Where We Go From Here

September 25, 2013
BY Maayan Jaffe

maayan_jaffe_squareIn 2012, almost 700,000 immigrants became U.S. citizens.

Practically speaking, that means these people passed a citizens exam, and their legal status changed. But I wonder how long it takes for these people to feel American? Can it happen before the formal stamp of legitimacy, which takes about five years? Will it take several years after that?

In this week’s cover story we look at the plight of Soviet refugees/immigrants and how after 25 years there is much to celebrate; the majority of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union are success stories. Through a combination of determination, education and creativity, most of these more than 15,000 Baltimore immigrants (1.5 million total to Israel and the U.S.) have successful careers and are contributing members to their new society. Arrivals became Baltimore Symphony Orchestra members, Peabody Institute teachers, architects, physicians, professors, top executives, city planners and engineers.

What was considered a “brain drain” on the then U.S.S.R. was an infusion of intellect into the U.S. and Israel.

A quarter-century later, we are stepping back and collectively celebrating the success of Operation Exodus and the Russian resettlement. Hopefully, the immigrants, too, are getting to slow down for a moment and look at how far they have come. There is much for which both sides should be proud.

In doing research for this article — and I hope I was accurate in telling a mountain of a story in less than 4,000 words — I was struck by a couple of ideas. One is that the Former Soviet Union is huge — spread across 11 time zones. What we as American Jews have trivialized as “Russian Jews” is a group of extremely diverse people. The two uniting factors are their language and the life they lived under the Soviet veil of anti-Semitism and persecution. But Georgian traditions are different from those in Azerbaijan, which are different from those in St. Petersburg.

The other is that immigration is not just about English as a second language and food packages to get you through rough times — though this is important. It is about learning a new culture and way of life. There are nuances to being an American that we don’t think about on a daily basis. It’s like knowing when to tip or what to wear to a baseball game. One immigrant told me how she wore her fur coat to work her first winter here, causing her co-workers to gawk. But who would have thought to tell her about Lands’ End?

There is also a challenge of integrating but still preserving one’s past, of somehow streaming a combination of Russian folk music and Britney Spears, of eating herring and sour cream alongside gefilte fish and horseradish.

Somehow this has happened — is happening. And that is very cool.

And cause for pause.

That’s the point of the week-long celebration of Operation Exodus. It’s a chance for our community to celebrate the miracle of rescuing 1.5 million people from behind the Iron Curtain, the curtain of control, and assisting them to build new lives here and in Israel. We should pat ourselves on the back.

But it’s also a time for us to learn about the Soviet immigrants, enjoy the cultural contributions they have made to Jewish Baltimore — and to start a conversation about where we go from here.

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