The New Americans
FLEEING THE CHAOS AND DISCRIMINATION OF THEIR HOMELAND, A FAMILY OF RUSSIAN JEWS COMES TO CONNECTICUT. WHAT THEY FIND HERE – THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE BEWILDERING – IS NOT ONLY THEIR STORY, IT’S THE STORY OF AMERICA.
The Tsukermans’ living room in the first-floor apartment of a two-family house on New Haven’s Chapel Street is crowded. Children and adults are spread out on an odd assortment of worn but clean sofas, armchairs and dinette-set seats. They try to remain composed in the oppressive heat of this evening in early July. Just as the room seems to have reached its capacity, still others appear, edging in to sit on the couch or flopping down on the floor.
Once representatives of all four generations of this extended family of recently immigrated Soviet Jews have assembled, introductions begin. The relationships are complicated, and I am soon confused. For my benefit, we make a family tree, branches reaching from the Soviet Union to the United States and Israel.
Each introduction is accompanied by a brief job description and a puzzling refrain. Ottiliya Tsukerman, 47, upon presenting herself, explains that she has been employed as a bank teller for the past year. Her 15-year-old daughter, Liliya, pale, slender, with a long shock of brilliant red hair, chimes in, saying, “Not real job.” Confused, I raise a questioning eyebrow. “Not real job in Russia,” she says. In the Soviet Union, she explains proudly, her mother was a high-level computer programmer with degrees in physics and chemistry.
In Kishinev, their home in the former Soviet Union, family members worked in a variety of challenging professions. Here in Connecticut, where the recession has taken the wind out of the most ardent job-seekers’ sails, they have had to accept whatever positions have come their way. So with each thumbnail sketch of employment, Liliya says teasingly. “Not real job.” Her father, Boris, 52, who has been working as a tool-maker in a factory in Milford, was an industrial engineer back home. Liliya’s boyfriend Vladimir (Vova) Katsovich, 20, who arrived in New Haven in September 1990, delivers pizza during the intervals when he has government permission to work. Before he left Kishinev, Vova had finished three years at a technical institute where he was studying computer robotics. Liliya applies her refrain to herself, too. She has been working as a cashier in a neighborhood pharmacy to help finance her “real job”: her first year of college at Boston University, where she’ll be a freshman in the fall.
Amid all the commotion of explaining relationships and jobs, two adults listen quietly, saying almost nothing. Liliya’s cousins, Mark and Inna Akselrod, pick out as many familiar English words as they can. They have been in Connecticut only three weeks, having arrived in June with their son, Sasha, 9, Inna’s parents, Yefim and Riva Rosenfeld, 65 and 58, respectively, and Riva’s mother, Raya Tsukennan, 81. Looking quite a bit like Omar Sharif, Mark – 31, short with bristly, salt and pepper hair and a thick black moustache – nervously clasps and unclasps his hands. In Russia, Liliya explains, Mark was an industrial engineer. Inna, 29, Liliya says, worked in a government construction agency, planning each phase of building projects. Inna’s creamy complexion is overpowered by heavy eyeshadow and bright lipstick, and her long, dark hair is dramatically curled. She explains through Liliya that she and her husband are anxious because they know that they must quickly find jobs.
The Jewish Federation, a non-profit organization devoted to education and social services, will pay their living expenses for four months; after that, they’re on their own. As refugees, they will be eligible for welfare after those four months, but, Inna says, they will do virtually anything to avoid this option. They are in debt to relatives and friends who lent them money for plane fare and moving expenses, which they are eager to repay. Most important, they want to help other family members – Mark’s parents and brother – leave Kishinev to come to the United States.
Sitting in this crowded living room, I remember something that Lew Lehrer, chairman of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven’s refugee resettlement committee, told me.
Before 1957, when he and his family left Russia, Lehrer was the director of a clothing factory in the western Ukraine – a self-proclaimed “big shot.” He abandoned the power and prestige of his Soviet job when he and his family emigrated. They lived out of suitcases in Europe for two years, trying to join a brother in New Haven. Once in New Haven, Lehrer slowly built a successful men’s clothing business he has since turned over to his sons. Now, at 70, Lehrer is the driving force behind Soviet Jewish resettlement in the New Haven area. Through his own experiences as an immigrant, and his close contact with every newly arrived family, Lehrer has developed a simple prescription for success, which he dispenses freely.
“I try to convey to everybody three points,” says Lehrer in his thick Russian accent. “First, I tell them, ‘Forget who you were before, for a while. You may have been the best engineer in Russia, but now you are nothing.’ Second, I tell them, ‘Don’t pay attention to who you are today.’ And the third thing I tell them is this: “Look forward.’”
My thoughts return to the newcomers, Inna and Mark, and the others here before me. I wonder what could have been so bad in Kishinev that they would leave behind seemingly stable, intellectually challenging jobs to face the possibility of stamping deposit slips and delivering pizzas in America. I look at them and wonder what the next four months will bring – “real” jobs or interminable waits in snaking unemployment lines? Will they regret having made this expensive, risky passage? Will they thank or blame the international political forces that brought them here to Connecticut? And finally and most simply, as this extended family carries trays of dense cakes, melon slices, and sweet wine out of the kitchen to celebrate our acquaintance, I wonder if Mark and Inna can put aside their memories of the past and their worries about the present in order to find success in America.
Of the 40,000 Soviet Jews who came to the United States’ last year, about half wound up in New York City. The other 20,000 fanned out across the country, concentrating in urban areas where American Jews have the resources to help defray the cost of the expensive resettlement process. Here in Connecticut, Soviet Jews have moved to Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven, Stamford, New London and Waterbury. Figures from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in Manhattan indicate that 584 Soviet Jewish refugees came to Connecticut in 1990. In the first nine months of 1991, that number had already risen to 944. New Haven has absorbed a good chunk of these immigrants: In 1990, 97 Soviet Jews came to live in the Greater New Haven area, a number that will nearly double in 1992.
