An arc of seagulls amassed against a gust of wind high above Brighton Beach towards the Atlantic Ocean. Lowering the frame of focus will reveal a boardwalk littered with shops, restaurants, and a powerful Russian cultural influence. The series of events that culminated in the creation of this enclave were rather discernible; families were packing their entire lives into suitcases with ambivalence stirring in their hearts.
The reunification of Germany was a celebratory moment for the Germans. However, it also signified the shredding of the Iron Curtain. The effects of this event revolutionized government in the Eastern Hemisphere. In 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall meant the end of the communist rule. This affair allowed those who lived under the Soviet Union to emigrate elsewhere more freely. According to estimated figures, between 1989 and 2005 about 1.6 million ex-Soviet Jews and their relatives emigrated to countries outside the former Soviet Union. In essence, Russian-speaking Jews came to the United States in two major waves, about 30 percent entering before 1990, and the other 70 percent after. And in early June of 1992, Inna and her family became a part of the second wave.
“All of our relatives were already in the United States. We were the last of the family to make the move. My parents made this decision in order to give me and my sister a life free of discrimination (against Jews),” Inna rationalized. Anti-Semitism persisted even after the disillusionment of the Soviet Union. Incidents persisted throughout the 1990s, including bombings of synagogues, physical attacks on Jewish leaders and institutions in various parts of Russia. Not only limited to acts of terrorism, Antisemitism still infiltrated the local government.
Gaining permission to emigrate to the United States was not an easy feat for Inna’s parents. Not only did they have a hard time with the United States government, but also the Russian Government. The family had to undergo a lot of interviews in order to achieve approval. These interviews were shallow, lasted an average of ten minutes and the examiners were unreceptive and absentminded; “In some instances, attempts by applicants to present their story, were explicitly cut off.” From the point of view of the Russian Government, immigration was a sort of betrayal – “In essence, we had to give up our Russian Citizenship. We had to quit our jobs and sell everything. Then my Great Aunt Ella bought us tickets to America,” Inna explicated.
Inna and her family arrived to Brooklyn on an extremely hot summer day. The streets were overflowing with garbage bags and an air of confusion. “I saw a couple of movies before, and I was under the impression that all of New York is like Manhattan,” she described. The first place the family moved into was on Coney Island Avenue and Avenue K in South Brooklyn, with relatives. All five of them lived in one room in a tiny apartment with no air conditioning during the summer. It was extremely hot and uncomfortable. “After about a month we moved to 1463 Ocean Avenue, to a seemingly huge three-bedroom apartment.” Their new neighborhood was a mix of Orthodox Jews and Russian Jewish immigrants, which eased the assimilation process.
Characterized by transformation, Inna’s first weeks in New York were demanding. “I had to learn the language, go through many services like Social Security in order to get proper paperwork. Then, I had to go to school to take English courses – I believe the program was called Nayna. And in this program, they were also trying to find jobs for us. I worked several part time jobs, like working the register, distributing flyers, cleaning houses – supporting my family financially and trying to get adjusted. After the summer, I also applied for college to complete my education.” However, she always felt a sense of belonging, “I always felt like part of the community. Most of it was my family. There was also the synagogue where we found the Jewish community. They invited us to all of the holidays, Shabbats, and dinners.”
Fast forward and Inna is standing outside of her first department store in the heart of New York City, overwhelmed with the luxury that surrounded her. “I can never forget the first time I visited Macy’s. I just had finished my first day of work distributing flyers and the other guy on the block who was also handing out flyers told me that he was going to show me something very cool after work. Then, he took me to Macy’s. The first thing I saw when I walked in was all these beautiful rich women with perfect manicures, and all the decorations and the smell everything was so amazing. I tried all of the possible perfumes that I could. When I got on the train to go home, everyone was giving me strange looks because I smelled so heavily of perfume.” This marked the beginning of her love affair with Manhattan, “The whole city was my favorite place, it still is. I spent a lot of time in Bryant Park and the New York Public Library right by there. I was surprised that I could walk in there so easily. I was so mesmerized by 42nd street Times Square. I fell in love with the city the second I stepped into Manhattan, and 26 years later I’m still just as in love. There’s always something to do.”
Everything in New York City was so distinctly different from her hometown of Minsk, Belarus. “In order for my family to buy sugar in Belarus, we were given a ticket and we had to stand in line and wait for it. In Russia, it doesn’t matter how hard you worked or how much you could afford – there was no variety. Here, I could get anything I wanted as long as I could afford it. All I had to do was work hard and I had access to all of these amazing things. Even though our finances were limited, we felt as though we were living like royalty. Everything here is so abundant,” she explained to me. “We had no problem ‘making it’, because there were more than enough jobs for people who were willing to work, learn and earn. They weren’t high paying jobs. But as long as you were open to new experiences and weren’t afraid to really work. For example, my father was an engineer back in Russia and he didn’t think it was beneath him to take a job driving cabs.”
“I remember this period positively. Because everything is an experience, and I was learning, living in a new country and trying new things. Besides the point that I felt a little lonely and isolated because all of my friends stayed back in Russia – I quickly found new great friends, got reunited with my cousins, and learned a lot, saw a lot, experienced a lot. I had so many new opportunities. I didn’t have to look over my shoulder every time and be afraid that I won’t be able to do something because I’m Jewish.” Inna reminisced over a cup of coffee. If given the opportunity to go back in time, she would make the same decision in a heartbeat. Though she admits she was reluctant at first, she can’t imagine a different future for herself.
In a more general sense, Inna and her family had been a part of the latest Jewish Diaspora. When the U.S. Congress passed the Lautenberg Amendment in 1989, a massive wave of new Russian-Jewish immigrants headed to American shores. This stream, which sometimes brought as many as 25,000 new emigrants a year to New York, began to recede in the early 2000s. In the aftermath of 9/11, when the United States toughened its immigration policy, the number of Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union dropped even more sharply. Ultimately, official oppression of Jews in the Soviet Union and its satellite states declined. Similar to the United States, there are still isolated anti-Semitic occurrences; even the general outlook has shifted. The possible but unlikely resurgence of a militant Russia, despite Russia’s granting of the right to emigrate and discontinuation of a “nonmarket economy,” influenced American immigration restrictions in general. Thus, fear generated an irony. In the world now, for a plethora of people from all other nationalities, the iron curtain is at the American border.
It has been about 26 years since Inna and her family arrived in this neighborhood in southern Brooklyn. Brighton Beach has signified many things to Soviet Immigrant families over the decades. In the present day, it seems to have become both a stepping stone to the future they imagined and a grounding boulder that ties them to their roots.
Hays, Jeffrey. “RUSSIAN EMIGRANTS, IMMIGRANTS AND REFUGEES.” Facts and Details, May 2016, factsanddetails.com/russia/Minorities/sub9_3a/entry-5138.html#chapter-5.
III, William Laffer. “Preparing America for the Wave of Russian Immigrants.” The Heritage Foundation, 6 Mar. 1991, www.heritage.org/europe/report/preparing-america-the-wave-russian-immigrants.
Kliger, Sam. “‘Russian-Jewish Immigration to the United States.’” AJC- Русский Отдел, Aug. 2003, www.ajcrussian.org/site/apps/nlnet/content2.aspx?c=chLMK3PKLsF&b=7718799&ct=11713359.