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Letter From Brighton Beach
Keith Elliot Greenberg
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Keith Elliot Greenberg is a New York writer.

The Brooklyn neighborhood of Brighton Beach has long been a magnet for Russian Jews—most recently, for some forty thousand of them who have come since the Soviet government began liberalizing its emigration policy in the mid-Seventies. The influence of the new Russians (most actually came from Ukraine, but identify themselves as Russian) is pervasive in this neighborhood, now known as “Little Odessa by the Sea.” At Brighton Beach and Coney Island avenues, in the shadow of the Parachute Jump and the Wonder Wheel, Mrs. Stahl’s Knishes offers a Russian-language menu, and the Black Sea Bookstore sells literature from the old country. A nearby laundromat has a concession stand featuring Soviet coins and Russian samovars used to heat water for tea. Brighton Central Video offers Russian tapes for rent, alongside such domestic fare as Scarface and Straight Out of Brooklyn.

At the Odessa nightclub, as at other neighborhood clubs, immigrants gather to partake of vodka, borscht, blintzes, and caviar and hear the work of local musicians like Willy Tokarev. He sings standards such as “Evergreen” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” as well as original compositions like “Tractor Driver’s Son” and “Fisherman’s Song” (about fishing off the Starrett City Bridge). In the late Eighties, cassettes of his songs about the Russian émigré experience became popular on the Soviet black market, and in a gesture of glasnost he was invited home in 1989 for a concert tour.

Not everyone is happy about the growing influence of Russian culture in Brighton Beach. In fact, there is a generation gap between the Soviet refugees and the Russian Jews who settled here early in the century after fleeing the czar. The old-timers speak Yiddish and follow the rituals of orthodoxy; the newcomers are Russian-speaking and were raised as atheists. The Soviet refugees admire Ronald Reagan; their octogenarian cousins are loyal Democrats. The elderly also reproach the young for drinking too much, for accepting food stamps when they first arrive, and for flaunting their wealth once they become established. Another complaint is that with all the Russian spoken in Brighton Beach, the old-timers feel as if they are no longer in America. Some of the younger Russians acknowledge their own impatience with the language gap: “I speak too much Russian,” confesses 48-year-old Leonard Zouborev, a wholesaler originally from Minsk. “I can go a week without saying a single English word.”

Longtime residents have fond memories of the old Brighton Beach. In the Sixties, the neighborhood had been “idyllic,” according to Pat Singer, the fiery half-Irish, half-Jewish director of the Brighton Neighborhood Association. Singer, a second-generation Brighton Beach resident, would escape the summer heat with her children by sleeping on the beach, cooled by the ocean breeze and unconcerned about crime. A mile down the boardwalk, Steeplechase Park, the last of the three big Coney Island amusement parks, remained open until 1965. Attendance was robust at the Brighton Beach Baths, a 15-acre facility featuring swimming pools, mah-jongg games, and handball and tennis courts. Elderly Yiddish-speakers sat on milk boxes in front of their homes until long after midnight, arguing politics and listening to Mets games on the radio.

But the old neighborhood, recently romanticized by Neil Simon, was deteriorating by the time the first Soviet refugees stepped off the plane in the Seventies. The social fabric of the area began to fray when the Lindsay administration undertook to build low-income housing in Coney Island. Some property owners, hoping to cut their financial losses in leaving, arranged to have their homes and businesses professionally torched. By the early Seventies, drug addicts and hoodlums from Coney Island were victimizing the elderly in Brighton Beach, forcing many to abandon their milk boxes. Some stayed indoors; others moved to Florida. Younger people went to Staten Island or New Jersey, and beloved neighborhood characters died of old age.

But while native New Yorkers viewed Brighton Beach as a neighborhood in decline, Soviet refugees from Odessa saw it as a land of opportunity. Its Jewish population and low rents made it comfortable and affordable. And the Atlantic Ocean reminded the newcomers of the Black Sea.

