It points toward the broad ethnic tapestry displayed on our streets, and hints at how much that tapestry contributes to the vibrant, successful life of a city. But it's an imperfect word, too, with an unfortunate tendency to pigeonhole people into ethnic boxes and measure them by percentage-of-population numbers. And that can obscure all the diversity that lies within our ethnic communities.
Few American cities can boast as rich and complex a Jewish history as Baltimore. The first Jew known to live in the city, a merchant named Jacob Hart, arrived in 1768. A Jewish charity had been established by 1834. An ordained rabbi arrived from Bavaria in 1840. The Jewish population grew in waves of immigration: from Germany in the 1820's, from Eastern Europe in the 1870's, from Russia in the 1880's, from Germany again in the 1930's, from Iran in the 1970's, and from Russia again in the 1990's, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It's this last group that we set out to focus on in this story. With logistical help from Jewish Family Services and the Jewish Community Center (both agencies of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore), we sat down with two couples and one pair of high school classmates, all of whom arrived from Russia in recent years and asked them to tell us the stories of their highly individual journeys.
Talking with a total stranger about the toughest of the journeys life can dole out is hard enough; it's harder still to do it in a new, unfamiliar language. But Arkadi and Svetlana Klimenko give it their best shot during a two-hour interview in a borrowed conference room at Jewish Family Services, a social service agency on Park Heights Avenue just above Northern Parkway.
There's some stammering and struggling for words. There are even some moments of surrender as the Klimenkos backslide into their native Russian and ask Galina Borodkina, a JFS case aide, to translate. But they also manage to find their way, on occasion, to moments of simple, crystal-clear eloquence, such as the one near the end of our talk when Svetlana leans forward, her bright blue eyes brimming with a sudden confidence. She holds both hands out in front of her, palms up, like two plates on a balancing scale.
"It is like night and day," she says. "Right? You see? There is night. Here is day." I nod in comprehension. She and Arkadi let loose with a great peal of satisfied laughter.
The Klimenkos hail from Omsk, a city of one million on the Irtysh River in southwestern Siberia. Arkadi, 48, is a thin and wide-shouldered man who worked as an anesthesiologist in an emergency-only medical unit along the lines of the University of Maryland's Shock Trauma Center. Svetlana, 46, was a psychiatrist working with young people battling drug addiction. Such work offered an up-close view of a city stumbling through the post-Soviet years: Drug addiction was skyrocketing, the school system was faltering, and the economy was sinking.
"Hard times come for the country, and everyone starts looking for the scapegoat," Svetlana says. "Jews, they are the ones who always end up being blamed." Graffiti suddenly took on fascist overtones. Prominent Jews lost jobs they'd held for decades. A couple of rabbis got mugged and beaten.
All this (and more) drove the talks Arkadi and Svetlana had with their two high-school-age sons. "We couldn't see a future for our family in Russia," Svetlana says. "But we wanted to give our children the choice. We put the decision with them." Elder Konstantin was the first to leave for Israel; younger Alex followed shortly thereafter.
The plan for parents to follow went awry when the health of Arkadi's father, Jacob, took a turn for the worse. The climate in Israel isn't ideal for a seventysomething cancer survivor with lung troubles, so, in the end, Arkadi and Svetlana came with him to Baltimore.
To say that they arrived two and a half years ago is not quite precise. Arkadi prefers to call it "two years, eight months, and almost three days" ago. He laughs now about how father didn't want to make the trip and remained reluctant even en route to the airport. Jacob is studying English now. He swims three times a week at the community center. He's enthralled with the ways of the squirrels outside his apartment window.
"There are many people like that in Russia," Svetlana says. "Such people are happy only because they do not know how unhappy they are. They get accustomed to anti-Semitism. They do not know that there exist other countries, other places, different places."
Like most Russian Jews, the Klimenkos did not practice Judaism in their homeland. Jewish religious observances were basically outlawed during the Soviet years of their youth. Svetlana's later work as a psychiatrist did stir her interest in religion, however, as she saw time and again how people with faith were better able to change their lives and beat their addictions.
"I saw that it is a very powerful psychotherapy," she says. "The one things that I am sure of today are that I am not an atheist, and that I am now much closer to our religion than I was in Russia." In a later talk, Borodkina told me that this curiosity about Judaism is a common characteristic among the Russian Jews she works with at JFS. The journey they make may bring them tens of thousands of miles, but at the same time it enables them to get in touch with their religious roots for the first time.
