EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the fourth in a series of five articles from a piece written by Lynn Kronzek and commissioned by the City of West Hollywood that provides a snapshot circa 2000 of the city’s population of Jews from the former Soviet Union. It is illustrated with photographs taken in West Hollywood by Steven Gold, a professor in the Department of Sociology at Michigan State University. Note that some of those mentioned have died or otherwise moved on.
Helen Levin is Executive Director of the Russian Community Center, which offers information and referral, advocacy (intervention on behalf of clients), translation, and a host of problem-solving services. When asked about the rapid exodus out of West Hollywood, Levin replied: “It was correct, but nowadays we’re seeing more people staying– more and more families with children.” West Hollywood recently has succumbed to “vacancy decontrol,” as Dennis explains, which allows the landlord to raise rents to full market rate once longstanding tenants depart. At the same time, interest rates are rising, rendering homeownership out of reach, even for many middle-income families who have no real estate equity to leverage. Affordable rental units thus appear extremely valuable, and residents may well be clinging to them for longer periods of time.
The West Hollywood needs assessment also revealed a multigenerational factor, not surprising given the requirements of current immigration law. A total of 52 people from the FSU completed the survey, admittedly a small sample. Fifty-eight percent were over 55 years old. As indicated in yesterday’s article however, of the five services deemed most important to those sampled, three focused on children and youth.
The grassroots are swaying more toward the young. The Russian Community Center is part of the Children’s Roundtable, a coalition of organizations that deals with issues affecting at-risk youth. Both child care and teen programs also can be found within close proximity to the community’s nucleus, Plummer Park. And following my visit to Chabad, Rabbi Naftali Estulin drove me past a building on Fairfax Avenue that would house an informal after-sschool drop-in center for adolescents.
Whatever the demographics — and contrary to earlier reports — Jews from the FSU uniformly expressed gratitude for West Hollywood’s attention to their concerns. “The community is very happy to be in West Hollywood,” comments Helen Levin. Among examples of helpful and “most important, extremely friendly” service, Levin’s constituents cite the Sheriffs bicycle patrol, a form of community policing that mingles easily with local pedestrian traffic. Yefim Stolyarskiy, the World War II veterans’ activist, even waxed enthusiastic about health services. A visiting military officer from Russia told him that the ordinary citizen here receives far better care than the top brass there.
According to Si Frumkin, the city treats Jews from the FSU “exceptionally well. No other Southern California community has been as sympathetic.” As evidence, he concludes, “The only monument to victims of Babi Yar stands in West Hollywood.”
Ethnicity, Religion, and a New Cultural Identity
Strapped for so long with an unfavorable “national identity” (Judaism), but numbed from expressing any positive aspect of their heritage, the immigrants from the FSU have entered the United States at what appears to be the greatest awakening of this nation’s cultural pluralism. The shuls (synagogues) located within West Hollywood’s boundaries each cater to a very definable population. Hollywood Temple Beth EI, an established Conservative congregation that foundered during the late 1990s, recently was purchased– and revived– by the Persian community. Some worshipers broke off from Beth Chayim Chadashim (the first lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender, or LGBT, congregation in the nation, founded over 25 years ago) to form Kol Ami. Chabad is the city’s “Russian” shul. Unlike the other congregations, however, it was created for the members, not by them.
The art of organizing is unknown to these immigrants because in their homeland, the government made all decisions and ran all institutions (and, of course, religion was outlawed). Even today, the JFSU prefer to gather informally, in public places on an impromptu basis or in nightclubs or restaurants for special occasions. The lack of indigenous institutions also may be attributed to the fact that unlike other sub-groups (gays, American-born seniors) residing in West Hollywood, the immigrants from the FSU are less likely to believe that others need help understanding their culture, but are more likely to believe that they need help understanding American people and culture. From an entirely different perspective, the organized Jewish community now has made a firm commitment to including this new population.
The first wave of immigrants, who arrived in the 1970s and early 1980s, endured tremendous hardship to emigrate from the Soviet Union. Largely intellectuals impassioned by ideals, they have been termed “heroes” and the “best of the best” by my informants. Yet, according to Miriam Prum Hess, Executive Director of the Jewish Federation’s Department of Planning and Allocation: “The first wave never connected in as thoughtful a way (as more recent groups).” Most have been lost to the Jewish community.
“Living and Working in Los Angeles,” a guide for JFSU prepared by Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, is undated though probably published about 1980. Each page contains two columns: the left in English, the right in Russian. Resource lists abound, with the names, addresses, and phone numbers of relevant government agencies, schools, and social services well organized. Readers also receive
sometimes harsh admonitions and advice about the American way of life: “In addition to their lack of nutrition, junk foods add unnecessary weight. A fat person is not necessarily a healthy person; extra weight and body fat are harmful to the lungs, heart, and circulatory systems. Staying slim is not simply an American fashion, it is necessary for good health.”
Of its 119 pages, however, “Living and Working “allocates merely ten to Judaism. The guide assumes no knowledge, but often contains political messages that celebrate freedom from past historic injustices: “The Torah is a beautiful, hand-written scroll, housed in the ark of the synagogue; it is the single most sacred object in Jewish worship. Throughout history, much blood has been spilled to save it from desecration.”
Not formally encouraged, Jewish involvement appears more as an American liberty than a quest: “Being Jewish does not require a formal religious affiliation. A Jew may define himself in many ways: by sharing in Jewish moral and spiritual values and the varied traditions or by reasons of birth. In the United States, religion is left entirely to individual preference. The guide then launches into a discussion of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism.
The problem is that the Jews from the FSU do not think along the same institutional lines, nor are they entirely without tradition. My conversation with Yefim Stolyarskiy (conducted through a translator) unraveled conflicting influences. Discussing a Veteran’s Day service at a Reform Congregation outside of West Hollywood, he expressed surprise that the men weren’t wearing talesim, Yiddish for the traditional prayer shawls worn during worship. I, in turn, was slightly taken aback by his concern over this ritual matter and inquired about his religious background.
Stolyarskiy, now in his mid-seventies, vaguely recalled Jewish practices from his childhood. On the other hand, he has been happily married for over 52 years to a non-Jewish woman of Ukrainian nationality. “We had hoped for an end to anti-Semitism”, he explained, referring to the youthful idealism they shared. (Indeed, many believed that communism would obliterate the differences between people and, therefore, also render religious affiliation obsolete). Idealist still, Stolyarskiy wishes trilingual and tricultural understanding for his children– with fluency in Russian, Yiddish, and English.
Tomorrow: Jews from the former Soviet Union adjust to American life and West Hollywood rents.