Vladimir Lobas, author of Taxi From Hell: Confessions of a Russian Hack, arrived on a cold, sunny day in 1974. Despite the chill, the elderly were outside on beach chairs. “It seemed like a city of old women,” Lobas recalls. A sheet of ice extended past the Brighton Beach Baths, down Coney Island Avenue, and, it appeared, all the way into the ocean. Yet Lobas got a warm reception from New Yorkers eager to welcome a lost generation of Jews emerging from behind the Iron Curtain. The Flatbush Yeshiva waived its tuition for Lobas’s son and provided free books and transportation.

Word of the New World’s generosity soon spread throughout the Old Country, and a huge population shift ensued: Between 1977 and 1980, 25,000 Soviet Jews arrived. “All the Russians come to Brighton Beach,” Zouborev says. “I came because I thought I might see somebody I knew.” Legend has it that a Jewish neighborhood in Odessa emptied out one morning and everyone moved to Brooklyn.

The new arrivals had a swift and salutary effect on the neighborhood. The hearty young Russians hung out in front of their buildings until late at night, intimidating muggers partial to frail, aged victims. The newcomers started businesses and rented vacant storefronts. Their children frolicked on the beach. The “good old days” were here again.

But the longtime residents found their new neighbors to be a mixed blessing. Senior citizens complained that their quiet buildings had been taken hostage by loud families, who slammed doors, cursed, argued in the halls, and threw vodka bottles into the incinerator and disposable diapers out the window. Whenever something disappeared—a pair of sneakers from the beach or a tip from a restaurant table—old-timers accused the new Russians of having “magnets for fingers.” Decades of deprivation under Communism had taught the immigrants bad manners: In the supermarket, they pulled items from other people’s hands, forced their way into line, and pushed and shoved all the way to the cashier. “They didn’t understand that toilet paper would still be there tomorrow,” Singer says.

The two immigrant generations also differed on matters of politics and religion. The elderly Russian Jews are almost all liberal Democrats; in the Twenties, many were involved in unions or even socialist organizations. By contrast, the younger generation’s political views center on anti-Communism.

The old-timers had no reason to be anti-Communist: Their enemy in the Old Country had been Czar Nicholas II, and many found the Bolsheviks an attractive alternative. Having left before Communism took hold, they watched events in the Soviet Union from afar, feeling pride in the many Jewish heroes of the Russian Revolution: Yakov Sverdlov, the first president of the USSR; Lev Mekhlis, a high Communist Party official; and Lev Davidovich Bronstein, also known as Leon Trotsky. Even after Trotsky was exiled to Mexico and Stalin had purged most Jews from the Soviet hierarchy, the lefties in Brighton Beach remained dedicated to the Russia they imagined. When Franklin Roosevelt introduced the New Deal, they converted, enthusiastically embracing the Democratic Party. They prayed for FDR in their synagogues, and a Brighton Beach Avenue eatery was christened the New Deal Restaurant.

Meanwhile, in Kiev and Odessa, no one was romanticizing Trotsky any longer. “We saw the consequences of his ’brilliant’ theories: misery and failure,” says Felix Andreev, 58, host of a Russian-language program on WKRB, the radio station of nearby Kingsborough Community College.

Thus, the young Russians developed political views quite different from those of their elders. When they arrived in Brighton Beach in the late Seventies, they were sorely disappointed with Jimmy Carter, whom they saw as unable or unwilling to stand up to their former oppressors. “Carter treated the Bolsheviks like people instead of beating them with a stick,” Andreev says. “In Brighton Beach, they thought he was a halfwit and a sissy.” The new citizens voted overwhelmingly for Ronald Reagan.

The established Democratic clubs had taken it for granted that the new Jewish voters would deliver themselves to the party. Instead, the GOP made an incursion into the neighborhood, setting up registration tables on the street and boardwalk. The effort was so successful that when Singer recently asked a favor of a Democratic politician, he replied, “Who cares about Brighton Beach? They’re all Republicans anyway.”