Arkadi's first job in Baltimore was as a driver at a day-care center for Russian seniors. He works now as a records clerk in a medical office. Svetlana works as a home aide and caretaker for Russian seniors. That these jobs lack the prestige of their former posts doesn't seem to bother the Klimenkos much. Both are studying English at Baltimore City Community College. Both hope eventually to become nurse's aides or physician assistants. Perhaps, Svetlana says, they will open their own business someday.
"We do not yet reach the point in working where we'd like to be," she says. "But this country, this a country of chances. We can see that this is true even for people without beautiful English."
The Klimenkos are not entirely goggle-eyed over life in America, however. Their sons haven't been able to visit Baltimore yet because of strict post-9/11 immigration rules. And they have their doubts about the way medical care works here. As physicians in Omsk, they had the freedom to spend an hour or more just talking with individual patients. "The medical field is a business here," Svetlana says. "In Russia, it is more of a relationship. It is more of a healing art."
On days off from work, Arkadi and Svetlana love to commune with nature in city parks, alongside county reservoirs, and out in the mountains of Western Maryland. "In Omsk, there are not any parks and lakes like here," Arkadi says. "It is like this in all cities of Russia. Where there is nature in Russia, there are no people. Where there are people, there is no nature. And wherever the people come, they leave no trace of the beautiful nature, and have no thought of keeping it for the future generations."
The couple's greatest outdoors adventure to date took them to the northern banks of Lake Huron up in Canada, where they traveled as a family after meeting up with their sons in Toronto. Both Konstantin and Alex have completed stints in the Israeli army and are now studying engineering in college. The parents are hopeful that both sons will decide to join them in Baltimore once the Klimenkos become citizens in a few years.
"This was the third time we have gone out of this country since we came—twice in Canada and once we went back to Russia," Svetlana says. "This time it was a different feeling when we crossed back over the border. It was a feeling like now I'm at home, like this is home."
For the Klimenkos, that feeling is rooted in the people they've met since arriving in Maryland. Wherever they turn, whether looking for jobs or learning English or buying insurance or applying for driver's licenses, they seem to find generosity and help waiting for them.
"We ask ourselves, 'Why are these Americans all helping us when we have done nothing for this country?'" Svetlana says. "We find this very amazing. When we ask this question, the Americans said, 'You know what? When our parents came here, someone here helped them. Now we are helping other people.'"
Arkadi leans into the conversation with a wave. It's his turn to pursue a moment of simple, crystal-clear eloquence. He pinches the thumb and forefinger together on one hand and then the other. Then he hooks the two together.
"It is chain," he says. "You see what I say? A chain! Someday, we will be able to help people who just came here, too."
With the long, and long-awaited, journey from her native Kaliningrad to Northwest Baltimore complete at last, Jane Gaft showed up at Dumbarton Middle School to attend her first day of eighth grade classes—and promptly found herself enduring the worst day of her young life.
"You know how when you go to a new school everybody already knows each other?" she says. "You know how everybody's already together in their little groups? They were all laughing. I was like, 'Why are they laughing? Did somebody say something funny? Maybe it is because of me?' That's the hardest thing—you don't know!"
She went home that day two and a half years ago in tears of desperation: "All this, it is not possible," she told her mother. "I can never learn English."
Yevgeniy Kalmanovich, 16, nods sympathetically after listening to Gaft recount this nightmare. Now a classmate of Gaft's at Pikesville High School, Kalmanovich arrived in Baltimore three years ago from his home in Bryansk, a Russian city of more than 430,000 people that's about the same size as Gaft's Kaliningrad.
"Basically, it was like that for me as well," he says. "The teacher asked us to write something on my first day, but I could not do it. What I felt, I could not put it in the English language. Russian people and American people, they think completely differently."
Nowhere is this truer than with the strange idioms native Americans use so often in everyday conversation. "Butterflies in your stomach!" Gaft marvels. "I heard that, and all I could think was, 'How do butterflies get down into your stomach?'"
While recounting their respective journeys over the course of a 90-minute conversation after school on a recent afternoon at Jewish Family Services, the two teenagers appear a study in contrasts. Gaft is boisterous and talkative, her conversation sprinkled with "likes" and "you knows"; Kalmanovich is more reserved, speaking softly and choosing his few words with great care. His hometown of Bryansk is just 250 miles from Moscow, while hers, Kaliningrad, lies on the Baltic Sea at Russia's European-most edge. (A geographical oddity, the small region where Kaliningrad sits is cut off from the rest of Russia and completely surrounded by Poland and Lithuania.)
