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Upon arrival at the Booze History Museum in Staten Island, visitors are treated to what Lev Mezhburd, the museum’s founder, director, curator and tour guide, calls a “disinfection.”
“The items in the museum are very sensitive,” Mr. Mezhburd said. “To go in there, you have to get rid of the microbes that live on us.”
This is how Mr. Mezhburd’s cleansing process works: Wielding a fire extinguisher, he instructs his visitors to open their mouths and say, “Ah.” He then sprays Russian Standard vodka into their mouths. More drinks follow from a series of other visual gags, including an IV drip bag, a radio and a pair of binoculars, all of which conceal vodka.
At the start of a recent tour, Mr. Mezhburd, 69, leaned into his bar like a professor resting on a lectern. He came up with a poetic association for each vessel in his disinfection collection. While pouring vodka from a light bulb, for example, he recited a poem about love and light by the Russian Symbolist writer Innokenty Annensky.
In case you haven’t picked up on this yet, Mr. Mezhburd believes vodka ought to be celebrated, not vilified.
“When you’re talking about alcohol, it’s always just drunken driving or breaking up families,” he said. “Nobody talks about how many people are getting relaxation, how many people are getting enjoyment from drinking alcohol, how many people are getting together because of alcohol.”
The museum takes up about 500 square feet in two rooms of Mr. Mezhburd’s home in Grant City, on the East Shore of Staten Island. Since moving there in 1998, he has collected over 1,000 artifacts. The basement is a jumble of signs and statuettes. The bar is plastered with hundreds of different Russian liquor labels. A gallery upstairs is more orderly, with 10 glass cases of booze-related bric-a-brac.
Mr. Mezhburd hasn’t done much to publicize his museum, but he said he would consider requests to visit sent through Facebook. Usually his guests have heard about the tours, which occur roughly every month, through word of mouth. They tend to be people like Mr. Mezhburd: Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union.
Tours are usually conducted in Russian, and they frequently turn into larger celebrations of Jewish and Russian culture, with musical performances and potluck buffets.
“This is our tradition,” said one visitor, Olga Komarova, 56, who attended similar events during her youth in the Soviet Union. “The main thing is to create a very warm environment, to socialize, to fit together, to sing together, to share some ideas.”
The museum, however, extends far beyond Jewish and Russian drinking culture.
Mr. Mezhburd’s gallery features display cases organized geographically. They prompt him to tell stories about Omar Khayyam, the 11th- and 12th-century Persian polymath who exhorted his readers to drink wine, and the eighth-century Chinese poet Li Po. “He never was sober. Never in his life,” Mr. Mezhburd said. “And he was a genius.”
Some items on the shelves, such as Prohibition-era licenses to drink for medicinal purposes, have real antiquarian value. But Mr. Mezhburd prefers to focus on kitsch. He proudly describes his figurines of grinning clergymen as “the largest collection in the world of drunk monks.”
Other items only look serious. Mr. Mezhburd pulled out a leather-bound book called “How to Develop Courage and Self-Confidence.”
“This is how,” Mr. Mezhburd said, opening the book to reveal a hidden cavity holding a bottle of vodka and pouring it into shot glasses. “And now, this is what we will do.”
Breaks in the tour offer visitors the opportunity to banter in Russian. One guest, who declined to share her name, quoted the satirist Mikhail Zhvanetsky on why it’s a good idea to drink in the morning: “So the sun comes up quicker.” Igor Primak, a high school math teacher, replied to a toast with an old Russian saying: “The toaster drinks to the dregs!”
Toward the end of the tour, Mr. Mezhburd produced the very first item he collected: a ceramic figurine of a man with shabby clothes and a stubbly beard, leaning against a street clock and clutching a bottle of booze. Flip a switch atop the figurine, and the man’s head moves from side to side while he whistles a mournful tune. Mr. Mezhburd declared the drunkard his “soul mate.”
After the tour, visitors moved to a second-floor living room for a concert by the singer Elmira Galeeva, who interprets poems by the likes of Osip Mandelstam, American rock standards and songs from a genre of Russian folk known as “bard” music.
“The poetry — it was part of our lives,” Mr. Primak said, reminiscing about his Moscow University days. “I used to read, and remember, most of those poems she’s singing. It’s something that I miss right now very much.” Other attendees said they’d come mainly in anticipation of the concert. “The most important thing was Elmira Galeeva,” said Ms. Komarova, a devoted fan of the musician.
After the concert and a communal dinner of sour cabbage, chicken liver and other regional staples, Mr. Mezhburd returned to the gallery. Amid some conclusory musings, his wife, Natasha, entered the room.
“We’re talking about the philosophy of the museum,” someone explained.
“Mm,” Ms. Mezhburd said. “It is drinking. This is the one point. Drink a lot.”B:
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