From Belarus, with love

In Belarus, there aren’t too many streets so wide you have to run to make it across before the light changes.

In Livermore, there aren’t too many that aren’t.

Or so a quartet of young Belarussian Jews learned while living the entire last month in Livermore courtesy of Congregation Beth Emek. In addition to sprinting across the intersection, the visitors from the former Soviet Union found plenty of differences between their home country and the Bay Area.

“You buy wood in shops,” said a disbelieving Margarita Zilberman, 21. “For your fireplaces. When we went camping.”

In Belarus, continued 17-year-old Misha Levanov, a law student, “you would pick up an ax and take some wood for the fireplace. Here you buy a pack of wood and just put it in.”

Zilberman, a college student who aims to be an English teacher, and Levanov speak for their fellow Belarussians, 21-year-old Marina Branzburg and Zilberman’s 15-year-old sister, Katia. All four hail from Baranovichi, a city of roughly 200,000 that long served as the gateway from Poland to the Soviet Union.

“They told me [Livermore] was a city of about 70,000, and I said, ‘Oh boy, it is more than twice as small as Baranovichi. It will be much easier to walk through the city,'” said Levanov.


Livermore “seems to be huge in terms of space. Here everyone lives in their own houses. We don’t have many private houses. In Belarus we are used to walking. We don’t drive a lot. Here you drive everywhere.”

Including to synagogue, which was an easy car trip for the Belarussians’ Livermore hosts. Back home, they say, an outing to services requires a train ride to Minsk, the only city in Belarus with a progressive synagogue. There are also several Orthodox shuls and active branches of Chabad.

“There is only one progressive rabbi in our republic,” said Levanov. “So he can’t come to Branovichi often. Still, Jewish life is developing in Belarus, but slowly.”

Nowadays, all four of the young Belarussians see no problem in being open about their Judaism, and describe fear of anti-Semitism and closet Judaism as a symptom of only old hangers-on.

For their parents’ generation, however, things were different. Levanov described the “syndrome of the fifth line.” Many of Belarus’ best and brightest were unable to get into universities or land good jobs if the fifth line of their identification card listed their “nationality” as Jewish.

Yet while the four are proudly Jewish, they aren’t certain of their future in Belarus. Branzburg, an elementary school teacher, hopes to make aliyah. Levanov is unsure if a young lawyer can find a decent-paying job. Zilberman wonders how she can afford to relocate on a $100 a month salary. And her younger sister is still concentrating on finishing school and becoming a professional pianist and music teacher.

Both Levanov and Katia Zilberman are concentrating very hard on their studies because, if you’re younger than 18 “No one wants to take you for a full working day. It’s quite impossible to find a job,” said a glum Levanov.

The four perk up when asked their favorite American experiences, however.

Katia Zilberman, outfitted in the ubiquitous tourists’ “Alcatraz Psycho Ward” San Francisco T-shirt notes “a roller-coaster.”

Her sister said the services at Beth Emek were “very good,” and she loved the ocean.

“Everyone asks me this question,” said Levanov with a smile.

He can’t narrow it down: “I like America. The United States is good.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.