From Cold War to language battle Elderly Russian Jewish immigrants in area struggle to conquer English

January 10, 1993|By Ed Brandt | Ed Brandt,Staff Writer

Sandie Nagel, a teacher and private tutor, was breaking down a human barrier with words. "Talk," she said. "That's a verb."

"I talk to you today. I talked to you yesterday," she said in a strong voice. "You see the difference?"

Her audience grimaced and wrote on their pads, straining to catch the nuances of a forbidding new language: English.

The 20 Russian Jewish immigrants -- all 60 or older -- have found the language barrier difficult to overcome. But they're trying to scale that barrier at the Liberty Senior Center.

"It's harder on them than it is on the younger immigrants," said Ms. Nagel. "The younger ones had to learn English to find and keep a job, but the need is not as great with the seniors. They really want to learn. They're very warm, appreciative people, and they want to be a part of our society and contribute to it."

They have a lot to learn, and not just the language.

"Put yourself in their place," Ms. Nagel said. "They've left their homeland and their friends and relatives and have come to an entirely different culture. The simplest things -- just buying things in a store -- are a challenge. They're even having to learn about their own religion."

Jews were persecuted in czarist Russia for centuries. Then the Communists came along and suppressed their religion.

"There were synagogues in the big cities, like Moscow and Leningrad, but they were just for show," said Paysach Diskind, of Achim, an organization that helps Russian immigrants. "These people were actually coming out of a vacuum as far as Jewish history, religion and culture are concerned."

Mr. Diskind, who speaks Russian, volunteers with the immigrants several days a week. On Mondays, he tells the class about Jewish history and culture, and current events in Russia.

About 3,700 Russian Jews have settled in the Baltimore area -- most in the last three years -- under the sponsorship of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation, according to Elana Kuperstein, spokeswoman for the organization. The Associated and its agencies have helped provide health care, job placement, English classes and financial assistance.

"I don't want you to think we've done it all by ourselves," Ms. Kuperstein said. "There are federal and state programs that contribute, and many individuals and families have helped."

The kosher lunch served to the Russian immigrants after their language class is provided in part by a federal senior citizens program. Many also depend on supplementary Social Security payments. And, there are the individual acts of kindness. Two anonymous donors are paying the $60 total cost of the language classes, which meet three times a week for 10 weeks.

Learning English is a key step for the immigrants to move into U.S. society.

"I would like to work," said Dr. Naum Gafinovich, 68. "But my English is not so good, and there are those exams." Then he grinned and held up two fingers. "But I can be citizen in two more years, yes?"

Dr. Gafinovich and his wife emigrated three years ago from Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine. His wife, Fenya, is an eye doctor. They have two children in Baltimore -- a daughter who teaches music and a son who is learning the culinary arts. During World War II, Dr. Gafinovich was in the Russian army on the Manchurian border. His wife spent the war years studying medicine in Uzbekistan.

Do they miss their homeland?

"Ah, we have alarm for situation in Russia," said Mrs. Gafinovich, who has sisters living there. "Their letters are not so good. We tell them how wonderful this country is, and we send them a little help."

"I had very big problems with the system in Russia," Dr. Gafinovich said. "Many Russians are very anti-Semitic. All people are equal in Russia, according to the constitution. 'Nyet!' ['no'] Only on paper."

Paysach Diskind said, "The Jewish people in Russia are scared, even now. There is a standing joke in Russia. . . . Russian Jews have a very distinct dialect, and you can tell what they are by the way they speak. The joke is, when a Jew says 'Hello,' you say 'Goodbye.' "

Some immigrants are now eligible to vote, and all have a keen interest in the American electoral process.

BTC "They wanted to know, if they didn't push all the levers, would their vote count," Mr. Diskind said. "About 90 percent of them supported President Bush. . . . They're very skeptical about government and bureaucracy, and they're very slow to give their trust. That's what it came down to, trust."

During last week's English lesson at Liberty, Ms. Nagel sprinkled her teaching with praise for her students. "Excellent," she told one student. To another, she said, "Fabulous, you have an excellent ear."

The Russians use 30-year-old English grammar textbooks Ms. Nagel rescued from a city warehouse.

"We can work from this quite well," she said. "They take this very seriously. They do their homework, and if they don't like the directionI'm going in, they say so, and I change."

Avram Baranovsky, 72, and his wife, Khaya, left Odessa in Ukraine 13 years ago. He was a construction engineer in the Soviet Union. Before retiring, he worked four years for a Baltimore plastics company.

"I miss my job in Russia, yes, but that is all," he said. "I also had very many troubles with the system."

Mr. Baranovsky, like many of the immigrants, wants to give something back to his new community. He now volunteers at an adult day-care center. Gwen Miller, programming director at the Liberty center, said many of the women crochet lap rugs to give away, or baby hats for Sinai Hospital.

"They're very generous and warm-hearted," said Jan Heaberlin, director of the center.

They've already learned some American ways.

As one class ended, Dr. Gafinovich raised his hand to Sandie Nagel and said: "I give you five!"

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