition helps sustain community among immigrants from the FSU and takes place in Brighton Beach, home to one of the largest Russian-speaking populations in the West.
The pageant is the brainchild of the irrepressible Raisa Chernina, who arrived in the US from Minsk, Belarus in 1979. The idea came from Chernina’s late mother, who once watched the Miss America pageant and wondered why something similar couldn’t be done for grandmothers — only minus the skimpy swimsuits.
Chernina, 72, is ably assisted by her affable 75-year-old husband Alexander “Sasha” Sirotin, who explained, “Grandmothers are the head of the family in Russian culture. They are the cornerstone of the family.”
Interviewing the two of them together via video is like watching a comedy act; the quips keep flying. “He has no choice other than to help me,” Chernina joked — or not.
“I always say I am a creation of Raisa. I’m her Pinocchio. Just look at my Jewish nose,” Sasha replied self-mockingly.
Chernina trained as a toy engineer in the USSR, and later worked for Little Tikes in Ohio for nine before moving to Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Both previously divorced, Chernina and Sirotin met in New York in 1990 and soon became a couple. However, they only married 25 years later, in 2015. Moscow-born Sirotin has one son and four grandchildren. Chernina has no children of her own, but is very close to her nephew and Israeli niece.
“I consider their children to be my grandchildren,” Chernina said.
Put off by Western culture that doesn’t emphasize respect for elders in the same way, Chernina decided to create an event that would shine the spotlight on grandmothers and bring joy to their lives.
She launched the annual pageant in 2001, and two years later made it part of her Be Proud Foundation, a nonprofit organization she runs to connect members of the Russian-speaking immigrant community with one another, and to the surrounding local communities. Many of the participants in the Your Highness Grandmother Pageant take part in the foundation’s other activities, such as preparing Passover food packages and supporting neighborhood police precincts.
“I love this country deeply. I don’t care who is in the White House,” said Chernina, who became an American citizen in 1985 and has been photographed with US politicians of all stripes.
Perhaps missing the pageant’s usual audience, Shumaeva burst out during a phone interview with The Times of Israel in a 10-minute-long rendition of traditional Hebrew songs, including “Siman Tov u’Mazel Tov,” “Oseh Shalom,” and “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem.”
She learned these from her grandchildren, who went to a Jewish school in Moldova.
“I love songs. I love to sing. I play a little violin, too. From my childhood, performance has been my favorite thing — maybe from even before I was born,” she said excitedly.
Octogenarian Shumaeva, who has been in the pageant every year since 2004, said she always gets audience requests for “Hava Nagila.”
“It’s my favorite, too,” Shumaeva said.
Until last year, the Your Highness Grandmother Pageant took place at a restaurant in Brighton Beach. When that venue closed down, the event moved to a restaurant in nearby Sheepshead Bay.
Twelve participants are selected each year from between 20 and 40 applicants (Chernina and Sirotin said they were looking for women with a sense of humor and friendship). Some women are multi-year repeaters.
In the beginning, 90% of the participants were Jewish. More recently, it’s been half Jewish and half non-Jewish Russian speakers.
The women are divided into two age categories: “Grandmothers” are 75 and younger; “Queen Grandmothers” are 75 and older.
“The youngest grandmother we ever had was 49. She was a belly dancer — a real professional,” Chernina noted.
The pageant’s format is divided into three segments. The first presents a “secret” theme that is sprung upon the women only once they are on stage. For example, during the 2016 election year, they were asked to spell “Trump” and “Clinton.”
“You have to remember that some of these women don’t speak English,” Chernina said. “It was funny and the women laughed at themselves.”
Other years, the contestants were surprised to be asked to swirl hula hoops around their waists, kick soccer balls, or play basketball.
The second segment involves a “homework” challenge, for which the women can prepare in advance. One year they had to dress as they did when they were 18. Another time they had to perform a national dance.
One year, when the women were asked to wear their national costume, a Jewish woman from Leningrad was stumped as to what she could possibly don.
“Everyone knows that the national Jewish costume of Russia is a fur coat,” Chernina deadpanned.
Finally, the grandmothers are asked to perform a talent of their choice.
“Except a poem. We don’t give them permission to talk,” joked Chernina, who runs a tight ship.
Eighty-three-year old Holocaust survivor Mara Goldstein loves to dance and sing, but decided to sing in Yiddish the three times she participated.
I sang ‘Tumbalalayka’ dressed as a Hasid, and no one in the audience recognized me!
“Yiddish is my language,” proudly declared Goldstein, whose father was killed in the Red Army. She and her mother and grandmother escaped the ghetto in Moldova and survived the war in Kazakhstan. Later, she immigrated to Israel, where she met her American husband who brought her to New York.
“I sang ‘Tumbalalayka’ dressed as a Hasid, and no one in the audience recognized me!” Goldstein said excitedly.
Aging gracefully in the spotlight
The Your Highness Grandmother Pageant has recently received mainstream media coverage to the delight of Chernina, Sirotin, and all those involved. Last year there was a piece in National Geographic, and earlier this year an article and video in New York Magazine.
“That was me in the New York Magazine,” Goldstein exclaimed. “I’m the one with the read hair. It used to be natural, but of course it isn’t anymore.”
To compensate for having to cancel the pageant this year, Chernina and Sirotin held a July 4th contest for the grandmothers. They were invited to send in creative projects expressing their love for their adopted country. Some 100 entries came in, and 14 were chosen as winners.
The winners received gifts donated by local vendors, such as a bed linen set that Sirotin held up to his computer’s video camera so The Times of Israel could see it.
Normally, there are no winners at the Your Highness Grandmother Pageant. Or to put it differently, all the women are winners. Each contestant is recognized as best in a given category.
“We can’t tell them they are a loser — especially when their family is in the audience,” Sirotin explained.
Russian grandfathers have been clamoring for a pageant of their own
The pageant’s judging panel is comprised of grandfathers. To maintain fairness, none of them can be related to any of the contestants.
Russian grandfathers have been clamoring for a pageant of their own. One year, a man even made it onto the stage by dressing up as a woman. Still, the event’s founders insist that a “Your Highness Grandfather Pageant” is not in the offing.
“It would just be too much,” Chernina said.
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