While emigrating from the Soviet Union has long been a Byzantine process, some aspects have actually become much more straightforward in the past few years. For instance, when a small number of Jews trickled out of Russia in the late 1970s (most of them Refuseniks, or political and religious dissidents), they first applied for exit visas and then had to wait to learn whether they would gain permission to leave. If, after years of waiting, they received visas, they traveled to Austria or Italy, where they applied for refugee status. Many quickly immigrated to Israel, but those who wanted to live elsewhere could expect to spend months camped out in Rome or Vienna as their paperwork was processed.
Today’s version of the emigration game reverses this process. Families apply directly to foreign embassies for resettlement. If they are granted asylum and a guarantee of citizenship, they then apply to their own government for exit visas, vastly easier to obtain than before 1988 but still not an instantly done deal. Paperwork in hand, these families board jets in Moscow and hours later arrive at Ben Gurion or John F. Kennedy airports. People as old as 100 wake up amid the familiar surroundings of home and fall asleep the next evening in Tel Aviv, New York or even New Haven.
For Mark and Inna, the challenge of adjusting to a new life and finding work began the instant they stepped off the plane. Although they have four months to acclimate to life in America, Mark and Inna will have very few moments in the coming months when they will not feel an unrelenting pressure to succeed.
No sooner do I enter Mark and Inna’s apartment in Hamden than Inna, perfectly made up and wearing a sleeveless print dress, emerges from the kitchen bearing a tray of fruit and cold drinks. I am the first non-relative they’ve had to their new home. Inna’s cousin, Marina, 14, accompanies me as an interpreter and elucidator. “Please,” Inna says in her best English, giving me a paper napkin, “help yourself.”
There is something about the way she presents these refreshments that is emblematic of the relationship that will evolve between us. Inna and her family don’t have much here in America, and I worry that they will feel compelled to “entertain” me every time we meet over the next four months. Although I extract a promise from Inna that she won’t feed me at each meeting, she and her family never fail to offer me something, whether it be fruit, soft drinks – or stories. Nothing appears off-limits: not politics, not religion, not the worries that awaken them in the small hours of the morning.
The three of us sit on chairs facing each other, with Marina and Sasha (Mark and Inna’s son) just behind us on a long secondhand couch. Sasha tunes us out, preferring to focus on books and puzzles he brought from Russia. Marina – her small, wise face peeking out from under a mop of dark brown hair – impatiently interrupts at will to correct the grown-ups, who are clearly misguided about most topics.
Part of a large complex off Mix Avenue in Hamden, the apartment has two bedrooms, central air, and newish appliances. The Jewish Federation, which provides the first four months’ rent, also furnishes and decorates all living quarters before immigrants arrive. It has managed to include such basics as dishes, linens, curtains, lamps, armchairs and a television. The federation has also provided a random assortment of tchotchkes, such as wall decorations and ceramic figurines. Here in Mark and Inna’s apartment, these knickknacks ring hollow, reflecting, as they do, someone else’s idea of home.
Mark and Inna don’t like the decor, but they say their new home is “cozy” (a word they’ve certainly picked up in the English classes they attend every morning) and are grateful to have any furnishings at all. Before they left Kishinev, they sold most of their belongings. They couldn’t bring much with them, and, besides, they needed the cash. Inna packed up a few things – a table, good clothes, some china, a clock, two rugs – and had them sent through customs to Connecticut. They eagerly await the arrival of these familiar objects.
Packing, it turns out, was the least of the lengthy preparations Mark and Inna had to make to come to America. When Inna’s uncle, Boris, and his family left New Haven in January 1990, Inna decided she wanted to leave, too. “It is a very difficult step, and I wanted from the first, but my husband didn’t,” Inna says, struggling heroically with verb tenses. “His parents are in Moldavia and he doesn’t want to leave behind. But every day something happens. Every day I think: it was impossible to live here.” On weekends, Mark and Inna say, Moldavian nationalists would organize rallies calling for the ex-pulsion of all non-Moldavians. Increasingly, they say, Jews were singled out for discrimination at work and personal attacks in public places.
It was Inna who persuaded the family to leave. At her insistence, the couple traveled the 700 miles from Kishinev to Moscow by plane to stand in line at the American Embassy, where, after two days of waiting, they received forms to begin the emigration process. Boris and his family, already settled in New Haven, agreed to sponsor Inna, Mark and Sasha, as well as Inna’s parents and grandmother. Mark and Inna waited several months to get an interview at the embassy, after which their forms were forwarded to Washington. Nine months after they received refugee status from the United States, they obtained their exit visas from local authorities in Kishinev.
Then they stood in more lines. It took them six months to get plane tickets: First they had to amass enough U.S. dollars to pay their fares (which are twice as expensive when paid for in rubles) and then they had to wait for available seats. As the June departure approached, Inna quit her job, began studying English and took driving lessons. Mark continued working more than 60 hours a week as an engineer in an experimental cooperative until mid-May. Sasha stayed in school, finishing the third grade a few weeks before he and his family came to America. Inna’s parents, Riva and Yefim, helped sell furnishings, and Inna’s grandmother, Raya, waited patiently to take her first airplane trip.
To send off Mark and Inna, friends and family threw a big party in a restaurant in Kishinev. “It was gloomy,” Inna recalls. “We eat, we drink, we talk… They wanted to see us again. They wish us a happy life, luck in this country, and they wish us as fast as we can to find a job.”
