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From Leningrad With Love

The Saga of Soviet Jews in America

By Mark H. Doctoroff

Some rush hour, take a ride on the Commonwealth Avenue Green Line as it beats a path outbound toward Brookline. Listen to the people who are standing and sitting around you. If it's the middle of winter, look at their hats. Don't be surprised if the language they are speaking is not English, or if the hats are big, black and furry. The language you hear is Russian, and the hats are most likely beaver, made in the USSR.

Your neighbors on the T are members of a growing community of Soviet immigrants, the vast majority of them Jews, who have settled in the Hub area over the past six or seven years. They are part of an on-again-off-again diaspora of Soviet Jews, whose numbers rise and fall with each chill and thaw in Soviet-American relations.

Like countless waves of immigrants before them, these newcomers face many problems: language, employment, and psychological adjustment to a new country and culture. However, these immigrants are in many ways unique. They are for the most part well educated and generally have not suffered severe economic hardship. Perhaps most importantly, they are coming from one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world, and one which at least superficially bears some resemblance to the United States.

Therefore, they must weigh the decision to leave the Soviet Union very carefully. Many of the immigrants were reluctant to face the decision of whether to emigrate. They did not relish the prospect of giving up a secure economic position, or more importantly, of leaving family and friends behind. But eventually, for widely varying reasons, they tackled the decision.

Following these years of personal psychological and mental preparation, and after receiving final permission to leave the USSR, the first physical step on the great adventure comes when Misha and Tatyana step onto the Aeroflot Ilyushin 62 airliner and wing their way over the Iron Curtain to Vienna.

There they have their first contact with the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society (HIAS), which helps with adjustment to immediate problems of life in the West and guides the immigrants on the further stages of the journey. HIAS also provides any necessary financial assistance.

The stay in Vienna lasts only eight to ten days and is a whirl of breathless activity. Responsibilities are minimal, and the limited amount of time in Austria assumes the air of a vacation, which acts as a brief respite before the serious work of building a future really begins. Limited only by finances, the immigrants tour the city of waltzes in the best style of any tourist, making the obligatory rounds of museums and parks.

From Austria, the immigrants, directed by HIAS, find their way down through northern Italy to Rome. In Rome, preparations for life in the U.S. begin to take shape. Would-be immigrants spend six to eight weeks waiting for the important U.S. entry visas, during which time HIAS takes care of each family's settlement arrangements. Still, to many immigrants, the time spent in Western Europe is somehow not real. One immigrant, who left Kiev with her family two years ago, recalls that period: "Vienna was like Fantasy Island, and Italy was wonderful. We had troubles, but they were not real life; this trouble was more enjoyable. We didn't feel like our new life had started."

Where the family will live in the U.S. depends on several factors. Joanne Ivry, of Boston's Jewish Family and Children Service (JFCS) says that by far the most important consideration is the location of family and friends who may already have settled in the United States.

Karen Goldenberg, who counsels immigrants at the Brooklyn office of the Jewish Vocation Services (JVS), says, "The vast majority of people who come to Boston are coming because they have relatives or friends in the area. Boston almost exclusively takes people who have family connections."

Other considerations may also be important. The prevailing job market occasionally is a factor, although family ties or lack of them usually prevail in a conflict of blood and money. For Boston, this means a heavy influx of electronics and computer specialists, as well as professionals in other high-technology fields. Certain other factors, such as the adequacy of local English language programs, also are considered.

The immigrants usually like Boston. It is somehow like the cities, primarily Moscow and Leningrad, from which the immigrants come. Says Ivry, "Boston is also a very popular place, because the immigrants perceive it as an intellectual city." This perception, grounded in hazy information not readily available in the U S S R, is particularly attractive to those who settle in Boston, because between 60 and 70 per cent of them have professional skills.

An immigrant, no matter how well trained in his field, still faces incredible problems of adjustment. William Bliss, who has been language instructor or administrator at Brookline's Hebrew College for the past seven years, says, "The most poignant issues are the ones that prevent immigrants from realizing the long-term problems of adaptation." Bliss says these problems include the "lack of language and the need to be self-supporting."

