American dream sours for Russian migrs

Call the main line at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills and you get a recorded greeting in English and Russian. That fact alone says a lot about the synagogue’s commitment to its Russian émigrés.

When thousands of Jews from the Soviet Union came to this country, American Jews opened their arms to embrace them.

I know. Ten years ago, I was one of the Jews with the arms.

My former Los Angeles synagogue had launched a small Russian émigré program, mostly involving English tutoring. Having a fascination with all things Russian, I signed up right away.

My assignment: Tutor a family newly arrived from Moscow and living in a drab San Fernando Valley apartment.

Mischa and Gela were young and gorgeous, with a beautiful 3-year-old daughter, Lilliana. My job was to converse with them about simple everyday topics, encouraging them to practice speaking English.

I was charmed by all three (though Lilliana threw a pencil at my face during that first meeting). Over the months, we grew close. They taught me the Cyrillic alphabet, I taught them weird contractions like “wouldn’t’ve” and “couldn’t’ve.” Mischa told me about his days in the Soviet Army when he would kill enemy Afghan fighters with his bayonet.

I told him about Disneyland.

The first time we all went to the synagogue, I could tell they were lost. They had never set foot in a temple back in Moscow. Whatever they knew of Judaism came from the fading memories of their babushkas.

We had fun together. I had a hunger for Russian vocabulary that my new friends happily obliged. When Gela taught me the word “skavarotka” (which means “frying pan”), I thought it sounded so exotic, I started to stroke her cheek with the back of my hand, cooing romantically, “Skavarotka, skavarotka … “

They laughed hard when I served them coffee along with a yellow carton of Mocha Mix (the Russian word for “urine” is “mocha”).

Then there were the feasts. Though it’s as calorie-dense as coal, I love Russian food and couldn’t get enough of it. My first time at a Russian restaurant with Mischa and Gela, I pigged out for an hour, and just when I thought it was time to pay the bill, the waiter asked if I had enjoyed the appetizers and would I like the chicken Kiev or the stroganoff.

Mischa taught me to drink vodka, and poorly. One night at a Russian restaurant, he kept refilling my shot glass, which I kept dumping into my water glass when he wasn’t looking.

The two took to American life at warp speed. In no time, Mischa had a good job that allowed the couple to spend like real Americans. They would whisk off to Vegas every month, always returning in the chips.

Soon they bought a house in the hills, put in a new kitchen with marble countertops and plunked down a sectional sofa in front of a big screen TV. They had long ceased needing me to practice English.

They had another baby, a boy. Life seemed good for the family. I loved them dearly, though I wouldn’t drop in to visit as often as they wished. In Russian culture, drop-ins are expected, along with spontaneous feasts, vodka toasts and the singing of folk songs.

But then Gela had an affair with Mischa’s best friend. He quickly hooked up with another woman, a Russian single mother. Gela played hardball, took the kids. He swore revenge. The divorce was ugly.

The American dream was looking dingy and haphazard.

I never blamed them. Coming from a culture of scarcity, where cunning made all the difference, why wouldn’t they seize everything they could, however they could?

We all went our separate ways, and now it’s been years since I’ve seen them. I imagine Mischa and Gela are fighting the same battles as most of us — for love, for money, for meaning — only on a lonelier battlefield. They dismissed the Jewish community that took them in and set them up. The Jewish faith that beckoned to them apparently didn’t take.

I can still pick my way through a Russian newspaper and make out some words. I recall a few in particular: “druzya” (friends), “lyublyu” (love) and “prikrasniya” (beautiful).

There was a time when those words fell easily off my tongue. I hope someday to speak them again.

Dan Pine lives and kvetches in Albany. He can be reached at [email protected].

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.