Mark’s parents accompanied them by train to Moscow before the flight. Knowing they might never see their son and his family again, they made their painful farewells. “They hoped to meet us as soon as possible,” Mark says.
Marina interjects: “They hope that it is not an ending.” lnna completes the thought: “They were very upset, so they say little words.” Nine hours later, they arrived in New York. Once they had cleared customs, all six family members boarded an airport bus for New Haven. It was dark, and they couldn’t see much. They were so tired that they dozed through most of the ride. At the terminal, Boris and Ottiliya, Liliya, Vova and Marina waited anxiously. Late that night, the bus finally pulled in and Mark, Inna, Sasha, Riva, Yefim and Raya piled out. “There was hugging and kissing and crying,” Inna says. The family spent two days celebrating its reunification.
A little less than a month later, by the time I first visit their apartment, the newcomers have begun to settle in. Boris and Ottiliya have shown them how to use the bus system, where to do laundry, how to operate the telephone and where to shop for groceries. Mark and Inna have met with staff at the Jewish Federation, who enrolled them in an intensive adult education course to study English.
Mark and Inna by now have adopted a daily routine. Rising early, they hitch a ride with neighbors to the Adult Education complex in New Haven. There, they sit through four hours of instruction, learning colloquialisms, getting drilled on the subtler points of English grammar. Sometimes they watch movies; their teacher thinks that careful viewing of films such as E.T. will acquaint them with American culture. They then catch a series of buses that bring them back to their apartment in Hamden. Afternoons, they visit with relatives or neighbors in the complex (many of whom are from Russia), meet with advisers from the federation, watch television, or run errands. On weekends, they visit with Inna’s sister, Shelya, who also left Kishinev in June, and who has settled in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, N.Y. Sometimes Mark and Inna travel to Brooklyn; other times, Shelya comes to Hamden.
While Inna was the instigator of the move, needling her husband, parents and grandmother to take the steps necessary for emigration, it is Mark, now, who takes responsibility for making the transition successful. Everything seems to rely on whether he – and not Inna – can find a “real” job, so he earnestly reads want ads and is beginning to draft a resume, hoping to find something related to engineering. For now, he is at loose ends, unsure of how to fill his days without the structure a job provides. Inna’s job, meanwhile, seems to be to worry incessantly. She fears that she has gotten her family into something it cannot manage. She would like to go back to school, to retrain, but only after Mark has found a job. What would she, a former construction manager, like to study? Well, she says, cosmetology sounds good. She practiced giving manicures in Russia and says she has become quite adept at painting nails. Her parents are horrified, but Inna thinks they could get over their shock if she made money.
It’s hard to keep focused on the dream of having a beauty salon when she catches herself looking back, comparing everything to what she left behind – friends, jobs, even transportation. She is surprised at how hard it is to get around, since almost nothing in New Haven’s suburbs is within walking distance, and the buses travel infrequently. “It is difficult to get used to everything. I feel not comfortable here,” she complains. “We have many problems.”
Marina embroiders Inna’s words: “I think what she says is, ‘What you have here is not mine.’” Inna asks for a Russian translation, which Marina provides. “Da. Yes,” Inna says.
Mark jumps in, trying, as he so often does, to forget the past and take the present with a grain of salt. But even he is daunted by the prospect of unemployment. The few newspaper headlines he can read indicate that more workers are losing jobs than finding them. With no car, he worries that he won’t be able to apply for work outside the New Haven area. “We expected difficulties,” Mark says slowly. “We know the most important is to find a job. Every day we’re thinking about it. The job is the first and main problem.”
“But unfortunately,” Inna says, “we don’t understand everything. We cannot to speak.”
I protest, complimenting her on her English, which is amazingly good considering she’s been in the States for slightly less than a month. And Mark, smiling, shaking his head, says what he almost always says when Inna begins to worry. “As for me,” he says, “I think everything will be all right.”
I consider a plate of cut fruit that Inna’s mother, Riva, places in front of me as I sit on the couch in her apartment. With her husband, Yefim, and her mother, Raya, Riva lives at the far end of the apartment complex from Mark and Inna. She says something to me – I’m not sure if it’s in English or in Russian – and motions her head toward the plate. She stands transfixed until I reach for a napkin and remove a slice of banana. Again a stream of words, which I take to mean she is pleased I have accepted her gift.
Solidly built and dressed in a simple shift, Inna’s mother looks older than her 58 years. Her short, thinning hair held in place with a barrette, Riva is beginning to stoop a bit. She sits, turning to scrutinize me, and I wonder what she must be thinking. “So,” she seems to say, “what do you want to know?”
I have come to talk, with the help of Mark and Inna’s translating, about the immensity of the move her family has undertaken. I want to know what, at her age, could convince her to uproot herself so absolutely. What I learn is that for Riva and her generation, this is just another displacement. While, yes, she is astonished to find herself in the United States of America, she has been well versed since early childhood in the process of adaptation.
In 1910, when Raya, Riva’s mother, was born in Baymaklia, a tiny village outside the city of Kishinev, the area that is now called Moldova was part of Romania. Her family owned a small clothing store and lived in what she describes as “a good, big house.” Raya married Shulim Tsukerman and gave birth in 1933 to Riva and in 1938 to Boris. A year-and-a-half later, when Hitler and Stalin were dividing up Europe, Russia obtained part of Romania, including modern Moldova, from Germany.
This global power-brokering brought sweeping change even to small villages like Baymaklia and small families, such as Raya’s. Kishinev and the surrounding countryside were suddenly a part of the Soviet Union. When Hitler abandoned his alliance with Stalin and invaded Russia in 1941, Shulim was conscripted into the Soviet army, and Raya was left alone to fend for her children. Writing from an army outpost, Shulim urged his wife to flee before the Germans overran their village.
