COVER STORY: Borscht in the burbs &mdash Emigres transplant flavor of homeland to Walnut Creek

Speaking English in an accent as delicate as a Russian teacake, Anna Ryabkina reminisced about her storied introduction to the American car. “It’s a novel how I learned to drive,” said the 45-year-old native of St. Petersburg, who quickly sized up the suburban affinity for driving when she moved to Walnut Creek with her family eight years ago.

But try as she might, mastery didn’t come easily. Panicked by the prospect of changing lanes, Ryabkina failed five successive trips to the DMV and had practically given up hope of getting behind the wheel. Persuaded by friends to give the effort another try, the former technical editor couldn’t believe her ears when the examiner informed her that she’d not only passed, but aced her exam.

“My friends threw me a surprise party,” she said while serving black Russian tea with lemon slices one recent morning in the cozy dining room of her Walnut Creek townhouse. “It changed my life,” she said of that achievement.

Buying a house. Becoming a citizen. Earning a driver’s license.

They all stand out as milestones in a Russia-to-Walnut Creek odyssey undertaken by Ryabkina and thousands of other Jewish emigres who left the former Soviet Union to start new lives in the shadows of Mount Diablo. Escaping what they describe as a pervasive anti-Semitism in their homeland, the newcomers started coming to the suburbs in waves in the late 1980s.

With the immigration peaking in the early 1990s, central Contra Costa County is now home to an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 ex-Soviets and a subtle epicenter for Russian life and culture, according to settlement workers at Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay.

Why Walnut Creek? Many were drawn to the suburbs by relatives and friends already living in the area, JFCS staffers say, and also were attracted by good schools and relatively affordable housing.

When they first arrived, immigrants say they encountered a warm and welcoming — if sometimes baffling — place.

On her first night in America back in November 1995, “I cried and cried and cried,” said Ryabkina. Sponsored by a local couple, she arrived with her husband, young daughter and her father, who died three years ago. From swiping a credit card at the supermarket to finding a job and comfortably speaking the language, “everything, everything was new. Not a thing was familiar,” she recalled.

Today, those early days seem like distant taillights.

Ryabkina, a statuesque woman with short, honey-colored hair, takes BART to work in San Francisco, owns a two-story townhouse and has settled into a daily pattern that blends American routines with old country traditions. Her 14-year-old daughter, Marsha, is an eighth- grader at Walnut Creek Intermediate School, her husband is a computer engineer in Pleasanton and her 80-year-old mother-in-law, a retired chemist who joined the family in 1996, is an avid reader and a fan of American TV.

“We have everything here,” said Ryabkina, who polished her English skills as a salesperson at Nordstrom and Talbots before becoming a coordinator for Russian programs nearly five years ago at the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal. She also stays close to the emigre community as editor of a monthly Russian-language newsletter that is circulated to about 1,100 families in the East Bay. “It’s like my second job,” she said.

Her affection for her adopted hometown is echoed by many fellow Jewish emigres along with other Russians, who arrived on work visas for high-tech and other job opportunities.

In the 2000 census, people of Russian descent made up 3.2 percent of the population of Walnut Creek alone, translating into 2,083 people out of 64,583 residents overall.

“It became a very welcoming place,” said Barbara Nelson, whose job as director of refugee and immigrant services at JFCS has involved plenty of greetings over the years for new Americans. Her office helped hundreds of newcomers furnish apartments, enroll in language classes, settle elderly parents and simply sort out a new existence.

At a recent 14th annual holiday gathering for ex-Soviets, Nelson stood at a microphone in the Walnut Creek community center and told an assembled crowd of 100 school-aged kids, middle-aged parents and seniors that, “It just fills my heart to see how well you’ve done. You’ve come to this country and made such a good life for yourselves.”

The newcomers, in turn, have imparted a borscht-like flavor to their home east of the Caldecott Tunnel. They host regular concerts, lectures and other cultural events, organize social clubs and maintain a small Russian book and video collection they created in the Walnut Creek library.

With just a smattering of Russian-owned markets and businesses, Walnut Creek lacks the dense Russian neighborhoods that are home to an estimated 20,000 Jewish emigres in San Francisco. Still, “there’s a very strong sense of community here,” observed Nelson.

Since arriving in the United States, some local emigres have started exploring their Jewish roots for the first time, though few are deeply observant. “For me, it’s a more cultural experience,” said Lila Katz, a JFCS program manager and an emigre who goes to services at Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek. “I can never do it in my life before,” said Katz, explaining that attending a local synagogue in the former Soviet Union could have jeopardized her job.

Ryabkina’s family, meanwhile, tries to attend services for High Holy Days at Chabad of Contra Costa, a center where ex-Soviets account for roughly 20 percent of the participants at weekly Shabbat services, according to Rabbi Yaakov Kagan.

