From Russia With Hope By A. M. Chaplin

December 09, 1990

BECOMING AMERICAN. IT'S A LOT EASIER TO SAY THAN TO DO. SOVIET JEWS, FOR EXAMPLE, IMMIGRATING TO THIS country in record numbers, have to struggle with a new culture, a new language, new expectations -- even new religious observances, since until very recently the Soviet Union did not permit the practice of any religion, whether Judaism, Christianity or Islam. (See accompanying story.)

Most of the 1,146 Soviet Jews who immigrated to Baltimore during the last year will make it; a few won't. One couple that is making it is Elmira and Anatoly Pritsker, who, taking advantage of recently liberalized emigration laws for Soviet Jews, arrived in Baltimore from Kiev last April. By now, eight months later and with the considerable assistance of a network of Jewish agencies, they are well into the long journey to becoming Americans: They have a full-fledged-American-citizen baby who was born here Sept. 2; they have a car, an apartment, a TV, aspirations.

Mr. Pritsker, a musician and piano tuner by training, works full time at the Chimes, the Baltimore County institution for the mentally retarded, where he gives vocational instruction in simple tasks such as toy assembly. But he also regularly attends meetings of the local chapter of the Piano Technicians Guild, which he intends to join, and guild members have found him piano-tuning jobs.

In addition, he will be playing keyboards with a band at a restaurant scheduled to be opened by two other Soviet immigrants this month. And Elmira Pritsker hopes to take classes in accounting or bookkeeping as soon as the couple's son, Jay, is oldenough to be left with neighbors for a few hours.

It hasn't been easy. The Pritskers' English is still not what they want it to be. They had to buy a second second-hand car after another driver crashed into the first one they'd scraped to buy. Elmira Pritsker worries about her family, which is still in the Soviet Union. (Anatoly's has emigrated to Israel.)

But there are compensations. Pizza and peanut butter are two small ones -- Mrs. Pritsker loves them -- but the big one, the biggest one, is freedom.

ON HER WEDDING DAY INthe city of Kiev in the Soviet Union, Elmira Pritsker was visited by a terrible pity.

The custom for newly married Jewish couples in Kiev is to visit Babi Yar, the place where 100,000 Soviet captives, most of them Jews, were massacred by Nazi soldiers during World War II. Mrs. Pritsker is not Jewish, but her husband Anatoly is, so they went to Babi Yar on the day of their wedding. And as they walked the ground where so many had died so needlessly, Mrs. Pritsker could almost hear the voices of the dead whispering to the living who moved above them. She could almost hear them, those murdered and murmurous souls, begging to be remembered, to please be remembered, by the living.

Mr. Pritsker said nothing about what he felt, but his wife could tell he was upset: After all, it was only by chance that his own parents had been out of the city on the day of the massacre. As for Mrs. Pritsker, "It was happiest day of my life," she says, "but I felt terrible."

ALMOST TWO YEARS HAVE passed since that day, but Mrs. Pritsker, a lively 22-year-old, can still describe it eloquently -- despite her fledgling English -- across the kitchen table of her small Owings Mills apartment. Elmira Pritsker is open, emotive, vividly enthusiastic about pizza, peanut butter and other charms of her new country; you suspect she will be as vivid in her dislikes, should she decide to admit to any.

Anatoly Pritsker, on the other hand, is more reserved, less eager, less willing to leap into judgments pro or con -- perhaps because he is older than his wife by nine years. He is a slight man, with large blue eyes that take in more than they give out, and a smile that plays over his face most often when he looks at Elmira. It was love at first sight when they met in a Kiev restaurant, she says with typical relish; Anatoly watches her describe the incident, and smiles slightly, indulgently.

The Pritskers are Baltimore residents now, and to the trials and joys of becoming new parents they must add the trials and joys of becoming new Americans. As they build their American identities, they have to make the choices every immigrant must make: To what degree will they meld their old selves with their new American selves? To what degree will they divorce those former selves from the new ones? What will they choose to remember, and what will they choose to forget?

This isn't necessarily a conscious process -- and certainly right now the Pritskers are concentrating more on mastering English and managing the daily details of life in America than on anything else. Still, they have made one definitive choice about who they will be in their new world: They have chosen to reaffirm a religious heritage rather than leave it behind.

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