Raya took her husband’s advice and left her village in 1941. Riva was 7 and Boris 2. The three of them spent the next five years on the run, at times narrowly avoiding Nazi troops. Like most Jewish families from Kishinev, Raya and her children ultimately settled 2,500 miles away in Uzbekhistan, near Turkey, where Raya worked as a janitor in a school. At war’s end Raya and her children began the long trip back to Baymaklia. Not knowing if her husband was alive or dead, she arrived there early in 1947.
The village was in ruins; the house and the store had been razed. Jews from Kishinev who had not fled had been rounded up and forced to live in a ghetto. Most had been killed; many were missing. Then, the final blow: Raya learned that her husband had died in the war. Assessing the damage, she decided to move to Kishinev, which, though partly demolished, offered her a chance to start over. For the next 15 years, she worked at construction sites calculating workers’ pay, and lived in a tiny one-room apartment with Riva and Boris.
While young Riva was living out the war in Uzbekhistan, her future husband, Yefim, was loading coal in the Ukraine. His parents were so poor that they’d had to leave Kishinev to work on a collective farm near Stalingrad, where each worker received a ration of bread a day — not much to live on, but infinitely preferable to starvation. In 1944, Yefim was drafted by the Russians to be a sailor, stationed on American-made anti-submarine ships. What does he remember about those days? The food was excellent, and the living quarters very comfortable
Yefim stayed in the military for seven years. In 1951, he returned to Kishinev, where he studied at technical school and learned to repair electrical motors. He met Riva at a party in 1956. By then, she had studied physics, mathematics and economics and become a worker in a government planning department. He asked her to dance, and the rest is history. Shelya was born in 1958, Inna in 1962.
And what did they think of life in a Communist country? Riva says it was very hard, that her family had to struggle so much. For Yefim, however, whose family was destitute before the war, socialism seemed like a good idea. “For the first time,” he says, “when Stalin was leader, life was better. We had everything—food, clothes, jobs. Everything became cheaper after the war. There were factories.“
Riva jumps in: “Before 1970 or 1975, life was so-so, not so bad. There were food and clothes in the shops. It was not so good, but at least it was something. But every year it got harder and harder.”
And then, they all say, there was anti-Semitism, which waxed and waned with changes in the central government, making their lives more or less miserable depending on the climate of the times. All mention discrimination at school and at work, as well as an increasing intolerance for anything or anyone not “Moldavian.”
Even so, wasn’t it hard to make such a big move, I ask Riva and Yefim, to come to America at their ages? Yes, and the adjustment has been difficult, they say. What do they miss the most? They turn to each other to confer. “Iazik!” they say. “What?” I ask. “Iazik – language,” Mark explains. In Russia, he says, they could go out in the street and talk with neighbors and others. But here, they can’t speak, can’t understand, and they feel isolated.
But are they glad they’ve come all this way? Yes, of course, they say. And they’ve been very well taken care of. Just as at home, they receive a government pension that pays for their apartment and food. Through an arrangement with the Jewish Federation, they get free medical care for a year from the Hospital of St. Raphael, and after that, are eligible for Medicare. That’s especially important to Yefim, who has a heart condition.
So, what was it that brought them to America? Why, after braving World War II and 40 years of increasing privation in the Soviet Union, would they choose to leave? Mark asks Raya, who has been sitting quietly in a chair during most of our discussion, if she will answer my question. He has to ask her a few times before she hears him properly and understands. She says a handful of words in Russian. Mark translates: She wasn’t unhappy in Russia, but she wanted to come to America because Boris is here. She wanted to be with her son. And Riva? Why did she come to America? Well, Riva says through Inna, she wanted to be with her mother and with her daughters. And Yefim? Naturally, he would always want to be with his family. And here is something else Yefim tells me, as if to say that no matter how hard we try to anticipate and plan for the future, we can rarely predict how our lives will turn out: If he closes his eyes these many years later, he can still see the American-made ship that was his home during the war. He can see the instrument panels, navigation equipment – everything. He never imagined then that he would wind here, in the United States of America, where that ship was built.
Mark and Inna are budgeting $45 a week for food until Mark finds a job. The Jewish Federation allocates more than that – $30 per person per week – but Mark and Inna want to save as much as they can. They usually walk or take a bus to a nearby supermarket, so I offer to drive them, along with Riva, to a Stop & Shop if they’ll I me accompany them through the store. Fine, they say. Armed with a pocket calculator, we enter the supermarket, and, armed like contestants on “The Price Is Right,” try to figure out how much food we can load into the cart before exceeding the $45 limit.
For Mark and lnna, grocery shopping American style is a daunting experience. Though completely sold on the concept of a market economy, they are frequently overwhelmed by its complexities. In particular, they have trouble distinguishing between advertising and news. During our interviews, they will often ask me to verify what they see in print. Things that arrive in the mail, things that I would instantly discard, confuse them. They receive a booklet of ads made to look like coupons. “Throw away or keep?” they ask. “Throw away! Throw away!” I tell them, wondering how to help them develop the cynicism needed to weed out the dreck.
On another occasion, Inna, ever watchful of her buxom figure, brandishes a magazine in my face as I walk through the door of her apartment. “Excuse me, please,” she says, eagerly, “what is this?” I scrutinize the page. It’s an ad. Tommy Lasorda is hawking Slim-Fast powder, promising dieters that by drinking shakes prepared with the magic formula, they will lose weight. Inna complains that there’s too much cream and butter in America and that she’s getting fat. Well, I tell her, she’d probably be better off eating more vegetables and drinking skim milk than swigging Slim-Fast.