Because they were denied open religious observance in the former Soviet Union, “I would say a majority are learning, on the road to learning” about Judaism here, Kagan said. “I find the Russian community has a very strong sense of Jewish pride, whether or not they have knowledge behind it.”

Some emigres point to the JFCS’ offices on Tice Valley Boulevard as the main bridge to the broader Jewish community, privately complaining that the nearby Contra Costa JCC hasn’t been as welcoming to immigrants as in earlier days, when it housed the JFCS’ office.

“We wish we had a connection,” said one immigrant. “We have a lot of cultural potentials.”

In response, JCC officials said they were unaware of any conflicts. Debrah Miller, assistant executive director, said the JCC has ex-Soviets among its 1,000 members and each year offers reduced-cost memberships to some 20 to 30 emigre families and individuals who otherwise couldn’t afford to join.

At the JFCS offices, Katz and case manager Irina Dugina are, for many, the go-to people for continuing questions.

They regularly get calls from people new to the area as well as seasoned residents of a decade or more. “It could be a friend, could be a wedding, could be a hospice question,” said Katz.

Dugina recently fielded an inquiry from a young man who wanted to start a family and hoped to meet a nice Russian girl. “Could you help me?” he wanted to know. Dugina pledged to do what she could; “I don’t want to give him [just] anyone.”

In Russia, “You’re very connected from birth with neighbors, relatives and friends” and that communal approach has been imported to the local zip codes, Dugina explained.

An informal hub for local ex-Soviets is Babushka European Restaurant and Deli, a 7-year-old establishment in a tiny strip mall off bustling Newell Avenue in downtown Walnut Creek.

On a busy day, 48-year-old Babushka owner Leo Malkov was all business as he hustled to stock the shelves of his pint-sized grocery where huge chocolate bars are stacked like paving tiles. “You never see candy like this,” said Malkov, whose store also carries pre-made blintzes in a refrigerator, sausages with exotic-sounding names like Estonskaya and Doctorskaya in the deli case and matryoshka dolls and Russian-language videos on an upper shelf.

Customer Vladimir Cherkassky scooped up a few handfuls of Russian chocolates wrapped in bright foil along with a chocolate cake to bring to an American friend he’s visiting. “This is something I don’t eat,” he said of the calorie-rich cake.

Cherkassky moved to Walnut Creek in 2000 after spending several years in San Francisco. “I’m not very fond of parking problems and the cold,” explained the 52-year-old math instructor and former refusenik. “This place is very friendly.

“It’s a little Russia in America,” he said.

With fewer agency resources and a smaller emigre community than in San Francisco or even the Peninsula, ex-Soviets in the Walnut Creek area have created many programs on their own. “It’s really kind of in our spare time,” said Katz.

Dugina is among those leading the charge. The Moscow native serves as adviser to a year-old Russian Club at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, teaches Russian-language classes there and helps to organize a pair of participatory Russian game shows that are attracting huge audiences of young Russians.

At a recent Russian Club meeting on the grassy Diablo Valley campus, 18-year-old Michael Gurevich joined about 20 students rehearsing a Russian song they planned to perform for a group of Russian seniors.

With his goatee and jelled hair, Gurevich looks a bit more like the boy next door than the one from Tashkent, Uzbekistan. He’s lived in the area since 1989, when his family joined relatives already living in Concord.

“Sometimes my friends make me speak Russian just to freak them out,” joked Gurevich, who played football while attending Northgate High School and speaks English without a trace of an accent.

With his American speech and appearance, Gurevich sometimes has some explaining to do. When he first stepped into the classroom this fall where the Russian Club meets, “I just came to the club and they said, ‘You’re Russian?'”

As a longtime Californian, Gurevich feels tugs from his Russian, Jewish and American roots.

Though his parents don’t dwell on their life as Jews in their homeland, Gurevich has learned that, “if you were Jewish, you were kind of quiet about it.”

When he was in grade school in Contra Costa County, he remembers his mother’s alarm when he began openly wearing a Star of David around his neck. “My mom would say, ‘Keep it in your shirt, keep it in your shirt,'” recalled Gurevich, who eventually became a bar mitzvah at Chabad.

Living locally, he’s been free to explore his Judaism – “I’m a Jew first,” he said – and grow up like “other suburban kids, but with the Russian traditions.” His family gatherings are often filled with relatives, food and “a lot of vodka,” he said.

In true Russian style, Old Country friends rarely wait for a formal invitation from Ryabkina to visit her home, located down a meandering walkway in a complex just past the whir of BART trains pulling in and out of the Walnut Creek station.

“We don’t call and say, ‘May I call and come over?'” said Ryabkina.

It’s a similar story at Katz’s home. “The Moscow friend comes without a note,” she observed. “They just know if everything’s fine, I’ll never say no.”