From Leningrad With Love

The Saga of Soviet Jews in America

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.