Packaging also leaves the couple bewildered. Tutored from birth in the evils of American-style consumer capitalism, they are slow to develop the stamina they need to decipher all of the labels, the unit prices, the brand names, the seemingly infinite variety of everything from crackers to toilet paper. For instance, they don’t know that fruit juice is cheaper in frozen concentrate than in cartons, because they aren’t yet aware that frozen juice exists. Pudding mixes are vastly cheaper than ready-made – but they’re charmed by the dessert-filled see-through plastic cups. “In Russia,” Inna says, “we eat everything, because we have nothing. But here, we want to eat something cheaper. In Russia, we maybe see cheese – one kind, one time, in maybe two months – and we just take it. Not so many choices.”
Indeed, from our first meeting, Mark and Inna have been telling me about shortages of consumer goods back home. I ask if it’s really true that people wait in line for hours for a piece of fatty meat. It’s true, they say. There was food to be had, but it was expensive, of poor quality, and obtainable only if one stood in long lines. Store shelves were increasingly empty in the two years before Mark and Inna’s departure, leaving most shoppers frustrated and hungry. Milk, for instance, was periodically plentiful and inexpensive, but cheese was a rare commodity. Cooperation was crucial if the family expected any kind of dietary variety. lnna, her sister, Shelya, and their mother, Riva, made a pact. If they happened upon anything appetizing, they would buy as much as they could and later divide the spoils. Delicacies such as smoked fish, pastrami, sausage, chocolate and fruit were only available at black markets and were reserved for extra-special occasions.
Amassing a cash surplus large enough to shop in black markets was incredibly difficult, Mark says. Workers in government factories generally earned between 200 and 300 rubles a month when Mark and Inna emigrated in June. (Mark earned more than this – 1,000 rubles a month – because he left his factory job in 1990 to work in an experimental co¬operative.) Though salaries stayed relatively stable over the last five years, the ruble fell in value more than fivefold: from six to the dollar in 1985 to more than 30 by last summer. Although rents continued to stay low – maybe 50 rubles a month, including electricity, gas and water – the remaining few hundred rubles didn’t buy much. Clothes were exorbitantly expensive. When he and Inna left, a man’s tailored suit cost about 2,000 rubles – l0 months’ pay – and a pair of shoes might have cost 1,000 rubles, Mark says. And even then, they were allowed only two pairs of shoes a year, two blouses or shirts a year, and a winter coat every other year.
The only saving grace in not having cash in the former Soviet Union was that there wasn’t much to buy. As Inna says, “In our shops, we saw nothing. In your shops, you can see everything, but we couldn’t to afford anything.”
Watching Mark, Inna, and their son Sasha push their cart up and down the well-stocked aisles is a case in point. While his parents make a beeline for the dented canned goods and reduced-price produce, Sasha clamors for ice cream, ice cream and more ice cream. When they finally reach the freezers, Mark and Inna help Sasha decide which two cartons to select. But all Sasha cares about is chocolate. It turns out that it had been two years since the stores in Kishinev stocked chocolate ice cream. Even then, Inna says, “It looks like chocolate, but it did not taste.” Riva, for her part, is also having trouble choosing. She has brought a newspaper circular with her, advertising the week’s specials. An ad for canned beets has struck her fancy, and she wants me to help her track them down. We wheel her cart to the canned-vegetables aisle and locate the beets. Riva stands in front of the rows upon rows of beets and looks as if she has been shown the nation’s gold supply at Fort Knox. She tentatively picks up a can and looks at the label, then repeats the action with other varieties. She’s stumped. I try to explain, slowly, that one can she’s holding contains sliced beets without salt, and another one contains whole beets with salt. After several minutes of intense concentration, Riva flashes one of the first smiles I’ve seen her give. She takes both cans of beets – sliced and whole – and places them in her cart.
A bit later, in front of the meat case, Mark and Inna argue over what to buy. Since beef liver is cheap, Inna picks up several packages. She considers some stew meat, but when Mark sees the price, he rejects it out of hand. They settle on bologna, lunch meats and salami, the same items they might have bought in Kishinev. On we go to potatoes – another Russian staple – which Mark ascertains are cheapest bought in bulk. Then to dill pickles (Mark’s favorite). He compares the prices of four enormous jars to find the cheapest brand.
Making one more pass through the produce, I notice that limes are on sale, 10 for a dollar. Caught up in the spirit of things, I enthusiastically bag 10 for myself. Inna is curious. “Excuse me, please, what are?” she asks, convinced that I am buying nothing more than green lemons. I am stunned. She really doesn’t know? The only citrus fruits she and Mark have ever eaten are seasonal oranges and lemons from Cuba. Limes, I explain, are like lemons, only they are sweeter, subtler. My description falls flat. As much as limes are green lemons, I tell her, they equally are not green lemons. Limes are limes. Distinct. Unmistakable. Delicious.
I realize suddenly that I am constantly asking Mark and Inna to answer questions, to describe things that I have never seen, places I’ve never been. I expect them to be able to make me appreciate the essence of things for which there are no adequate reference points. Now, Inna asks me a simple question – what is a lime? – and I am stuck. Fortunately, the solution to this problem is easily at hand. Inna picks out a lime, and for 10 cents, she will know the taste of green citrus for herself. If only the same could be said for me – if, for a dime, I could see and taste and touch and smell Mark and Inna’s life in Kishinev.
We move into a quiet corner of the store. Mark whips out his calculator and begins to add. He tries several times to figure the total, but the calculator is on the fritz. He throws up his hands. We’ve been in the store for over an hour, and Sasha and Inna are exhausted. Mark and Inna slide the basket closer to the check-out lanes and stop one last time to confer. Eyeing the candy aisle, Inna lets out a small gasp. Just one bar of chocolate. Mark nods, yes, go ahead, and Inna selects a Hershey’s Symphony bar with toffee bits and almonds.
