MANNERS Starting Over

Immigrants from the Soviet Union find more than political changes in their lives.

Historians have earmarked two events in Modern Jewish History to have been miracles; the first being the creation of the State of Israel, and the second, the flow of Jews leaving the Soviet Union.

– Jewish Family Service

Soviet Resettlement Volunteer

Manual, 1978

Solomon and Raisa Kleiner are Dallas’s most recent Soviet immigrants. Solomon, 30, is slender, with curly red hair and a flash of gold in his teeth; in Kiev he was a taxicab driver. Raisa, 26, full-bodied and dark, was a bookkeeper. We are in the offices of the Jewish Family Service with Lorraine Stevens, the resettlement worker who met the Kleiners at D/FW Airport. Solomon does the talking, while Raisa sits at his side, listening to her husband’s account of their first eight days in Dallas, and smiling at his .occasional forays into English.

Solomon is ecstatic. He was told that Dallas was a city of plenty, but he is awed by the Farmer’s Market, Campbell Centre, Six Flags, and North-Park – especially North Park. Dallas, he says, is a fairy tale.

Lorraine Stevens has introduced 26 other Soviet families to the city this year. When I ask her how long the honeymoon will last for the Kleiners, she sighs. “It hasn’t hit them yet. 1 just hope they’re studying.”

In 1978, about 100 of the 12,000 Soviet Jews who chose the United States over Israel as a place of settlement also chose Dallas. Like the Kleiners, most of them made their way from the USSR’s western cities – Odessa, Kiev, Moscow, Tashkent – to Vienna, then to Rome, New York City, and finally D/FW. Many had the good fortune to be met by friends and relatives, but all were met by someone from the Jewish Family Service, the arm of the Jewish Federation charged with Soviet resettlement. JFS’s aid to immigrants varies from family to family, but most found that the agency had located an apartment for them and outfitted it with phone service, furniture, linens, and groceries, down to a box of kasha and two cans of beets; that they would be provided free medical and dental care, analysis of job skills, job placement services, and English classes; that trips to the social security office, clothing stores, and the homes of earlier immigrants would soon be arranged. These services cost Jewish Family Service about $125,000 last year.

Arkady Fomin is one of the success stories. A native of Riga, in Latvia, Fomin arrived with his family in February 1975, and found his current job as violinist with the Dallas Symphony in April. “I was lucky. For a musician, the language is universal. But still, it is not so easy to come here. You need very strong reasons. Even if you’re doing all right, you won’t be happy, because not everything you leave behind is bad.”

Few of the immigrants have fit in so easily. For every Arkady Fomin, there is a physics professor working as a truck driver, a dentist struggling to pass his DAT; stories abound of Soviets baffled by credit cards, medical care, the pace of city life, learning to drive a car. About 20 percent of the Soviets who have tried to make it in Dallas have eventually moved elsewhere. According to Lorraine Stevens, English is what defeats them, more often than anything else.Two-thirds of those who give up on Dallas will move to New York City; most of the rest, to Los Angeles.

To the extent that money can help, the Jewish Family Service tries to ensure the immigrants’ success. Under the pressure of an increased caseload (Soviet arrivals in the U.S. rose 37 percent last year), JFS and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society made a joint appeal to the Jewish Federation for extra funds; the plea netted $85,000, in addition to the $55,000 originally budgeted.

A good deal of community effort goes to teach the new Dallasites the Jewish history of which they are said, by some, to be a miracle. Many never practiced their religion in the USSR; their Jewishness went no deeper than a designation on their identity papers. Now JFS wants to do more than make them Americans. The goal is to make them part of the Jewish community.

“We can’t make them Jews,” says Sue Sayah, coordinator of JFS volunteer services. “We can only expose them. Granted, some of them think God is a capitalist way of exploiting the people. But there are many ways of offering religion. Akiba, the Jewish day school, offers free scholarships to children of the Soviets. This is a wonderful way of bringing religion home – the children educate their parents.” (Only 20 Soviet children actually attend Akiba, however.)

“The idea of God has less appeal for this generation, but you never know. Once we attended Passover Seder with a Soviet couple and their 6-year-old son. After we left, the little boy asked his fath er, ’How come all those people were talking about God? Don’t they know there is no God?’ His father answered, ’Well, when we were in Russia, that was the way we thought. Now we’re in America. We’re learning a new way to think.”

We are in a classroom at Hillcrest North school, waiting for the intermediate-level English class to get underway. To my left sits Elisabeth Ghitescu, from Rumania, the only non-Jewish member of the class. To my right are Tina Severinsky from Kharkov; Inna Korobov, Leningrad; Basya Schparberg, Kiev; Yanina Ostroy, Odessa; Alex Talis, Tashkent. Most of the students look like they are in their mid-thirties; they have been in Dallas between six weeks and seven months.

A steady whisper of Russian forms the background. No one has prepared his written assignment, but the class is alert, especially to nuances of pronunciation. Tina requests a review of gerunds. Sue Sayah writes an example on the blackboard: “Listening is important when understanding a foreign language.” Yanina, the most fluent, shoots back, “Understanding is more important.” No talking down to these students. When asked for another example, Yanina formulates this sentence: “Driving is very difficult for me now because I don’t drive before.” She corrects the verb form herself. The sentence is recognized by ail as excellent.

The lesson tonight is number 20, “Holidays in the United States.” The class suggests Easter, Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving. When they are stumped for more, Yanina suggests February 14. She knows this day has something to do with the heart. Sue gives a credible pantomime of being struck by Cupid’s arrow, and Valentine’s Day enters the class’s vocabulary.

The discussion moves to Christmas decorations: trees, mistletoe, candles. Yanina mentions that candelabra is pronounced the same in Russian as in English. The Jews have a candelabra that holds seven candles, don’t they? The menorah, answers Sue. And you light it on a certain holiday – what is that called again? Hanukkah. Yes, that’s it- Hanukkah.


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