Annual Russian fair draws crowds to food, fun and vodka

The weather was gorgeous, the piroshkis were hot and the vodka was flowing.

That helped explain why the grounds at this year’s Russian-American Fair were still teeming with people — even though the May 18 event was about to wind down.

By 3:30 p.m., the fashionably late — the event started at 10 a.m. May 18 — were still streaming through the entrance to the

festival at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto.

By 4 p.m., the Terman Middle School Auditorium was packed with people eager to see the traditional Russian folk dances of the Firebird Dance Ensemble.

Boys and girls barely in grade school danced their tiny bodies around the stage in gypsy-style costumes with Vegas sparkle. The crowd clapped along enthusiastically.

Older dancers then took the stage, showing off their athleticism with the daring moves of Ukrainian folk dance.

All the while, the centrally located vodka booth was offering $2 shots along with salty snacks such as pickles, cheese and crackers. But the lines were much shorter than one might expect; around 300 shots were sold, organizers said.

The adjacent ice cream stand was much busier. And the Russian comfort food was a big hit, too.

Palo Alto resident Alex Linde, who came from Moscow 18 years ago at the age of 11, took his taste buds on a trip down memory lane by devouring a Georgian beef piroshki. He and his roommate came to the fair to partake in the Old Country treats that are too time-consuming for his busy mother to make.

Asya Zarasky, a 37-year-old Cupertino resident and Russian émigré, said the food and music were her favorite things at the fair. She brought her 4-year-old son Alex, 2-year-old daughter Natalie and her Ecuadorian husband to introduce them to Russian culture. “It is important to me that my kids are familiar with both of their cultures,” she said.

The fair is put on annually by the ALSJCC émigré department as a fundraiser for its programs. “We typically raise between $8,000 to $10,000,” said event organizer and JCC émigré director Boris Vladimirsky.

“Not a huge amount, but the fair is our way to thank the Jewish and American communities for accepting us into this country.

“We also create a community environment where people have tons of fun and can connect with each other. People from all over the Bay Area come to this festival.”

It drew thousands of people, about two-thirds of them Russian speakers, according to Vladimirsky, who said speakers of English, Hebrew and other languages always attend as well, because they are interested in Russian culture.

For example, Japanese-speaking Palo Alto residents Shoji and Mari Toyama brought their daughter Shiki to the fair, saying she is fascinated by Russian culture. They bought Shiki her favorite kind of doll, a matryoshka (nesting doll), before enjoying some Russian food and entertainment.

There were also vendors selling all things Russian: jewelry, books, clothes and art.

Taking care of people’s needs were a bevy of senior volunteers, such as Rada Nedzelsky, 81, who arrived from Moscow 13 years ago. A volunteer at the fair for the past 10 years, she takes tickets and walks around like a concierge, making sure that guests are aware of all of the attractions — and are well-fed.

Saratoga resident Mark Ofengender found what he was looking for: a chance to be surrounded by the Russian Jewish community. A resident of the former Soviet republic of Georgia until 1995, he said his connection to Russian Jewish culture and people runs deep.

So what was his favorite attraction? Russian food? Russian dancing? Russian camaraderie?

Nyet, nyet and nyet.

He said it was the acupuncturist. “Some people like vodka,” he said. “I enjoy natural medicine.”