On we go to check-out. Mark watches the digital display on the cash register like a hawk. Up, up the numbers go, until, finally, they stop. Total for the week: $46.83, just $1.83 over budget.
Now to hurry home before the ice cream melts.
It is Monday, Aug. 19, and I am up early listening to the radio to check on Hurricane Bob’s progress. An announcement that Mikhail Gorbachev has resigned as leader of the Soviet Union due to ill health supercedes storm updates. The newscaster adds that a military junta is rumored to have seized control of both the Kremlin and Gorbachev’s dacha on the Black Sea. I had planned to take Inna out for her first taste of Asian food this afternoon, but because of the ominous meteorological and political forecasts, I telephone Mark and Inna. Mark answers the phone. “What?” he asks. “Gorbachev is sick?” No, I tell him, there seems to have been a military takeover. He repeats my words in total disbelief, as if he is in a trance. “No, really,” I tell him. “It’s true. Go turn on the TV.” Inna and I reschedule our meal.
In subsequent meetings, when they’ve had a chance to absorb news of the putsch and its aftermath, Mark and Inna express a mosaic of feelings. On one hand, they feel a tremendous sense of relief. Their departure was incredibly fortuitous, since they have escaped what will surely be more chaos. On the other hand, Mark’s parents and brother are still in Kishinev, and Mark and Inna fear that they will suffer increased violence and hardship—and possibly won’t be allowed to emigrate.
But mostly, Mark and Inna are experiencing an enormous sense of intellectual validation. They support Gorbachev and his reforms; if anything, they say, Gorbachev was going too slowly. What emerges from our discussions about the relative merits of socialism and capitalism is that Mark and Inna are as devoted to capitalism as they are to democracy. People should have political and religious freedom, and they should also have the freedom to work in “real” jobs that enable them to buy what they please.
In the Soviet Union, Mark says, no one has needed to work hard because they know that they will be paid regardless of their performance. There is no competition, no incentive to excel, he says. Artificially regulated prices keep poor-quality goods on the store shelves. All in all, he says, it’s astonishing that things held together so long.
However, by late September, a month after the coup, Mark – still repeating his mantra that everything will be all right—is less sure that the United States will prove to be a kinder, gentler nation than the Soviet Union. He has sent out 70 resume listing his extensive training as a mechanical engineer and has received only 15 replies – all rejections. No one has even offered to meet with him. During the day, he sits by the telephone, waiting for calls from prospective employers. He doesn’t want to phone them, because he’s afraid his Russian-flavored English will sabotage any chance he has of finding work.
Optimist though Mark is, it’s hard not to think that at least in Russia, he had a job. Resumes, job interviews, rejection letters – it’s all new to Mark and Inna, who were guaranteed jobs at birth in Kishinev. Now time is running out. They have one more month of financial assistance, and then they’re on their own.
Mark and Inna have never been inside a Jewish house of worship—not here and not in Russia. In Kishinev, they tell me, there is a tiny synagogue, but mostly only old people belong. As a Jew, I want to share our common heritage—but I realize that what we share is in name only. None of the three knows any Hebrew (Mark knows a little Yiddish, which he calls “Jewish”), and none has had any religious education whatsoever.
Since my husband and I belong to a temple in Orange, we offer to take Mark, Inna and Sasha to Friday night services. On our way to temple, Inna asks a question from the back seat of the car: “Excuse me, please, what is ‘pray’? What does it mean?”
We sit in silence several minutes before either of us tries to answer Inna’s question. Does she want a literal definition? A description of what most people do when they pray? An explanation of what prayer is supposed to accomplish? Finally, my non-Jewish husband, the great nonbeliever, says concretely, “Well, it’s sort of like talking to God.” That seems to satisfy Inna for the time being.
We enter Temple Emanuel as congregants are clustering around a table set with Sabbath candles, Kiddush cup and challah. Mark and Inna, dressed up for the occasion, stand to the side stiffly, while Sasha rummages through the yarmulke bin, trying on one blue sateen skullcap after another, looking for one that suits his fancy. “Why do people come here?” Inna asks earnestly, looking around the room.
Again, I am disarmed, my religious education leaving me ill-prepared to answer such a fundamental question. I see the rabbi out of the comer of my eye and quickly recruit him. A patient, down-to-earth man with a keen. sense of humor, Rabbi Gerald Brieger seems to me to be equal to Inna’s queries. After they are introduced, lnna repeats her question to the rabbi. “Do you mean why do people come here on Friday night and not some other night?” Rabbi Brieger asks (even he seems a little nonplussed). No, she says – why do people come here at all?
Well, he says, they come to be Jewish, to be together, to observe the Sabbath. “But why come?” Inna demands. “All the people here, they are Jewish?” Yes, the rabbi says, for the most part they are. “They all believe in something?” Inna asks. Yes, says the rabbi, they do. Inna mulls this over. “It is very difficult. Very hard,” she says, shaking her head. Yes, the rabbi admits, it is. “It takes time and work to understand all this,” he says warmly.
