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
  • Multi Page

Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood last March hosted a celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Held at the National, a sprawling, glitzy entertainment palace off Brighton Beach Avenue, the celebration attracted an enthusiastic crowd of immigrants from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. Under stage lights flashing red and green, lavishly costumed performers danced and sang to tunes from the Central Asian steppes.

Covering the event was a video crew from Uz TV and radio Uzbegim, two new media outlets targeting local Central Asian audiences. The director of both, wearing a black-and-gold-striped vest at the party, was Ilkhom Kenjabaev 42, the Uz TV director who moved to the United States 12 years ago from Uzbekistan.

The crowd represents the changing face of Brighton Beach. Once known primarily as a Russian-Jewish enclave, the neighborhood over the past two decades has taken on a more diverse mien as a new wave of Russian-speaking immigrants has chosen to call the area home. These newcomers are drawn by the gravitational pull of the common Russian language, which is itself a legacy of the Soviet education system.

“In school, we were educated in two languages,” Kenjabaev said, referring to Uzbek and Russian. “Our second language was Russian. What I like most about Brighton Beach is that everybody speaks it.”

Many of the newest arrivals, like Kenjabaev, are from the “stans,” the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. Motivated to emigrate by the lack of economic opportunity and the civil clashes that erupted in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, they found in Brighton Beach a community that, though different from what they left behind, still offered some sense of linguistic and cultural familiarity.

“In Soviet times, as you know, there was no separation among the peoples,” Kenjabaev said. “They were all Soviet citizens: the Ukrainians, the Belarusians, the Uzbeks, the Tajiks. Russian language was their connection. The reason they come here, to Brighton Beach, is that Russian still ties them together.”

It is their knowledge of Russian that allows these newcomers to quickly acquire a support network and to find work, even for those who speak no English. For Kenjabaev, the unifying pull of Russian is what keeps him financially afloat through his work as a wedding photographer, which is the main source of income for both himself and his fledgling TV station. Most of his clients are from the former Soviet republics. So are his suppliers, advertisers and film crew.

Yet while the Central Asians who are arriving today find a Russian-speaking community already in place, it was not always this way.

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!
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • 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.