By far the most important of these is the lack of proficiency in English. Most immigrants speak almost no English, having lacked either the motivation or the opportunity to study it in Russia. They feel the problem first in their jobs, although the personal aspects of a failure to communicate with the world are no less important. Because of the language problem, says Goldenberg, "if it is a competitive job market, it's that much more difficult for the immigrant to find work."

Often, because of the language gap, an immigrant is forced to accept a job far below his or her level of competence--the Peter Principle in reverse. The lower level of personal satisfaction of these jobs--and the lower level of pay--acts as a supreme motivation to improve language skills.

The immigrants feel the inability to communicate just as poignantly outside their jobs. Jackie Kaminsky of the JFCS observes that "people's self-esteem is very tied in with how well they feel they can express themselves." One immigrant recalls her frustration with not being able to communicate with the people around her. "When I started to speak, I started to understand. This took more than a year. Without language, I couldn't tell anyone anything, I felt like a dog. But when I started to speak with people, I found that I often knew the same things, I had the same feelings about things."

What at first seems "like another planet, another world, a place where everything is completely different," gradually becomes comfortingly familiar. Before this happens, however, immigrants must overcome a natural tendency to speak only Russian, especially at home. David Taube, who arrived from Leningrad with his family last December, recognizes that the "lack of language is an interruption of cultural development. Because of this, immigrants live in a very closed environment, and often it is very difficult to overcome this circle. Some people don't want to widen the circle."

This failure to "widen the circle" is experienced by older immigrants, who are frightened to begin a new life and learn a new, unfamiliar language. Younger immigrants, especially children, adjust faster to the language and thus outstrip their parents in adapting to American society. This, sociologists say, sometimes results in a lack of communication between parents and children. However Natasha and Marina Taube, ages seven and ten, respectively, are as close as ever to their parents.

For all their enthusiasm toward their new life, most immigrants feel that it is important that their children not lose a feel for the Russian--but not the Soviet--language and culture. They try to view life in America objectively, neither accepting all of it nor rejecting life in Russia as a matter of course. Certain things--like mushrooms--are simply not as good in the United States.

Almost all the immigrants feel the relationship of an individual to his or her religion is healthier on this side of the Atlantic. One way or another, it was because of Judaism that most of the immigrants got up enough courage to apply for an exit visa. Thus, when they arrive in the U.S., most immigrants have a decision to make. The decision is based on the fact that the vast majority of Soviet Jews are not religious. The opportunity to follow religious customs, or even to become familiar with them, for the most part does not exist. The choice thus is between continuing to live as before--without religion in their daily lives--or to reassert their faith once they have the opportunity. Few Jewish immigrants choose the former route. Most, at least in a cultural sense, become emotionally or socially involved with the religion and the Boston Jewish community.

Some describe their feelings toward Judaism as a sort of a longing, which they felt even when they lived in the Soviet Union. "Even in Russia," says one immigrant, "I wanted to be with Jews, I only had Jewish friends; with them I felt more community."

Most immigrants, however, do not connect this feeling with religion; instead, it is just a cultural phenomenon. Most Soviet Jews, says Taube, are interested in Jewish customs, but for ethnic rather than religious reasons. He continues, "Some American Jewish leaders become upset because they don't see enthusiasm in a pure religious sense. They don't understand that in the USSR Judaism is not a religious problem."

Once the decisions are made and American life is adjusted to, most immigrants can find time to laugh about their early experiences. Maria Rubinova, who made the trip from Leningrad to Ithaca, N.Y., about six years ago, recalls a typical frustration. It happened when she had been in the country for only a few weeks and spoke almost no English. While searching in vain for the post office, she finally got up enough courage to ask directions.

"Could you tell me, please, where is the post office?" she said to a passerby in barely passable and heavily accented English.

"Sure," the man answered, "just go right to the left."

Maria just didn't understand.

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