Standing around the table, we sing the Hebrew blessings for the candles and wine, and then the rabbi motions for us to sit in the sanctuary. We file in and begin the service. Rabbi Brieger leads us in song and prayer and then begins his weekly sermon. Tomorrow’s Torah portion includes the story of Cain and Abel, so he discusses some of the meanings of this ancient tale of sibling rivalry and murder. Cain and Abel both make offerings to God, but God rejects Cain’s gift. In response, Cain kills his brother. Why doesn’t God accept Cain’s offering? The Torah doesn’t tell us, Rabbi Brieger says. The standard interpretation is that Cain offends God by not offering the “choicest” goods. The rabbi finds this rationale uninspiring. Perhaps the moral of the tale, he says, is that we are all subject to random disappointment and failure. There is often no reason for our misfortune, no one to blame for our downfalls. The challenge, he says, is in how we respond to that which we must face. I immediately think of Mark and Inna. Who can explain the difficulties in their lives? They certainly cannot. In the end, what will matter is their response to adversity – how they bear up under hardship. Even as I make a connection between the rabbi’s words and Mark and lnna’s circumstances, I realize that they are lost, unable to keep up with the story or its interpretation. They’ve never heard of Cain and Abel, nor even of Adam and Eve. Sasha fidgets, and, in a loud stage whisper, lnna tells me she thinks he’s bored.
The drive back seems unbearably long. I silently worry that they didn’t understand much, that they didn’t like the service. I wonder if they wouldn’t have had a better time going to the movies. At the apartment, we sit around and talk for a while. Tentatively, I ask them what they thought. Ever candid, Inna says that she knows people are probably better off if they have something to believe in, but personally, she didn’t really enjoy the service.
Mark quietly interjects. He liked the rabbi and the guitar music. He felt comfortable in the sanctuary – kind of at home. Inna brings up Sasha’s boredom again, and Mark loses his patience.
“I think it’s maybe like classical music,” he says, interrupting her.
“What?” Inna asks. “There was not classical music!”
“No, no,” Mark explains. He knows what classical music is, and he is aware that we didn’t hear any at temple. What he’s trying to say is that religion is like classical music. The first time you hear it, it’s hard to enjoy. However, the more you learn about it, Mark says, the better it sounds.
Should we think less of Mark and Inna for being so completely untutored in Jewish theology? Would it be fair to deny them religious refugee status, as some propose, because they and many other Russian Jews don’t know Adam from Eve? Consider the following story, which happened in Kishinev nine months before Mark and Inna came to Connecticut. Consider why Jews in the former Soviet Union might have given up trying to forge a connection with their religious heritage.
Unlike Mark and lnna, Liliya’s boyfriend Vova (the pizza delivery man) decided when he was still in Kishinev that he wanted to explore his Jewish roots. Along with a few friends, Vova started attending Friday night services in 1989 and asked older people what they knew about Judaism. Someone in Vova’s department at the local technical school saw him coming out of the synagogue. That led to problems. “The head of robotics, he called me into his office,” Vova says. “He told me somebody saw me there. He told me I can’t do it. It is government politics not to allow people to do it. Now, maybe it’s a little different, but not then.” This happened two or three times, Vova says – getting called into the office, being reprimanded, facing threats of expulsion from school.
In May 1990, Vova attended a month-long retreat for Soviet Jewish youth outside Kishinev. Led by rabbis from the United States, Canada and Israel, the camp offered classes in religious education, prayer and beginning Hebrew. Vova’s experiences at the camp convinced him that he believed in God and wanted to be a practicing Jew. “I believed before a little,” he says, “but after that I really believed.”
One afternoon, Vova left the campground with five boys to take a walk. A group of about 10 Moldavian men surrounded him and his friends. The Moldavians brutally beat them, hitting them in the face and kicking them in the legs. The police didn’t get involved and would not punish the attackers.
Vova had been thinking of traveling to the United States for some time. This incident convinced him to apply for a tourist visa, which he received in August. It took him another month to get plane tickets. On Sept. I, 1990, he approached the head of his department to obtain a leave of absence from school. This man told him he needn’t worry about a leave, since he was being expelled for attending the religious camp in May. Undeterred, Vova continued to go to synagogue. Returning from services at about 10 p.m. a few days later, and still wearing his yarmulke, Vova was surrounded once again by a gang of hoodlums in Kishinev’s central square, Pushkin Park. Some of the faces were familiar to him from the first attack, so he had a good idea of what was coming. Sure enough, the men shouted anti-Semitic slurs and beat him to a point of unconsciousness. The police, who were standing nearby, did nothing. A fellow congregant – someone who’d just been at synagogue – found Vova on the sidewalk and called an ambulance.
With his parents’ blessing, Vova decided to leave Kishinev on his tourist visa in mid-September 1990 and consider seeking asylum in the United States. He and Liliya had been writing letters to each other every week since the Tsukermans’ departure the previous fall. When Vova visited Liliya in New Haven, Boris and Ottiliya agreed to help, expecting to shelter their daughter’s boyfriend for a few months until he’d been granted refugee status. Unfortunately, due to the whims of the American immigration system, Vova had to wait for over a year just to be offered an interview.
Now, he waits to learn if he’ll be allowed to stay in the States. He has attended religious services at many congregations, enthusiastically sampling the varieties of Judaism that co-exist in the New Haven area. When he’s had governmental permission to work, he has held jobs delivering pizzas and making donuts. He hasn’t minded the grunt work; people have treated him well, he says, and he’s had a good chance to perfect his English, which is excellent. Now, he desperately wants to join Liliya in Boston, where he hopes they could both earn college degrees. As for his parents and sister, they remain in Kishinev. He misses them fiercely, but he knows that if he is granted asylum, he will be able to help them join him in America.
Soon after we met in July, Inna told me that, in addition to household furnishings, she also had packed photographs in the crate she and Mark shipped from Kishinev. When the crate finally arrives, it is filled with colorful rugs, a set of dishes, and a simple, wooden wall clock – belongings that don’t seem particularly Russian or hard-to-come-by but are certainly of comfort to Mark and Inna. When, on several occasions, I ask to see the pictures, Inna tells me she hasn’t unpacked them yet. So I wait, not wanting to pry, hoping that she will show me when she’s ready. I imagine that these photographs, immune as they are to language barriers, will instantly reveal Mark and Inna’s life in Kishinev for me: what their apartment looked like, who their friends were, how they celebrated special occasions.