But there are similarities as well in the stories the two teens have to tell. Both come from larger extended families that have been emigrating to Baltimore in slow-but-steady bits and pieces over the course of more than a decade. Both come from immediate families that did not practice Judaism in any regular and public fashion until arriving in Baltimore. Both speak with great fondness of their homeland at times, but both talk as well with bitterness about the anti-Semitism they witnessed and heard about from their parents.
Here in Baltimore, school life slowly but surely became less of an incomprehensible ordeal. Kalmanovich says it was after about six months that he started to comprehend enough English words to follow vaguely what his teachers were saying. Gaft recalls one happy morning when she woke up, looked out the window, and saw a slight smattering of snow falling on the ground.
"My mother told me there would be no school that day," she recalls. "I said, 'Why? What's the problem?'" At this point, she and Kalmanovich both break into laughter. When she recovers, Gaft adds, "You know, they do not close the schools in Russia when it snows."
Russian schools are much stricter than their American counterparts. Gaft and Kalmanovich are still astonished to hear the casual and sometimes challenging tone students here use when addressing teachers. In Russia, the same 15 or so students journey as a never-parted class group through the course of 11 grade levels, building friendships that grow so close that they feel like family ties.
Also, Russian students take subjects like algebra and geometry in short bursts over the course of several years. Here, of course, students take such subjects in one isolated academic year, and as a result many forget most everything they learned in freshman algebra by the time they get ready to take the SAT exam their junior year. Kalmanovich still prefers the Russian approach.
"The most hard thing of all for me was leaving my life behind," says Gaft, now 16. "Just the way of life and my friends and the view of the world and the views of the city. And it was in my opinion late for me to be moving. When you're young and you come here, things come on their own—language and all that. But when you're old like 13 or 14, it's much more harder to adjust."
Gaft's mother is divorced. She had her own theatrical school in Russia, teaching children to sing, dance, and act. Here, she performs occasional concerts for groups of Russian seniors. Kalmanovich's mother was a teacher in Russia as well; here, she works as a babysitter. His father works now making cardboard in a factory, a similar job to the one he held back in Russia.
When the Kalmanoviches told their son they would all be moving to America, he didn't take it seriously at first. Only in the final few weeks before the move did he even tell his friends it might really happen. They didn't believe it, either.
"I called them on the telephone a little while after we moved," he says. "One of them said, 'Let's go outside and play soccer.' They still did not believe."
Gaft isn't surprised by the story. "When you're in Russia and you say you are going to America," she says, "it's like you are saying that you are moving to heaven."
Even after enduring the trials surrounding their move and growing acclimated to a strange new land, both teens think there's a ring of truth to that crazy-sounding idea. In Russia, students like Gaft and Kalmanovich would have little chance of attending college and landing the sorts of jobs and lifestyles that they see as within reach here.
"There, I think that there would be no opportunity for me," Gaft says. "It's not like they have loans and scholarships. You have to be super duper rich to get into college there."
Kalmanovich, also 16, plans to study mathematics. "Math is the only language that is the same around the world," he says. "I do not know yet exactly what kind of job I will have. Perhaps something in engineering. Perhaps a computer programmer."
Gaft is a member of the Pikesville High School club for students interested in medical careers. She's thinking at the moment that physical therapy might be a good career fit, but the most important thing to her is that she has so many options and possibilities in front of her.
"I remember when we were walking down the steps of the airplane in New York after flying from Russia," Gaft says. "My mom said, 'Jane, you're about to step on the ground of America.' So I still remember this first step that I made, and it was like I still didn't believe it was all happening. I wouldn't have found any of the things I have here over there. Every time a teacher asks us to write something about America, my first sentence is always: 'America is the land of opportunity.'"
Not once did Albert and Innesa Lapidus ever dream of coming to America. Even in making the move to Baltimore, it wasn't America they were looking for, really. "My daughter with her husband emigrated to America in 1990," Albert says. "That was two years before us, and so we took the decision to come here after we decided that we are not able to live without our daughter."
When they arrived, Albert was 58, and Innesa 57—not exactly the ideal ages for anyone to find good jobs, much less newly arrived Russians with minimal English skills.
"When we came here, he couldn't even open his mouth," Innesa says.