The younger generation’s religious attitudes were shaped by their atheistic upbringing. Before Communism, Eastern European Jewish life had revolved around the synagogue, even during times of severe persecution. Jews often lived in insular villages or ghettos called shtetls. They spoke their own language, Yiddish, and avoided relations with outsiders. But the Soviet government, eager to unify the masses under the banner of Bolshevism, crushed these traditional social structures that had kept the faith alive.

Thus, the Soviet Jews have been influenced by the prevailing culture in their homeland. They consume a lot of vodka and do not follow Jewish dietary laws. The effects of this cultural transformation are evident on the streets of this once devoutly Jewish community, where now only two kosher butcher shops remain. Since the Russians arrived, the neighborhood has experienced a phenomenon once unimaginable—Christmas tree sales on Brighton Beach Avenue. It has been a difficult adjustment for the elderly Russian Jews. They had earlier absorbed smaller waves of immigrants—Holocaust survivors after World War II and Israelis in the early Seventies. Those groups, however, had at least minimal religious training, so they shared a common experience with their Jewish-American neighbors.

Yet although the new Soviet immigrants remain isolated from their religious traditions, they still think of themselves as Jews. For them, being Jewish means having suffered persecution at the hands of the Communists. An immigrant grocer was once taken to task by religious customers for displaying a kosher sign over a case containing pork products. The shopkeeper told them he had endured life as a Jew in the Soviet Union, and that made the store kosher enough.

If Communism succeeded in raising a generation without religion, it was far less successful at quashing the Soviet Jews’ entrepreneurial spirit, the drive that spurred many to come to the United States. “To go to America is to go to your dream,” Lobas says. “Every dentist in Kiev knows that a dentist in Brooklyn makes more money than the American President.”

Many of the Russian immigrants arrived in this country with only a few hundred dollars in their pocket, plus a sense of adventure and the feeling that they had little to lose. Their willingness to take risks has brought them great success: More than half the businesses in Brighton Beach are now owned by the new immigrants.

On a Thursday afternoon in the Brighton Neighborhood Association’s storefront office, Leonard Zouborev is helping his friend Ilya Epshtyen, who wants to start a business. With Zouborev translating, Epshtyen tells Pat Singer he wants a permit to take photos of tourists in Central Park.

“In Central Park?” Singer asks incredulously. “I don’t think you can do that.”

“Why not?” Zouborev responds, his voice betraying a hint of contempt for the American’s caution. He’s already made some inquiries and has everything figured out. The city will grant such a permit, but only to a veteran. He wants Singer to find a veteran willing to apply for the license.

Singer is hesitant. “You were granted political asylum. Why don’t you go through traditional channels? Maybe the city will make an exception.”

Zouborev shakes his head from side to side. A confused Epshtyen asks what is being discussed, but Zouborev waves him off. “I have another idea,” he tells Singer.

“Please, write a letter to Donald Trump.”

“To Donald Trump?”

“Yes, my friend wants to put a wax figure of him in Trump Tower, and take pictures of tourists standing next to it.”

People in the office are laughing. Someone mentions that Trump’s ego is so big, he’ll probably embrace the proposal. Zouborev nods. “This is why Russian people make money,” he proclaims.

In his book, Lobas tells the story of his old friend Misha, who had risked life imprisonment by selling foreign currency on the black market in Kiev. When Lobas met him again in Brooklyn, Misha was operating a hot dog stand on Coney Island and Brighton Beach avenues. He later bought a fish store in decrepit East New York. In the early Eighties, Misha began investing in real estate, re-selling his property for healthy profits. Then, when the western world became fascinated with the unraveling Soviet empire, he purchased one of Kiev’s most elite hotels. Americans now pay him $140 a night for a room in his hometown.

The Russians flaunt their wealth, with gold chains and pinky rings, fur coats and cellular phones that lie alongside vodka tumblers in the local nightclubs. This aggravates tensions with the old folks, who lived through the destitute Seventies and aren’t doing much better today. One elderly woman gripes that the new immigrants are unwilling to shlep—a Yiddish term which, in this context, means earning their keep through physical labor. Instead, she says, they operate. In other words, the newcomer does better than his neighbors because he uses his Yiddishe kop—his calculating Jewish brain—even though his neighbors are the ones who speak Yiddish.

