Changing Face of Brighton Beach

Central Asians Join Russian Jews in Brooklyn Neighborhood

New Faces: Once known as a predominantly Jewish enclave, Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach is now home to a large number of Central Asians. The newcomers fit in well because they also speak Russian, a vestige of their shared Soviet past.
anna kordunsky
New Faces: Once known as a predominantly Jewish enclave, Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach is now home to a large number of Central Asians. The newcomers fit in well because they also speak Russian, a vestige of their shared Soviet past.

By Michael Larson, Bingling Liao, Ariel Stulberg and Anna Kordunsky

Published September 17, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

Brighton Beach acquired its current Russian character beginning in the 1970s, when the Soviet Union relaxed emigration policies for ethnically Jewish citizens. Spurred by the desire to escape ethnic discrimination, hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews left in search of a better life, and many settled on Brooklyn’s southern oceanfront.

What they found, though, was a neighborhood that had fallen into deep decline. Although the beach remained a popular attraction, the adjoining streets in the 1950s and ’60s were replete with abandoned houses, and youth gangs sowed fear in the elderly population.

“There was nothing here when we came,” said Yana Veksler, 46, who arrived with her family in 1979 and still lives in the area, working for the Brighton Beach Neighborhood Association. “There were burned buildings, writing on the trains. These buildings were all empty, so we filled them.”

The influx of Soviet Jewish refugees arrested the neighborhood’s decline and turned Brighton Beach into the area with the largest population of Russian immigrants in the United States. Almost half (47%) of immigrants in Brighton Beach and Coney Island come from Russia and Ukraine, state figures show. The newcomers hailed from across the former USSR, bringing with them the accents, customs and food that have come to define the area. So many moved from Odessa, the Ukrainian city on the Black Sea, that “Little Odessa” stuck as the neighborhood’s sentimental label.

As the years have gone by, the demographics have changed. Many of the children of the first and second wave of immigrants chose to leave Brighton Beach for other locales, leaving behind their aging parents and grandparents. One need only stroll along the boardwalk to notice the disproportionate number of gray-haired babushkas and jowled older men lounging on its benches.

In 2009, the median age in the area was 48 years old, 14 years higher than greater Brooklyn’s median age, and senior citizens (those 65 and older) accounted for 25% of the population, according to a state demographic study.

The young people have not disappeared; many just happen to come from the Asian fringes of the old Soviet empire. These new immigrants have incorporated their own culture into the neighborhood. Lagman and manty, Central Asian-style soup and dumplings, have joined borscht and bliniy on local restaurant menus, and holidays like Nowruz are celebrated with flair. Uzbek entertainers are brought in to perform alongside celebrities from Russia and Ukraine. And among themselves, many young men and women from Central Asia converse in their own languages.

Despite the cultural divide between earlier immigrants and younger men and women from Central Asia, the gap is still narrower than what separates them from other residents of their new country, thanks to the common tongue. They interact freely and frequently with the neighborhood’s other Russian-speaking residents.

A large number have also found work caring for the area’s aging Russian-Jewish residents. More than 30% of the neighborhood’s working population is employed in the booming elderly health care and social assistance industry. Tatyana Lebedinskaya, a home health care trainer says that nearly 80% of her students are of Central Asian origin. For home care providers and elderly residents who speak little English, that fact that they can communicate in Russian is invaluable.

For Uz TV director Kenjabaev, adding Russian-language shows to his program offering helped to extend his daily airing time, a couple of hours at launch in 2009, to the current round-the-clock schedule. He credits his diverse audiences for the accomplishment, “not only Uzbeks, but also Russians, Ukrainians and all different audiences that support us.” Kenjabaev plans to stay in the neighborhood at least until his station achieves financial sustainability.

“Not only people from Odessa live on Brighton Beach anymore,” he said. “There are now Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs and Tajiks. They all come here, united by the Russian language. Brighton Beach — one could say it’s like a small Soviet Union.”

Contact the authors at feedback@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • What's a "telegenically dead" Palestinian?
  • 13 Israeli soldiers die in Gaza — the deadliest day for the IDF in decades. So much for 'precision' strikes and easy exit strategies.
  • What do a Southern staple like okra and an Israeli favorite like tahini have in common? New Orleans chef Alon Shaya brings sabra tastes to the Big Easy.
  • The Cossacks were a feature in every European Jewish kid's worst nightmare. Tuvia Tenenbom went looking for the real-life variety in Ukraine — but you won't believe what he found. http://forward.com/articles/202181/my-hunt-for-the-cossacks-in-ukraine/?
  • French Jews were stunned when an anti-Israel mob besieged a synagogue outside Paris. What happened next could be a historic turning point.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.