And so they struggled to find their way, until the day when an exhausted Innesa was walking from their first temporary apartment to a medical appointment at Sinai Hospital. A car pulled up alongside her, and the man behind the wheel invited her inside to rest. Innesa hesitated, but then she saw the yarmulke on his head and the child in the back seat.
"He asked me some questions," she recalls. "Then he said, 'You know, we might need a person to take care of my grandma.' I said, 'Oh, I would be very glad to do something.' Maybe he saw that I was so depressed. I don't know why, but he decided to help me."
And so she became a caretaker. Soon after, Albert took a job in a laundry facility. Both of the Lapiduses had been schoolteachers in Russia, Albert as a second career after working as an engineer in a factory making heavy machinery, and Innesa after failing to get into medical school at a time when Jews were not welcome in the profession (the notion that Stalin had been "murdered by Jewish doctors" was a popular one in those years).
Innesa's rejection was not their first encounter with anti-Semitism, however. Both were young children growing up in Minsk during the German invasion of Russia in 1941. Innesa, her mother, and a younger sister were swept up in an emergency evacuation on the first day of the war; all they had when they left the city were the clothes on their backs. Over several months, they journeyed in fits and starts—in cars one day, on a train the next, sometimes on foot—until they reached their evacuation destination, a gulag in Siberia.
"This was a prison for some very outstanding Russian people, political people and doctors and teachers and historians," Innesa says. "They were in prison in this place because Stalin didn't like such people. They were in this place because Stalin was a maniac. These prisoners were very nice to us. Some of them brought us spoons. Some of them brought us materials, fabrics. We lived in one small room, all three of us, but we survived."
Albert's family was not among the evacuees. When the Nazis took control of Minsk, they ordered all Jews to register, to wear yellow stars, and to stay confined within a ghetto bordered by barbed wire. On Nov. 7, 1941, some 13,000 Jews were escorted out of the city and executed. Two weeks later, an estimated 7,000 more were murdered. Such pogroms continued intermittently for the next two years and culminated on Oct. 21, 1943, when the Gestapo surrounded the ghetto and removed the last of its 2,000 residents, all of whom were executed. The Germans blew up the buildings of the ghetto to make sure there were no survivors.
But there were survivors. Albert and his family had escaped the ghetto with the help of the Russian underground. These "guerillas," as Albert calls them, helped him and his parents make it out of the city and into a makeshift camp in a nearby forest.
Since retiring, Albert has written a memoir in Russian of those days, parts of which have been published in a Russian-American magazine. "My childhood was signed by war," it begins. "From the many thousands of prisoners of the ghetto, just a few dozen were able to survive. I was among them."
Albert and Innesa did not know each other in those years. They met later, as young adults, while each was visiting a relative in Vitebsk, a small city in Belarus best known as the birthplace of the painter Marc Chagall.
"I liked Albert immediately," Innesa says. "He was a very handsome young boy, so handsome, with beautiful hair."
Albert smiles brightly at this, then makes a show of rubbing the top of his bald head. They were married about a year after that meeting; they recently celebrated their 49th wedding anniversary.
They live in Millbrook, an apartment complex near Reisterstown Road Plaza that is home to a sizable population of Russian immigrants. Innesa loves to work on her English by reading crime novels. Albert loves to spend his time outdoors, usually with a camera dangling around his neck. Their impeccably clean apartment is decorated with dozens of his photographs of natural scenes.
Albert calls it his hobby, but his photography sounds—and looks, in frames and up on the walls—much more like a calling. His favorite place to shoot is among the trees on the shores of Loch Raven Reservoir.
"It seems to me that it must be connected with my childhood," he says. "When I was a child, as I explained, I spent so much time in a forest. That is where we were after we escaped the terrible pogrom. Maybe it is something connected there, but I don't know, really."
The Lapiduses are genial hosts during the evening I spend with them. After an hour or so, Innesa disappears into the kitchen and then re-appears carrying a plate of sliced apple cake and a dish of special Russian candies. Over cups of tea all around, the two talk some more about their life in America, the place they never dreamed of coming to.
"When we first come to Baltimore, I walk one day along the street with my wife," Albert says. "We saw Jewish people going out from a synagogue. They were speaking in Yiddish and Hebrew. And they were not punished for it! I remember thinking, 'How can this be?'"
"We were so happy to learn this," Innesa says, "to see that somewhere there is such freedom."
"When I saw the people there that day, I said to my wife, 'See? Here is a good example that we are not at home any more,'" Albert says. "Do you know what she said to me? She said, 'Who knows? Maybe now we are at home.'"