One fall afternoon, Inna is unusually low. Her father, Yefim, has had an emergency quadruple bypass. Although he is doing well, his surgery has taken a toll on Inna and the rest of the family, who have sat with him round the clock at the hospital, relying on their dictionaries and the kindness of strange nurses to get them through.
In need of diversion, Mark and Vova have gone to a car auction in New York in search of a bargain. Left behind with Sasha, Inna brings up the subject of the photographs. Would I still like to see them? Yes, I say, trying to conceal my enthusiasm. She disappears into her bedroom and emerges a few minutes later with a thick stack of pictures. We settle onto the couch together, nibbling cut fruit, and begin to look at snapshots of home.
At least half of the pictures are of Sasha: Sasha as an infant, Sasha as a toddler, Sasha’s first day at school, Sasha at the circus. Others show friends and their children—almost all of whom seem also to be named Sasha. There are a few blurry shots of Inna in her apartment, one of Inna standing with female co-workers, and one of Mark in a generic office-type setting. Nothing Inna shows me sheds much light on her previous life.
Nearing the bottom of the stack, we come to a group photo from a cousin’s wedding in 1988. Some 50 relatives crowd together into one single frame. “It was a wonderful time,” Inna reminisces. She is uncharacteristically introspective, unusually slow to choose her words. Of all the faces in the photograph, Inna says, only one is left in Russia. Six are in Hamden, three in Philadelphia, two in Brooklyn, and one is dead. All the rest have moved to Israel. “It will never be the same again.”
There are days when Inna is glad she and Mark are in Hamden, far from the turmoil in Kishinev – but this isn’t one of them. Today, Inna is feeling unbearably lonely. Looking at the photographs has only intensified her misery. “I am missing,” she says plaintively.
Throughout our talks together, Inna has expressed a tremendous desire to make friends. She loves her family and is glad to be near them, but, as an adult, she wants to have a separate identity from parents, husband and son. To Inna, “home” isn’t just a geographical place. It’s people, friends she knows and spends time with. Her longings don’t jibe with the typical image I hold of the good immigrant wife, who is devoted to her family and slavishly provides for her children. She is restless, ready to spread her wings, wondering if she will ever again have a “normal” life with a “real” job and close friends. With increasing frequency, Inna turns the tables on me, asking me questions about my life, especially about friends. She wants to know if I talk on the phone with friends, and if so, how often. She asks if we go out to lunch, meet in cafes in the afternoons, if we have dinners together in one another’s homes, listen to records, or go out dancing. Do we see movies? Take vacations together? In short, do friends in America do all the things they do in Kishinev? Of course, I reassure her. Friends are friends, no matter where they live.
I tell Inna I am sorry that the photographs have put her even further into a blue funk. The ache of her loneliness is palpable. “It is so difficult to remember,” Inna says. I ask if it would have been easier to look at the photographs had Mark been with us. No, she says, the pictures are somehow less important for him. “Mark wanted to leave the photos at home.”
As quickly as the gloom settles over Inna, within a few weeks it begins to lift. True, Mark sent out 70 resumes and never got an interview, but he has a distant cousin from Kishinev who settled in New York and works in a bearings factory in Port Washington, Long Island. This cousin convinced his employer, Thomson Industries, to interview Mark for a job. By early November, Mark has been hired full¬time as an entry-level engineer.
Other good news: Inna is cheered by the recent purchase of their first car, which has given her a new lease on life. For $1,500 (a loan from Yefim and Riva), they buy a silver 1984 Ford LTD with a V-6 engine and 60,000 miles on the odometer. The car comes with electronic fuel injection, cruise control, a tape player and power windows. It breaks down periodically, but Mark is handy at fixing it up.
Inna’s best news is that Mark’s family has “gotten onto the computer” in Washington. That means Mark’s parents and brother will be interviewed in the next 12 months to come to America. Letters from them arrive regularly, despite governmental chaos.
One of the best things about Mark’s job, Inna says, is that she will soon be able to study a new profession – to have her own “real” job. She supplements Mark’s income (his job pays $13.32 an hour) by baby¬sitting a toddler in the afternoons and cleaning houses in the mornings. Inna dislikes the work and looks forward to something more challenging. She still thinks about starting her own nail salon, but lately she’s also been considering accounting. Her sister, Shelya, is studying to be a bookkeeper, and although it sounds boring, Inna thinks she could earn good money at it.
The only drawback to Mark’s job, Inna says, is that it’s on Long Island. Since Mark and Inna signed an unbreakable year-long lease on their apartment in Hamden, they can’t afford to rent a place near the factory. Mark drives to Port Washington early Monday mornings and boards with his cousin during the week. On Fridays, if he hasn’t gotten overtime work, he drives back to Hamden to be with Inna and Sasha. Sometimes he turns back to New York Saturday mornings, so Inna and Riva can visit with Shelya in Brooklyn.
By the way, Inna tells me during a visit in mid-December, the last time she was in Brooklyn she ran into Lew Lehrer, who was visiting his own friends and family. “Really? What did you say?” I ask. She told him about Mark’s job and the apartment problems, about Mark’s parents, about Sasha’s progress with English, and especially about her fears of moving to New York. And leaving Riva, Yefim and Raya behind in Hamden. And what does Lew say? “Keep going, keep going.”
So, Inna tells me, just as she’s getting used to Hamden and making friends, she has to move. If she and Mark find an apartment they can afford in Queens, that’s where they’ll settle. The schools are supposed to be good, and it’s close to Mark’s job. It’s some place new, though, some place to be lonely all over again. “It is another immigration for us, you see.”