Beyond Borscht and Babushkas

Jewish women from the former Soviet Union reach America

Growing up in Fairlawn, New Jersey, I clearly remember when the Soviet Jewish immigrants—we called them “the Russians”—moved into our small, suburban town. The Bris Avrohom synagogue—with its entrance sign in English, Hebrew, and Russian—moved into a building on Fairlawn Avenue, and Russian students joined our ranks at the Jewish high school, hi a program set up through our synagogue, my own family befriended an immigrant family that moved to Fairlawn from Moldavia, hi the beginning, we communicated with them in Yiddish (my mother, whose first language is Yiddish, acted as translator); as their English improved, our conversations switched to English as well.

Before 1987, when it was nearly impossible for Jews to leave the Soviet Union, we heard a lot about the Jewish community’s struggle to emigrate. But relatively little has been written about the 300,000 Soviet Jews who settled in the United States after restrictions loosened. In The Soviet Jewish Americans (Brandeis University Press), Annelise Orleck reminds us that immigration is only the beginning of the Soviet Jewish experience in America, and she acknowledges the significance of communities like Fairlawn as distinctive homes for the new immigrants. In Orleck’s words, “Alongside the poppy seed cakes and sausages are… American retail shrines like The Gap and Toys R Us. .. In Fairlawn, as in many American towns of the 1990’s, the urban ethnic island has been transformed into a suburban ethnic ‘mall land.'” As a child of this suburban ethnic enclave, I know she’s right.

Of course, the suburbs aren’t the whole story. Brighton Beach, NY—Orleck’s own hometown—is one of the most vibrant Soviet Jewish urban enclaves in America. With its Russian groceries, restaurants, and gilded nightclubs, Brighton Beach has a distinctly Soviet Jewish feel. For this community, Brighton has taken on the kind of symbolism that the Lower East Side of Manhattan had for an earlier group of Jewish immigrants to America.

Orleck also highlights the diversity within the Soviet Jewish community. While most Soviet immigrants hail from Russia, Byelorussia and the Ukraine, those who have settled in Forest Hills, Queens come from the Central Asian Republics of Uzbekistan, Tadjikistan, and Kazakhstan. These Bukharan Jews, as they are called, speak a variety of Persian that is mixed with Hebrew words and written in Hebrew characters. And unlike their Western Soviet counterparts, the Bukharan community was very religious in the Soviet Union and remains so in the United States. Since there are very few Jews left in Uzbekistan, Forest Hills is currently one of the most important centers of Bukharan Judaism in the world.

Gender, age and education affect the way each immigrant adapts to a new life. Orleck finds that women immigrants tend to find work more quickly than men do, primarily because they are more willing to accept lower-paid, lower-status jobs. (As of 1996, the average hourly wage for men was $9.75 per hour, while women earned $7.00) And while the loss of professional status has been a problem for many well-educated Soviet immigrants, gender bias in the United States job market makes the loss even more severe for women. Gender prejudice is particularly apparent in the case of the many women immigrants trained as pediatricians, since pediatrics was considered “woman’s work” in the Soviet Union. Of all the immigrant doctors, female pediatricians have been the least successful at reviving their careers in the United States.

Violence plays a role in the lives of many families under stress. While Orleck gives no specific statistics on domestic abuse in Soviet Jewish families, she does cite anecdotal evidence that spousal abuse is a severe problem for Soviet Jewish immigrants. She recounts the tragic story of Galina Komar, a Soviet immigrant killed by her abuser in 1996 after filing a report to the police; in this respect American courts can be just as impotent as Soviet ones in protecting women from violence.

On the plus side, what Soviet Jews in America have in common is a cultural identity that is lively and complex—the rich product of many powerful influences. Immigrant institutions like the International Children’s Center for the Performing Arts in Brooklyn teach songs in Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian and English. Lavish bat and bar mitzvahs celebrate the immigrants’ financial success in America, as well as their newfound freedom to express their Judaism proudly and publicly. They have formed vigorous immigrant cultures that are profoundly shaped by their country of origin, deeply Jewish (if not, in all cases, religious), and quintessentially American. As one young immigrant notes, “What I went through when I came here has made me what I am. . . I’m Soviet Jewish and American somehow. I’m all of those things.”