The shrewdness of the new Russian immigrants has a dark side. While the vast majority are law-abiding, a few continue to maneuver as if they’re still in Odessa, a Ukranian port city known for its gangsters, con men, and thriving black market. Indeed, the Soviet authorities encouraged gangsterism in the New World, by allowing some career criminals to emigrate as Jewish refuseniks and limiting the amount of money émigrés could take out of the country. “We could bring only five rubles,” Lobas remembers. “So everybody [smuggled] things to sell abroad—cans of caviar, gold, small diamonds, whatever.”

In Brighton Beach, members of Organizatsiya, the so-called Russian Mafia, sell phony driver’s licenses, credit cards, gold coins, food stamps, and Social Security cards. They engage in a variety of swindles, mostly victimizing their fellow Russians. For example, counterfeiters are known to approach aspiring entrepreneurs with two legitimate $100 bills and the challenge, “I bet you can’t tell which of these is fake.” When the victim admits that he cannot, he is sold on purchasing a hundred amateurishly printed counterfeits for the “special rate” of $18 a bill. In another scam, a gangster will take over a gas station and immediately put it up for sale. The buyer is shown fake tax forms and ledger books, suggesting that business is booming. After making a $70,000 down payment, the victim discovers that he can’t cover expenses, and the mobster reclaims the business and again advertises its availability.

Sometimes things turn violent. Nightclub workers must remain alert for drunken gangsters who pull out their pistols either in celebration or anger. This past January, the gunplay received citywide attention when Vyacheslav Lyubarsky, 49, and his 26-year-old son, Vadim, were shot to death in their fourth floor hallway. Authorities say the elder Lyubarsky had once helped stage a false jewelry robbery in Chicago in an attempt to collect $750,000 in insurance. In 1985, he and three other defendants were sentenced to four years in prison for a conviction under the federal Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. After being paroled in 1988, he ran into some trouble with his colleagues when he failed to pay a $40,000 debt incurred in a card game. Lyubarsky allegedly was punished for his delinquency by being strung from a ceiling light in his store, but he later gained a measure of revenge by shooting and wounding one of his assailants. When Lyubarsky paid for his transgressions with his life, his neighbors were not shocked by the slaying. When you play by his rules, they reasoned, that’s the way you end up.

Far more distressing was the death one week earlier of Leonid Vinokur, a 46-year-old carpenter shot in the head defending his wife as three muggers set upon her outside the Odessa nightclub. Had the attackers been Russian, the community would have found a way to deal with them. But these were outsiders, the same kinds of people who terrorized the elderly in the mid-Seventies. In this age of crack cocaine, violent street crime threatens to become more common.

Brightoners are pondering ways to halt the trend. One option is refurbishing the Brighton Beach Baths, whose annual membership has plummeted from 13,000 to a mere 1,600. The management has tried everything to bring in new blood, even inviting the Russians in for the day for free, but the immigrants prefer the ocean over swimming pools. So Hy Cohen, manager of the baths, wants to build ornate condos, 18 to 29 stories high, on the site.

Those nostalgic for the old Brighton Beach are mortified. Everyone knows what condos will do: bring in yuppies, block the view of the ocean, and change the whole feel of the neighborhood. But Singer, whose son nearly wandered into a drive-by shooting last year on his way to buy a comic book, argues that the only way to save Brighton Beach is by attracting new people into putting a stake in it. The condos at the Baths, she contends, will protect the value of the surrounding buildings. Without development, she warns, Little Odessa will continue to deteriorate until the Russian immigrants get fed up and resettle in the suburbs. With an elderly population and too many apartment vacancies, the neighborhood will revert to the decay of the early Seventies. Then the old-timers may come to miss their impious neighbors.

 

 


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