Remembering Russia in the Golden State

By Susanna Zaraysky

Published February 17, 2006, issue of February 17, 2006.
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At the start of the wave of Soviet Jewish migration to the United States that began in 1979, the Cold War was still very much in effect — and being Russian in America was not all that easy.

“I wanted to assimilate as quickly as possible and not associate with other Russians,” said Igor Sinyak, who immigrated to Philadelphia from Kiev at age 9.

Sinyak, who’s now a software engineer living in California’s Bay Area, has changed his priorities. Together with Lenny Gusel, a Moscow-native who also left the Soviet Union as a boy, Sinyak is looking to bring together as many Russians as he can.

Sinyak and Gusel are the creators of the 79ers, a San Francisco-based group designed to draw together Russian Jews who immigrated to the United States as children. In June 2003, San Francisco’s Jewish Family and Children’s Services agreed to sponsor the group. Today, the 79ers claims more than 200 members, all in their 20s and 30s. The name is at once an acknowledgement of when Sinyak, Gusel and many like them began to arrive in the United States, and also a nod to a previous wave of migration to California: the Gold Rush of 1849.

The 79ers — thought to be the first group of its kind — organizes monthly Friday night dinners, outings to Russian and Jewish musical and cultural events, lectures on Russian and Jewish history, social mixers, storytelling events and holiday parties.

Karina Ioffee came to the United States in 1989 at age 9 and grew up feeling torn between her Russian and American cultures. At her first 79ers event, she finally was able to locate a group that has similar concerns. “I saw a whole other world of people just like me,” she said. “There was a feeling of community, a link to the past; both are so important.”

Historical forces have kept many of the 79ers from being able to feel at home in their Jewish and Russian milieus. Much as it was not easy for them to practice Judaism in the former USSR, the political climate in the United States made them feel uncomfortable about being Russian during the Cold War. On arriving in America, the 79ers’ parents were focused on learning English and on finding jobs, and not all of them had the time or interest in providing their children with a religious education. The 79ers offers a community that allows its members to be what they could not be as youths.

The group’s events are mostly in English. One of the reasons that Gusel and Sinyak started the group was so that child émigrés could feel comfortable speaking in English, in broken Russian or in fluent Russian as they met other people who faced similar experiences while growing up in America.

Activities are not limited to California. Gusel led six members of the group on a trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg in September 2004 so that they could learn about their past and see the new Russia. The members celebrated the High Holy Days with young Russian Jews in St. Petersburg and had a glimpse of how their lives could have been had they stayed in Russia.

Passover is a holiday that has special resonance for a community that has made an exodus of its own. Its relevance for Russian Jews hit home for Gusel in 2004 as he planned the 79ers’ first Seder. “Passover is about unbinding ourselves from slavery, whether it be physical or emotional,” he realized. “We’ve just repeated the history of the Jewish people by our own exodus. This is the first time in many generations that Russian Jews are free in body, mind and spirit.”

The group’s events have allowed attendees to feel comfortable even if they don’t know a great deal about Russian or Jewish traditions. Marianna Klebanov, who immigrated to the United States when she was 7, found the 79ers’ Seder quite congenial. “We came together as a family to cook the dinner. Not knowing the religious customs very well, we were all in the same boat,” she said.

Susanna Zaraysky is a freelance writer based in California. She is currently writing a book about her own emigration from Russia in 1980.

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